The Vanguard AWARDS
RH Salutes Five Visionaries
As editors who cover the restaurant industry, we see a lot of players come and go. Some make a big splash along the way, some don’t. It’s a crazy business with its share of casualties. And then there’s the other side, where we have the privilege of witnessing standout performers who not only excel, but lead the pack with style and grace.
But looking good is only part of it. The people we recognize each year with Vanguard Awards are those who dared to be fresh, dared to be different. Their examples often lead the industry in directions it had not considered before they came along.
This year’s class of Vanguards go to Madeline Triffon, America’s first female Master Sommelier; David Rockwell, a restaurant designer who changed the public’s perception of what a restaurant should look like; Steven Ells, who masterfully blended the worlds of quick service and casual restaurants with Chipotle Grill; Wayne Kostroski, a restaurateur extraordinaire who selflessly created a charity that feeds the hungry; and Terrance Brennan, who reminded America just how amazing artisanal foods can be.
As editors, we are rejuvenated by their courage to be different. We salute the 2002 Vanguard Award winners.
THE GRANDE DAME OF WINE
Madeline Triffon would be a doctor today if her father had his way. But a funny thing happened on the way to medical school. In 1977, while applying for an interim restaurant job at a Westin Hotel in Detroit (schoolbooks aren’t cheap), the f & b manager offered Madeline the job of sommelier.
Triffon had worked her way through college in restaurants as a waiter, a short-order cook, a dishwasher, and even as a bartender. But the prospect of managing a wine program for a French restaurant in a newly built hotel was a mind-boggling offer that she couldn’t refuse.
That f & b guy at that French restaurant in the Westin was no fool. What he saw in Triffon was an intelligent, beautiful woman with a sparkling personality and an impeccable French accent (she lived in Europe for years). He clearly must have thought: Here’s someone who could sell wine. Of course, history has proven him right.
"I didn’t know enough at the time to scare myself out of the job," she says. "But I had been going to some very tough schools where I studied hard. I figured I could learn as I went along."
Triffon got started with Hugh Johnson’s World Atlas of Wine and never looked back. Ten years after that Westin job, she was awarded the title of Master Sommelier, the first American woman to achieve such a lofty title, and only the second women to do so in the world.
"I’m proud of the accomplishment, but you’ve got to understand that at the time I passed the exam, the title of Master Sommelier had only been around 15 or so years," says Triffon, now the Director of Wine for the Unique Restaurant Corporation, which operates several restaurants in the Detroit area.
This sort of humble comment is typical of Triffon, who refuses to use her lofty title and knowledge of wine as a weapon to intimidate. Her time is better spent on trying to convince others that they should love wine as much as she does. Her modesty is both charming and disarming.
Currently there are only 53 Americans who hold the title of Master Sommelier, of which nine are women. It’s a small fraternity and she is unarguably the grande dame.
But what about her old man? He was hoping for a doctor.
"He grumbled at first," she says, "but he worked his way through Yale in restaurants and kind of thought my job was neat. He certainly admired my chutzpah and, when I passed the master’s exam, it satisfied his dream that I would acquire some elite credential."
The best dads are always supportive and forgiving, but let’s not forget that Triffon was, in essence, an interloper in a male-dominated field. Not a big problem, she says. Most of her male colleagues were very supportive, as were the customers she encountered, though there were occasional looks of surprise and suspicion when she approached tables.
"I was so focused during the first several years with doing this job honorably that I could not be concerned with what people thought," Triffon says. "It was my job to know the product, showcase it in the best possible manner, and serve the guests’ needs."
True. But Triffon’s description of her workman-like attitude does not begin to describe the joy she brings to a subject that is by far the most intimidating and stressful aspect of a customer’s dining experience. She treats wine as if it was a gift from the gods and she eagerly wants to share it. She’s done the hard work so customers don’t have to.
Some of that hard work involves spending as much time acquiring beautiful, inexpensive (often quirky) bottles of wines for her wine lists as buying big, bold and expensive wines. She also has the finesse to put together a tight, surprise-filled short wine list as well as one that’s more comprehensive. In fact, last month, one of Triffon’s "short" wine lists won the top prize in Restaurant Hospitality’s Best Wine List in America Competition.
Triffon’s skill makes her one of the most respected wine professionals in the business, and certainly one of the best liked.
"When you’re in the trenches every day getting your hands dirty and your priorities are dictated by the battle field, you can’t afford to be a snob or intimidate people. It just doesn’t fly," says Triffon. "I feel it’s my job to make customers feel cozy, and it’s what I like most about what I do."
Madeline, you make us feel cozy giving you this Vanguard Award.
THE DEAN OF DESIGN
You know going in there’s going to be a major "wow" factor involved whenever the David Rockwell Group unveils another of its restaurant design projects. In fact, there’d better be. That’s exactly what the people who went out hired the biggest name-brand design firm in the country expect for their money. But the ongoing genius of this architectural/design firm and its founder, David Rockwell, is that the next client in line never gets stuck with a warmed-over version of a design that produced that "wow" for the last one. Instead, Rockwell thrives on doing something completely different each time out of the box.
"I would like not only not to have a signature style," Rockwell has said. "I don’t even want to have a signature project type." And, restaurants aside, he doesn’t. The 160-person Rockwell Group has worked its magic on everything from the 4.8 million-sq.-ft. Mohegan Sun casino (check out the details on the gas station Rockwell came up with there) to cruise ships, retail stores, the Cirque de Soleil performance center at Disney World, a children’s hospital, new stadiums for the Detroit Tigers and the Pittsburgh Steelers, and, Rockwell’s crown jewel, the eye-popping 3,500-seat Kodak Theater in Hollywood that now houses the Oscars telecast.
It’s a list of projects so eclectic you automatically assume that Rockwell has to be spreading himself pretty thin. Really, how many great design ideas can any person or firm come up with in such a short time? But then you walk into the latest project and you realize he’s still on top of his game. Two recent New York City restaurant projects, Town and Rosa Mexicana, are as stunning as anything Rockwell’s ever done.
Pretty heady stuff for a guy who got his start cranking out Planet Hollywood units—40 of them in all. Say what you will about theme restaurants, but the 46-year-old Rockwell’s work for Planet Hollywood set a lofty design standard for the casual dining segment.
But he wasn’t all about razzle-dazzle and memorabilia. At the same time that Rockwell was wittily solving such design puzzles as, say, where to place the shoes Patrick Swayze wore in "Dirty Dancing" so they would look cool to Planet Hollywood guests, he was also coming up with sleek and evocative designs for big-ticket gourmet shrines like Nobu and Vong in New York City. The jewel-like Nobu occupies only 2,800 square feet.
Here’s how Rockwell likes to define his group’s approach to turning raw ideas into compelling physical spaces. "We’re known for our ability to maximize all opportunities for interactions between technology, craftsmanship and design," he says. "Our expertise in designing environments that combine high-end video technology, handmade objects, special effects, and fixtures and furniture made by specialized artisans into a unified whole is second to none."
The Rockwell Group is able to pick and choose its projects now, but it hasn’t abandoned its roots in the restaurant industry. In addition to New York City beauties like Town and Rosa Mexicana, the organization has put out such instant classics as Stephen Starr’s futuristic Pod in Philadelphia, Todd English’s Kingfish inside Faneuil Hall in Boston, and the Bastianich family’s Lidia’s in Kansas City.
Always looking for new challenges, Rockwell told CNN recently that he’d like to tackle the design of an airport. "I can’t think of anything that’s right with them," he said. "They’re so not about celebrating arrival, which I think is the opportunity." Millions of business travelers echo this sentiment.
There are several terrific design firms that concentrate on restaurants, but none of them has covered the full spectrum like Rockwell and his group have.
THE FAST CASUAL PIONEER
The philosophy that’s been driving the fast casual trend is summed up on Chipotle’s web site: "Just because the food is served quickly is no reason you can’t have a great meal."
Throughout the latter part of the 1990s and into this decade, this idea—that good and fast need not be mutually exclusive—has yielded a collective "Amen" from a big group of consumers: Mainly, busy young professionals. This group, often richer in money than in time, is more than willing to pay checks twice the size of the average fast food joint to have something that’s healthful, fresh, and made with higher-end ingredients than typical fast food.
Chipotle founder Steven Ells gets our nod for a Vanguard Award because he was at the forefront of this fast casual movement. In 1993 Ells theorized that there might be a lot of people like him: Those whose lifestyles often demanded an experience with the speed of fast food, but who wanted something better than the mass-produced, often frozen, held-under-the-heat-lamp offerings that characterize most of the QSR segment. But at the time, Ells wasn’t thinking about revolutionizing fast food. "I made food that I liked and that I thought others may like, too. Since I was using better quality ingredients than the more traditional quick service places, I knew I had to charge a little more. But I wasn’t thinking about a mass market or opening a bunch of Chipotles."
The thing that really makes Ells and Chipotle standouts in this segment, however, is not that Ells was the first to launch a fast casual concept (he wasn’t), but that his chain was the first to get on the national fast track in this booming segment. This happened when the 15-unit operation got the attention of and scored a deal with McDonald’s, which purchased a minority interest in 1997. Chipotle’s alignment with the mega-chain, which has since purchased a majority stake, has provided the influx of cash to help put Chipotle into markets throughout the country at a much faster clip than any small chain could accomplish alone. In total, there are nearly 200 Chipotle units in operation, 75 of which were added in 2001 (it’s the primary growth vehicle among a group of new brands being grown by McDonald’s). Another 75 will open this year, some of them in partnership with McDonald’s franchisees. (Currently, two McDonald’s franchisees are operating Chipotles.) The stepped-up growth supports a statement Ells made in March: "We are confident," he told RH, "we can ramp up our expansion to be a national brand with thousands of units."
Chipotle has already come a long way since its Denver debut. The idea was inspired, says Ells, by the tacquerias the c.e.o. frequented in San Francisco when he, fresh out of the CIA, was working with Jeremiah Tower at Stars. Ells loved the made-in-store freshness and authentic flavors the little restaurants offered. "It was good, simple food, simply packaged," says Ells. He brought that orientation to Chipotle, and, in its nine years, little has changed.
A limited menu of tacos and burritos allows the operation to focus on made-daily-on-site menu elements including salsas, guacamole and tortilla chips. Chipotle is all about fresh meats, fresh herbs, fresh everything. This edict of freshness—a common tenet of much of the fast casual segment—is no surprise if you consider Ells once cited Alice Waters as his greatest professional inspiration. Manufacturers, peddle your microwave, freezer or can opener elsewhere. Chipotle brags they’ve no use for such conveniences.
"Freshness is very important. That’s a comment we hear repeatedly from our customers. All of the food we serve begins with fresh, high-quality ingredients. That makes all the difference."
Attention to quality has also taken center stage. A culinarian by training, Ells recently launched a program, internally called "Food With Integrity," through which Chipotle is upgrading many ingredients. Last summer, the company replaced the pork in its carnitas burritos with free-range product, a move that raised the item’s price by a buck, but doubled its sales. Similar upgrades, made possible in part by McDonald’s purchasing clout, are in the works, including the possible procurement of a new vegetarian-fed chicken.
"We’d like to serve that chicken because it tastes better, but also because it’s a more wholesome food," says Ells. Of his chain, he adds, "We’ll continue to grow, but we will also remain focused on serving great-tasting, great quality food. I’d like to see Chipotle as standing for a change for the better in the fast casual segment. We really want to push this segment to a new level."
He is, above all, driven. There is an intrinsic madness about Wayne Kostroski’s pursuit of excellence: an indefinable obsession that powers him to excel as a restaurateur, humanitarian and philanthropist. The latter two matter most here.
You may wonder what, in the name of everything that’s sane, possessed Wayne Kostroski in 1985 to delicately balance the supervision of multiple and successful foodservice concepts in the greater Minneapolis area with what has since become a noble charity event—the Taste of the NFL. But pause for a moment not to pity Kostroski. Instead, envy him, wishing you had guts enough to launch a project that not only affects the circumstance of so many people in need—men, women, and kids—but, in due course, provides you with access to enhancements that keeps you one step ahead of your competitors. We’ll get to that later.
Kostroski won’t admit it, but the idea for something akin to Taste of the NFL had been germinating since 1985. After surviving in the restaurant business since 1977—having then abandoned a career in pop concerts and entertainment—he was asked as a member of the local business association to co-chair an art fair that had been around for 20 years. He agreed and then decided to enrich the event by adding a jazz festival and a charitable component.
Says Kostroski, "A couple of blocks from the business district, there was a food shelter and I went there and watched what they did and came away moved and impressed. I approached other board members, convinced them we could raise money for the shelter through the fair."
There was also this motivating factor: "Look at the industry I’m in," he says. "We have plenty of food; we know where it comes from; how to produce and distribute it and we should know, better than anybody in the business, how to help people who are in need."
So that when in 1991, the National Football League announced that Minneapolis would be the site of Super Bowl XXVI in 1992, Kostroski, now president of the Minnesota Restaurant Association and, ipso facto, a member of the city’s Super Bowl host committee, knew exactly what he had to do, provided the committee would help him produce what he had already decided to call, Taste of the NFL.
He needed sponsors; he needed the approval of the NFL. He got both; and with restaurants representing every city with an NFL team (back then there were 28; today there are 31) and with alumni or current players from each of those teams volunteering to sign autographs and serve tastes alongside their respective chefs, Kostroski’s "Party With A Purpose," raised $90,000.
To line up 28 chefs willing to work pro bono, Wayne made 29 calls. The next year in Los Angeles—the city that knows how to party, yet is bored to tears when a promoter with unfamiliar credentials decides to throw one—Taste bombed. Net? $19,000. Disappointed? Marginally so. Devastated? Not a bit.
"My idea right from the start was not to do a one-time event. I wanted to build a legacy that had roots in Minneapolis. Skip a year after L.A.? If your stated mission is to raise awareness for and money for hunger and you give up, which is what you do if you miss a year, you not only lose momentum, you lose credibility among your supporters—the restaurants, the players, the sponsors, and the NFL. Taste was too good an event to let rest."
The assumption was that because Minneapolis was such a success, subsequent Tastes would follow suit. Not so. Back to the drawing board?
Says Kostroski, "You have a down year in your restaurant. It’s post 9/11. Do you abandon the business; complain about reduced customer counts; give up and sell the place? Of course not. You examine the core product. Is there anything that needs to be changed? How can I improve it? How much confidence do I have in my services? Do you back off and pout?
"When L.A. didn’t pan out the way we thought it would, we upgraded Taste where we could, enhanced its quality, making of it something more significant, and moved forward." Post L.A., in Atlanta: $192,000. Then $225,000 the next year, $400,000 the next, and so on. Since 1992, Taste has raised more than $3.3 million for hunger relief. Today, Taste of the NFL is a brand respected by sponsors, the NFL, volunteers and partygoers (some from L.A.) for its integrity, reliability and credibility.
Now then, about that "access to enhancements" mentioned earlier? Says Kostroski, "The people I meet producing Taste teach me a lot more than I could learn running my restaurants. I meet CEOs of companies, incredibly smart marketers, operators and suppliers. I walk away from each event with nuggets of intelligence that help me personally and professionally".
THE ARTISAN TRAILBLAZER
Terrance Brennan’s vision has elevated cheese from its former status as a luxury ingredient to being the focus of an entire restaurant. At Artisanal in New York City, hand-crafted cheese has remained the star of the show since the 160-seat bistro opened in March, 2001.
And while it takes an artisan to produce a great cheese, it takes a visionary operator to see its potential for producing a great restaurant. As chef-proprietor Terrance Brennan says, "The idea came out of a passion for cheese. I own Picholine, and there I just wanted to do something with cheese that hasn’t been done in the U.S." At Picholine, Brennan popularized the idea of a cheese course.
But Artisanal takes the cheese experience to the next level. Brennan wanted to combine the best of a cheese shop and a restaurant, and he accomplished that goal. The aroma (thanks to the cheese), the French bistro-inspired design (thanks to Adam D. Tihany), and the bistro menu are just the beginning. Artisanal includes a cheese-ripening cave, and a 30-seat bar where more than 160 wines are offered by the glass. Guests can experience more than 250 cheeses, choose from 12 cheese and wine flights, and purchase cheeses at a retail counter. It should come as no surprise that fondue is one of the most popular appetizers. According to Brennan, about 50 percent of customers order fondues, with six choices on the menu, including a fondue du jour. Working on the wine and cheese pairings are sommelier Richard Shipman and maître fromager Max McCalman. Deborah Racicot is the pastry chef.
In short, this fromagerie/bistro/wine bar is serious about cheese, but it’s also serious about creating a quality dining experience. The depth of devotion to hand-crafted cheese is evident in the reviews. As The New York Times writer William Grimes put it, "Artisanal is a big, very good-looking brasserie with more varieties of cheese than most human beings will encounter in a lifetime." And the 2002 Zagat Survey ranked Artisanal as having the top brasserie cuisine in NYC.
The nose knows: In Esquire’s 20th Annual Survey of The Best New Restaurants in 2001, John Mariani advised readers "That smell! Prepare to get gloriously woozy from the aroma of cheese..." The aroma may be the first thing that hits a guest upon entering the restaurant, but it’s the intensity of taste that keeps them coming back. As Brennan says, "Strong, smelly cheeses are popular."
Although Artisanal promotes cheese in a way that goes far beyond a trip to a cheese shop or a visit to an artisan who hand-crafts cheese, it incorporates those experiences. For one thing, there’s an aging room for the cheeses: Affinage, the traditional process of ripening cheese, takes place on-premise in a climate-controlled ripening cave. Brennan says this is done "in the pursuit of perfecting and respecting the tradition. That’s the way it’s done in France, and in Europe. We take care of the cheeses in a proper environment."
Brennan offers advice for those who want to start featuring cheese on their menus. "Start small rather than larger. Build a cheese program. Obviously, you have to offer the best cheese. Then, you want to have someone responsible for overseeing it, putting it away properly, and taking care of it. You don’t have to have temperature-controlled and humidity-controlled caves the way we do, but you have to have someone who pays attention to the cheeses. And, buy from reliable sources."
Building Artisanal’s cheese menu is an ongoing process. "We have connections in Europe, and with farmers in the U.S. We hold cheese meetings once a week where we taste several new cheeses. We aggressively search for new suppliers and cheese-makers, and travel to Europe a couple of times a year." On the menu, cheeses are listed by type of milk (cow, sheep, goat) as well as by country of origin, and include texture and flavor notes.
Plans for the future? "I’ll probably do another restaurant in the next year, and maybe a cheese retail shop," Brennan says. In the fall, Artisanal Cheese will open, a wholesale cheese business offering catalog sales, a seminar room, an educational center and cheese classes. This has all grown out of Terrance Brennan’s passion for cheese. "I’d like to see it become a tradition, like it is in Europe, with people eating fine artisanal cheeses."