Ask a group of New York City diners to name local chefs who preside over restaurant empires and a handful of names come up: Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Daniel Boulud, Mario Batali, Danny Meyer. For now, Michael White isn’t part of this rarefied group—but this could be the year that changes.
Today, White and partner Ahmass Fakahany unveil their ninth restaurant, The Butterfly, a supper club serving cocktails and modern American food. It’s also their second opening in two months—Costata, a steakhouse in the former Fiamma location, debuted in Soho in mid-May. And this blistering pace shows no signs of easing: In the remaining months of the year, they’re planning to open Ristorante Morini on the Upper East Side, an Osteria Morini and a Nicoletta in D.C., and Chop Shop Haymarket in London. “We employ around 600 people,” White said. “By the end of the year, it should be 1000.”
Inside The Butterfly
“We” refers to the Altamarea Group (Altamarea means “high tide” in Italian), a privately held company which, besides Costata and The Butterfly, is comprised of four other NYC establishments (Marea, ai Fiori, Osteria Morini, Nicoletta), Due Mari and an Osteria Morini in New Jersey, and Al Molo in Hong Kong. They’ve become known for their impeccably prepared Italian cuisine, especially their delectable pastas. As the head chef, White receives the bulk of attention—foodies refer to the spots as “Michael White restaurants”—with Fakahany playing an essential if unseen role. White, with his midwestern good looks and charming forthrightness, may be the public facade of Altamarea at events and panels, but Fakahany is the invisible column supporting the rise of their ascendant enterprise.
On a recent afternoon in a private room at ai Fiori, the men sat down with a DuJour writer to talk about their remarkable growth. The Altamarea Group has enjoyed a string of triumphs in a finicky city where the overwhelming majority of restaurants fail. Their secret? “For many people, opening a restaurant is a vanity project,” White replied. “A lot of them fail because there’s not someone with strong business experience.” The two men met in 2004 at Fiamma, where White, the chef and the son of a banker who watched CNBC and loved talking about the market, and Fakahany, a president and COO at Merrill Lynch and a gourmand who’d once dreamed of a career in restaurants, hit it off. After a 21-year career at Merrill, Fakahany left in 2008 and shortly afterward began working full-time with White.
The association between the foodie businessman and the business-minded chef has been a highly profitable one. In 2011, Altamarea Group had a revenue of nearly $50 million, versus $3 million in 2008. The partners are in constant contact during the day. While they’re from very different backgrounds—White was raised in Beloit, Wisconsin; Fakahany was born in Cairo and grew up in Switzerland and England—they’re both of stocky build yet strikingly precise in their speech, with White more excitable and Fakahany more thoughtful. “We share a similar vision and similar goals. We have trust in each other,” Fakahany said. “We’re thinking in terms of a 15-to-20-year plan, not of making money in five or six years and selling.” So, on a day-to-day level, what drives them? “Paranoia and a focus to succeed,” he laughed.
In a business that depends on customer satisfaction and positive word-of-mouth, both men exercise a relentless attention to detail. They’re constantly visiting their properties, and in addition, “we have multiple sources of feedback,” Fakahany explained. “The general manager and the chef for each restaurant send a report by 9 a.m. [about the previous night’s activity] so we know if there’s a screw loose in a chair; we know what’s selling, what isn’t selling. We’re also looking at Twitter, the blogs.”
Ah yes, the blogs. Like all NYC restauranteurs, White and Fakahany have a love-hate—with an emphasis on one—relationship with the city’s active food blogosphere whose ceaseless drone of news, gossip and snark exceeds that of the 17-year cicadas. “I’d swear most people in this restaurant don’t know what Eater or Grub Street are,” White declared. But even as he downplayed their influence, he expressed the fervent wish that bloggers and reviewers would hold off a bit on rating new eateries instead of opining and tweeting as soon as the plywood is off. “A restaurant is a living organism; it needs time to work things out. For example, when Marea started, we thought that people would want to choose their fish, how it would be prepared, and the sauce. We realized after a month that they’d rather ask the waiter for recommendations and have it decided for them.”
Although New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells did give Nicoletta the desired two months before he reviewed it last year, he awarded it only a damning Fair, one step above the bottom-most rating, Poor. Wells wrote, “The crust is as strong as epoxy, and Mr. White piles it up with an abundance of toppings that would buckle an ordinary pie. In thickness and heft, a Nicoletta pizza resembles the September issue of Vogue. There was another reason my table never finished an entire pizza: we lost interest. The style of pizza Mr. White is pursuing emphasizes gut-stretching abundance over flavor.”
Unfortunately, that same week other critics agreed with Wells, and Eater breathlessly called the pile-on “Nicolettagate.” In rehashing the kerfuffle, White let loose an expletive over one particular comment as his publicist winced. Fakahany said that negative feedback “makes you look more carefully at what you have: the product, the people, the place.” After the two engaged in such scrutiny, he added, “We didn’t really make any changes.” A calmer White said, “It’s a different type of pizza than people are used to. It was not Neapolitan thin crust. If you want Motorino, it’s next door.”
The official reviews of Costata have yet to appear, but the buzz is positive (as of now, it has a stellar 4 1/2 stars on Yelp). But with four more openings—in different cities—on the near horizon, do the partners ever worry about overreaching? “We’re not so nervous because we have confidence in our people,” Fakahany said. He and White pride themselves on identifying and developing kitchen, bar and front-of-house talent, subjecting many would-be employees to five or six rounds of interviews before hiring them. And what may look like overreaching to outside observers actually feels like restraint to the Altamarea duo. “We turn down two offers every day,” Fakahany said. “For every project we do, there are 20 we turn down.”
So what’s their dream, their Everest? Is it another Michelin star for the two-star Marea? “I don’t want a third Michelin star for Marea,” White declared. As his publicist shook her head, he clarified, “I would like a third Michelin star, but I’m not going to focus on that. It would stifle creativity and excitement. What’s my Everest? I’m already there.” But quickly enough, he remembered that all empire builders need room to grow and maneuver. Smiling, White said, “I’m one-quarter of the way up.”