Finding the courage to say goodbye is often difficult to muster, but for Georgette Farkas, proprietor of the much-anticipated Rotisserie Georgette (14 East 60th Street), bidding adieu to superstar chef Daniel Boulud was the single hardest thing she’s ever done.
Even now, Farkas continues to feel guilty. After 18 years as Boulud’s right-hand woman in marketing-communications, she is finally pursuing her dream of setting up her own shop in the heart of Manhattan’s Upper East Side, a 90-seater with high-ceilings in a 1903 building that formerly housed Copacabana. “My whole adult life I’ve worked [for Boulud], and he’s been so loyal to me,” Farkas said. “I wasn’t scared that he’d be angry or upset–he’s the most nurturing person I know–I just felt immensely guilty of leaving.”
Still Farkas knew in her heart that she had to make a move. After a career services forum at Harvard, where she played panelist to undergrads interested in the culinary scene, the spark ignited. “I knew that I couldn’t wake up another day working for someone else.”
And when she finally broke the news to him, Boulud’s reaction was shockingly positive. “He said, ‘How can I help you?'” Farkas recalled. “He is the kindest, most generous person I know, well, aside from my mother.”
That generosity has been instrumental in Farkas’ career.
Hospitality lessons from Boulud on the next page.
Farkas’ relationship with Boulud started via his mentor, the legendary Roger Verge of Moulin de Mougins, where Farkas spent a summer. At the time, Boulud headed operations at Plaza Athenée, and approaching him was simpler then. “Back then, he wasn’t too busy, so I could just walk in the kitchen and say, ‘Hello.'” Farkas recalls.
Boulud gave her a shot as a cook despite her lack of kitchen experience. They stayed connected beyond that summer at the Plaza and kept in touch during her four years at Lausanne, where she studied hotel management.
Intent on pursuing a career in Michelin-run kitchens, Farkas wrote to all the top restaurants in France to no avail. When luck finally turned against her, she wrote to Boulud in New York, she remembers, “pouting as a silly and naïve girl. I told him that I wanted to go to the Ritz in Paris and do this, do that, and he said, ‘No, no! You should go to Ducasse.'”
Ducasse turned out to be the last stop in her kitchen journey. After a summer stint at the highly decorated Louis XIV in Monte Carlo, Farkas returned home in 1995, and she sought a job in Boulud’s kitchen once again.
Boulud, however, had something else in mind. “Daniel said, ‘I just have a lot of projects that I need help with,'” Farkas recalls. Those projects turned out to be a communications-related job that she would have turned her nose up at: PR for Daniel’s flagship restaurant, which had already been open for two years. “Maybe he just didn’t know what it was called,” Farkas said. “But somehow he had the instinct.”
Boulud’s instinct was dead-on, and Farkas worked alongside Boulud through every step of his restaurant empire’s success, from the restaurant’s three Michelin stars to the James Beard awards; from restaurant openings in Montreal and Singapore to six cookbooks.
The lessons that Farkas learned along the way were invaluable. And although Boulud hasn’t bequeathed her with a guidebook, she learned by example and hopes to apply these lessons in her own venture.
Doing Better: “What remains true of Daniel is that you can never do enough, you can never do it well enough, you can always do more, and you can always do better.”
Generosity: “His spirit of generosity is something I can not even begin to approach. He is superhuman and I could never be as generous as he is.”
Care: Farkas refers to the French expression, “émerveiller,” which is indispensible in the hospitality business: to continually care for and delight the customers.
Value: “Farkas refers to another of Boulud’s favorite French expressions, “Bon est pas chère,” referring to the principle that extravagance is not always necessary for excellence, that extravagance should be prioritized and measured according to its interaction with the guest.
What Farkas plans to unveil up next. The idea behind a high-end Rotisserie, Farkas explains, comes from childhood summers spent in Cap Ferrat and Monaco with her grandparents. Giving simple roasted meats a high-brow and sophisticated slant for an upmarket clientele, Farkas enlisted the help of another Boulud alum, David Malbequi, to preside over the kitchen.
Malbequi, previously Boulud’s banquet chef, also served as chef de cuisine at Laurent Tourondel’s steakhouse-inspired BLT. “He’s got incredibly energy and a solid foundation of French cooking,” Farkas says.
She brought him on with Boulud’s blessing, who also gave her the thumbs up to tap other past connections that were friends of the restaurant, though she worried her network would be less enthusiastic. “As soon I left, I was certain that [my contacts] wouldn’t answer, wouldn’t be responsive,” Farkas said. “I really believed that once I’m not working [at the Dinex Group] anymore, that they wouldn’t take my call.”
She was wrong. Ariane Daguin of meats purveyor D’Artagnan Inc. took Farkas to visit poultry farms, while Speciality Foods distributor Baldor lent her a test kitchen. Alexandra Champalimaud–principal of the eponymous interior design firm that re-designed spaces for Waldorf Astoria, The Carlyle, and The Pierre–lent her consulting eye to the interior. Jean Luc Le Dû, former sommelier at Daniel, drafted the wine-list. Former chairman of Live Nation Entertainment Ron Delesner, another close friend, is designing a jazzy soundtrack for the room. And Heidi Weisel, known for her red-carpet looks and $1,000-plus dresses, designed a retro old-world chic uniform collection at cost for under $40 apiece.
Even Boulud himself chipped in. Before Farkas signed the lease, Boulud ran over from his restaurant to offer suggestions, sketching floorplans and discussing where the bar should go. Months later, he let Farkas wait tables for two weeks at his more casual eatery, DBGB, just so she could get a better sense of front-of-the-house management.
The menu, says Farkas, has a sophisticated French influence; nailing down a brilliant consommé was especially paramount. “It looks simple, but it’s so complicated,” Farkas says. “You need to give it that depth that coats your tongue with flavor.”
Hit the next page for menu highlights. Farkas wanted something as magical as Ducasse’s consommé with foie-gras ravioli, and she says Malbequi’s version is equally luxe, with celery root pancetta and black truffle. And shes notes that the more country-inspired fare is transcendent, too. “David’s [shepherd’s pie] made me cry,” Farkas says. Just-roasted meat is pulled off the bone and mixed with jus, topped with a layer of spinach and mashed potatoes, and crowned with flecks of crispy chicken skin. Chicken pot pie is adorned with porcini and pancetta.
And speaking of chicken, the bird that’s the focus of this restaurant is roasted in twin rotisserie ovens that were painstakingly sourced, as is the poultry itself. “We’re not claiming to have the world’s best chicken, but we trust the farmer who raises them,” Farkas says.
The menu is now nearly complete, but Rotisserie Georgette;s opening date is still a moving target–Farkas had to delay her anticipated debut by over two months because of unforeseen construction problems.
But waiting is the least of her worries. With the Boulud shadow looming, she is every bit as intimidated, given the bar is now raised to his expectations. “I’m scared of things he would criticize,” Farkas says, as her attention turned to the bare tables. “He would totally criticize me about the lack of placemats.”
Little Boulud touches remain though, including the plush carpeting–Farkas explains that it dampens noise brilliantly–and high ceilings, a trademark of Daniel Restaurant. And inspired by the chef’s tradition of giving, Farkas will host an opening reception in early November for City Meals on Wheels.
Quietly and assuredly, though, Farkas still wants to carve her name for herself. “I guess I have to break off on my own,” she says. And she’s proud of way she injected a unique sense of design to the space, mixing 19th century exposed steel pillars, untreated walls, plush banquettes, a combination of both Louis XVI and XV furniture, and the piece de resistance–Azulejo tiles that her mother acquired more than 40 years ago on a trip to Portugal. “The terrific irony of it was that they also bought a mural of a Renaissance butcher shop scene, and they bought a mural of hanging birds like chickens, ducks, geese, some rabbits–a typical scene of a butcher shop,” Farkas recalls. “Here, fast forward 40-something years later, I’m opening a Rotisserie restaurant.”
Farkas anticipates a grand opening in early November 2013. Stay tuned.