Turning the Top Tables
How the legendary New York restaurateur Ken Aretsky built a fabled résumé of fine dining by turning setbacks into life-affirming experiences.
From the Print Edition:
The Blues Brothers, Jan/Feb 2008
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With some relief, Aretsky met with his probation officer to discuss his community service. He quickly found out that it wasn't up to him to decide how to fulfill his debt to society and that "cleaning bedpans at Mount Sinai Hospital" might be in the cards. He asked the probation officer if he could do something that might really make a difference. Recognizing that Aretsky wasn't a hardened criminal, his probation officer told him to think about it and return with ideas.
"Understand that before I got arrested, I had never done any community service," says Aretsky. "I had handed out turkeys at Thanksgiving and stuff like that, but not community service." Aretsky wasn't sure what to do as he sat down to dinner that night at Butterfield 81–a bistro on the Upper East Side that he owned at the time–with his close friend, the actor Peter Boyle, and Boyle's wife, Lorraine. When the topic of Aretsky's community service arose, Lorraine suggested C-Cap, or Careers Through Culinary Arts Program, an organization that educates students in public and vocational high schools about the culinary arts and the restaurant business.
A meeting with Richard Grausman, C-Cap's founder and president, was arranged and Grausman told Aretsky that, given his profession, he could really do something wonderful for the organization, especially by visiting schools around New York and speaking to the kids. Aretsky had never done anything like that before, but the idea intrigued him and, if his probation officer agreed, the answer was yes. Aretsky broached the subject with his probation officer, who, after speaking with Grausman, gave the green light.
The first school Aretsky visited was Sheepshead Bay High School in Brooklyn, one of New York's most dangerous schools. When he arrived, Aretsky was disturbed to find barbed wire fencing surrounding the school and armed police officers at the front door manning metal detectors and physically searching students. "I couldn't tell if it was a prison or a school," says Aretsky. "I was shocked that students went to school in that kind of environment and stunned because I had never been exposed to it."
Given his experiences growing up on the Lower East Side, when the area was as tough as a neighborhood could be, Aretsky made a connection with the kids, all of whom had been affected in one way or another by violence and crime. But it wasn't easy. "I went home that day and saw my children," says Aretsky, "and I started crying because I was so shaken up from the experience. I realized how fortunate I was."
Aretsky continued visiting schools around the five boroughs and soon exceeded his mandatory community service. "It was really something I got into," he says, "and in the end, I was kind of thankful that I got arrested, because suddenly I found myself in a position where something good was coming out of something horrific.
"The government works in mysterious ways," adds Aretsky, who continues to do charity work for C-Cap. "Of all the ways to get me into those schools, it was because I was arrested for selling Cuban cigars. For me, C-Cap is one of the greatest things I've ever been involved in and whatever bitterness I had toward the government was negated by my work with the organization."
For all of Aretsky's success in the restaurant business, he's quick to recognize the restaurants that provided him with inspiration. Truman's, he says, was inspired by Maxwell's Plum, while Oren & Aretsky was styled after the iconic J.G. Melon bar and restaurant on the Upper East Side. When he mentions Arcadia, the restaurant he opened on East 62nd Street in 1983, he cites Lutéce, the four-star French restaurant (now closed), which André Soltner owned.
"I thought that the best restaurant in New York City was Lutéce," he says. "It had four stars and never had to worry about reservations. The place was booked solid. I thought if you take [a restaurant such as] this and do it American with a woman chef, why can't New York have an Alice Waters [the founder of California's Chez Panisse, an archetype of championing local cuisine]?"
Aretsky soon found Anne Rosenzweig, one of the first women to become a celebrity chef, and together they turned Arcadia into a three-star restaurant. "Anne was way ahead of her time," says Aretsky, acknowledging the role Rosenzweig played in Arcadia's success. "She was doing stuff that nobody else was doing–ramps, fiddlehead ferns, kale, kasha; lobster club sandwiches and chimney smoked lobster; corn cakes with crème fraiche and caviar. She was a wonderful chef with a great sense of flavor. I have not had food like that since." Arcadia stayed at the forefront of Manhattan's culinary landscape for the next 15 years (the restaurant lost its lease in 1997), attracting celebrities from Woody Allen and Marvin Hamlisch to Oscar de la Renta and Bill Blass.
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