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Table Stakes


Although his spacious home in the North Shore Long Island suburb of Cove Neck sits right on the water with a spectacular million-dollar view, Valenti insisted this summer that we tromp around the back through wet grass to see his huge vegetable garden, proudly showing off his tomatoes and fresh herbs. "Nick takes over the kitchen," says his wife, Linda. "He loves to experiment."

During a five-hour gastronomic tour of his Manhattan empire, Valenti offered a running commentary on the origin and quality of the ingredients as if performing on the Food Network. At a six-course tasting at the Rockefeller Center Sea Grill, Valenti, who gets up at 5:30 a.m. so he can work out to keep his weight under control, had more notes than a Broadway critic for Ed Brown, a chef who's won two stars at two RA restaurants, Tropica and the Sea Grill, and presided over Aces. Valenti complained about the gritty taste of the truffles in the tuna tartare ("The best ones aren't in season yet," agreed the genial Brown), noted that the cilantro overwhelmed the black-sea-bass carpaccio, and gave an unqualified rave to the codfish in black-bean sauce.

Still, Valenti's company has been more famous for its financial transactions than for its food. Founded in the fifties by a New Jersey coffee czar, Abraham Wechsler, who got into the food business when he acquired a cafeteria chain in lieu of money owed, Restaurant Associates has had multiple personalities in the past half-century.

The glamour era began when Jerome Brody, Wechsler's son-in-law and the company's president, along with food impresario Joseph Baum, poured a fortune into creating such hot spots as The Four Seasons, La Fonda del Sol, and the 24-hour bistro at the Brasserie; introduced upscale Italian food at the Forum of the XII Caesars; and pioneered unusual locations such as the original deluxe airport restaurant, the Newarker.

But by the time Valenti signed on as a trainee in 1969, the company had been transformed into a food-service behemoth -- operating thruway, museum, and airport restaurants; a candy company; a hotel chain; vending machines -- and an ailing giant at that. As Gael Greene described the situation in "Twilight of the Gods," a 1970 New York Magazine article, "The mighty $100 million keeper of bed and board had fallen to its knees by the end of the sixties. Money men, not food men, were making the decisions. Restaurant Associates shifted its focus from class to mass."

Brody was ousted in 1964; Baum hung on until 1970 (later winning more food-world glory as the operator of the Rainbow Room and Windows on the World). Thanks to a mixture of bad luck and bad management, the company posted huge losses, and the stock collapsed in 1970.

Valenti didn't grow up in the kind of family that could afford to eat at The Four Seasons. His father, Rosario, who died three years ago, scraped by as a construction worker; his two brothers dropped out of high school to help support the family. Nick, the youngest, attended a two-year college hospitality program in Brooklyn. He joined RA upon graduation.

"Nick was always the first to get to work," says Dominick Varacalli, RA's gregarious veteran senior vice-president for operations, "and the last to leave." Valenti's first major opportunity came when he was assigned to manage the John Peel restaurant, a down-on-its-luck hotel steakhouse in Old Westbury. He wooed customers by going upscale, replacing the plastic tablecloths with linen, upgrading the beef, adding a fancy Sunday brunch, and working the door seven days a week to welcome the regulars. "My experience in turning around one restaurant," he says, "is what I've used to turn around the entire company." The steakhouse revenues jumped from $1 million to $4 million a year.

"Nick is a very fast learner," says Max Pine, the president of Restaurant Associates from 1976 to 1993, when he was gracefully edged out in favor of his former protégé. Pine plucked Valenti from the obscurity of Long Island and moved him into a series of troubleshooting management jobs, salvaging other failing restaurants. "Nick's batting average was high."

And he didn't mind getting down and dirty to do the job. After Restaurant Associates began catering the U.S. Open in 1976, Valenti became convinced that union concessionaires were stealing, by smuggling in soda cups instead of using RA-issued inventory and lying about drink sales. Valenti and his top aide, Paul Emmett, now president of RA's restaurant-services division, stuck around one night until 1 a.m., after everyone else had left, and searched the stadium.

"Nick was wearing a suit, and he got down on his hands and knees and crawled behind the stands and found a case of cups," recalls Emmett. "He called the president of the union at home and said, 'I need you to come down right now.' " Remembering that late-night summons today, Howard Chaiken, then and now the president of Local 54, laughs. "I thought someone had put out a hit on me." Adds Valenti, "Howard looked so relieved when I told him we just wanted to fire some union members."

Restaurant associates took itself private with a leveraged buyout in 1986, was acquired by a Japanese company in 1990, went private again in 1996 after the Japanese economy soured, and was sold again in 1998, to the British firm Compass. As one of the ranking partners of the company, Valenti came out with an eight-digit net worth. "It's taken me 25, 30 years to get here," says Valenti, who owns a Palm Beach home and has a collection of classic cars but otherwise doesn't live large. "It's not like today's 25-year-olds and the Internet."

For Valenti's career, the key transaction was the purchase by the Japanese firm, Kyotaru. Hiroshi Tanaka, Kyotaru's CEO, says simply, "I fell in love with the personality of Nick Valenti. He's not double-tongued. He's always smiling, pleasant to be around."

Smiling but always looking for a deal. After arranging to buy Restaurant Associates back from the recession-bashed Kyotaru for $60 million, Valenti turned around and sold off two RA-owned chains, Charlie Brown's and Acapulco, for what was reported as nearly $50 million each; then he sold the rest of the company eighteen months later to Compass for another $90 million.

"Yes, I was surprised," admits Tanaka of the profitability of the deal. Valenti shared the wealth from the Compass sale, rewarding 22 of the company's top executives; several got $1 million paydays. Victor Broceaux, a nearly 40-year RA veteran and a former chef turned vice-president, says gratefully, "He didn't have to do that. I'd follow him anywhere."

As architects Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio, both in black, walk through the Brasserie pointing out design surprises, they're like mischievous kids who can't believe they've gotten away with such whimsy. Check out the short story, in two-word sentences, running across the video screen at the entrance, and the disorienting bathrooms, in which the wall between the men's and women's rooms has a cutout for a shared sink, so you can glimpse the hand-washing of the opposite sex. "This is incredibly high-risk for Nick, but he really understood what we were trying to do," says Scofidio. Diller adds that Valenti was supportive but also very direct when probing and questioning their ideas: "He's surgical. He knows when something needs work. But on the things we've felt strongly about, he's suspended disbelief."

Such as, of course, the lime-green table. "What color do you call this?" he politely inquired back in August at his first sight of the slice of resin. "Sorbet?" mused Charles Renfro. Valenti, with a laugh, replied, "Medicinal lozenge?"

But now, on the eve of the restaurant's opening, he's become its biggest fan. "How many tables are there in the world?" he enthuses, gesturing around the space-age room. "There isn't anything else like it." For the first time in decades, Valenti and Restaurant Associates may once again be presiding over the hottest table in town.


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