Interview with Georgette Farkas
Georgette Farkas has been in the New York restaurant scene for years as Daniel Boulud's director of PR. She has finally branched out, giving in to her entrepreneurial spirit and opening her own place, Rotisserie Georgette, located on 14 E 60th in the Upper East Side. Specializing in the sexy, crispy flesh of roast chicken and other poultry, she and chef David Malbequi are presenting a simple menu focusing on rustic French faire.
John Hutt: So why now?
Georgette Farkas: Because I couldn't wait one day longer! Why not sooner is the big question and there are two reasons.
I had the privilege of working with really amazing people who were challenging, motivating, inspiring, the best at what they do, and also really fun to work for. Why would you go off on your own if you had all of that?
If you do have a little entrepreneur in you it's going to surface at some point, and there comes a point where it surfaces to the degree that you can't ignore.
I may have a little entrepreneur in me but I'm not naturally a risk taker. I had to build up enough confidence so that it would outweigh the risk of adversity in me.
Are you at all anxious about the lifestyle change that's about to take place?
My life will change a lot. I've always worked long challenging hours and days, but this is different. Yes, I don't know if should admit to this but I'm going to be exhausted all the time. I have an awful lot of energy. I'm just a sped up person, so I think that will serve me well.
I'm anxious, or concerned about many things. I'm concerned above all about getting it right. Restaurants have a lot of moving parts the greatest majority of which are the people on your team, because everything in the restaurant is done by people and for people, so it means all those people need to be really good. The restaurant is only as good as the people who you can attract to work with you and then how well you can train them and how well you can be a model and example to them. That's something I'm very nervous about.
Do you feel any particular pressure as a woman in a field that is mostly male dominated?
There are not a lot of lady chefs and there are probably just as few lady restauranteurs or restaurant owners. Oddly enough that's not something that concerns me. I'm concerned about being a good role model for my team, but not because I'm a woman. Because I want to be the best and want the ability to assert myself with the team. I'm more concerned about asserting myself and about being a role model and being vigilant, not because I'm a girl.
Even though there aren’t many women in our business, I grew up with amazing female role models. My mother and my grandmother are both very successful career women, and their being women was not ever an issue. They just did what they did successfully because they are smart and hard working. I don't think gender is an issue to me. It's fun to be a girl, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
What lead you to choose Chef David Malbequi?
A couple of things: You have a gut instinct. I've known him for many years, so it's not the unknown, and there is some comfort level in that, but that's not the main thing.
So there are 2 things that are vastly important. The quality of the person because that informs everything they do, and I think he's seriously smart and dependable and really, that man can cook, so that's they key thing.
He is a superb cook, he has learned from the best, and in the food that I have tasted with him over the years, he has had the best of the best, he has been taught to make the best of the best. So there is nothing in the repertoire of the sort of food I would like to create, that I could refer to that he wouldn't know how to make that as well as it should be made.
Here is an example: I said, “David, I want to have on the menu a sort of double consomme, with, a sort of filled ravioli." Ravioli is really delicate, so the consomme has be this really profound soup, it's a clear soup that's very light, but it coats your tongue if the flavor is really right, but the ravioli is very light. It's flavorful but a little bit rich. So of course with the cooks that he trained with in France, he grew up making that sort of thing.
This may be biased on my part but a lot of young American cooks in all of their travels may never have actually made a classic consomme, because it's such a classic thing. People want to do all these fancy deconstructed things, but they can't make a consomme. So David, when we were testing recipes, made one, and he made it with this incredible ravioli of celery root puree with a little bit of porto and black truffle, and in my minds' eyes, of the best consomme I've ever had, this rang that bell and I said to him: “It makes me want to cry tears of joy” because it was so perfect it was that platonic ideal of a consomme.
And also he shares the energy, the kind of energy that I have. I wouldn’t have patience for a sort of slow moving person.
The Pastry Chef?
We're still narrowing down our choices, because our direction is a little bit different than from the savory food. Our desserts are going to be simpler and we don’t want really fancy French desserts, we want more homey and rustic. So we are still looking among those we are considering. One that has the ability to make these things that we want, but can still make them with a little bit of refinement.
How do you source alcohol?
Yes, well a couple things. We have a gentlemen who is a combination of assistant general manager and sommelier, called Alex Calvi; his wine knowledge is exactly what it needs to be for us. He is very serious about his wine, but he also takes pleasure in wine and the end of the day wine should be pleasurable.
Sure, wine can be this geeky thing and you can memorize the alcoholic percentages and the exact varietals of every wine ever made, but at the end of the day wine is meant to give people pleasure. I wanted a sommelier who appreciates that and has the ability to share that pleasure.
But because we didn’t hire Alex from day one of this project, and I wanted to set the direction of the wine list very early on, I called upon a friend, Jean-Luc Le-du; for 10 years he was the head sommelier at Danielle, and now he has a wonderful wine store, “Le Du's wines,” and of course when he was sommelier at Danielle it was very fancy wines, but now I always buy simple things from him. I'll call him up and say, “I need 2 cases of something about $10 a bottle” and I know it's going to be something that he has personally tasted and loves. So when it came time to create the list for the restaurant he created the list and then Alex will take it over from opening.
So you're focusing on simple, homey, easy-to-drink wines?
Well, small producer. I don't know if I would say homey, but small producer as opposed to big, greatest hits, because I think there can be more value in that with the direction that we're going.
Are you staying French?
The majority is French, about 50%-60%, but I think you find great things in Spain, Italy of course, Greece, and yes, absolutely California, and probably one New York state wine.
You brought out this beautiful bowl of cherry tomatoes. Where are you sourcing from?
Well a couple of things. We started out by looking into the poultry. Pennsylvania is known for its poultry farms. So we started by going to Pennsylvania to look at the poultry farms. Not all by ourselves, one of our distributors, a company called D'artagnan, they specialize in poultry, and they helped us visit and meet the farmers first hand. I mean we don't need to know the chickens by name but we'd like to know the first name of the farmer who’s raising them. There is a bird called a “la belle rouge” that's raised in North Carolina and that's a little further than we thought we wanted to travel to buy birds from, but it's a really high quality bird that's parallel to a French poulet de press, so we're going to offer that as a more luxurious option on the menu.
Vegetables, 2 part question. One, where are you getting them when it's easy to get them? And two, where are you getting them when it's difficult to get them?
I so appreciate how you asked the question with a lot of wisdom, because people would say this idea, a limited idea; let's have everything local and seasonal all the time, but we live in the North Eastern United States. I'm starting out with the hard part. We are having these tomatoes right now, and they just came out the ground because it's still late summer and there are still beautiful tomatoes and corn. But we live in the Northeast and from November until April there is nothing. There are a few root vegetables and so on, but we're not going to eat celery root and cabbages all winter long, our customer, even the most locavore customer at the end of the day wants to eat more than that. The vegetables come from California, they come from South America, that's just the reality.
But in the Northeast from late spring right on through late fall there is great stuff right here. It comes from farms in New Jersey, Long Island, upstate Hudson Valley, Connecticut Pennsylvania. We are surrounded by good farms.
What item on the menu absolutely must stay?
365 days of the year you will always have roast chicken, but always with a variety of sauces, some that will remain and some that will change. There will be a jus grand-mère, which is 'grandmother,' and means something that is made with mushrooms and bacon. That's classic and homey. Then during truffle season we have one with black truffles. We are working on one that has paprika, that has a sort of sweet heat to it. Paprika is hungarian. I'm hungarian, so it was essential.
Speak about Roast Chicken. This is your centerpiece. What draws you to roast chicken?
I think it's sexy to see your food roasting over an open flame and you can already think about the juicy, tender, crispy sensation that's going to happen in your mouth. And you can already see it, and I think that's very appealing. It's other than to a vegetarian.
It's appealing in the most basic way. You could have a room full of 100 people and ask who would like to have roast chicken for dinner and I think most of their eyes would light up.
I had the privilege of spending a lot of my childhood growing up in France. My parents and grandparents had homes there so it was an influence. I decided pretty early I was going into the restaurant business, and did my hotel school training in Switzerland, then worked in France for many years after that. Then I spent a few decades working in French restaurants. It's where my career started and where it's always been. For me, it was an organic choice, a natural segue from where I've been.
What will make the experience at Rotisserie different from any other French restaurant?
This restaurant has a unique combination of high and low. In a restaurant experience there is a 360 degree experience. First and foremost, the people who take care of you. My goal is for those people to be very professional but without formality and pretension, and that's not an easy balance to strike; people who take serving as a serious professional skill.
Let's talk a bit more about the interiors, the design. What's the overall ambiance?
I call it Louis Quinze meets the kitchen. What I mean by that is there are some very refined and elegant elements, but then there are some very downhome and even a little bit of industrial stuff.
For example, I think we set the tone with really pretty tables, but without the table cloths, and I think that already sends a message. We have really nice white cotton napkins. They are acid washed steel, and if you hear steel that might sound kind of cold, but it actually has this very pretty marbled surface, the way it's treated gives all these shades of grey black color. But the banquettes have a Louie Seize not Louie Cannes style. I asked a friend of mine who is a really upscale furniture designer, I sent him my sketches and my drawings and my photographs of this idea that I had of taking a Louie Seize type of canape and using that as an inspiration for restaurant booths.
Okay, since Museé is an art magazine, we view food and the experience as an interactive art installation that takes place during the time of dinner. Everything is part of the installation.
Well, it starts with look and feel, little decorative or aesthetic elements that they see as soon as they walk though the door. So this is a form of art installation, the only difference is that once you eat it the food is gone.
It's an interactive installation, and although ephemeral, the food is vital.
Oh it's essential. It's the only thing that really matters. It's nice to create a beautiful décor, but it's all about the food, the décor is just a stage set for the food.
There is no faux chateau, we are at 60th and Madison Ave. I wasn’t trying to evoke French countryside, that would just be silly. I tried to incorporate some of these historic, some antique things with new things. There are very contemporary, very streamlined frameless leather chairs, to bring you back into the 21st century.
It's an old building. It was built in 1903 and in doing the restoration we uncovered these steel columns, and the contractor asked me, "What do you want to cover them in?” I said, “Nothing.” They are really cool. They are rough, steel columns. There are all these little things that give old and new rough and refined. That's the stage setting.
And the performance?
Well, the real centerpiece of the restaurant is a big, arched opening where you can see the rotisseries. The chef is the one performing, but the roasting meats are performing too, doing their own pirouettes. I think it's sexy, so they're the performance.
One of my best friends who was a manager in the company I worked for, and at the start of every dinner service when he was giving his pre-dinner briefing to his staff, he would say, “Remember, gentlemen, it's a ballet not rodeo.” Even the way that a waiter moves across the dining room, the way he approaches the guest, it's all contributing to the experience, so are we going to accomplish that? Well, yes, but in a way that is still kind of comfy. There are fancy elements but it's not a fancy restaurant.
I'm thinking more about the customer than I am about the critical acclaim. Let's get critical acclaim from our customers and the rest will follow.