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Restaurateur Bill Chait on the Past, Present, and Future

<a href="http://elizabethdanielsphotography.com">Elizabeth Daniels 1/13</a>
Elizabeth Daniels 1/13

It's hard to make the argument that restaurateur Bill Chait (Bestia, Sotto, Picca, Rivera) is the Danny Meyer of LA, but people in this city are trying to do just that. Danny Meyer, chief executive of New York's Union Square Hospitality Group, is by all accounts, one of the most hospitable people in restaurant dining. Chait, on the other hand, may not be the first to anticipate a guest's needs, and is not quick to smile, but seems to make up for that in his trend-spotting savvy. He breathes new life into promising chefs, whether seasoned professionals or young talent, and projects them onto a well-set stage. He's been creating one "premiere boutique neighborhood restaurant" after another, and save for the recent shutter of Playa, doesn't seem to be slowing down. We recently caught up with Chait to talk about his early days in restaurants and his plans for future growth.

It's pretty well-known that you got your start in the hospitality industry at Louise's, so shall we start there? I started with Louise's effectively in 1985. Along with a couple of partners we bought the original Louise's from Louise. Over the course of the next 20 years we opened up 19 of them.

Are you still involved at Louise's? I left operational involvement in Louise's in the late '90s, but yes, I'm still involved with Louise's, worked with Rob to develop the Mess Hall concept.

What came next? ...I started a few small restaurants with friends. They were called Spark Woodfire Grill. But this is a longer story: Danilo Terribili was the number one guy for Mauro Vincenti (Rex), who was someone I became friendly with in the '90s and was oddly a mentor for me, in food. So then, when I was looking to get Spark started, Danilo basically became my partner. Eventually another guy joined us, Jeff Slattica, and now Jeff runs it. There used to be three of them; one of them got turned into Picca and Sotto.

What happened after Spark? How did Rivera come about? I was thinking of moving back East, my brother was working for a big company at the time, and was thinking of going over there to help him.At the same time, I had started a discussion with the people who were in charge of the leasing and developing of LA LIVE. This was back in the 2006, 2007 period. It seemed like it could be a big opportunity. Simultaneously I started talking to the Met Lofts across the street, which had a space in the bottom of the building that was sort of a back up to the LA LIVE discussions. At that time, things were sort of chaotic with LA LIVE and what ended up happening was that the Met Lofts deal made a lot more sense. We ended up pursuing that and eventually signed the lease for Rivera.

Why did you decide to partner with John Sedlar? Even during my time at Louise's I had been opening a few one-off restaurant concepts around town. These were chef-driven concepts, and I had always liked the creative side of it, so I was always interested in working in a non-homogeneous chain environment, and when John was interested, my interest was piqued. In the '90s, Mauro Vincenti had been friends with John, and Hans Rockenwagner, and really all of the LA chefs. The connections were, and still are, important for me when I'm picking chefs.

When you started Rivera, how did the collaboration between you and John Sedlar work? How does the collaboration work now in your other concepts? Essentially, I did the deal on the space, I put together the management team that would run the front of house. Obviously, I recruited Julian Cox, which turned out to be a very prescient decision, because Julian's a great manager. And then John did the menu, and worked with Julian on the bar program. And I thought this was an interesting format.

Even today, working with Walter Manzke, this is how it works. Walter's got menus upon menus, a universe of menu items already. And when people see the pig's ears nachos, they get thrown off, but when you see his whole map of menu items, you'll see that it makes sense. It's not "French." He tells me I'm putting in a wood-burning pizza oven, but I'm not making pizza. I'm going to make tarts and quail in it. And when I taste things things, it's not my place to say we should have this on the menu or that on the menu. I mean, I might look at the cost and say, well, it might not be the best idea to have quail on the menu year-round that we get from Pennsylvania that we're going to have to sell for $40, but in general, chefs are very business savvy. Walter knows what things cost and what he needs to charge in order for it to make sense. John's the most complicated, because his food is in another realm of complexity. But as a general rule all of the chefs are very straightforward. There's nothing they'll do that's unthinkable.

What happened after Rivera was up and running? Well, around that time, the huge financial catastrophe happened, and obviously that had an impact on Spark which was significant. And what happened was in that location in Beverly Hills we were trying to figure out what to do. I was stuck in a lease, and I needed to come up with some game plan to deal with this. And we tried to sell it, but no one was buying anything at the time.

I realized it can't be this anymore, and I was tired of running a two story restaurant because it's just too hard. So I figured that maybe the idea was to break it into two restaurants. I'd seen it done in New York back in the '80s and '90s. So I was already thinking there would be two restaurants when we started Test Kitchen. I realized that it could be two separate restaurants.

How did Picca happen? Shortly after Rivera was running, I realized I was going to have to do something at Spark, it was not going to be a happy ending if I didn't. And so Ricardo was suggested to me by John. John said, 'You should go see this guy's restaurant, Mo-Chica, I think it's very, very interesting. Could be interesting to do something with him at Picca.' I met Ricardo and thought he was a talented guy and just a magnificant cook. So, Ricardo was sort of waiting in the wings while we did Test Kitchen because we knew it was going to take longer to get the permits and there were months of dead time. The collective group came up with this idea. My contribution to this was I thought of having a single chef for a month. And we actually approached Walter Manzke about it, and I don't know if he even remembers, but basically he said, 'no dice, I don't want to do it for a month.' So we got down to the idea of doing multiple days, and that's how it started on its own.

And, from Test Kitchen, you found Steve and Zach? Well, yes, I had sort of found Steve and Zach and what happened was, in the interest of full disclosure, you have a bunch of people that know people and you end up sort of triangulating who's who to find out who's who so you don't end up with some sort of axe murderer. So, Steve Samson had worked for a number of years for Piero Selvaggio, and Piero is actually a close friend from the Mauro Vincente era, because Piero and Mauro were sort of frienemies, you know, competitors. And so I called up Piero and said, 'do you know this Steve Samson guy, we're thinking of having him come run a restaurant' and Piero had nothing but positive things to say about Steve. And obviously Zach came with Steve, and it turns out that Zach had worked with Neal Fraser, and obviously I knew Neal, and the two were looking to open a place together, and that place became Sotto.

It's interesting that in developing each concept, you recruit a new culinary team, but you've now consolidated your bar management team under Julian Cox and Josh Goldman. Yes, and we want to keep moving in this direction. We're actually starting to work with someone who is going to manage the wine program for all of our properties so that that has some consistency to it. We can't say who it is yet, but there are a couple of people who I feel can speak to a much more sophisticated system for managing a wine program. I think that guys like Joseph Bastianich and Mario Batali have so much more expertise in this area than we do. We're like pimples, we don't know what we're doing.

Do you have an operations person? The set-up I have is very primitive. Christian Page (Short Order) is really becoming that. He has the right skill set for that. My partners are great people: Aileen Getty and Mike Glick (LA Specialty). Aileen is, of course, a philanthropist, but she's more than that. She's an LA-based person that is a really change agent for the whole way LA approaches homelessness and a lot of things. Aileen is the connection to the spiritual side of what we're doing. Ironically, I met her through the girl that I am dating. Aileen has become not only an investor, but a close friend.

Are you still working with Neal Fraser on a new Grace, downtown? Yes, the Vibiana deal went through and we're working on the concept now. It's not going to be Grace, but it's going to be very much Neal's style.

How is Republique going? Walter is so organized. He's been working on his concept for a year. He's drawn the plans for the restaurant, to scale, and given them to the architect, who then draws them up in CAD. Walter can tell you everything he doesn't want to be, and by definition, he tells you what he is. So he says, 'I don't want to be pretentious, I don't want to be high-end, I don't want to be exclusionary, I don't want to be programmed.' He wants to be, in an odd way, democratic. For example, he wants every seat to be a great seat. He wants his restaurant to become a bistro, and I want the front to be a cafe, and I want it to be super casual. And it will have a great chef running it.

Besides Vibiana and Republique, what else is in the works? We're expanding Short Cake. It's going into LAX pretty soon. And we're looking at other locations around LA for it as well. We're focused on Short Order now as well. We've brought on Nancy in more of a full-time role. Originally, she wasn't supposed to spend much time here, but now she's sort of a full-time/part-time partner in this thing. And we'd love to expand Short Order, we think it's a great concept. It needs to be refined and defined. This new current menu is trying to do that. We're not Umami Burger, we're not Shake Shack, we're something else. And we have to be whatever that's going to be. And once that's done, we have the opportunity to grow it. We've also been working very closely with Eli Broad on a big new project downtown.

Someone mentioned that you might be partnering with Michael Voltaggio? No, I mean, we've talked about it, and I like him, but he's a really out of the box thinker.

Are any of your chefs interested in buying you out? Not really. It's not that easy. I don't think anyone really focuses much on that. They're focused more on maximizing their growth.

How's Bestia doing? We have a line out the door every night. And what that tells me is that downtown is a great place. Everyone says Wolfgang Puck can open up on the moon and he'll be busy, but that's just not true; he's opened up things that have not been busy. And of course, Wolfgang is one of the most powerful brands in Los Angeles. So that's a great location for Bestia. And what that's telling you is that downtown is real, and it's happening, and it's going to happen for decades.

How do you feel about the shift in journalism today, from print to digital? Let's hope that there's not an end to real journalists, because if we lose that, we lose the basis of intellectual thought. On the other hand, there's Yelp. I used to have big problems with Yelp. But I'm much more sanguine about it. I said listen, one thing you want to do is get Yelpers in in the beginning that have big voices, show them what you're doing, and let them know that they need to be heard. We don't tell them to write positively about us, we just want their honest opinions. But it's important to have a flood of people in new media, like the Eaters, to give us a good balance.

People have compared you to New York restaurateur Danny Meyer. What do you think about that? I think he's similar in that he's obviously got multiple concepts. I think I have something, you know, that has got similarities in that regard. I would say that I've pushed the envelope in Los Angeles to inspire people to view us as a much more aggressive food city. And in the context of that, I would hope that that brand that I'm essentially creating with the partners I have, attracts like-minded people. I mean, I meet these people all the time, that come up to me and say, 'I've eaten at Bestia and I love it; I've eaten at Picca and I love it; I've eaten at Sotto and I love it,' and that obviously is very important because to the degree that I'm able to expand that following, in that regard, what I'm doing is very valuable.

What I look at, regarding other restaurateurs, is Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich. I mean these guys have done something that I think is even more spectacular (than Danny Meyer). Not only have they done restaurants, they've gone into airports and Singapore, they've built an empire. They're hardcore restaurateurs and great business people. They're the real deal. Bastianich just ran an Iron Man and that's impressive. I'm a runner, I run a lot of marathons.

What do you think is the relationship between hospitality and being a restaurateur? I grew up in an industry that I think is called the hospitality industry, and I think that that was driven by restaurants that were famous for their Maître 'ds. These were restaurants that were front of the house, and the chef wasn't a major element in the restaurant kitchen. Places like Romanoff's and Chasen's, were not great culinary exercises. These were restaurants that were famous for seen and being seen. And then there was a moment in LA, it was probably Ma Maison, and then Wolfgang Puck emerged. And then the chef came out of the kitchen and became the restaurateur, and owned the restaurant. And do I think that hospitality took a back seat at that point? I think that it may have become balanced. It became more about the food than the customer. The customer used to come in and say they wanted this, this and this, and they could get it. And now the chef might say no, I won't do that. And in the old hospitality world the answer was yes, to everything. There's the Zachs and Oris that say no, I won't do that. But there are still the Nancys that say, well, what is it that you want? Let me see if I can make it happen. But there are things about the hospitality industry that will never change: The best restaurant in the world is the restaurant that knows you.
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