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Mr. Big Box

Philadelphia restaurateur Stephen Starr invaded New York by spending $26 million on Morimoto and Buddakan. Now he’s been named Zagat’s Restaurateur of the Year. Steve Fishman talked to him about megadining, celebrity chefs, and where to find the best cheesesteak.

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Before you opened Morimoto and Buddakan, you suggested your arrival in New York was the biggest restaurant event in a decade. Were you serious?
It was a public-relations thing. I knew that Morimoto was going to get good press because he was the Iron Chef. I was very concerned that Buddakan would be, maybe I was too paranoid, overlooked. I knew I had to get the press to talk about it. So I sort of kept what may appear to have been an arrogant tone.

So are you saying your arrival in New York wasn’t momentous?
I shouldn’t say this now because I don’t want to come across as cocky! But I do! I think it’s one of the more interesting things that New York has seen.

Why do people go to big, theatrical restaurants?
People go to restaurants to escape reality. Most people’s jobs are boring, and when they go out to a restaurant it’s a big thing. That’s why there should be something in the restaurant design that takes your breath away.

What about, you know, the food? I believe food counts for 60 percent of your success; ambience, including design, 40 percent.

People say big, expensively designed megarestaurants kill off smaller, better-quality restaurants.
One or two big restaurants open and suddenly they’re an evil trend. In the end, it’s survival of the fittest. The good will triumph.

So are reviews not important?
They’re the enemy and we must win. We’re like Marines going into battle.

You seem a little intense. What do you do for fun?
I don’t really have any fun. I’ve always been the guy throwing the party. I don’t really hang out with anybody. I just work.

You almost passed up on hiring Morimoto.
I hired a headhunter to find me a Japanese chef that could cook on the level and do sushi on the level of Nobu. Little did I know that they’d get me the guy from Nobu. I met him here at the Mercer Hotel. Morimoto barely spoke. He was with an American guy. They kind of fooled me. Morimoto didn’t come for a job. He came to get an investor to open his restaurant. I first decided I didn’t want to be partners. And then the Iron Chef thing hit. And I said, you know what, this thing’s a cult. I called him again and said, “Let’s do it.”

Will you be hiring more big-name chefs? Aren’t they a gimmick?
I’m not looking for more celebrity chefs. I don’t want that. With a celebrity chef I don’t have total control. I have to respect him or her, which I would do, but I can’t totally dominate the decision as I could with someone simply as an employee. I prefer to cultivate new great young talent. You get these young guys out of culinary school that are really talented and you hope to evolve them.

People knock your restaurants for being stage sets for beautiful people.
We get celebrities. I like having celebrities. Every supermodel in the world is there. We still need the steady bridge-and-tunnel crowd. Even restaurants that think they’re supercool and super-trendy need the suburbs.

Do you have to feed the bridge-and-tunnel crowd different food?
Listen, I don’t come at restaurants from being a foodie. There’s a pretentiousness to that. People want to eat food that’s not frightening. They like lobster, they like crab. You can prepare them in a very unique way. But it can’t all be skate or pork belly or frog’s legs.

What’s your position on foie gras?
I took it off the menu in Philadelphia. We were getting an incredible amount of protests. And honestly, deep down when I really understood what was going on with the ducks, I think it’s kind of not cool to serve it.

What’s next for you in New York?
We’d like to do one of the Philly restaurants here, Jones or Continental. I’m also thinking of opening a small hotel in New York. I used to just want to do it in Philadelphia, but the more I’m here the more I feel confident I could do one here.

Which New York restaurants do you enjoy?
In the past two months I’ve been to Cookshop, Dévi, and Waverly Inn. But I’m sick of restaurant food. I can’t enjoy myself in my restaurants.

What does Philly have that New York doesn’t?
Cheesesteaks.

New York has cheesesteaks, Philly cheesesteaks, in fact.
I’ve never had a cheesesteak in New York, and I can’t imagine they do it right. There’s something in the water or in the bread in Philadelphia.


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