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Maestro of the Myriad

Restaurateur Drew Nieporent owns and operates a veritable dining empire and shows no signs of abdicating his throne.
Sam Gugino
From the Print Edition:
John F. Kennedy, Nov/Dec 98

(continued from page 3)

Was that Todd Eldridge? I saw him in the Olympics," says a wide-eyed Nieporent with boyish enthusiasm as he examines a party going into the dining room. Nieporent is a huge sports fan, especially hockey. He has Rangers season tickets and admits to occasionally playing hooky, going to a game instead of visiting one of his restaurants. "A lot of restaurateurs do," he confides.

When he's not in his restaurants or at a sporting event, Nieporent tries to spend as much time as possible with his family. "I knew I was away too much when I walked into the house one evening and my son said to my wife, 'Mommy, who's that strange man?' " In addition to Andrew, Nieporent and his wife, Ann, have a six-year-old daughter, Gabrielle. After living in Greenwich Village for a number of years, the Nieporents moved to New Jersey six years ago. Nieporent's wife advises him not to say exactly where. "She thinks my kids might be in danger," he says with a rueful smile, "now that I'm a celebrity."

While Nieporent credits Cigar Aficionado editor and publisher Marvin Shanken for rekindling his interest in cigars, it was Nieporent's father, Andrew, who first lit the flame. A cigar and pipe smoker, Andrew along with his wife, Sybil, raised Drew and Tracy in a small apartment in Peter Cooper Village on Manhattan's East Side. As an attorney for the state liquor authority, Andrew Nieporent got to know restaurateurs who needed help with their liquor licenses. This made him--and Drew--frequent guests at places such as Lutèce. "It was a conflict of interest, but that's the way business was done in those days," Drew says.

TV chef Graham Kerr's "Galloping Gourmet" persona was a major influence on Nieporent as a teenager. "I used to come home from school for lunch and watch him on television. He really inspired me," he says. He may also have gotten a sense of show biz from his mother. As Sybil Trent, she was a child radio actress; she still does voice-overs on radio and television. "It's weird to listen to a commercial and hear your mother's voice," he says. Sybil Nieporent can also be heard answering the phone at Montrachet.

Armed with a desire to learn and a love for the food industry, Nieporent entered Cornell University's Hotel and Restaurant School. While he learned a lot in the classroom, it was what he did outside of school that gave him his best career preparation. Toward the end of his freshman year, Norwegian-American Cruise Lines posted a notice at Nieporent's school seeking experienced waiters for a first-class cruise to major European ports. Nieporent jumped at the chance, even though he had no experience. "I was never a waiter, though I once worked at McDonald's. But I had a book that explained everything," he says. "Unfortunately, I didn't have a white shirt. So 60 other waiters in the dining room laughed at me every night for wearing a blue shirt."

Undeterred, Nieporent worked most holidays and summers on cruise liners. One summer, he worked as a manager at Maxwell's Plum in New York, which became his first job after he graduated in 1977. Subsequently, owner Warner LeRoy hired him as restaurant director at his other establishment, Tavern on the Green. Both experiences influenced the young Nieporent enormously.

"Maxwell's captured both interior excitement and culinary excitement like Spago," he says. "Warner wanted to do [legendary Swiss chef] Freddie Girardet food for 1,000." While the food wasn't quite up to those standards, Maxwell's Plum did receive a three-star review from The New York Times. It convinced Nieporent that he could serve good food to a lot of people.

At Tavern on the Green, the number of diners served was even more impressive. "The volume was relentless. We'd feed fifteen hundred people at dinner on Saturday night, then turn around and do the same number for brunch the next day," he says.

By managing more than 200 employees, and with sales that increased from $10 million to $24 million at Tavern on the Green during his five-year stint (he left in 1982), Nieporent learned what he calls "efficiencies." He broke down that invisible but all too real wall between the kitchen and dining room and worked closely with chefs. He encouraged busboys to become waiters and waiters to become captains, thus instilling a sense of upward mobility and ownership in employees. "When waiters become captains, it's like they now own their own little restaurant," he says.

This sense of empowerment has carried over to his senior staff, which includes Daniel Johnnes, the chief Myriad sommelier and partner in Montrachet; Michael Bonadies, who handles Myriad's consulting arm; and Shapiro. "Drew is a peer," says Shapiro. "He has such a thorough knowledge of the business from every end that he understands what you're going through on a day-to-day basis. He just lays back and lets you do what you have to do. He's not always second-guessing you."

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