The Main Course - Summer 2017 - 3
KEN FRIEDMAN: I DON'T WANT TO HAVE REGRETS
AN INTERVIEW BY TIMOTHY COOPER
Born in Los Angeles, Ken
Friedman attended UC
Berkeley, where he discovered
San Francisco's lively music
scene. He left college to pursue
a full-time career in music as
a concert promoter, first
independently and then
working for the impresario
Bill Graham. He moved to
London to manage bands such
as The Smiths and UB40,
before finding himself in New
York City, working with the renowned Clive Davis at Arista Records.
When Friedman turned 40, he decided to make a career change.
Opening a restaurant was a natural next step: He'd already spent
many nights frequenting New York City's best restaurants while
entertaining his clients, and friends continually offered to invest in
his first project, sure it would be a success.
Thus, in February 2004, Friedman opened New York City's first
gastropub, The Spotted Pig, with Chef April Bloomfield. Since then,
the duo has opened The Breslin Bar & Dining Room, The John Dory
Oyster Bar, Salvation Taco (with a second soon to come in
Williamsburg), Salvation Burger, White Gold Butchers, and Tosca
Cafe (Friedman's first venue in San Francisco), all to critical
acclaim. He is also a partner in The Rusty Knot, The Monkey Bar
and Locanda Verde, with Andrew Carmellini. In 2016, Ken was
honored with the James Beard Award for Outstanding
a sign up that says "spotted pig." I can just hang a pig sign.
How did that first meeting with April Bloomfield come about?
I was introduced by Jamie Oliver. We just started emailing each
other, and I liked her right away; she liked me right away. So I flew
her to New York and my friend Mario Batali and I took her to a
farmers' market and a few other places, and he said, "Yeah, she's
perfect." And I said, "How do you know? We haven't even tried her
food yet." He said, "She's worked at all your favorite restaurants in
London. That's an indication that she's got the same taste."
And he said, "She's got all these burns on her arms." I said, "What
does that mean?" He said, "She's a badass-she reaches into hot
ovens and she'll do anything to make sure the food is treated right,
and that's a big deal."
So I hired her and made her a partner right away. I believed that
restaurants co-owned by the chef were cooler and better, and the
chef would care more.
cows and pigs because we were using every part. It wasn't a
movement as much as, that's how people used to eat.
April grew up poor, and her mom would buy cheap cuts of meat
and boil the hell out of them and season the hell out of them. That's
what pastrami is, that's what corned beef is. The cheeks are the best
part of the pig. To make head cheese, April takes all of the bones
out of the pig head, boils it, rolls it up and ties it and slices it-and
you have this beautiful meat like bologna or mortadella.
April makes liver and onions that bring tears to people's eyes:
"Oh my God, this is what my mom used to make us." It's a feel-good
thing that's good for the environment and good for the soul.
How has that philosophy continued with White Gold Butchers?
We get whole animals into our store on 78th and Amsterdam, and
we sell and use every part of the animal. One of our bestselling
dishes is beef heart.
People on the Upper West Side and others go there to maybe get
a skirt steak for dinner, but they end up buying a bunch of cuts of
meat that they never really knew how to cook because Erika
Nakamura and Jocelyn Guest, our partners who are the butchers
there, are right at the counter. They say, "Here is what you do with
this cut. Oxtail is really just the tail of a cow, and here's how you
make soup out of it."
We do and will continue to sell any and all cuts of meat,
including the innards and the offal. Hopefully more and more
people are getting hip that it's a good way to eat. Sometimes we
even know the animals' names. We go to the farms and pet them,
so we know what we're eating and we know what our customers are
How did you get your start in the restaurant industry?
I was the high school kid who had no idea what I wanted to do in
college. I decided to go to UC Berkeley as an art major, with
American history as a minor. What happened in the '70s and '80s
was pretty much everybody in the art department at Berkeley, and
Stanford and California College of the Arts and the San Francisco
Art Institute-we all formed punk rock bands. I did the same.
That led to me putting on concerts and working for a guy called
Bill Graham, a legendary concert promoter in San Francisco. All of
a sudden I found myself on the business side of things.
I dropped out of Berkeley and moved to London and managed
bands, then moved to New York and worked for record companies.
I was basically living in nightclubs. I was really fascinated by public
assembly in general, and restaurants specifically, which are sort of
clubs for adults. I found myself looking at the chefs and speaking
to the chefs as the artists.
I was living in New York an throwing parties and
barbecues in the Hamptons; it was a creative outlet for me. I loved
hosting dinners. People told me how great the food was and how
great the experience was. So I started to realize that I should either
be a chef or open a bar or open a restaurant. I've got a good ear and
eye and nose for upcoming talent.
Then I was inching toward 40 and I wasn't really all that happy
in the music business, so I started to think, "Do I want to be that
guy who looks back on his life and says, 'Damn, I wish I had tried
that; maybe I would have been good at that'?" I don't want to have
Maybe the most important part of it is that when you're an artist,
a novelist or a songwriter or a painter, if you write a song and it's a
hit song, for the rest of your life you get paid for that. Not just when
you perform the song, but if you're sitting on a beach with a beer in
your hand and someone is buying that record, you get paid for it. I
was only getting paid when I was awake; I wanted to get paid when
I was asleep.
What do great artists do-great songwriters, great novelists,
great painters? They make work for themselves. Bruce Springsteen
doesn't say, "I'm going to make a record that sounds like what's
being played on the radio now." He just makes a record that he enjoys and it works. So I thought, well, I'm going to do that when I do
How did you know what you wanted in terms of the venue, the menu,
and the beverage service?
I was a punk rock musician. I was an alternative thinker. What
didn't New York have? Well, British food wasn't really a thing that
people took seriously. People thought British food was fish and
chips. They didn't really know that there's a great tradition of
fabulous seasonal British food. I'd lived in London for three years,
and I've always been kind of an Anglophile from music, so I kind
of knew that.
I knew about the gastropub phenomenon, where all the best
young chefs in London who didn't have the money to open
restaurants would just go to the old pub on the corner. Four people
would sit there all day Sunday, and there'd be no customers Monday
night. So the chef would go to the owner and say, "Give me Sunday
and Monday nights and let me cook. You get the bar proceeds, and
I get the food proceeds." And that's how gastropubs first started. I
also thought it would be cool to have a female chef, because there
just aren't enough.
Anyway, I was lucky enough to actually find a British female. She
thought the way I did and she was obsessed with America, and
specifically Chez Panisse. When I was a student at UC Berkeley, I
worked there to pay the rent, so that was my introduction to
working in restaurants: Chez Panisse, the best restaurant in the
country. We shared that.
So The Spotted Pig was born. And design-wise, I've always been
a bit of a hoarder, I love going to flea markets and thrift stores, so I
had a bunch of stuff. I liked the way pubs are designed with a
photograph of the local prizewinning cow, or a photograph of
somebody who just caught a bunch of ducks.
Often pubs didn't have names, or didn't have signs with letters
because people couldn't read. "Pubs" is short for public houses. So
I thought, well, a spotted pig is super-visual, and I don't need to put
What's your advice to people who want to be in the same position
as you someday?
During the initial opening, how did you settle on a menu? How do you
keep that menu continually fresh?
I worked for record companies-Arista Records, London Records,
Interscope Records. When I would sign a band-I was always an
A&R guy, a talent scout-I'd sign a band that was great or had
potential to be great, and give them money to make a record.
But my philosophy was very much, "I'm not going to tell you how
to make your record. I'm a failed musician. My job is to keep the
rest of the record companies away from you so that you can be an
artist and not have to talk to a bunch of suits and bean counters
about your art."
I have the exact same philosophy when it comes to April and
other chefs I'm partners with in some other restaurants. I never,
ever tell them what to do. I think the worst thing you could do to
an artist is start advising them on how to make their art better.
It's hard for me to say, "You should put sesame seeds on this bun
instead of poppy seeds," or "These pickles are too garlicky." I love
April's food, and it totally fits in the places we do. If she does
something that I think isn't perfect, I know she'll figure it out.
She doesn't get permission from me. If she wants to buy
expensive tomatoes instead of cheap tomatoes, I understand. The
dirty little secret of chefs-the thing that separates great chefs from
not-great chefs-is ingredients. So we spend a lot of money on the
best ingredients. That's okay because we sell them all and we mark
them up enough, we make the profit, we pay all our employees.
What are some of your favorite offerings at your own restaurants?
I love April's burgers. I love her veggie burger, now that I'm trying
to eat less meat. April does pretty incredible vegetables and salads.
The lamb burger at The Breslin is awesome. The roasted chicken
at Tosca is another favorite.
April had never even heard of a Cubano before she moved to
New York. I took her to a Cuban place, she had one, she flipped out,
and she put on the menu at The Spotted Pig. It's won all kinds of
awards for the best Cubano in New York, so I love that.
I'm also partners in Locanda Verde with Andrew Carmellini, and
the same goes for him. I love his pastas, and I love his chicken for
I'm lucky-I get to eat great food for free at my places. I always
leave a big tip, though. It's not fair for me to eat for free and the staff
still has to do the work, so I always tip the kitchen and the frontof-house staff.
What was your next venture?
Our second venture after The Spotted Pig was the first John Dory,
which failed. Luckily we believed in the concept still, so we moved
it to Ace Hotel. Closing your second restaurant is like your first
album is a big hit, and then your second album doesn't even make
the charts. So we remixed it and put it out again.
Then The Breslin was our third one and that was a huge hit; it
still is. That was us getting back to what we were best at. We went
back to the gastropub concept in a hotel had been renovated and
changed to Ace Hotel; we called it The Breslin because it had been
the Breslin Hotel since the late 1800s.
The nose-to-tail trend took off at least partly because of The Breslin.
How were you so attuned to that movement?
To do this American thing where you eat the tenderloin and throw
the rest of the cow away is kind of dumb. And the most humane
thing to do if you're going to kill an animal is eat all of it.
When we opened The Spotted Pig, April would go to the meat
purveyor and say, "What do you do with your chicken livers?"
They'd answer, "Oh, we just give them away. Nobody even wants
them." So we got chicken livers for free from the meat purveyor.
The chicken liver toast that she did, which she called "chicken
liver parfait," was and is one of her bestsellers, and that's all profit.
Instead of charging $70 for a steak, we can charge $46 because
we're making so much money on the other parts of the same
animal. We basically got to the point where we were buying whole
Life is full of trial and error. If I don't succeed at this thing, I can go
try something else or go back. Don't think you're stuck in one kind
of career, unless you actually are-and even then I would take a look
at how you can get out of doing something you just hate. Your hands
aren't tied, you know? If they are, untie them.
As time goes on, people are realizing, "I'm in charge of my own
life. I can do whatever I want." I switched careers at a point when
everybody said, "You're crazy."
Say a young restaurateur has an idea, but not the money. How do
they overcome those financial hurdles?
Think small at first. Instead of finding a shoe store and spending
millions of dollars to transform it into a restaurant, find a building
that was a restaurant, so you don't have to spend too much money.
Or, if the owner spent thousands or millions of dollars on
infrastructure and kitchens and exhaust systems, that's great. Make
them a partner instead of giving them a bunch of money to walk
Don't focus too much on rent. Pretty much 100 percent of the
time when a restaurateur says, "I moved out because the rent was
too high," they're not telling the truth. They moved out because
butts stopped sitting in their seats. If the rent ends up being five or
six days' sales, you're in trouble-but usually it's not. If you're doing
well, rent could be three days' sales, and that's where it should be.
I'm not a bean counter. The way I solve every problem in my
restaurant is get more customers in. Everything else falls into place.
Your labor costs go down. Your food costs go down. Everything goes
down by having more people there, so focus on doing something
For our readers who are coming from the chef side, what is your
advice on forming a partnership with someone like you?
Be smart. Don't be like a lot of chefs who think it's all about them.
It's not. Chef-owned restaurants are boring. Chef-and-anotherperson-owned restaurants are not boring. A chef wants a blank
canvas to show their art. They want no music, they want no other
art on the walls; they want nothing to get in the way of their
beautiful creation that they slaved over on the plate.
Customers don't really want that. They want a casual, fun place,
or a not-casual fun place. If you want to eat by yourself in quiet,
stay home. If you want to go out, you want to go to a place that's
packed with people who are great to look at and interact with.
Food is the most important part of a restaurant, but it's not the
only reason why you go somewhere-in New York especially. You'll
walk by ten places that are empty and wait for an hour at the
eleventh one, because you want to be there.
So my advice to chefs is: It's not all about you, and stop trying to
be on TV. Be a restaurant chef or don't be a restaurant chef, but quit
acting like you're a restaurant chef when you really just want to be
a TV star.
What's next for you?
We're in a lot of hotels-I have Locanda Verde in the Greenwich
Hotel. We have two restaurants and a lobby bar in Ace Hotel. We
have a restaurant in the Pod Hotel on 39th Street, Salvation Taco-
and Salvation Burger in a Pod Hotel on 51st Street. We're opening
up Salvation Taco in a Pod Hotel in Williamsburg. I'm a part of the
Monkey Bar with Graydon Carter, the editor of "Vanity Fair," in
People always come in The Spotted Pig and say, "Why isn't this
a hotel? Why don't you have rooms upstairs that have the same kind
of country pub feel?" Maybe that's what we'll do next.