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Thomas Henkelmann at the Homestead Inn

by Matt DeLucia

April, 2008

    photo of: Thomas Henkelman

This Greenwich Connecticut restaurant and inn, owned by husband and wife team Thomas and Theresa Henkelmann, features impeccable service and world-renowned food, and is one of only seven restaurants in New England to have garnered a prized “Relais Gourmand” recognition from the prestigious Relais-Chateau.

NERI: I would guess that many of our chefs and our other readers might, in the back of their minds, entertain dreams of escaping from the city and opening a successful Inn or B&B with a great restaurant, and you’ve accomplished that. How did you first come across the Homestead Inn?
Theresa: Actually we’d been looking in the city, and everything was leased, and it was just so cost prohibitive. We kept thinking, “Gosh, after 10 years, 15 years, 20 years, what do you have to show for it?” Yes, you’ve made a living, but you’ve invested an extraordinary amount of money in someone else’s property. And then a very good friend of ours, a realtor in Greenwich, asked us if we’d be interested in the property where Homestead Inn and the former La Grange restaurant were. We said yes, we’d love to look at it, and we did. It needed a lot of work, and it needed to be set up differently for the type of property that we wanted. It was a much better proposition for us because we actually owned the property, so we had the underlying equity. That was very important to us.

NERI: Because you needed investors for this property, did you put together a detailed business plan that combined the inn business and the restaurant business together?
Theresa: Actually we had worked on our business plan before we found the property, we worked on it for over a year because we didn’t want the money that we were investing, which was considerable, to be gone. We wanted to make sure that any mistakes we made were on paper. And when the Homestead property became available, it was much easier to plug in those other numbers to see where we were.

NERI: Did you have any qualms about opening both a restaurant and an inn and running both businesses?
Theresa: Not the restaurant, we felt pretty solid about that. But the inn was a brand-new venture for both of us. Neither of us had ever run any kind of hotel. It was small - I think when we bought it, it had about 25 rooms - and it was sort of like a warren of little rabbit hutches. The rooms were very dated, so there was a lot of work to be done. You don’t necessarily know what the business model should be when you’re starting something and you have no idea what it’s about. It was pretty much seat-of-the-pants the first year, just trying to figure out how you run this business, because it’s a very separate business from the restaurant.

    photo of: Thomas Henkelman

NERI: What kind of updates did The Homestead require in 1997 when you bought it?
Theresa: With the interior, the first thing we did was the actual physical restaurant, because it just needed to be cleaned up, it needed a different look. We built some walls because it made more sense for the restaurant so that you couldn’t see the doors to the kitchen. And then we waited a couple of years for the hotel. We purchased a lot of furniture, we did a lot of window-dressing, but we needed to make sure we had a growing business before we did major renovations in the hotel, so we waited until 2001 to do that. The Inn was still open and functioning, but we had to redo bathrooms, we had to open walls to make rooms bigger.

NERI: Did the kitchen need updating in equipment and layout to meet your needs, Thomas?
Thomas: I cut everything out of the kitchen except the stove, and everything after that has been cleaned and reorganized. I got an ice-cream maker, extra ovens to bake the pies, those kinds of things. I made it functional. Hopefully, I think not next year but the year after that, we are going through the kitchen and we’ll renovate it, update it a little bit more. But I’m thinking it’s going to be a Jade oven or something like that, which would be easier to get service for.

NERI: So is the kitchen large enough to accommodate dinner along with special functions? What sort of functions do you host?
Theresa: Yes, it is. We have two private dining rooms where we have functions all the time. One seats 30, the other private dining room seats 14, and those are used very regularly. And then our executive-level boardroom seats 16 very comfortably, it’s absolutely beautiful. And we use that all the time. They can eat in the boardroom or they can certainly come over to the restaurant. Sometimes when they’ve been in a room all day long, it’s nice just to walk away from it for an hour.

    photo of: Thomas Henkelman

NERI: Thomas, you worked with famed German chef Eckart Witzigmann when you were younger, how was working for him different than anything you had experienced before that?
Thomas: Witzigmann was a great chef, he has been named the fourth Chef of the Century from Gault Millau. His cooking was comparable to Robuchon, and so many times during my career I was compared cooking-wise to Robuchon. What made the difference was that every day was a challenge in the sense that Chef Witzigmann had to prove himself on a daily basis, so he put all the pressure back on us, of course. With Witzigmann, in the morning we decided what would be for lunch, what would be cooked for dinner, and you started your preparation as soon as possible. But then during service he would say, “Okay, now there’s a friend of mine, let’s do something different for them, let’s do a tasting menu, what do we have?” It’s the middle of the service, and now you have to create a different menu all over again. Then maybe there was another table, he would say “those are my friends, too, let’s do something different for them.” This man could have made so much money leaving the kitchen and promoting himself or selling his name, which he rarely did. So the restaurant, money-wise, was probably not very profitable. At that time there were only three three-star Michelin restaurants in Germany. Witzigmann really changed German cuisine; he is probably the most influential person in Germany in the culinary field. I left Aubergine in 1988, went back to school to get my Masters Degree, and in 1989 I came to America; in October of that same year the Berlin Wall came down.

NERI: What was it like coming to America and working Le Parker Meridien at the Maurice?
Thomas: Well, my plan was to stay here 18 months to work, my visa was only for 18 months. I didn’t really know what to expect, other than that I would be the chef de cuisine for Maurice at Le Parker Meridien. At that time the only restaurant I really knew about was Le Cirque because it had been open for 19 years. After arriving at Le Parker Meridien and being in charge of Maurice with 20 chefs looking up to me, my English wasn’t too good yet. With the management and in the dining room I could speak French, but in the kitchen, even though it was French food, there were no French people in the kitchen. So if they asked me too many questions I would turn to them and say, ‘Stop asking so many questions, just do it!’ Not very polite, of course, but my vocabulary was very limited. From there I was offered a job at Le Panetiere, where I ran a kitchen for the first time.

NERI: The two of you met originally when you were at the Maurice?
Theresa: No, actually at Le Panetiere. Thomas and I met the day before I started working at Le Panetiere, because I had asked (owner) Jacques Loupiac if I could stage in his kitchen. I wanted to open a restaurant and I knew nothing about the back of the house. I just didn’t understand the symbiosis between the front and the back of the house, and I thought that was a good way to do it. There was a function that Moët & Chandon was doing for all of the really good pastry chefs in the city and Le Panetiere was involved. Jacques called me up and he said, “Ah, Theresa, I need your assistance!” What he really needed was my car to transport things. So I met Thomas that day at the event at the Puck Building.

    photo of: Thomas Henkelman

NERI: Does the restaurant draw more from the business community than it does couples and local food lovers?
Theresa: We’re very fortunate; we have both. We’re a special-occasion kind of place for lots of people, and then we have customers who dine here once or twice a week. Then we do have the business meetings; it’s really a very nice mix.

NERI: Is it difficult to find good staff in Greenwich?
Theresa: No, I don’t think so. Finding people was much more difficult at the beginning. We were setting up a lot of procedures, not so much for the restaurant but for the hotel. We’ve got some terrific people, two that have owned their own restaurants and another who was the manager for Alain Ducasse at the Essex House for their first three years. They have families and they’ve moved out of the city but they still want the kind of living that they could make in the city. They can work for us and still maintain that kind of living, which is very nice for us.

NERI: Thomas, do you want to name some purveyors who’ve helped in your quest to provide the best possible food and dining experience?
Thomas: I’m very loyal to many of my basic suppliers and purveyors. Many of them I’ve worked with already before taking over this business. My story is always going to be about service, quality, a fair price and not having to pick up the phone and say, “I did not get the fish I expected.” So it took me some time, but once I found them I’m very loyal to them. Pagano Fish from Norwalk would probably be one of the names that come to mind as a purveyor. Vermont Quality Meat is where I get my lamb or suckling pig. And then, of course, D’artagnan. We buy from many of the same purveyors that our counterparts in Manhattan buy from.

    photo of: Thomas Henkelman

NERI: Thomas, I heard you’re quite a good athlete, what’s your favorite sport?
Thomas: When I was growing up I did judo, gymnastics, running, many sports, but skiing is probably my favorite sport. I try to go skiing hopefully four or five days a year, but that’s it basically. I learned skiing in Germany growing up in the Black Forest; it was only two hours drive to the French Alps and two hours to the Swiss Alps. So even a day trip was worthwhile, to spend five or six hours skiing.
Theresa: I’m just an “ok” skier, and we used to ski together. Thomas would say, “Oh, let’s go on a skiing vacation”, and then he was on the double-black diamonds all the time and I was like, “Well, isn’t this fun?”

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