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Mario Carbone Thinks the World’s 50 Best List Doesn’t Represent How People Actually Want to Eat

The Grill's chef is on a mission to make fine dining more fun.

When Mario Carbone and his partners Rich Torrisi and Jeff Zalaznick set about reimagining the old Four Seasons restaurant space inside New York’s landmark Seagram Building, they divided and conquered. It would be no small task to take one of the most legendary restaurant spaces in New York—the place that invented the power lunch—and breathe new life into it while still respecting the original. Torrisi would create the modern seafood-driven restaurant The Pool, while Carbone would mine the past to build the mid-century Manhattan chophouse The Grill.

Carbone found inspiration for his luxe throwback in 60-year-old menus, Tom Ford designs, and Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby. But the two places he certainly didn’t look for ideas were the Michelin guide or San Pellegrino’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Despite owning two restaurants that each have a Michelin star—Carbone and ZZ’s Clam Bar—these days he’s not putting much stock in the organizations that bestow legendary status upon restaurants. “They’re dated,” Carbone says. “I don’t really think people want to eat like that in fine dining much more.”

The 38-year-old chef built The Grill based on how he thinks people do want to dine, embracing a playful and theatrical service along with exceptional, old-school fare. The combination is so successful that it landed the restaurant on Robb Report’s Best New Restaurants. In a conversation, Carbone expounds on how dining trends come and go, the role of nostalgia in his culinary style, and movies that influence how he builds restaurants, as well as addresses his biggest critics.

What makes a restaurant influential?
Restaurant trends move not too dissimilarly to sports. When a team wins a championship, the style in which they won becomes the trend that all the other teams start to do. If a super-defensive team wins, everyone starts to build their defense up because that’s the team that won the championship.

As soon as a restaurant like Noma becomes the No. 1 restaurant in the world, you’re eating that style of food—whether it’s appropriate or not—in many, many different settings. So Noma is pushing an entire movement, which is a good thing, but you’re also going to get really watered-down versions of what that idea is and where it was given birth.

Who determines the champion in the restaurant world?
Before we had the Pellegrino list [World’s 50 Best Restaurants] we were looking at things like Michelin stars, and sometimes it happens where it’s just a really influential book [that] will change how we’re all behaving.

Like how many American chefs have the French Laundry cookbook.
French Laundry is a great example. Another great example is Michel Bras’s book. Once that book came out, everyone owned it and everyone started plating just like Michel Bras. He plated unlike anyone had seen before. I call it “tap-tap-swoosh.” Put two taps of a puree down and they swoosh it across a plate. Whether people recognize it or not, that’s Michel Bras. It took on a real cult following, and then all of a sudden, everyone plates like that.

There’s something beautiful about these trends and how they can be found in all walks of life, like art and fashion. As soon as one thing becomes successful, everything starts to look the same until another visionary comes along.

You see the Michelin Guide, the Pellegrino list, and you covet and want to emulate that. You chase it. You make your restaurant like that. It becomes a double-edged sword because maybe that thing isn’t inside of you. Maybe that thing had nothing to do with you. Maybe it had nothing to do with where you’re from and what you’re trying to say. Does Michel Bras’s style belong at a bar-restaurant in Milwaukee? Does that have anything to do with that place where it was given birth? Maybe not. It’s always something I look at very carefully and cautiously.

michel bras plating

The “tap-tap-swoosh” plating style of Michel Bras influenced restaurants the world over.  Photo: courtesy Michel Bras

Michelin and World’s 50 Best seem like they reward cathedrals of food that may not always be the most fun places to hang out—places where you feel like you need to whisper to the person sitting next to you.
There’s still a lot of that style of dining left. What will need to happen someday is there’ll need to be a big breakthrough in the Pellegrino or the Michelin Guide where a restaurant that isn’t just a church reaches the top of the list. Until that happens, you’re going to whisper in restaurants for a long time—unless you’re in one of mine.

Do you think they promote a very narrow idea of a great restaurant?
Yeah. I think they’re dated. I don’t really think people want to eat like that in fine dining much more. There’ll need to be a breakthrough someday where a fun fine-dining restaurant wins—if the powers that be want that.

Why wouldn’t they want that?
Because it would expose the emperor actually being naked.

That fine dining can be filled with affect?
You’re ticking all these boxes along the way, and yet something’s missing. It goes back to the opening of the conversation where there’s just really only three or five places that are visionary, and if a diner wants to have “tap-tap-swoosh,” you better go to Michel Bras. Otherwise, it’s just baby food on a plate.

Sounds delicious.
You’ve got to go to the birthplace of it; otherwise, you’re not experiencing that thing. So, often when we’re building something, I’m trying to give you birthplace. I’m making you Carbone. This is what first-generation fine dining, Italian-American, in New York, was like in my mind in a cinematic setting. I’m trying to give that to you. I’m trying to make you a character in this movie, not dissimilar to this sort of JFK era of The Grill. I’m trying my best to make this package so that you can be part of it and give you that birthplace moment.

How did you try to achieve that at The Grill?
I wanted to make The Grill sort of the emblematic restaurant of mid-century-American fine dining. So, I dug up every relevant menu and restaurant from that period, and basically I would just lay them all out and look for consistencies, look for dishes that overlapped each other from restaurant to restaurant.

That taught me what the dining trends were, and then basically I made a menu of all the dining trends from this 10-block radius so that I could make a greatest-hits menu. I then took that menu and thought about how I would make that food. I didn’t really consider how that dish looked then or how the old restaurants made it. I said, “Okay, this is the dish now. We’re going to make this dish. How do we want to make it?” That lets some modern techniques creep in.

But mining history speaks to your style of cooking?
The chef that I want to be when I grow up, I don’t want to impress you. There are two different styles of fine dining. There is “I’m going to impress you tonight with a technique or a combination, or a combination of those two things, that you’ve never had before. I’m going to blow you away with that.” That’s very, very difficult to do, and I commend the chefs who do that. I don’t try to do that. I’m going to try to blow you away by giving you something you’ve had, maybe hundreds or thousands of times before in your life. I’m going to make you a crab cake. I’m going to make you a bowl of pasta. I’m going to make you a prime rib. I’m going to make you things that you are super familiar with and try to be the new benchmark for that, instead of giving you something you’ve never had before. Because if I make a bad version of that, I can stand behind the fact that “you’ve never had it before so you don’t get it.” I can’t stand behind that. You’ll know if the prime rib sucks because you’ve had hundreds of prime rib. I have nothing to hide behind.

crab cake nyc grill

Carbone’s classic crab cake.  Photo: courtesy Daniel Krieger Photography

And you also made table-side service a big part of the experience.
I only did it here because it made perfect sense. I wouldn’t do table-side at one of my restaurants if there were no precedent for it. It was very much a part of the Four Seasons and very much a part of that American fine-dining style of service. Back then, servers were such professionals. They were sort of this cruise-ship servers that were so good at their jobs, they were basically almost chefs. It would take a lot of pressure off the kitchen to just roast the fish whole and give it to a captain and tell that person to go carve it at a table. That sort of cruise-ship dining came over with the European migration. That got washed away when servers became kids going to college taking your order. That’s another thing we do a little bit differently. I’m looking for that experienced captain to really captain your table. They are driving it. They are steering the table. They’re not just taking orders.

In a restaurant world now filled with Salt Bae and other restaurants setting Baked Alaska on fire, have customers wanted those kinds of theatrics to return to dining?
The consumer wants the story. The consumer wants to be part of the movie. I mean, you watch Baz Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby—don’t you want to be in that movie? Don’t you want to be in that restaurant that he just created? The consumer wants that. They want to be part of the theater—theater that you used to have dinner and go to the show. I’m going to give you both. You’re going to come here, and I’m going to put on a performance tonight, and that’s your night out. So to do that, I need to make you part of my movie. To do that, I need to really set the scene here. So the scene for the JFK era is a giant prime rib going around and a Baked Alaska on fire. That’s the scene. So I’m just being the director of that movie.

Is nostalgia important to you?
Very important to me. I’m an old soul in that way.

You like activating memories in people.
Either activating those memories in people that are familiar with those memories or giving it to somebody new like myself. I didn’t eat in the Mad Men era, but how cool would it be if I could? To bring that back to life, or to set that scene, and to make a movie that I was never a part of is great. I wasn’t around in the ’50s for the Italian-American scene in Greenwich Village. But what if I could put that back and bring it back up to life with Carbone and set it in my head the way I would want to be a part of it? So, yeah, it’s for both those customers that do remember it, and [I] try to meet their expectations and those who were never around to see it and to give them that movie for that night.

Movies sound very important in the way you build your restaurant. Are there ones that you’re trying to reproduce?
I mean, there are so many great movie-restaurant scenes that I love. Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman when he goes to the Oak Room is very much The Grill. There are countless sort of mob-ish dinner scenes that are Carbone—Godfather and the Copacabana scene in Goodfellas is very much the energy that Carbone brings.

There are genres I haven’t touched yet—the sort of Art Deco vibe that Baz Luhrmann gives in Gatsby where they go to some club restaurant in the basement through a barbershop. They’re working to set up a perfect 10-second clip where everything’s happening. A guy has to be pouring Champagne, and there’s a flapper girl dancing and an order being taken. You need to walk up to the top of the stairs at The Grill and see this entire thing happening because it’s your first moment in the movie. I’ve got to keep that movie going all night long. So I’ve got a whole table full of food being carved, and statues of bananas over there, and a guy flaming that thing over there, and a bar banging with martinis, and prime rib being carved. It’s a circus. So that’s how my mind works behind the scenes.

Where else did you draw inspiration from to create The Grill?
I pull a lot of inspiration from fashion. Not only are seasonal calendars of a chef very similar to that of a designer, but the particular task we were given in this building, to me, is most similarly the task and the challenge and the opportunity given to a young fashion designer that takes over an old house.

Tom Ford is given Gucci, and his job is to not destroy everything that is Gucci, but there’s a reason why I need a new, young designer here because I have an aging clientele and I want to generate interest in a much younger clientele because they’re going to be here a lot longer and they’re going to keep buying Gucci. That’s the idea.

We took over the Four Seasons. We’re in our thirties. There’s a reason why it went to a group as young as us, because they want us to be here for a long time. I don’t want to piss off the customers that have always gone to the Four Seasons. I want to make them happy here, and I want to do whatever I can to make their experience here as wonderful as maybe they remember it being, but my much larger task is to grow an awareness of this building and its history and its amazingness and dynamic nature. There are so many people who have come here that don’t have any idea about this place. They don’t know anything about Philip Johnson or the history of it that are now beginning to learn about it, and that was our job. That, much more so than the existing clientele, was important, but much more so is getting interest in a younger generation to come here.

The Grill

Major Food Group brought new luster to the Philip Johnson-designed room.  Photo: courtesy Adrian Gaut

What do you do that resonates with a younger crowd?
There are decisions we’re not afraid to make. I’m going to come in here, and I’m going to take this place that was literally called a “cathedral” by Jackie Kennedy and be respectful of it, but I’m here to turn it up a little bit.

I’m going to play music in the restaurant. I’m going to maybe set the lights a little darker than I might normally do. We’re going to fill the place up with people. We’re going to be aggressive about taking reservations because I like having bodies in spaces. I like the volume that people put into a space. You can’t replicate that. This went from a hushed fine-dining situation to my kind of fine-dining restaurant. I like fine dining. I’ve got no problem paying a premium for the best ingredients in the world, but I want to be entertained. I don’t want to whisper. That’s what you get when you hire us. This needs to be fun.

How do you fulfill the mission of making it fun?
The theatrics of it. We bring a lot of theater to the dining room, a lot of drama to the dining room, especially for a period piece like this. I’m going to take the idea of table-side service that’s ingrained in this period, and I’m going to blow it out.

Yet it’s a formal restaurant—the staff has got to be in a formal attire. Okay, well what’s a fun way of doing that? Let’s get Tom Ford to do it, Tom Ford to do all the uniforms. There’s energy in that. I’m not just going to make a decision. I’m going to make a decision that carries some sort of force behind it. Everything has texture. I believe that everything needs that texture, from the menu you hold in your hands to the guy who’s saying what he’s saying, what the guy’s wearing or the girl’s wearing, or the cart the prime rib comes in. Everything needs that texture. If it all has texture at the end, you’ll feel something. You may not like it, but you felt it.

Have you heard that people don’t like it?
Sure. People don’t like things we do all the time. There’s plenty of people who don’t like me personally. That’s cool. I get that, but if everyone likes something, you’re not making art. It’s impossible. There has to be some sort of level of contention. There has to be. Otherwise, I’m just not interested.

What’s the biggest misconception about what you’re doing at The Grill?
That it’s just expensive for expensive nature and that I’m here to take advantage of people. And often that’s just coming from a place of a lack of education. I’m expensive for a reason. I’m expensive because in all circumstances I use the world’s best ingredients I can possibly get in my hands on that day, served to you in the only landmark restaurant in America on Park Avenue in Manhattan, served to you by a guy in a Tom Ford tuxedo out of a gilded gueridon. It’s theater. That’s what that ticket costs because it cost me to build it. I’ve hundreds of staff here to make that happen, to wait on your every whim.

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