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Q & A with Ken Friedman

ken for danyelle.jpgWhat compels a guy in the music industry to open his own restaurant? 
Ken Friedman couldn’t find a restaurant where he could wear jeans and
still eat great food.  So he got a few friends to invest and opened one
himself.   By friends, I mean Jay-Z, Fatboy Slim and Michael Stipes.  
That’s who your friends are when you work in the music industry for 25
years, including at Arista Records with Clive Davis.  The Spotted Pig 
literally became a celebrity hangout overnight.  More importantly, it
sparked a gastropub trend and paved the way for upscale British pub
food.  It was just the beginning of Ken Friedman & chef April
Bloomfield’s relationship. 

The two went on to open The John Dory, which closed rather
suddenly this past weekend.  Friedman explains: “We didn’t feel we
could ever make it work at that address.  We are used to lots of people
wandering by or stopping in for a drink… No one lives on that stretch
of Tenth Avenue and we needed a bar scene.”  He assures us The John
Dory will reopen in a lively neighborhood with a big bar scene and no
reservations policy.  He’s sworn off reservations after The John Dory and he’s not a big fan of El Bulli in Spain either.  

In the short time he’s been in the industry,  Friedman’s had a lot of successes including The Spotted Pig, The Rusty Knot, and Locanda Verde.   He managed to erase the subpar memory of Ago in Tribeca with his admirable redesign of Locanda Verde in the Tribeca Hotel.   Next up for Friedman and Bloomfield is the The Breslin
located in the Ace Hotel and scheduled to open in October.  What we can
expect?  Booths with curtains and call buttons and a big round table. 
They’ll also be various dining areas serving British-bent fare,
sausages, terrines and Friedman’s favorite, a lamb burger.  

 Still single I’m afraid. .

What did you want to be when you grew up?
A visual artist of some sort then later a musician. 
What was your first job ever in food?  What did you learn?
was a waiter in high school.  I learned that I wasn’t very good at it
because I have a terrible memory, but I got a taste of now nice it is
being part of a team, working with people who have each other’s backs.

worked in the music industry for twenty years, including time spent as
an executive at Arista Records.  What was the impetus behind your
career change to the restaurant business.
 I worked at Arista,
London records and Trent Reznors label, Nothing Records.  I was in
charge there.   I changed careers because I turned forty and realized
that I didn’t really like music anymore because it had been my job for
years to constantly listen.  I’d felt and been told for years that I
might be good at opening a bar or club or restaurant.  I’ve always
loved Public Assembly.  I spent twenty years in clubs, restaurants and
bars are for grown ups what clubs are for kids.  Now I love music
again, but hate restaurants (just kidding.) It’s just tough to go to
restaurants now because it’s hard to relax.  I’m always comparing mine
to the one I’m in.  Usually I am jealous of them.  Or really

No one in the media saw the closing of John
Dory coming.  When did you make the decision?    The restaurant
received rave reviews, especially from me.  Why didn’t it survive? Was
it the location and are you really planning to reopen somewhere else?
decided that we loved and believed in the concept of The John Dory, but
didn’t feel we would ever make it work at that address.  We are used to
lots of people wandering by, stopping in for a drink and perhaps
staying to eat.  The Pig is a neighborhood joint.  Half the people
there on a given night are from nearby in the village.  We have
hundreds of regulars for whom the Pig is their local joint.  With the
Dory, we discovered that no one lives on that stretch of Tenth Avenue
yet.  It will be a good location someday, but for us, it just didn’t
work.  We needed a bar scene.  People expect one at our places. 
Because we opened as a sort of fancy seafood restaurant, and because it
only had 46 seats, which all got booked up in a few days, all the bar
seats were taken by people eating.  The first few weeks people came by
for a drink — usually by cab because everyone came from somplace else
— but discovered that there weren’t any seats available to just
drink.  When you allow a customer to reseve a barstool, it isn’t really
a bar any longer.  That is totally my fault. 

We will open a
new Jon Dory in a location where there are people all around.  That’s
the most important requirement.  I can’t tell you where yet because the
deal isn’t done.  We don’t want to rush into any location because we
can’t afford to make a mistake again and we have two restaurants — The
Breslin  Bar & Dining room and the Lobby restaurant — and another
bar about to open in the Ace hotel.  We’re really excited about the
Ace.  It’s just the coolest hotel brand.  Also, we decided to close
down the Dory when we did because we were just about to start hiring
kitchen and front of the house staff for our Ace Hotel places.   It
would’ve hurt even more if we’d hired 200 new people for the
Ace/Breslin, then had to let go all the Dory staffers.  We had an
awesome staff at the Dory.  This way we’ve offered 100% of the Dory
people jobs at the Ace.  Everyone of April’s kitchen staff is coming
over with us.  That’s pretty cool.

You’ve had a lot of
exciting projects this year:  First, Locanda Verde and The Breslin is
gearing up to open this fall.  How is it different from your past
ventures and what can we expect other than a no-reservation policy? 
What’s on the menu?
Hopefully it’ll feel a lot like the Pig and
a bit like Locanda and The Rusty Knot.  There are many elements to our
Ace places.  The Breslin will be gastropub-like.  The lobby is a hotel
lobby, but a really comfortable one, with music and lighting that makes
it feel like a relaxing loynge.  April & Peter Cho — our superstar
head chef, who was the chef de cuisine at the Pig for ages — will
serve small plates and wooden platters with terrines and slices meats
in the lobby.  It’s stuff you can nibble on while you are sitting on a
couch or at a communal table.  It’s a hotel so lots of hotel guests
will be there to dine solo.  There will be a lot of bar stools in both
restaurants.  There will be booths with curtains that close.  It’s a
hotel so lots of hotel guests will be there to dine solo.  There will
be a lot of bar stools in both restaurants.  There will be booths with
curtains that close.  We’ll have a button to summon a server, like on
an airplane, a light will go on outside the booth to get his/her
attention.  There will be a “Breslin Round Table” for large parties, an
idea which we obviously borrowed.

You and April Bloomfield are essentially married without the benefits. 
You have an extremely close working relationship.  How did you first
meet and what keep your restaurant partnership strong?
We met when it was just me and my pal Mario Batali helping me to
find a chef for my idea of a bar with great restaurant quality food. 
I’d met Jamie Oliver at a music pal’s wedding in England.  Jamie came
to New York and Mario and I took him out to try to convince him to move
here to be my chef.  He laughed at us, but told us about April.  She
was cooking at The River Cafe in London, which is one of my favorite
restaurants on earth.  Jamie told us that she was mildly obsessed with
America, specifically Berkeley and Chez Panisse and Alice Waters.  He
said that maybe we could talk her into spending a few years in New York
before heading West. 

Mario suggested we fly her over to meet us.  He said to put her up at
the W Union Square Hotel on a day that the Farmer’s Market was on.  We
picked her up at the hotel and Mario took her to meet all his farmers,
cheese makers, fish and meat people in the market.  We took her to
lunch at Union Square Cafe, that night we took her to Babbo, Otto,
Lupa, ‘Ino, then some dive bars in the East Village.  She was blown
away and so full and so hung over the next morning.  We bonded. She
never cooked for us.  When I asked Mario how he knew she was any good,
he said, “I could tell as soon as I saw all the burns on her arms.  She
has no fear.  That’s crucial.
 You came out of the game
with a home run at the Spotted Pig.  How has the restaurant evolved
over the years?  Is it still a two-hour wait for prime time hours?
Our staff at the Pig is a family, like nowhere else I’ve seen or
heard of.  We have loyal, regular customers who we treat like royalty
because to us they are.  The Pig is a great example of appreciating
regulars because long after the hipness factor wears off, they are the
ones who keep coming, whether people are talking or writing about how
cool we are or not.  The waits vary, but the Pig is a great fun place
to wait and The West Village is the best neighborhood to wander around
trying places til we call you to say your table is ready. We give maps
to customers who are waiting, so they can walk to our favorite places,
an example would be the bar at Wallse & Kurt’s new wine bar next
door, Employees Only, White Horse Tavern, the Other Room, The basement
bar at Paris Commune, Barbuto, and of course, the The Rusty Knot

You’re American and yet all of your restaurants have a British-bent to them.  What draws you to British cooking?
I love all things British.  It comes from my obsession with British
rock & roll as a kid.  I love pub culture, the idea that people
have been gathering in a room every night to drink, eat, exchange
information for hundreds of years. 

I was born & raised in California where nothing is old, like that
line from LA Story where Steve Martin is giving that British gal a tour
of LA.  He says, “some of these buildings are nearly twenty years
old!”  That was my upbringing.  When I first got to New York then
England and I was gobsmacked by how old the buildings and pubs are.

What food trends do you most embrace?  
Inexpensive, casual, small plates, and bar snacks.  That’s how I
like to eat. Dozens of little bursts of different flavors and

I can usually live without entrees.  Just give me lots and lots of appetizers.

Which trends do you wish would just die already? 
Chefs are artists. They create dishes that refer to and comment
about what’s been done before them, like painters or song writers. 
Whether a dish works for me or not, a chef has the right to express her
or himself.  What works for me may not work for others.  I dined with a
bunch of foodies at El Bulli last month.  I was somewhat appalled by
it, but the people I was with were blown away. Who am I to ruin their

What is your favorite dish on the menu at The Spotted Pig and the soon-to-open Breslin? 
Ever few months I have a fave dish of April’s.  Lately, it’s her
Cubano. It’s just extraordinary!  I’m most looking forward to the
homemade sausages at The Breslin and the lamb burger and the meat pies
in the lobby.

Tell me the hardest part about opening and maintaining a restaurant.  What are some policies/tools you can’t live without?    
It’s easy having a restaurant with April because her food is always
great, so people come back again and again. The hardest part is when
you are in the wrong neighborhood or its too small or both. I can live
without ever taking reservations again.  I’m sure we will have to some
day, but we aren’t any good at it yet.  Perhaps because, as a customer,
I never got into the habit of making them.  That’s why I ended up at
the bar so often.

You’re a big fan of the North Fork.  Any plans to open up an eatery out there? 
I would love to open a country pub out there.  I love country pubs.

Will you ever settle down?
I hope so.

Anything else on the horizon for you? Spill the beans…
I’m going to start working out at a gym any day now.   Taavo rings
my doorbell every morning to take me to his gym, as I asked him to do,
but he thinks the buzzer’s broken and that’s why I don’t hear it. 
Don’t tell him it actually works and the reason I don’t answer is that
I’m just lazy.  When I go to the beach I hope for rain, so I don’t have
to take my shirt off in front of people.  It’s clearly time for situps

The Spotted Pig
Phone: (212)620-0393

The Breslin
Address: 1186 Broadway, btwn. 28th & 29th Sts.
Phone: (212)685-9600

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