America’s Top Chef Opens A Restaurant (and Lives to Tell About It)
By Jake Tracer
Photos By Martin Ceperley
Unlike most men, Harold Dieterle’s recipe for happiness didn’t include fame or fortune. All he wanted was to open his own restaurant and let the food speak for itself.
But as recently as last fall, Dieterle’s plan seemed to be collapsing like an over-cooked soufflé. Instead of noticing his dishes, people recognized his shy grin. Millions saw Dieterle win the first season of Bravo’s reality cooking competition “Top Chef” last year.
His ambition was hardly a secret. Interviewed on camera after his victory, Dieterle announced confidently that part of his $100,000 prize money would go toward his restaurant, “which hopefully will be open in New York City, fall 2006.”
Achieving that dream would only come after a series of delays and setbacks that would have convinced many people to switch careers.
“It was so much harder than I thought it would be,” Dieterle said. “There’s stuff you don’t even think about before you’re going through the whole process, like managing a staff or getting all your permits.”
Dieterle’s trial by flambé torch of the last year is a case study in just how difficult it is to open a profitable restaurant in New York’s cutthroat foodie environment. With fame and prize money, he had a huge jump start, but just months before the opening he was still missing key ingredients like an address, a liquor license and staff.
The pressure was building. Finding the right location for the restaurant, which he would name Perilla, was key to transitioning from TV cook to real chef. If he did manage to open Perilla, his fame was sure to attract the spotlight. His quiet charisma and nervous charm made him extremely popular among the show’s fans, people who had never tasted his food. His friend and former boss Joey Campanaro said Dieterle’s “cute clumsiness” draws people.
Charm aside, Dieterle isn’t a natural in front of the camera. He can clam up when people are watching him, unlike his assertive personality in the kitchen. He’ll slouch and take up what has perhaps become his signature pose: arms crossed across his chest, head bowed toward the floor obscuring his eyes, feet shuffling as if apologizing for his very presence.
“Honestly, I hated being there,” Dieterle said later about the filming experience. “Did not like it at all. Did not like having cameras stuck in my face. Didn’t care for a lot of the challenges. I thought of myself as being a little more outgoing than I really am. I’m outgoing, but I get frustrated around strangers.”
In the first episode, nerves got the best of Dieterle. Working on the line in Hubert Keller’s San Francisco restaurant Fleur de Lys, Dieterle was kicked out of the kitchen because his hand was shaking and he couldn’t garnish a dish correctly. It reminded him of one of his first summer kitchen jobs, as a line cook in an East Hampton, N.Y. restaurant, when he was so nervous that he lived on a diet of antacids and Pepto-Bismol because he couldn’t stomach solids.
Just as Dieterle survived the East Hampton job, he rallied in the show’s first episode, going on to make a red snapper dish that the judges loved.
He had inspired them largely because, unlike some of the other contestants, he is a chef’s chef, with technical training as a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and kitchen training as a sous chef at the Harrison, a two-star American brasserie on Greenwich Street originally run by Campanaro.
It was the combination of fame and cooking know-how that brought Dieterle his first investor, Scott Feldman, the head of restaurant branding firm 212 Management & Marketing. When Dieterle won “Top Chef,” Feldman put $200,000 of 212’s money into Perilla.
“He’s a great cook,” Feldman said. “Nobody knows if he’s a chef yet. The fact is that he has to prove himself behind the countertop. I think he’s got it. I do. He’s not going to fail. He’s a street kid, through and through.”
Once they teamed up, Dieterle and Feldman entered perhaps the most competitive industry in the country. The New York State Restaurant Association estimates that there are 25,000 eateries in the city. Yet for every one that succeeds, dozens can fail. And it’s hard to say what makes a hit.
“There are a lot of three-star restaurants that have closed,” said Tom Colicchio, the head judge on “Top Chef” and a chef Dieterle admires greatly. “There are a lot of one-star restaurants that are busy.”
Though Dieterle worried about how many stars his restaurant would get, the one thing he didn’t worry about when he began the long process of opening Perilla last April was the food. “That’s the easy part,” he laughed. “Menus? Forget about it. I can do that in my sleep.”
Perilla, which he imagined as a seasonal New American restaurant with Asian flourishes, would allow Dieterle to put his casually elegant sensibilities on display. The restaurant’s signature dishes would include raw hamachi, a standard sushi fish, topped with yuzu caviar. Or a simple sweet peppercorn sauce applied to imported New Zealand langoustines, a lobster-like shellfish. Or a playful take on risotto using faro, an unusual grain that acquires a wonderful chewy texture when cooked.
With the menu set, Dieterle and his business partner, Alicia Nosenzo, focused instead on a 20-page business plan to show potential investors. It outlined the budget at $550,000 to start, an extremely modest number when aspiring two-star restaurants these days usually cost about $800,000 and sometimes can balloon up to $1 million. Since both Dieterle and Nosenzo would be asking their friends and families to invest, they wanted to keep the numbers as small as possible.
Only once did the business plan mention “Top Chef,” and that was on the last page. It was conspicuously absent from the two-page executive summary and even Dieterle’s one-page biography.
“I don’t want to ride on that,” he said later. “I want to ride on other things. I want to ride on my talent.”
Less than half of Dieterle and Nosenzo’s investment presentations turned into money, but they got enough, with some help from Dieterle’s prize money and the $200,000 from Feldman.
By last July, the money was mostly set, and Dieterle started looking around for available spaces in the West Village, his first and only choice of neighborhoods. His low budget meant he had limited options in the pricey neighborhood. After looking at dozens of locations throughout the summer and getting outbid several times, the opening day was veering off-schedule.
Worried, Dieterle asked friends to be on the lookout for unadvertised empty storefronts on quiet streets. Campanaro, who now owns and runs The Little Owl on Bedford Street, found his location when his wife happened to walk by and saw a “For Lease” sign in the window. You never know, Dieterle thought. He could get lucky, too.
On Dieterle’s budget, it would be difficult. Dieterle and Nosenzo could only consider spaces that were already restaurants and had kitchens installed, which would limit their own construction costs. As big as the West Village is, there aren’t too many 2,000-square-foot restaurants with 10-seat bars leaving the neighborhood. Among those that do, most leases are obscenely expensive.
But they only needed one, and in early October they came across 50 Carmine St. With a panorama of windows just south of Bleecker Street, the space’s exposed brick walls and garden in the back offered an appealing home for Perilla. The Italian restaurant occupying the space would be leaving on Jan. 1, meaning after renovations Dieterle would be able to open sometime in March.
He took a few days to think about it, and eventually made an offer to the current restaurant’s owner. She accepted. All that was left to do was negotiate the details with the landlord. But someone else was interested in the lease.
The Carmine Street location seemed a good bet until mid-December when Dieterle found out that another bidder had swooped in while he was debating whether or not to make an offer.
Outbid for the fourth time in as many attempts, Dieterle’s search for the home of Perilla would delay its opening even further. He hadn’t secured the lease when he had the chance, and he couldn’t afford to compete with more wealthy restaurateurs easily able to raise their bids in competition. The Carmine Street lease went to a restaurant called Puffy Taco.
“People who have a shitload of money go in and outbid you,” Dieterle said. “They sign bad deals, and then they’re selling the places in a few years because they signed a bad deal.”
In the following weeks, Puffy Taco stalled in starting construction, and 50 Carmine St. remained boarded up. Dieterle kept his and his friends’ eyes and ears open for other leases. Every time he made a new bid — two of them in January — he hoped it would be the one that worked out. Unfortunately, it got harder and harder to believe as each bid became an outbid and Perilla remained more fantasy than reality.
“The hardest thing is not to get emotionally attached, which becomes easier to do after you just get fucking smashed so many times,” Dieterle said. “The first one is like, ‘Oh, it’s going to work out, blah, blah, blah.’ It’s like your first girlfriend. It’s like having your first girlfriend in high school. You’re going to be together forever, you’re going to get married, have kids, a white picket fence. After a while you’re jaded and like, ‘Whatever.’ It’s another space and once you sign the lease then you can say, ‘OK, now it’s time to do all the shopping.’”
One day in early February, Dieterle got a phone call from The Little Owl’s Campanaro, who had just happened to walk down Jones Street, a tiny, one-block lane between Bleecker Street and West 4th Street. Near the northern corner, at 9 Jones St., Campanaro saw a storefront with brown paper taped over all the windows, the telltale sign of a closed restaurant. On the door, he saw a sign that read “By Owner” and had a phone number written on it. He immediately told Dieterle to call the number. The space was deceptively large, narrow but deep enough to seat about 70 people. It had a bar in front and a kitchen in back that, although spacious, was incredibly dirty. But it clearly had potential.
After seeing the space one morning, Dieterle and Nosenzo walked the few blocks to The Little Owl for lunch. Mid-stride, they realized they agreed on how much they liked it. When they got to The Little Owl, they turned around and hurried back to Jones Street, to make an offer that was immediately accepted.
“We learned our lesson over at 50 Carmine about being too passive and patient,” Dieterle said. “I think we’re more aggressive now and that’s why we got the deal done.”
Though two other groups were interested, they both stalled in the way Dieterle had done with Carmine Street. By the time they made their moves, Dieterle had already secured the deal.
“It’s one of those great feelings because I love this space so much more,” Dieterle said. “It’s bigger. The kitchen’s bigger. So it’s got a lot more upside. I love the fact that it’s kind of tucked away. It’s the only restaurant on the block.”
Though signing the lease wasn’t an emotional moment for Dieterle, it was a symbolic one, ending his career as an aspiring chef and shifting his focus from what went wrong in the past to what could go right in the future. Fittingly, he found the space just after the conclusion of the second season of “Top Chef.” Ilan Hall, formerly a line cook at Mario Batali’s Casa Mono, had taken the crown Dieterle once wore.
Soon enough, Perilla took a real shape, with a small bar and some tables down one wall and a few semi-circular booths lining the other. It’s not a restaurant that amazes diners with its design; the most surprising element is the wood-striped tabletops, which would also be comfortable on the side of an old Studebaker driven by the Beach Boys. Instead, Dieterle devotes his resources to his food, which shines brighter than the Boys’ California sun. His duck meatballs have been a huge hit, smooth and slightly spicy, and the faro risotto, though listed as a side, is gooey and filling enough to tempt some to order it as an entrée.
But for better or worse, finally behind his kitchen’s culinary curtain, Dieterle’s association with “Top Chef” didn’t end. When Perilla opened in May, it was nearly impossible to get a reservation, largely because fans of the show wanted to try the food of the humble victor. Soon enough, the city’s major restaurant critics wanted in as well. If opening a restaurant in New York is hard, pleasing the city’s brutal critics is nearly impossible. One bad review from Frank Bruni in The New York Times could instantly close Perilla. Then again, a good one could ensure its success for years.
“I set out to get two stars, and I feel like we’re there,” Dieterle said.
Bruni disagreed and gave Perilla one instead, neither a death knell nor a strong vote of confidence. The review discussed “Top Chef” as much as Perilla.
“It shouldn’t matter who I am,” Dieterle now argues. “It should be about the food. You expect bloggers to bring out their personal feelings like that. You don’t expect the critics to do it.”
He thinks Perilla was treated unfairly, but he still serves to packed houses every night. Prime reservation times are taken weeks in advance. And Dieterle is happy enough with the food he’s churning out to finally consider taking a night off once a week, entrusting his kitchen to his staff. He calls Perilla year one of his 10-year plan; according to that math, “Top Chef” doesn’t even register. It’s year zero, inconsequential.
“I’m 30 years old. I’ve been cooking half my life,” Dieterle recently said, finally comfortable in Perilla’s kitchen, arms nowhere near his chest. “I don’t want that to be the defining moment.”
Dieterle’s Lessons Learned
In the last year, Dieterle learned just how hard it is to open a restaurant. He’ll keep these tips in mind next time:
• No matter how well you plan, it will take longer than you think.
• No matter how well you budget, it will cost more than you think.
• If you find a space you like, don’t wait to sign the lease.
• Be respectful to the community board when applying for a liquor license. If they don’t like you, your customers wanting a drink won’t like you either.
• You have to be as savvy a businessman as you are a cook.
• Hire staff in whom you are confident. You can’t do all the work yourself.
• Read the reviews, but don’t live by them.
GOOD FODD NATION
Perilla’s opening is the first time a restaurant has been opened by a celebrity chef known for his fame before his food. It’s a sign of how far celebrity cooking has come
“When you went to cooking school in the ’70s, it was a trade school, like going to a place where you learn to be a plumber or an electrician,” said David Kamp, a writer whose newest book, “The United States of Arugula,” documents the rise of gourmet food culture in this country. “It was seen like going on the road to be a rock musician, or being a Deadhead. It wasn’t prestigious and it wasn’t considered a respectable career path. Now it’s seen as a profession, even though it’s still physically demanding, as a white-collar job. That’s such a profound change. A lot of that was TV.”
Harold Dieterle may not want to advertise his role in the convergence of food and popular cultures, but he’s one of its leaders nonetheless. Still, there’s a heated debate among chefs about whether food on television is doing more harm than good.
“Every kid nowadays that goes to culinary school wants his own TV show,” Dieterle said. “It’s almost to the point now like where every kid back in the day that was playing sports wanted to be a professional athlete. It’s not the reason to get into it.”
Meanwhile, the Culinary Institute of America, the nation’s most prestigious cooking academy and Dieterle’s alma mater, is getting more applications than ever before and has an acceptance rate in the single digits, lower than at Columbia, Princeton or Yale. It’s a direct result of high school students now growing up with the popularized Food Network, according to the institute’s senior communications manager, Stephan Hengst.
Many Culinary Institute professors dislike the Food Network, but some of their students count programs like Alton Brown’s “Good Eats” and Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” among their favorite shows.
“Having successful American role models on TV has given working cooks hope for a better life, a little status, some appreciation for their efforts, and that’s a good thing,” Bourdain said in an e-mail. “That said, food TV has also caused some culinary students to have unreasonable expectations about their careers and the profession.”—Jake Tracer