Table Stakes

Our story begins with a lime-popsicle-colored table. Set on a stainless-steel base, the translucent resin surface shimmers in the light so that plates and glasses set on it look as if they’re floating. More than just a design coup, this coolly transcendent table embodies the career-capping ambitions of Fortunato Nicola Valenti, the CEO of Restaurant Associates, the giant New York-based food provider that serves 75,000 meals a day. For the commercially successful but little-known Nick Valenti, it represents a bid to finally gain his place among New York’s top restaurateurs.

Forget the kitsch extravagance of the Russian Tea Room and the Baroque French luxury of Daniel: The Seagram Building’s new Brasserie is the first streamlined twenty-first-century restaurant, with a curved pearwood ceiling, a rhythmic line of tilted booths, translucent glass panels that turn the bar’s wine rack into a floating fantasy display – and a video system that acts as windows for the basement restaurant by capturing and replaying the entrance of customers.

Designed by celebrated downtown architects Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio, who have never done a restaurant before and are known for their mixed-media museum installations, the reinvented Brasserie – for decades a mecca for Manhattan’s most prominent night owls – is meant to evoke the drama of a stage set. “We wanted to make the dining scene very theatrical,” says Diller. The customer enters center stage – down a glass see-and-be-seen staircase, a modernized version of the previous Philip Johnson design. Scofidio adds, “It’s very voyeuristic. Everyone is on display.”

But the person most on display as the curtain rises on the Brasserie is Nick Valenti. “It drives me crazy that people see us as so impersonal, as just this big company,” says the 51-year-old Valenti. With his slicked-back hair in old-fashioned Rat Pack style and his courtly manner, Valenti, the son of an immigrant Italian construction worker, comes across as the ultimate company guy. Even longtime employees, mindful of his authoritarian style, call him Mr. Valenti. Mr. Cutting Edge he is not.

John Lindsay was mayor when Valenti joined Restaurant Associates in 1969 as a steward at Kennedy airport’s Pan Am Terminal restaurant. By then, the company – which under the legendary Joseph Baum had created such gastronomic landmarks as The Four Seasons and Tavern on the Green – had already begun its long downward slide into anonymity. Highly profitable anonymity in recent years, to be sure, since Restaurant Associates is a $300 million company, mostly in corporate cafeterias and dining rooms and tourist and business venues.

“We wanted to make the dining scene very theatrical,” says Elizabeth Diller. “It’s very voyeuristic. Everyone is on display.” Adds Ricardo Scofidio: “This is incredibly high risk for Nick, but he really understood what we were trying to do.”

But respect is not to be won on the chow line at the Metropolitan Museum or at the takeout counter of Cucina & Co. Which is why in the past year Valenti has launched an expensive and ambitious I’ll-take-Manhattan culinary makeover. Not only are the company’s three tired-looking Rockefeller Center restaurants being renovated in hopes of making the food and décor as enticing as the view of the ice rink, but Valenti is installing an upscale steakhouse at Madison Square Garden and taking over Macy’s 26,000-square-foot food court. He’s also signed on to operate a lavish new bistro this winter, Brasserie 8 and 1/2, at 9 West 57th Street, a stone’s toss from Tiffany’s.

Of all these projects, however, the one that has truly obsessed Valenti for the past six months is reopening the original Brasserie on 53rd Street. Tossing out everything but the restaurant’s old name, Valenti has invested $5 million – a huge sum for a 220-seat watering hole – to create a downtown-looking joint in the heart of midtown’s expense-account land. “Nick has been a very involved client,” Diller says with a smile. Indeed, he’s debated every detail from the honeycomb glass in the bathrooms to the special area designed for flowers on the bar.

Operating on the principle that a restaurant this striking ought to do more than serve bistro classics, Luc Dimnet, a 29-year-old French chef who has toiled at Les Célébrités and in three-star Michelin venues, has been encouraged to reinvent traditional dishes, and is doing so with a trendy Asian twist.

“This is kind of scary for all of us,” says Peter Wyss, who joined Restaurant Associates 22 years ago as a chef at the Brasserie and is now vice-president of operations. “Some of our old customers are going to be expecting the same place, the same menu, and they’re going to be surprised.” True, seafood choucroute and burgers with oyster mushrooms and tempura peppers are not exactly familiar French fare. And instead of maintaining a 24-hour schedule, the place will be open from 6:30 a.m. to 1 a.m.

For Valenti, everything about the Brasserie is a radical departure – he’s anxious as he awaits the public’s verdict. He hopes this gamble will pay off in more than just ample meal checks. “I feel as if my entire career has been following in the footsteps of Joe Baum and what he did with the company 40 years ago,” he says of the restaurant god who died late in 1998. A subdued man who rarely brags about his own achievements as CEO of a thriving company, Valenti can’t help himself today, he’s so excited. “Joe Baum was such a legend. For the first time, I feel like we’ve surpassed him.”

Until a fire closed it down five years ago, the Brasserie was one of the longest-running shows in town – open one year more than The Fantasticks. Debuting in 1959, the Philip Johnson-designed space packed in everyone from Broadway stars to sports heroes to visiting royalty looking for a bit of late-night elegance in perhaps the most glamorous Parisian bistro outside a Hollywood movie set. Before New York became known as “the City That Never Sleeps,” the Brasserie was the most famous around-the-clock restaurant. “We never had a key to the front door,” Valenti recalls.

But by the nineties, the place had become dowdy, the food conveyor belt was broken, the trendy crowds had fled downtown, and the reviews were consistently wretched. Mimi Sheraton, in an eighties New York Times review, called the choucroute “a disaster” and broiled fish “reminiscent of airline cooking.”

What’s ironic about the wildly futuristic look of the new Brasserie is that it wasn’t initially Valenti’s idea at all – this traditionalist was forced into the avant-garde thanks to a quirky clause in a real-estate deal. After the fire, Valenti negotiated a lease extension and planned to do a variation on the old theme, hiring architect Fred Brush, who had fashioned several restaurants for RA, including Café Centro and Naples 45. But before Valenti could start construction, he had to submit the plans – a step he thought was pro forma – to Phyllis Bronfman Lambert.

Lambert, the daughter of Seagram patriarch Samuel Bronfman, had originally persuaded her father to hire Ludwig Mies van der Rohe to design the 1958 landmark building. When the Seagram Building was sold to Teacher’s Insurance several years ago, Lambert wangled an unheard-of arrangement to retain “aesthetic control.”

“It’s sort of my place,” says Lambert, speaking from the Canadian Center for Architecture in Montreal, where she is the founding director. “Even if they want to change the lighting in the lobby, they have to check with me.”

She hated the new sketches for the Brasserie. “There were some drawings I saw with this English tufted furniture,” Lambert says, her voice dripping with scorn. “I said, ‘Uh-uh.’ ” Vetoing the plan, she gave Valenti the names of three trailblazing architectural firms – none of which had previously designed a restaurant – urging him to create something new. “Nick was open,” she says, although it’s not as if he had much choice.

Unlike the other two firms, Diller + Scofidio, partners in work and life, declined to draw up a proposal for the restaurant. “That’s not how we work,” says Scofidio, 63, who teaches architecture at Cooper Union. “If you want to know what we do, hire us. We’re not about predigested ideas.” In fact, these dissident architects – as they call themselves – won a coveted grant from the MacArthur Foundation for their innovative work. “We like to flirt with truth and fiction,” Diller says; they often use videos in projects to “spy on” and replay a version of street life. “We didn’t know anything about Restaurant Associates.” They dared Valenti to take a flyer, showing him slides of their “public art” work and their one commercial project, an apartment complex in Japan.

“They were by far the best of the bunch,” Valenti says, insisting that once he got over his original annoyance, he realized that hiring Diller + Scofidio could be a great way to convey that Restaurant Associates is a happening place. “They represent the cutting edge, they’re downtown,” he says. “To do a restaurant in midtown that will pull people in, we need that.”

“What color do you call this?” Valenti politely inquired at his first sight of the slice of resin. “Sorbet?” mused the architect. Valenti, with a laugh, replied, “Medicinal lozenge?”

That said, the collaboration between the staid Valenti and the hip architects was entertaining to watch. “We didn’t know how it was going to go,” says Diller, 44, an associate professor at Princeton, “since we were mated artificially.” But she and Scofidio were intrigued by the idea of going up against Mies van der Rohe: “The building is an icon of twentieth-century architecture in America. It would have been hard to say no.”

“We’re trying to add perversity through the use of materials,” chirped project architect Charles Renfro last August, pitching Valenti the signature resin-on-steel tables. Valenti’s ever-expressive eyebrows rose three quarters of an inch. “When the waiter changes the plates,” Scofidio, an easygoing bear of a man, pitched in, “you’ll see a flash of metal.”

Valenti, who knows a hard sell even when it’s dressed up in architectural buzzwords, interrupted to say, “This must be so expensive that you don’t want to tell me what it costs.” The architects ruefully confessed: The total cost of resin-top tables would be $70,000 rather than $12,000 for a regular vinyl-padded wooden version. For a mid-priced restaurant where the dinner check is aimed to be $35 a person, that’s a lot of steak-frites to sell.

But the bottom-line-conscious chieftain of Restaurant Associates ran a few numbers in his head: “If this table is so beautiful and unusual that we don’t have to use tablecloths,” Valenti finally declared, “it’s cheap. We’d spend $120,000 a year on linens for lunch and dinner.” (“The cost of linens never occurred to us,” the architects admitted later.)

Still, Valenti wanted to test the lime-green table in the court of public opinion. So several weeks later, the resin table made its unheralded debut at the U.S. Tennis Open, amid the white tablecloths of the upscale eatery Aces, run by Restaurant Associates. Valenti, who made surreptitious inspection trips from his firm’s sky box, discovered that without a tablecloth to soak up condensation from drinks, the top becomes a watery mess. “People love the way it looks,” he said, “so maybe we’ll try coasters.”

As Andre Agassi was getting ready to take on Todd Martin in the men’s final, Peter May, a partner in the cigars-and-power restaurant Patroon, was by chance seated at the green table with friends. Asked about the eating surface, a surprised May gushed, “This table is fabulous, really beautiful.” But what really impressed May was simply the quality of the food that Valenti created for the Open. “What I want to know is,” said May, “how do you get a place up and running for only two weeks a year, where both the food and the service are excellent?”

For the two weeks of the Open, Restaurant Associates is the culinary version of Brigadoon – creating some of the most upscale dining options in Valenti’s empire and then disappearing in the mists of Queens. Indeed, the annual canteen for tennis fans – except for 1996 and 1997, when to the dismay of foodies the contract was awarded to a lesser caterer – has been a major succès d’estime for Restaurant Associates. “I went to Aces, and I was astonished by the meal,” says George Lang, the owner of Café des Artistes, who worked at Restaurant Associates in its sixties glory days. “It was like a top-notch restaurant.”

If Valenti gets his way, the talents of Restaurant Associates will soon be obvious even to those who can’t score a ticket to the Open. For the first time in decades, he is backed by a deep-pocketed company willing to invest in make-a-statement restaurants. In addition to the Brasserie, the American Festival Cafe, renamed the Rock Center Cafe, has been transformed into a steakhouse, opening in late January; the Adam Tihany-redesigned Sea Grill will be dishing out salmon and sea urchin later this winter. Nick & Stef’s Steakhouse is under construction in Madison Square Garden, a clone of a California restaurant created by Joachim and Christine Splichal, whose award-winning eight-restaurant Patina Group was recently acquired by Restaurant Associates. Valenti’s people are also about to get the most intense media scrutiny of their lives: feeding the fashionistas at the much-hyped, much-delayed Frank Gehry-designed Condé Nast cafeteria.

Unlike the caloraphobic Condé Nasties, Valenti is a man who loves food, particularly Italian food. The youngest of four children and the only one to attend college, Valenti, whose family emigrated from Calabria in 1951, began busing tables and chopping vegetables at age 14 in his older brother Carmine’s Piccolo Ristorante in Bellmore, New York, where their mother, Teresa, did the cooking.

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.

Table Stakes