New York City restaurateur Charles Devigne might not be a household name like many celebrity chefs, Food Network stars, or cookbook producing pundits are these days, but during his thirty years within the food service industry, he’s learned exactly what makes New York one of the toughest cities in the world for creating a sustainable business.
“I find this city as rather unforgiving in terms of what you’re going to put into something and what you’re going to get out of it,” Devigne states candidly via phone from Manhattan last week. “When you go outside of New York to the suburbs and places around here, you can find a lot more places that take lack attention to detail. People don’t expect as much when you’re in a little town in Jersey and you’re having a nice meal. In those kinds of places, people are willing to put up with more flaws and inconsistencies because the options are less. In New York City, if I cut corners in my product, in my staff, or I let anything fall into any sort of disrepair, people will realize they can just go next door or two or three doors down and get something just as good or better. The restaurants that have been around for twenty, forty, fifty years, are becoming destinations today because all they had to do was stay open and stay consistent.”
Devigne, a family man and operator of not one, but two NYC restos, is one of the main subjects in Torontonian director Michael Sparaga’s film, The Missing Ingredient, a different kind of foodie doc that doesn’t focus on plates of gorgeous looking grub. Spagara instead wants to look at what kinds of restaurants can be defined as institutions; the kinds of places that have survived for decades with great notoriety, rising above the level of a neighbourhood staple and elevating themselves to something more mythical. One of Sparaga’s interview subjects in the film perhaps puts it best by defining a dining institution as the kind of place where even if you haven’t been there, you’ve heard of the place and know what they do.
“In New York City, if I cut corners in my product, in my staff, or I let anything fall into any sort of disrepair, people will realize they can just go next door or two or three doors down and get something just as good or better.”
“In that city, you have to be adaptable,” Sparaga says sipping on an Italian soda at a Midtown Toronto coffee shop while talking about his film. “Either that, or you have to be well appreciated for being stagnant. Charles has seen places open up right next to Pescatore and be these hot, hot places, and then they’d be gone within two years. There was a place right next to him called Zarela, which was this great Mexican place, and they would have people like Harvey Weinstein and Harrison Ford coming in on a regular basis. They didn’t stay open as long as Pescatore, but I know that Charles probably wanted some of that kind of business, but he couldn’t get anyone to come even one door over. In New York, people are going to go where they’re gonna go and that’s that.”
Devigne recently opened up the successful Lexington Pizza Parlour in his East Harlem neighbourhood, but the French accented former artisan has been supervising another Italian restaurant, Pescatore, located on 2nd Avenue (once a haven for pubs and not much else) for quite some time. Starting at Pescatore in 1997, several years after the restaurant opened its doors in 1993, Devigne worked his way up from bussing, waiting, and line cooking to management.
Despite the longevity of Pescatore – a twenty plus year run for an NYC start-up is exceptional by any standards – the restaurant never broke out beyond the neighbourhood. It’s not in the strictest sense of the word an institution, but it has loyal customers that keep coming back. Devigne seems weary at times talking about Pescatore’s struggles (recently they had to close up for ten days due to an unfortunate gas leak in their building, costing them a lot of money in repairs and time while sorting through bureaucratic red tape), but he prides the shop on its ability to still book special events for loyal patrons whose families have fond memories of going there.
The food has been seen by many as being solid. The service has always been consistent. The ambience, however, is what Devigne wants to change when Sparaga began following him around. As such, Sparaga places Pescatore into direct comparison with the dearly departed Gino’s, which is a major inspiration for one of Devigne’s more controversial decor changes.
Gino’s, immortalized on film by both Woody Allen and Wes Anderson, lasted for a whopping 65 years at its location. Like Pescatore, it was a relatively low key family dining establishment, but with one key difference: Gino’s had far more influential patrons than Devigne’s operation. Both restaurants offered similar fare, but the traditionally minded Gino’s was the kind of place businesses switched offices for, just so they could be in proximity to something iconic.
“Pescatore never had that kind of clientele that brought in serious ink from the press and attracted onlookers,” Sparaga explains about the similarities and differences between the different Italian restaurants. “But the one thing that Pescatore and Gino’s both have is this egalitarian idea of who eats there. Gino’s was an institution, for sure, but unless you were Frank Sinatra, the tables were always ‘first come, first served.’ Pescatore might not be an institution, but it has been around long enough that the neighbourhood still goes there regularly and understands its value.”
Sparaga still can’t answer definitively what makes a restaurant an institution beyond consistency of fare and service, location, return business, and a bit of blind luck. While the focus of his film has been narrowed to two specific locations, the Canadian filmmaker spoke with regulars from both locations and other established owners and operators of some of NYC’s most lauded eateries. It was never a film intended to be specifically about Gino’s or Pescatore, but about what it takes to survive in one of the world’s most cutthroat cities to operate a business in.
“I had to ask myself, ‘If we show even a single shot of Pescatore’s food, are we advertising for them?’” Michael explains about his decision to push the food into the background in favour of a larger discussion about the economics of running a restaurant. “Gino’s is different because they’re closed. You can show it all you want. It ain’t available! This was never going to be a commercial for food in any way because I have a kind of fatigue about films that are kind of like ‘food porn.’ Those films are never going to compete with being in Spain in a small village where someone has set up a great place to eat in the mountains somewhere. This was always going to be a film about institutions because I’ve always been fascinated by them. It’s kind of like the dividing line between what makes a classic film versus something that’s just appreciated by people versus flashes in the pan versus things that are forgotten about entirely. And yet, if someone were to ask me now what makes a restaurant an institution, I couldn’t answer it. If I could, I would just go around to every restaurant around the world and try to set the table for them.”
“If you change even the littlest things in a restaurant, you might be changing the reason why so many people come to these places over many years. There’s an expectation of service, ambience, atmosphere, food, and if you start changing things around while keeping the same name, I think you could end up shooting yourself in the foot.”
Sparaga spends much more time talking about the wallpaper decisions of Pescatore and Gino’s than plates of pasta, which makes sense because the owners and managers are the subjects of the film, and not the chefs. Sometimes in our “foodie minded” modern culture – one where a television viewer can be whisked away to any dining destination in the world with a flick of a remote – the role of a manager or owner gets overshadowed by filmmakers and producers going straight for the viewer’s gullet and gut. It’s the hardest part of a restaurants operating procedures, and therefore the least sexy to talk about. It’s also, perhaps, the most important.
“I think most people can’t really understand the angle or viewpoint of the restaurant business unless they’ve been a part of it in some way,” Charles explains. “It’s not because of a lack of intelligence, but there are people who will have a certain amount of money or finances that think they can open a restaurant or bar and figure everything else out later or over time. There’s a certain romantic aspect to doing something like this that attracts people to it. There’s this preconceived notion of how one should be run and how they should aspire to be. But that leads to this belief that if there’s a problem it has to be changed immediately and they think people will still come regardless. That’s the part a lot of people don’t understand. Especially in Manhattan where customers might be a bit more well off than other places, that definitely matters.”
“If you change even the littlest things in a restaurant, you might be changing the reason why so many people come to these places over many, many, many years. There’s an expectation of service, ambience, atmosphere, food, and if you start changing things around while keeping the same name, I think you could end up shooting yourself in the foot. You have to understand what makes Pescatore what it is. Whether or not you personally like it, that’s still what defines the restaurant. If you understand and accept that and make it a part of your work ethic, I think you can make changes within that realm. If you make changes altogether, it’s best you just change the name of the restaurant altogether.”
“I’ve come to ask this question: is it normal for a restaurant like Pescatore to have stayed open this long for so many years? The natural evolution of most businesses in Manhattan is to stay open for five, ten, or fifteen years and then they close down because so many cycles of business and fads change.”
“Our society has become so food-centric that there’s no room for mistakes,” he continues. “I think back in those days when I was a simple employee, though, the restaurant industry was a lot more simple. You had your dry cleaners, your hairdressers, your restaurants, and everyone did their job, and it was a simple one because it boiled down to simpler expectations. Whether your food was good or not good, people still came. We weren’t really a society that was particularly picky about what they ate. If you liked Italian food, you had that one Italian restaurant that you would go to just for that. As long as you had good work ethic, a clean attitude towards your employees, good food, and great ambience, you’d inevitably succeed. Now, things have completely changed. That competition is huge, especially in New York.”
“Having been a part of Pescartore all these years, at times it can be bittersweet. At times it can be really difficult. You can say that the restaurant being around for more than twenty years is a mark of success, or you can look upon it as how the owners have fought so hard to keep it going that at some point, maybe they should have closed it up. I’ve come to ask this question: is it normal for a restaurant like Pescatore to have stayed open this long for so many years? The natural evolution of most businesses in Manhattan is to stay open for five, ten, or fifteen years and then they close down because so many cycles of business and fads change. It makes things so difficult that sometimes it’s best to have a twelve year lease, do your business, and then after a while you naturally realize you can’t keep up. I’ve seen so many restaurants around Pescatore that were elevated to that level, and they didn’t lack the clientele or the prestige, but the owners just lost that love or they fell out of trends. It’s hard to keep that love going because the harder things get, the harder you have to work, and the more creative you have to be. If the person making the ship sail isn’t into it, it’s only a matter of time until you probably have to close the doors. You can’t do it half-assed.”