The master chef on opening new concept restaurants—and deciding to close when the concept isn't working
A chef and a restaurateur are different jobs: One is about pleasing people with what's on the plate; the other is about understanding the market. I'm a chef, but I think I'm a savvy businessperson, too.
The toughest decision is always whether to open a restaurant. Two or three bad months, and you could be out of business. We have 28 restaurants around the world, and over the years we've killed six. Usually, the license runs out, but sometimes it's the concept. The hardest close was probably V Steakhouse, which I opened at the Time Warner Center in Manhattan in 2004.
I wanted to introduce new flavors into the steakhouse concept. New Yorkers are kind to risk-takers; I thought they would welcome new tastes. A steak is a steak, so I tried to experiment with different side dishes, such as truffle croquettes, and unusual condiments, but I learned that people don't want you to change the steakhouse. They want their Caesar salads and their French fries. The public reaction wasn't good, and the press was negative. It was like I had touched a national treasure.
If we had been in another location, it might have worked. We had to pay such a large rent every month. We were breaking even, but that wasn't enough. You don't do a business for pleasure: You have to make money. We made some touches to the menu, but I didn't want this to be a traditional steakhouse. When we closed at the end of 2005, I had to lay off 150 people. That was painful; each restaurant is like a family business.
I don't think of V as a failure. It was worth the risk. When I moved to Bangkok in 1980 to be a chef at the Oriental hotel, people only wanted foie gras, onion soup, and lots of butter. They wanted apple tarts, when I wanted to use pineapple. If I hadn't taken risks, I would never have started Vong or Jean Georges, or any of my other restaurants. The business can be very fragile, but the best restaurants survive. I prefer to look forward, not back.