Thank the restaurant review cycle, the minuscule attention span of this city’s diners, and the trials and tribulations that come with doing business in NYC: Restaurants that makes it to their first or second birthdays are doing well, especially if they’re able to stay relevant in the broader media conversation.
That makes the fact that Hearth (403 East 12th Street, 646-602-1300) will celebrate its 10th birthday this month even more impressive — the spot has become something of a standard-bearer in the world of simple, rustic Italian fare (not to mention the deep and well-rounded drinks program), and owner-operators chef Marco Canora and Paul Grieco still find the motivation to push their spot further.
That’s essential given the nature of the industry, says Canora. “My god, it’s like, this town, it’s all about the new and the young and the hip and the noteworthy,” he says. “The 10-year-old restaurant is like the 50-year-old lady in grandma jeans.”
But tell the chef that Hearth appears to have avoided that fate, and he’ll protest. “The economics of the restaurant business here are such that it’s not enough to only fill your dining room once,” he explains. “You look at Hearth, and it’s full on a Tuesday night at 8, and you think, those guys are fucking destroying it.” Reality, he says, is that the restaurant fights every day to get late and early turns to make the numbers work. Still, he’s not complaining: “Perception is reality in most cases. In a lot of ways, I love that that’s what the vibe is out there.”
In the interview that follows, the chef talks about why Hearth became a destination restaurant, how he stays engaged, and his pie-in-the-sky project.
How did this all get going?
I came from Craft, and Paul [Grieco] came from Gramercy, and we met because Katie Grieco (then Mautner) was dating Paul, and then they got married, and Katie and I opened Craft, and she knew that I wanted to do something and Paul wanted to do something and she was like the matchmaker with the bow and arrow who put us together. He had eight or 10 years of time at Gramercy and achieved all kinds of wonderful shit. I was at Craft for four years, and Gramercy before that. We had met investors, learned the restaurant business in New York, and Tom [Colicchio] was a wonderful mentor. We said, “We’re gonna give it a go — we’re going to go out and raise money.” That’s how these things happen. You identify what you need, and the rest is history.
How has the neighborhood changed?
We found our way to this corner 10 and a half years ago, and there was nothing around here. The neighborhood has changed, but not a lot. There’s a lot of rent control, and it certainly hasn’t gentrified the same as when you look at comparable neighborhoods — i.e. the Meatpacking, i.e. Williamsburg. In a lot of ways, sure, the place across the street used to be a deli, and the place down the street used to be a Popeyes, but when we came here 10 years ago, we kind of thought that it was going to change more than it did.
How did that affect your business?
Despite intentions of becoming a real neighborhood place, we became a destination place. We always wanted to be part of the neighborhood. It was one of the reasons we decided to open for brunch — it was a way to embrace the neighborhood with a lower cost of entry. We didn’t want the locals to pass us by and say, “Oh, that hoity-toity expensive restaurant. What are they doing in my hood?” But that kind of happened, unfortunately. Paul and I have strict terms as far as what we’re willing to do or not do. Sure, this could be a place that has $18 to $24 entrees if I was OK with Perdue chicken and Smithfield Farms pork ribs. But, you know, we make decisions, and those decisions have implications on the pricing structure of this restaurant, and we didn’t want to change that. So we are who we are, and unfortunately, the perception in the neighborhood is that we’re the expensive restaurant.
How do you stay engaged? What drives you?
For me personally, and I think it’s different for every chef and restaurant owner, I like the redundancy of a lot of what I do. I find great joy in consistency. It satisfies me so much. There’s a grilled marinated quail with a farro salad and poached egg and tomato sauce, and it’s been on the menu since day one. And that dish works, and it’s so delicious. Every fucking time, it works.
This restaurant still feeds me: I like it, and I’m engaged. I’m still here all the time. I push and do new things.
How do you think the business has changed?
Oh my God. You know, obviously there’s the discussion of the internet and what that’s done to the industry. There’s the demographic of people who dine and what their expectations are and what they’re OK with. There’s been a huge resurgence of Korean and Chinese and spicy and whatever.
I have, for a long time, had to come to terms with the fact that who I am and what I do as a chef is not the stuff that garners awards, buzzy talk, or restaurants with people waiting out the door. I like seasonal, local, Italian, and simple. Boy, is that the most boring list of shit? Does anyone fucking care? In terms of the gatekeepers of the world, absolutely not. Thankfully, there’s a customer base we’ve created over 10 years — they appreciate the simplicity, seasonality, and that they leave here and they’re not holding their gut.
Could a chef starting today make it on this concept?
I kind of don’t think so. I think that it would garner a tepid one-star review and then no one would come. And that’s a shame. You can point to examples of people that do it — Charlie Bird — but it’s the rare case.
What have we missed about your story?
I think it’s the value. We often get put in this light of we’re a very expensive restaurant. I think it’s faulty thinking. You have to follow that with “compared to what?” There are quality issues that have to be discussed. We got written up for having an expensive $11 side of greens. Well, follow the path of those greens.
Up next, Canora’s local coffee, beer, and special-occasion picks.
Best place in the city for a coffee:
Best place in the city for a beer:
Best place for a special occasion:
Best place to be when you have nowhere to be at all:
Sitting in the meadow at the park near Chelsea Piers.
Place that doesn’t get enough credit:
Person who doesn’t get enough credit:
Oh my God, there are so many. Sisha Ortuzar, Akhtar Nawab, Jonathan Benno, and Damon Wise.
What’s your pet cause?
Cooking and teaching people to cook and getting them in the kitchen to cook and more conscious, healthful eating habits. The system is so fucked on what we’re told to eat and big food. I’m not an eloquent speaker the way Dan Barber or Michael Pollan is, I can’t speak to the farm bill, but at a very lame and simple level, the choices we’re faced with are atrocious. What’s more important than your health?
Pressing industry issue:
Person you’d most like to cook for you:
I’ve been dying to go to the West Coast and do the whole tour with David Kinch, Jeremy Fox, and Daniel Patterson.
Person you’d most like to cook for:
I enjoy cooking for my friends and family the most.
Person you’d be most nervous cooking for:
On the next page, Canora talks about the problems with the review cycle.
Weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten:
Oh, God. A tofu skin wrapped around a ball of cod sperm. It was the size of a ping-pong ball, and when you bit down, it exploded.
Thing you could eat forever:
Macaroni with pork ragu.
Something you love about NYC restaurants:
The ever-changing nature of them.
Something that’s weird about NYC restaurants:
Which ones work and which ones don’t. I can’t figure that one out.
Best neighborhood in the city for food:
I think the East Village is pretty diverse and awesome.
What’s your cocktail?
One word to describe culinary school:
One word (or phrase) to describe the Cronut:
I don’t get it.
What are your thoughts on Yelp?
I think it gets a bad rap. There’s something to get out of the metadata — you can draw a lot of valid shit out of that. If there are 5,000 reviews of a restaurant, and you get a general arc, there’s value there.
What are your thoughts on the review cycle?
There are a lot of inherent flaws in the system that I don’t think there are solutions to. Everyone chimed in at six weeks for this place. Six weeks? Think about a human. Restaurants are like humans. They grow up, and you don’t know what they’re going to turn into. Six weeks is not enough time to get your legs. Especially when you’re cooking for a jaded guy who eats out 300 nights a year at the best places in the world for a living.
Where do you go from here?
I’m really into the healthy food space right now. That’s going to be the focus of my next book, and I really hope it continues to gain speed. You start to see restaurants that focus on it more. I want to help change the thinking out there. I have dreams of opening up a fast-casual restaurant that’s the healthy alternative to KFC. That’s my pie in the sky.
Hearth is also hosting a series of guest chef dinners that culminates in a 10-course 10th anniversary celebration featuring 10 different chefs. That event takes place November 20; find more details on Hearth’s website, and call for reservations.