Arguably best known as the bad boy of Top Chef's first season, Stephen Asprinio has pulled off something few of his fellow alumni have been able to manage: He's opened a restaurant. Forte d'Asprinio debuted last summer in Palm Beach, FL, and quickly won over a hip, young audience and kudos from critics. Recently, Gayot.com named it one of the top 10 new restaurants of 2008 and said Asprinio “capitalizes on filling an American void — the ultra-modern Italian restaurant.”
We hardly recognized you without a tie and a nice, fat knot. What's with the dressed-down look?
When I was growing up, my mother and father made us aware that your appearance is the first thing that people see. Typically I pay a lot of attention to detail in terms of how I dress…when I'm at home it might be a nice designer tee-shirt. At work, I go for flashy but more formal--the big ties, cuff links, striped shirts, a lot of fun designers who represent the opposite of Brooks Brothers. I've been a fan of clothing for years, and I like to mix and match. Typically you don't see anyone dressed like me.
So fashion is a passion. We know you're a wine expert and I'm guessing from that axe you're brandishing that music is an interest, too. What else?
I've played guitar since age 12. I like to listen to new genres, especially small, up-and-coming groups. And I've always liked to spend time at galleries, but after designing this restaurant I was exposed to a number of art forms — -furniture, lighting and more. After teaching myself about design, I have a better appreciation.
Now that you have a little experience under your belt, is running a restaurant what you expected?
It is extremely hard work, but I knew that going into it. You're always racking your brain over a number of issues happening in the restaurant. There's always something broken or someone suing you. And a lot of people frown on micromanaging, but I do not. If you don't do it to some extent, you will lose your brand.
Your bio on Bravo.com describes you as a “borderline obsessive compulsive.” Do you consider that a compliment?
That was my Top Chef bio; it was based on the character they wanted me to be. But I am an obsessive compulsive and an eccentric. That's a compliment. I think you have to step outside the box if you're going to break the barriers of normality to excel.
You've launched a company, SA Hospitality Innovations. Sounds as if you have some ambitious plans.
I'm designing a second restaurant in Las Vegas that should open at the end of 2009. There's also a project in Dubai. A show about wine on the Wine TV network could happen when the stock market and economy improve. I'm writing a cookbook. And I'm in talks about another TV show, but there is nothing on paper. I'd like to do more with wine retail, and maybe one day expand into hotels.
Oh, that's all? Any role models?
I like the path that Gordon Ramsay has taken — not particularly Hell's Kitchen, but more his brand. He has found a great niche, and he has proven himself 1,000 times over with his restaurant in the U.K. I have a lot of respect for him. He's someone I can kind of relate to.