Prime is the third fine dining establishment from the Bohlsen family, who own and operate Tellers Chophouse in Islip and H2O Seafood Grill in Smithtown, New York. Prime’s menu is under the direction of Executive Chef Richard Farnabe, who joined Prime after managing stints as private chef for Tommy Hilfiger, Executive Chef at Montrachet, and late-night chef for Lotus New York. Farnabe honed his classic French cooking skills working with Jacques Maximin for ten years in France, and in New York with Daniel Boulud at Restaurant Daniel and Jean-Georges Vongerichten at Jean-Georges and Mercer Kitchen.
The building, former home to summer nightclub Coco’s, was completely refurbished, and was designed by Architect Jim Wood. The exterior of Prime is reminiscent of a traditional American-style boathouse and brings together different environments for varied dining menus in the main dining room, The Vine Rooms, The Wave Bar and The Lodge. New water view dining areas with dedicated menus will be introduced throughout spring and summer 2007.
Restaurant Insider spoke with Chef Richard Farnabe and owner Michael Bohlsen about the restaurant, which opened this past December.
NYRI: How did you find a chef like Richard Farnabe?
Michael Bohlsen: I’d been looking for a chef for 8 months, this had been 2 years in the making to open the place, and on the last day as Antonello (Paganuzi, the restaurant’s GM) and I went to the office to put together a job offer for another chef, in the fax machine was Richard’s resume. So it was literally at the 11th hour and so we looked at his resume and we thought it was a joke. Antonello thought there was no way that after looking for 8 months this resume just comes through the fax machine. Richard came out on Friday and toured the place, came back out on Monday and did a tasting for us. We offered him a job and he took it in 3 days. One day, either way, and it wouldn’t have happened, and he’s a wonderful guy to work with.
NYRI: What type of cuisine did you want to bring here to Prime?
Michael Bohlsen: We tried to take old ideas and put a new twist on them. I’m kind of a believer that American cuisine really encompasses every cuisine; sushi is American, everything is American, and we’ve put our own stamp on it. People are much more apt to try different foods then they were, especially on Long Island where the dining scene has changed a lot in the last 10 years.
NYRI: Your family has quite a history in the restaurant industry, especially your father.
Michael Bohlsen: My dad had one Arby’s restaurant in Deer Park, New York, and over the next 13 years he turned it into 55 Arby’s and he became the president of the Arby franchise association, so basically he was the head of the entire company. He sold the company in the early 80s and started getting into casual dining, and as time went on I became more involved in the company. By the middle of the 1990’s we had three restaurants. We opened a steakhouse called Terra Steakhouse and after that success we created a seafood restaurant, H2O in Smithtown, then Tellers in Islip. Working with your family is very, very tough because this is a stressful business. But I spend about a day a week with my father on Saturdays and one afternoon during the week, and other then that I can use him as a resource, and we’re very lucky.
NYRI: Was there a different approach you took to this restaurant as opposed to others you’ve opened?
Michael Bohlsen: When Antonello was designing the concept we said we wanted to pretend there was a 50 foot wall between us and the water so that you’re going to come here regardless of the view, and the outside is going to be just a little added something. In the winter a lot of restaurants on the water don’t do any business, and we invested enough money in here that we’ll do business all year long. So we wanted to have the strength of the cuisine, so that people would be able to come here January 10th or July 10th and be just as happy either way.
NYRI: Where did your inspiration for cooking originate?
Richard Farnabe: When I was very young, around 10 years old in Paris, I used to cook for my brother after school because my parents came home very late. They used to leave us some money to go to the market for dinner, so we used to go there after school, buy vegetables, fruit, meat, whatever we had to buy, and I cooked for my brother. Then I went to cooking school in Paris for 3 years, and then I was offered a job working for Jacques Maximin.
NYRI: Maximin was the first of many famous chefs you’ve worked for, what were your roles in the kitchen of Chef Maximin?
Richard Farnabe: I started from the bottom; for one year when you start cooking in France you start cleaning vegetables. You’re not a good chef in France until you’ve been working 10 years. So, for ten years I followed Maximin everywhere he opened a place, Paris, Brussels, French Riviera, he opened many places and I was following him everywhere. He was the only chef cooking with olive oil in 1975, no other restaurant at the time used to do this. They used to call him the Mozart of the kitchen. Jacques knew Daniel (Boulud) and Daniel of course knew Jacques, and he just gave me the connection and sent me to Daniel in New York. But when I came here it was a different story, I am the sous chef and I am coming to Daniel, am I going to be a chef? No, it doesn’t work that way, you have to start again.
NYRI: What were the primary differences for you, between working in New York and working in Europe?
Richard Farnabe: New York has different produce, different clients, and different technique as well. I arrived just before it got the 4 star rating and Daniel was doing 200 covers a night. In France you don’t do 200 covers a night, you do 80 covers a night and everything is made at the moment. I didn’t speak any English, not even one word of English when I came to Daniel; that was very, very difficult. Daniel used to put the orders on tickets for the line and I didn’t understand what they meant, so my partner used to draw pictures of lamb or beef or duck and he used to show me the picture and I’d understand what he’s looking for. It’s frustrating to know how to cook but you do not understand what is going on!
NYRI: After that, what was it like working with Jean Georges and opening Mercer Kitchen?
Richard Farnabe: Jean Georges is a little bit more relaxed. During service only Daniel speaks, nobody else. At Jean Georges, Jean Georges lets the chef and sous run the show, either one just supervising everything. It was a different organization and at Jean Georges there were 120 cooks so it was a big, big kitchen, a big organization. It included room service and everything else. It was my idea to stay with Jean Georges for a long period of time, but the group took a different direction. Then I was corporate chef for Myriad Group for Drew Nieporent, and at the time we were looking for a place and I was concepting for him, but the timing was wrong, nothing was available, so I said when you’re ready, Drew, just call me back again and we can do our own thing again, so I went to work for Tommy Hilfiger as a personal chef.
NYRI: how did you come to work in Long Island?
Richard Farnabe: I was working at Montrachet and one day Drew decided to close the restaurant. He just came in one night on Monday night and he said, “Okay, we closing tonight.” So of course I have to look for something, so my wife was online and we saw internet positions posted in Long Island. I was not excited to go to Long Island but she said, “Just send your resume,” so I sent my resume. The manager and I knew so many people in common and he recognized where I worked and gave me a call right away.
NYRI: Is there a difference in how you cook for a fine dining client in Huntington, Long Island than in Manhattan?
Richard Farnabe: You want something simpler here, something you recognize, so we have to cook things people can recognize and not be shocked about the food. I don’t want to put some crazy add-ons on the food like you can find in New York. So you have to cook nicely, tasty, and recognizable so people recognize what you do. A lobster has to be a lobster. You can put a touch of anything inside, but they have to recognize the lobster. They don’t want the lobster be mixed with some sauce so they cannot see the lobster. Also the variety of the food, here we have 20 appetizers and 20 main courses including the sushi bar, so people have the choice of picking anything they want.
NYRI: Can you find the influences of Jacques or Daniel or Jean Georges in the Prime menu?
Richard: I worked for these people for so many years, but I just put everything on the side and say “I’m doing my own cooking.” I might have some spices from Jean Georges, some meat from Maximin, all the soup and the French classics from Daniel, but I don’t create anything. I just reproduce what I learn. I take all the ideas, not recipes, but the ideas and the techniques of cooking and you incorporate all of this idea into your cooking.