Chefs of the Future, Part II: Room at the Inn

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Nick Solares

Chef Anthony Goncalves

Correction appended: April 27, 2010

Chefs of the Future! This is the second of a three-part series examining how restaurants will work in the years to come.

You know that big, hot restaurant that opened up a few months ago downtown? The one that all [insert your city here] is abuzz about? Chances are that new restaurant is in a hotel or condominium. Nearly every major restaurant that has opened in the last year has been, and it's likely to remain that way. The most ambitious new restaurant in America, Chicago's L20, a true temple of gastronomy on the Michelin 3-star model, is located in a luxury apartment building. The same is true of New York's Locanda Verde, Miami's Eos, and the entire culinary Mecca that is Las Vegas. It's just too expensive to build out a big, freestanding place, and too hard to get credit from the bank.

So how does a young chef in a mid-sized city get to open a great restaurant?

The answer is obvious: he has to find a hotel or condo partner. That's how Anthony Goncalves came to have his own 210-seat restaurant, 42 in White Plains, N.Y., by the age of 37. Goncalves, who was short on experience and long on talent and hustle, bypassed the usual path of unpaid potato peeler rising up through the ranks. He didn't even go to cooking school. Today, his 27,000 square-foot restaurant sits atop the tallest building between Boston and New York, and its six dining rooms serve his sui generis brand of cookery (think clams and house-made chorizo in vino verde sauce with spiced caviar) to an enamored clientele of local grandees. The fact that the chef has perfected the "bad boy" look doesn't hurt. The ladies are smitten with his wavy black hair and the flirtatious twinkle in his eye, and the men see him as a guy's guy, a local product who shares their worldview and would never intimidate them with prissy haute cuisine.

The key, as always, is capital. Chefs have traditionally relied on investors for their projects, with the biggest names generally attracting the most generous sugar daddies. A young chef like Goncalves, with no training and an ethnic perspective (Portuguese-American) that doesn't have a real audience even in most big cities, wouldn't have stood a chance. A former nightlife promoter, he got his parents to invest in 1997 in a small bar called Trotters Tavern, which was later up-scaled, expanded, and renamed Trotters. (There was no worry about the place being confused with megachef Charlie Trotter, since Goncalves had never heard of him.)

Goncalves didn't have any real experience, but he was charismatic, and assiduous in the way he courted his customers; he has the Clinton-esque gift of making everybody he talks to feel like the most important person in the room, and that has served him well. Louis Capelli was a Trotters regular; the developer was working on a Westchester Ritz-Carlton and wanted to have a marquee restaurant on the top floor. He made the deal with Goncalves. "I didn't care what his background was," says Capelli. "He had the dedication, the sincerity, the way of treating customers. I could see he wanted to do more. He was the right person." "He made my dream come true," Goncalves says simply. "What did I know about doing a restaurant like this? But in a way, the fact that we didn't have anything to unlearn was one of the biggest blessings. I was willing to work hard, I knew I could cook, and I was ready. That was enough."

As the old system breaks down, more and more raw talents like his are emerging, often nurtured by developers, and responding far more to their local environment than to any established universal standards. The food at 42 is eclectic, unpredictable, and very, very good. As you might expect, it isn't always pitch-perfect, but the Iberian flavors run clear and true in dishes like torched shrimp with piri-piri pepper glaze. Sometimes Goncalves' flair for theatricality gets the better of him. For instance, he serves braised octopus alongside lines of powdered red wine vinegar on a mirror — an utterly over-the-top visual joke that nonetheless tastes (and looks) great. On some level, though, the food isn't even really the point in a space like this; 42 came into being not because White Plains needed a place where you could order a $39 seven-spice bison steak, but because the Ritz-Carlton needed a suitable clubhouse, commissary, and prestige restaurant. (There's a BLT Steak on the ground floor that occupies a more conventional restaurant niche.)

Goncalves isn't just running a restaurant; he's the de facto personal chef to the Ritz-Carlton's permanent residents, all of whom he knows personally and whom he serves off-the-menu specials upon request. "I feel like Anthony is part of my family," says Dr. Rudolph Nisi, a resident. "He can make me anything I want, anything I feel like." Then there are the logistics of running a restaurant atop a luxury hotel and condominium complex that are pretty insane: "Can you imagine what it's like to bring produce up 42 stories every day? I've had it take 45 minutes to get stuff up from the loading dock." (Chefs in other hotel restaurants can tell you far worse stories about their battles with the unionized staff, a problem 42 doesn't have.)

Whatever challenges chefs in hotels and condos face, however, will get solved. Because that's where the restaurant business, at least its high-end form, is going. Some critics will say that's not a good thing, and some hotel restaurants are bound to be worse than their freestanding rivals, which have no safety net and have to get by on sheer quality alone. But, for better or for worse, fine dining has checked in to the big hotels — and it won't be checking out anytime soon.

Josh Ozersky is a James Beard Award—winning food writer and the author of The Hamburger: A History. His food video site, Ozersky.TV, is updated daily. He is currently at work on a biography of Colonel Sanders.

The original version of this article misidentified L20 as a joint venture with a condominium developer. It is not. The restaurant was built in partnership with the Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises restaurant group.