As we wrote our list of 99 Essential Restaurants™ in Lower Manhattan, we spoke to many of the chefs, owners, and general managers who run the restaurants. We asked them to tell us about the history of their neighborhoods and eateries, recount good memories, and talk to us about what’s hardest about running a restaurant in New York.
Some of these interviews were too good not to share, like the one that follows with Will Guidara of Eleven Madison Park (11 Madison Avenue, 212-889-0905).
What’s your philosophy?
There are two key components of our approach to running Eleven Madison Park. First, the relationship between the kitchen and the dining room. There are a lot of chef-driven restaurants, and many restaurateur-driven restaurants, but it’s always been important to us that EMP is a restaurant driven by both the people preparing the food as well as the people serving it. It started with the relationship that Daniel and I have built, but it carries through to every aspect of the restaurant. True collaboration between the entire team working at EMP allows us to do a lot more for the guest, to be much more creative, and to have a lot more fun. Second, to be a restaurant with a distinct focus on New York. Whether it be in the ingredients we are sourcing or the culinary traditions we are paying homage to, we want EMP to deliver an experience that wouldn’t make sense anywhere else in the world.
How do you believe the original vision of the restaurant has evolved since it first opened?
It’s evolved a great deal, but the main turning point happened in 2005, when Danny Meyer decided that Eleven Madison Park needed to be reborn. At the time, it was a large scale brasserie, and although it was a successful and a good restaurant, it was his belief that the restaurant physical space deserved to house one of New York’s more refined experiences. That’s when Daniel and I were brought on board, and it’s been in the years since that the style of the restaurant slowly evolved from brasserie to what we are today. But throughout, we never wanted to lose the sense of hospitality and the energy that existed all along as we reach higher and continue to evolve as a restaurant.
What dishes can you not take off the menu?
We are constantly changing our menu, whether it is for the seasons or to refresh dishes, but one constant that remains is our roasted duck with lavender honey. If we ever took that off the menu there would be some serious problems.
What are your favorite memories of the restaurant?
I will never forget when we received four stars from Frank Bruni in 2009. I was in the dining room at the time, drizzling olive oil tableside over an appetizer of gnocchi, when a single diner, one of our regulars, finally pulled up the review on his phone. Leaping out of his chair, he thrust his phone into the air and yelled, “Four stars!” into the dining room. The restaurant erupted.
I also have a lot of great memories of the parties we throw, whether it be our annual Kentucky Derby Party or some of the James Beard after parties we’ve had; those are some of my favorite moments.
How do you fit in the neighborhood?
We are incredibly proud to be right next to Madison Square Park, to be named after it and continually associated with it; it’s a true honor. And while we are definitely one of the more fine dining restaurants in the neighborhood, it’s been really exciting to watch as other great food and beverage businesses have opened here over the past several years: Eataly, Milk and Honey, and ABC Cocina. It’s a great time to be in this neighborhood.
What’s best about being part of the NYC restaurant industry?
The NYC restaurant industry is amazing, and it is incredibly competitive. This is a challenge and a blessing because there is so much talent, so much passion, and so much skill across the industry. We have a community here that is all intertwined, both professionally and personally. Some of my best friends are part of the restaurant world. There is a friendly competition that always exists among us, but it pushes us even more, and it’s a real testament to the passion that exists in this city.
What’s the hardest part about having a restaurant in NYC?
The competition! Like I said, it is one of the greatest things about the NYC restaurant industry, but it also makes this a very difficult, laborious, and often times stressful career. You need to remain fresh, not get caught resting on your laurels or becoming complacent, and find ways to always be relevant. But this also energizes New York, the opportunity to overcome this challenge, and it makes every day exciting.