John DeLucie has spent decades in the New York City restaurant scene at restaurants such as The Waverly Inn, The Lion, Bedford & Co. and his newest spot, Lumaca in the HGU Hotel. We sat down with him in advance of a special art pop-up in the space featuring photographs of Marilyn Monroe by famed photographer Bert Stern. The rarely seen photographs are paired with a special cocktail on the menu for the length of the exhibition through April 13th. We spoke with DeLucie about how the restaurant scene has changed during his career, his relationship with Dean & DeLuca and why he wants people to eat out more.
Interview by Sarah Strong
The Chef’s Connection: How did you get connected with the HGU Hotel?
John DeLucie: Mike Namer, somewhat of a real estate tycoon. He had come to a lot of my restaurants; he had come to The Lion and he had come to Waverly Inn and he knew me as a chef and a restaurant guy. He said he would love to have me do the restaurant in the new hotel. As schedules go, it wasn’t working out, and then finally it worked out, and here I am.
TCC: Were you here when it opened?
JD: No, the hotel opened three years ago; I’m here almost a year now.
TCC: Had you operated in hotels before?
TCC: So you already knew what it was like to operate a restaurant in a hotel. What are some of the challenges and benefits to operating in a hotel?
DL: Oh, yes. Let’s start with the challenges. The challenges are you’re in a hotel and the focus of the hotel is mainly the hotel guests and our focus is the restaurant guests and sometimes the restaurant guests and hotel guests have different needs. We try to walk a fine line and make sure that everyone gets what they need. A lot of our business is off the street. Breakfast is not, obviously, so breakfast is a completely different dynamic. We share this space, so for example: the restaurant’s packed, a hotel guest feels entitled to a reservation but we’re full, what do we do? So we try to leave some tables and accommodate everybody as much as we can.
The great thing is you have the financial backing of the hotel and it’s extremely stable. You share resources, you can share expenses, you can share all sorts of things that can make it easier to operate. It’s very difficult to operate in New York right now. We share the rent, we share the garbage, you can share the exterminator, we can share all the things that it takes to run the hotel restaurant operation. If this restaurant were standalone off the avenue it would be very, very tough to maintain in this climate.
TCC: Do you think that all those reasons are some of the reasons that hotel restaurants are becoming more popular and more upscale?
DL: One hundred percent. It’s nearly impossible for a one off entrepreneur, a sole entrepreneur without fantastic resources, to operate anymore because of labor and everything else that costs way more than it used to.
TCC: Do you do room service here?
TCC: Is it the same menu?
DL: The room service menu is abbreviated, but we use the same kitchen, it comes off the line. It’s an abbreviated menu so we can get it done a little faster.
TCC: Is that an adjustment at all?
DL: Oh, big time. It’s a pain, it’s a real pain, but again, that’s one of the challenges is that room service, by the time it gets to the 12th floor, who knows what it looks like?
TCC: You have an art installation with photographs of Marilyn Monroe from Gallery 151 on display now. How do you go about making a theme menu or specific dish or cocktail related to something specific?
DL: Well, we did a little research about what Marilyn liked to eat and drink. Being an Italian restaurant we try to put forward what we’re really good at, what we’re best at, and without going too far off the path. Mike, the owner, is an art aficionado. All this art is his, there’s so much art here, and he’s very much an inspiration for the food. His art is great, it’s super cool. It just sets the standard for how we want people to feel. We want the food to sort of match that, to look cool, a little bit nice, a little bit elegant.
TCC: Do you feel specifically inspired by art and music?
DL: Oh, definitely. I’m a musician, I’ve been playing music since I was a kid. Music was the thing I wanted to do the most.
TCC: How does that affect your cooking and development?
DL: I’m a big fan of rock in the 70’s and then hip hop and then R&B and jazz, so I think that if I were a classical music aficionado the food would be quite different. I’m a little loose and maybe irreverent sometimes, but again, keeping the level very high.
TCC: Where do you get inspiration for your menus?
DL: This is an Italian spot and my heritage is Italian, so this is very easy. We focused on Puglia, where my mother is from, so a lot of the food my mother made we sort of designed for this menu.
TCC: Were you looking to do an Italian restaurant or did they ask you to?
DL: Whenever possible I like to do Italian. I’ve been not doing Italian for a long time, but my heart is rooted in Italian cuisine.
TCC: What’s your favorite dish on the menu?
DL: We have a pasta alla norma, which is grandma pasta, which is done with eggplant and ricotta cheese, we do a wild mushroom with a housemate tagliatelle, we do a homemade ravioli, these are all the dishes that my grandmother made. There is no one favorite but I do eat the eggplant pasta pretty much every day so maybe that’s it. I mean I try not to and then I eat it anyways…
TCC: I know you spent some time with Dean & DeLuca, how do you feel about what happened?
DL: It was my first job! It’s terrible. When I was there in the early 90’s it was a mecca for beautiful produce and ingredients that you didn’t see anywhere else like exotic olive oils and breads. I was so sucked in by it and I loved working there. Then it became sort of corporate, someone bought it, it became corporate and it was sort of headed for disaster after that.
I’m not surprised it’s closing. It’s sort of like Barney’s. I worked at Barney’s, too. In college, I sold suits at Barney’s and I feel the same way. I know Barney Pressman, he was a customer, and I felt like when they sold it, and now speaking strictly from a layman’s terms because I don’t know what the details are, but they sold it and they moved it to 16th Street from 17th Street and then they moved it back, it’s like, it’s too late, and now it’s gone.
TCC: What other changes have you seen in your career and do you think those are signs of something to come?
DL: They’re definitely signs of change. I think that those stores ran amok, they ran away from what people wanted them for. Dean & DeLuca was this very boutiquey, specific place, and then they tried to expand it.
TCC: Do you think if it was what it was originally there would still be a want for that?
DL: I don’t think you could have it both ways. From what I hear Eataly maintains the quality very, very much. I just think it’s hard to be a Barney’s in this current retail climate. It’s hard to be the original Barney’s and the original Dean & DeLucas. It’s very difficult to maintain today just because of how much everything costs. When it’s one guy, Georgio DeLuca – I know him, I love that guy – running the place himself, he’s limited to what he can buy and how long his lease can be and how big his space can be, so you sell it to a big company that can actually get those things done, but then they start to crunch numbers. They say wait a minute, this doesn’t work, and it gets watered down to a reasonable facsimile of what it once was. I remember once Georgio DeLuca freaking out on the produce manager because the tangelos weren’t the best ones he’d ever seen, he was crazy, and that kind of thing just gets lost, and I loved being in that environment.
TCC: What did you learn from people like that?
DL: You learn about quality, you learn that there’s no compromise for quality.
TCC: Is that something you’re trying to teach people who work for you?
DL: Yeah, it gets harder and harder. Quality costs money. I would love to just have grass fed steaks and free range chickens and organic everything but you can’t, you just can’t, so you have to learn to get a great chicken and make it work.
TCC: How have providers and availability changed throughout your career?
DL: The positive side is the greenmarket is becoming good. You can get just amazing local produce, that’s a positive for sure. In my culinary lifetime you couldn’t get arugula, and now you wouldn’t even want it anymore. What I mean is, at the supermarket it was a speciality thing, it was the stuff that my grandfather grew in his garden in his backyard. We had all this stuff that no one had like broccoli rabe and arugula, no one even knew what it was. My friends in grade school would ask if I was eating weeds, they had no idea. So that’s all available and it becomes available at a much larger scale, although the quality is diminished. They overgrow it in greenhouses and stuff like that.
TCC: What kinds of things are you hoping happen in the New York restaurant community?
DL: I hope more people go out to eat. I wish they would stop with this at home business. No more meal kits, go out and eat, go out and dine, go out and enjoy yourself.
TCC: As an everyday thing or for occasions?
DL: When I was a young man in New York I ate out every single night of the week when I wasn’t working. Before my chef life I was very curious about food.
TCC: Even though you could cook?
DL: Even though I could cook, I was very curious. I would go to France, I would go to Italy to eat, eat, eat. Even now, my wife and I don’t go to the Caribbean, there’s no food in the Caribbean. I mean, sun is nice, beach is nice, but I don’t care about the Caribbean. I want to go where there’s food. I was just in Miami and I staged. My wife went out to get massages and I spent all day with the chef at Le Sirenuse because that kind of place is not that prevalent anymore. I hope people go out to eat. There are a lot of restaurants in New York, but I feel like people aren’t going out like they used to.
TCC: Because of takeout and home cooking?
DL: That’s part of it, but it’s also kids and families. Dining to me and my wife, we find time to still just go out every now and then, but I went out a lot when I was younger, that’s my take.
TCC: Is there anything you picked up on your trip to Miami?
DL: It was fantastic. The chef was from the Amalfi Coast and his cooking techniques are phenomenal, very different. Italians are maniacal about ingredients. Each day whatever doesn’t sell they throw it away or give it away, they don’t throw it all away, but we couldn’t operate like that in New York.
TCC: Do they have a lot of waste?
DL: They have a fair amount of waste, but he’s pretty good at knowing exactly what he’s going to use. It’s not that much, but it requires an enormous amount of labor to be able to do that. When you’re watching those numbers, labor and food costs, it just doesn’t work here, it doesn’t really work. You have to compromise. You really want this, but can they do that every day and make it every day? No. I mean, I would love to have ravioli made every morning from scratch, but it doesn’t work, we don’t have that kind of labor budget.
TCC: Besides the eggplant pasta, what are you super into right now?
DL: I like cooking with pasta gragnano. It’s done with bronze dies and then dried in the sun really, super slowly and it has incredible starch. It’s the sharpest, most precise die, and what happens is the pasta gives off a lot of beautiful starch, you almost cook it like a risotto, it’s magnificent.
TCC: Do you have a favorite pasta shape?
DL: Spaghetti, see, I don’t like innovation.