Fine dining in Manhattan is like a battle. Repeat guests are the lifeblood of your organization. It’s less expensive to cultivate a repeat guest than to try to find new ones all the time. Everyone’s always trying to look for some sort of competitive edge, and I think ours at Del Posto is this: in the kitchen, the customer is always right.
Let me explain: very wealthy people aren’t as interested in materialism as they used to be—they’ve already done it all. Once you have a super yacht and a Gulfstream, what else? After you’ve drank every Grand Cru Burgundy, what’s next? Health is the new wealth, and, well, the majority of the people who come to Del Posto are rich and want to live forever.
The way that desire manifests itself at Del Posto is by people wanting things cooked or not cooked, or made or not made, a certain way. Cooks sometimes have a hard time with the idea that someone who wants no butter is okay with cheese, or something like that. I’ve been cooking in Manhattan for over twenty years, and fifteen years ago, every ambitious restaurant in the city said absolutely no substitutions on the bottom of menu. I don’t remember there ever being dietary restrictions even two years ago. But running the kind of business that we do—a luxurious, elegant restaurant—means that the customer is always right. No matter what.
Fine dining is about trying to anticipate needs and exceed expectations. We started needing to rethink the way we approached all of this around five years ago. We would offer an amuse bouche or primi assagi to people and they would be like, Well, I can’t eat this free thing, but bring me some other free thing. So then, all of a sudden, you’re in this position where you’ve lost strength and confidence, right away. They’ve only just sat down, and you’re already backpedaling and trying to adjust to this embarrassing situation.
We realized we had to ask immediately if there were any allergies or preferences. Some people really take advantage of it, like, By the way, I don’t like this, that, and the other thing. But at least you know all of this very early on in the meal, and you’re still in a position of strength.
After some time, trying to make a distinction between allergies, intolerances, and preferences became too irritating for us. Now our attitude is: just tell us what you want and we’ll make it that way. Once we got away from trying to judge and rationalize, and we focused on the facts that were on the ticket, it was liberating. Rather than trying to come up with some awesome combination or idea, our artistic pursuit became figuring out how to construct and reconstruct our dishes à la minute, and have them taste like they were meant to be cooked that way.
The best example of this is pesto. Everyone knows what pesto is and what goes into pesto, but as of late it seems that more people than not don’t really want the pine nuts. So we started removing the pine nuts and using them as garnish for people who want them. And then it becomes a lactose thing, with the cheese. And there’s raw garlic, which some people don’t want, so now we have these five different ingredients that we need to keep separate, and we’re trying to combine them à la minute and have them taste as if they’ve been festering together. After struggling with that for a while, we realized, Okay, you can keep the nuts out, and maybe the cheese out, but the garlic and the basil have to be together, so we won’t make it without garlic and basil. That’s one component, and it took us a while to get to that. You start to multiply that times a hundred and fifty different components, and there’s your creativity right there. That’s where we spend our creative efforts.
About a year and half ago, we decided we were going to develop a gluten-free, vegan menu. That’s obviously incredibly limiting, and we had to do a lot of research. I hired a dietary consultant and a nutritionist; I read a lot of books and spoke to a lot of experts; I went to health food shopping centers and tried to evaluate what’s what and what’s good and what’s crap. We made the menu the same length as our Captain’s Menu, so that it can also act as an à la carte menu for anybody who has those types of dietary restrictions. This pursuit of inclusive hospitality—it takes work and it takes time. It’s a challenge. You’re developing the menus, and then you have to train a lot of different people to make a lot of things the exact same way, really well. You need to make the food worth what you’re paying for it.
It’s a strange balance. We have a tremendous amount of resources at our disposal, which allows us to be able to take on more projects with the intention of trying to stay ahead of the market. But at the same time, we have a tremendous responsibility to make sure that these resources and facilities are paid for. You know, it’s not a hobby.