Amidst the rest of us in this city of glamour, there are a precious few who seem to possess the gift to instantly change a room’s atmosphere by merely stepping into it. They can somehow create instant buzz, a tempered and mesmerizing electricity so powerful you can almost sense the hum of current running through them. When these extraordinary people become entertainment celebrities, they tend to demonstrate the ability to captivate large audiences. When they run for political office, which is a rarity, entire populations can become hypnotized by their words and their leadership. And if they are restaurateurs, customers will find themselves returning time and time again for reasons they often don’t fully understand. Yes, they enjoy the food, but their true motive for making this recurring journey is because they know that the owner or the maitre d’ will be there. Even if it is just to greet you for a few fleeting moments before you’re seated, or for a touch on the shoulder and a few words between courses, it is enough of a calling. They feel at home, somehow elevated and respected, and even needed.
But what if you take the uncommon talent of that restaurateur, throw in the shrewd wisdom of an attorney, and sprinkle in the beauty and allure of Donatella Arpaia? You have someone who can light up a city block with her charisma, someone who finds it second nature to charm the most difficult customer with her glamorous style, someone whose career is currently on a dizzying elevator ride straight up. She may not hypnotize political constituencies, but with a television show in the works, it is quite likely that she will soon be captivating large audiences.
The word “Dona” is Italian for “to give, or donate”, and Ms. Arpaia surely has an uncommon gift for running restaurants with her own defining elegance. She just closed Bellini, the restaurant she opened nine years ago at the age of 24, and in three months converted it into the elegant Dona restaurant within the same space. Dona opened this past March. She is co-owner of the prestigious restaurant David Burke and Donatella, located a mere 9 blocks uptown. But restaurants aren’t opened on glamour alone, and they are not kept running on personality and charm. The house must have talented people both in front and in the back.
Most chefs who are working at a fine dining establishment and have a reasonable budget generally have access to the latest tools and the best ingredients that can be found. But the handful of elite restaurants in the 4-star category are not the only ones who enjoy this access - there are literally thousands of chefs who can afford to purchase the best equipment and the freshest ingredients, and do so regularly. Therefore, it’s a surprise to no one that the chefs who stand out above the rest do it for one reason: technique.
The word “technique” is almost a cliché, a glossy noun used to describe the basic grasping of skill within so many creative arts. To a chef, it implies the subtle application of various tools upon his or her ingredients, using the deft touch of experienced hands and fingers. But the skills that define a successful restaurateur, the techniques of a maitre’d at the front of the house, are more difficult to characterize. Some say that it’s important to have sex appeal and charm. Others point to the unteachable capacity to sense what each dining party is looking to accomplish at their meal before and after seating them. One must possess the ability to solve problems quickly and deal with difficult customers, and be able to smile and greet each customer who walks into your small world as if they are special, so that they begin to feel as if they had been personally invited to join their hosts for supper.
“It’s anticipating your guests’ needs, not just doing what you’re supposed to do,” says Ms. Arpaia, “And I try to teach that. There are rules, but there aren’t rules. You have to know when to break them and when not to break them, and that’s just studying people and psychology. I’m very attuned to people; I can turn any situation around. I can make somebody really work for me because I make it about them, I care about them. You have people who do that, and they’re fake, you know the difference. You have to look in a person’s eyes when you speak to them, not everywhere else.”
Like another successful Italian maitre d’ and restaurant owner, Sirio Maccioni, Ms. Arpaia has a deep understanding of her food, her staff, and her customers. While she literally grew up around restaurants, she was also sheltered from a life inside one by her father. Lello Arpaia had immigrated to New York from Naples, Italy in 1960, and worked his entire life to build a successful restaurant business that included La Tavernetta on Long Island and Scarlatti and Lello in Manhattan.
“Donatella was always fascinated by the glamour of the restaurant business,” Mr. Arpaia said. “One of the things she used to do when she was much younger, she used to come to the restaurant and say ‘Daddy, all you do is walk through the dining room back and forth, you’re really not doing anything.’ And I’d say ‘I’m doing a lot you’re just not seeing it.’ And now she sees it, it’s a lot of work.”
Although Mr. Arpaia seems to have passed on his business acumen and family work ethic to his daughter, he nevertheless imagined a better life for her, which to him meant a traditional corporate job. It was a dream steeped resolutely in love, amidst memories of a lifetime of 16-hour days, so who could blame him? How could he possibly have foreseen that being a restaurateur would bring his daughter such success, both financially and spiritually, and that the career path from corporate lawyer to restaurant owner was no longer a step down, or even a lateral move?
“Growing up, I was surrounded by the restaurant business. But I was never allowed to wait tables like any kid wants to do as a summer job. My father had just worked so hard and he felt that the restaurant life was so tough, and his dream was that I would be a professional - a lawyer or a doctor, whatever education he could afford for me. But that doesn’t mean we didn’t go to restaurants every week. That doesn’t mean I didn’t help with the openings. I was part of the discussions; it was all he talked about. I think you become what you think you want to be, because your parents influence you so much and then one day you’re an adult and you say, ‘you know, I really don’t want to do this.’”
Ms. Arpaia followed her father’s dream and attended St. John’s School of Law, graduated, and started practicing. The problem soon became apparent to her - she hated it. And just months into her new career as corporate lawyer, she began to actively look for restaurant locations, without her father’s knowledge.
“I really love real estate, and I used my contract negotiation skills and found this location. It was a restaurant that was failing and the lease was about to be up. After the deal was pretty much done, I presented it to my father and I told him I was going to do it.”
Ms. Arpaia, the young Manhattan lawyer, was in court the day she found out that the lease for her first restaurant, which would soon become Bellini, was now hers. She couldn’t wait to give notice the next day. She had lasted only seven months as an attorney. But she was happy, and never looked back.
“It was really kind of crazy on my part, and if I knew then what I know now, I don’t know if I would have had the guts to do it,” she recalls.
With help from her father (“He’s a master with construction”), who would become her first chef, a solid month of working day and night led to Bellini’s opening. Ms. Arpaia quickly found out how important it was to be entirely dedicated to her new career. While her 24 year old friends were out partying, she was at Bellini working almost non-stop. When she did have free time, she spent it taking classes at the French Culinary Institute. Her “family dinner” was now a daily 3 p.m. meal she shared with her staff before the dinner rush.
“I was extremely driven and hard working. There was no way this was going to fail. I had put all my life savings into it. I got my hard knocks and I suffered and I learned and I got screwed and sometimes I got swindled. Then I developed my own sense, and my voice could be heard. I wrote handwritten thank you notes to customers. And people really started to back me.”
She often went back to her family for help and advice, a tremendous advantage to any 24 year old, no matter how talented or determined. But gradually she found that in order for her venture to prosper over the long term, she had to find her own voice and her own identity. And that meant weaning herself away from the style of restaurants she had known all her life, away from these very successful businesses her father had spent his life building. The restaurants she had grown up in had formed the backbone of her industry knowledge, but they nevertheless were not the essence of who she felt she was.
“I learned a lot from my father, but at the same time I had so many different ideas. I was conflicted about whether I should go with my instincts. I’d think, ‘but he knows better, he’s been doing this for 40 years.’”
Ms. Arpaia and her Bellini restaurant quickly became well known for its outstanding service, and it eventually developed into a hot spot for celebrities and the wealthy folks of the Upper East Side. She soon discovered that one of her greatest challenges would be in making sure her new “family” of service people around her shared her vision and philosophy. When she opened her second restaurant, David Burke and Donatella, she saw that everything around her had to be a reflection of who she was. She had to get people who shared that philosophy, and that warmth.
“I’m in the service business and I’m not the boss. The customer is the boss. That’s the one thing I’m unforgiving about. If someone is rude to a customer or a client, they don’t have the warmth or the sense of hospitality that I feel is needed in this, I can’t have you work for me, because that’s something usually that doesn’t change. I can teach you my philosophy, but I can’t teach you that.”
She talks about how she feels she may be tougher on the women than the men who work for her, and wonders out loud if she does that because she wants them to succeed, to empower them, to be completely professional when problems arise. She brings up a quote from a book called “The Prophet” by New York poet and philosopher Khalil Gibran, which seems to summarize her personal and work philosophy very neatly. “Work is love made visible,” she says, quoting the Lebanese-born writer. The final two paragraphs of that particular verse, originally published in 1923, reads like a perfectionist’s proverb:
Work is love made visible. And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy.
For if you bake bread with indifference, you bake a bitter bread that feeds but half man’s hunger. And if you grudge the crushing of the grapes, your grudge distills a poison in the wine. And if you sing though as angels, and love not the singing, you muffle man’s ears to the voices of the day and the voices of the night.
While not exactly the advice you’d read to the average waiter or line cook, to Donatella it means that everything is important, and without the stubborn desire for excellence, the cohesive unit that is a working restaurant will falter.
“The restaurant business is like a puzzle. Every day it is falling apart and you have to put it back together again. There are so many pieces of the puzzle that can go wrong. And it’s the one detail that you forget that bites you about a week later. It always comes back to haunt you. So you really have to be a master of details and a perfectionist in this business. If you make a mistake it’s fine. But when you are arrogant or rude to a customer, I can’t tolerate it. Because that’s my lifeline.”
Glamour & Clothing
With success comes scrutiny, and when Ms. Arpaia walks the floor at DBD Restaurant or Dona, she is the butterfly, chatting with some patrons, sitting down with others, smiling at everyone. But if there is something out of place or an imperfection somewhere, her eye catches it instantly, and like a cat she pounces. Problem solved. All the while, she realizes that she is being watched by a crowd that will notice if she wears a dress twice in the same millennia, if her hair is different, or if she happens to look a bit tired that evening.
“I have a very expressive face. Everything shows on my face. I remember when I first came here, now I am on a bigger stage, there’s so much pressure on me and I have to look perfect every night. Everyone expects me to be smiling and bubbly all the time. They don’t know that the air conditioning just went down or the bathroom had a problem. They don’t realize that. I can’t have an off day. I always have to have my make up on and I always have to look 100%, because people are unforgiving. They will tell me, ‘I don’t like how you looked the other day’ and ‘you cut your hair short or longer’ or ‘you gained 5 pounds,’ or ‘you lost 5 pounds’. And I’m thinking, wow, everyone is looking, observing every part of me.”
How Donatella looks, what she is wearing that night, and how well she entertains are all part of her allure, and the popularity of her restaurants grew along with it. She was constantly inspired and affected by the beautiful women who came into Bellini every day. This reputation for style and service led to her success, along with David Burke’s fantastic culinary skills (“he’s the most creative man I’ve ever met,” Donatella says of Burke), of her second restaurant, David Burke and Donatella. But soon she realized that Bellini was not completely faithful to the person she had become. She decided it was time for a change, and arranged to have it shut down and redesigned. But before that, she became involved in a Soho restaurant named AMA, with which she is no longer involved.
“I walked away from a successful business,” she said, explaining why her relationship with AMA and its chef owner Turibio Girardi didn’t work out, “and I was not happy. Even though I created it and I was pretty much responsible for it, I knew that it wasn’t going to work. We had such a different philosophy. My reputation is everything, and I didn’t want anyone to hurt it, so I didn’t want to be associated with that restaurant anymore. And it was taking away from my energy here. So I walked away.”
With the successful opening of Dona and her prudent decision to bring in Onera chef Michael Psilakis as chef and part-owner, things are moving smoothly enough now so that she has set her sights on the future. Could that mean another Manhattan restaurant? “I’m looking, yes, and I have two spots I’m looking at seriously. I may also consider Vegas or Atlantic City,” she says. But while running restaurants will remain her fundamental livelihood, her knack for stylistic entertaining has led her toward some very different, albeit related directions. She has created a demo for a television show, and is close to signing an agreement for its production. It’s not all about food; it will essentially combine all that she has learned as Manhattan’s premier restaurant hostess. Or as she prefers to say, “It’ll be like Sex in the City meets Martha Stewart. But I’m definitely going to be in stilettos.”
She believes that there is a growing niche for someone to become the voice for her generation when it comes to entertaining, cooking, and domesticity. While there are others in this field ahead of her, Donatella seems to have distinct advantages over each of them. Although she admires Martha Stewart tremendously, she doesn’t feel that Ms. Stewart represents women her age.
“Martha Stewart is an icon, but I don’t relate to her, she’s not my generation. I would never be caught with a glue gun. I would never bake my own wedding cake. But I can tell a woman that she doesn’t have to be grilling turkey burgers and microwaving, I don’t believe in that either. I think that if I impart my knowledge about buying and shopping, knowing who your butcher is and your fish person and cheeses and learning about products, that’s half the battle. If you learn how to shop, you know how to cook. And the women will relate to me, because I do work. I’m tired, I’m busy, but I do want to show people that I know how to entertain, and it’s fabulous when I do it. I don’t hide my femininity at all.”
She is also working on a book that will include all this knowledge on cooking, buying, and entertaining. She refers to it as “kind of like the girlfriend’s guide to entertaining.” The book began its life as a cookbook, but she decided that a glamorous book that combines food, cooking, and entertaining would be more insightful, not to mention more fun.
Some of the Restaurateurs that she admires the most are Daniel Boulud, Jean-Georges Vongrichten, and Lidia Bastianich, a selection that indicates that she appreciates style and elegance. She recalls one evening when she took her managers to dinner at Jean-Georges restaurant, and her cell phone battery died just before she had to make an important call. The restaurant didn’t have a spare charger, so Jean-Georges took the battery out of his own cell phone and let her use it. She left the restaurant that evening impressed with his gesture, and blown away by the service and food. “I think he’s a genius, and the level and style of food that he serves has influenced so many other chefs, and it’s seen everyday now,” she said. And yes, she did give the battery back.
But the real measure of Donatella’s success was in pleasing her toughest critic and biggest supporter, her father Lello. “I’m very proud of her and my other two children because they’re great human beings first,” said Mr. Arpaia. “And I think that is the real wealth that a father can identify with. The rest is business, and they’re doing very well at that too.”
To see her new products, especially her line of tomato sauce which will be carried exclusively by Whole Foods for three months before being offered everywhere else, is to make her philosophy visible in everything she does. She bemoans the tendency of other chefs to put their names on food that they would not use in their own restaurants. Her sauce will be made without any preservatives, using fresh tomatoes and ingredients from Italy. It will be created the slower, old fashioned way, which in Donatella’s mind is the only way.
“I’m extremely traditional in certain ways and extremely modern in certain ways. And I think that reflects everything I do, from my design, which is modern and yet traditional elements as well, from my products that I use. I’m this modern urban woman, and the products I use are very old world. I’m looking in the past for my future.”
Her advice to other women who dream of being a restaurant owner is to educate themselves, and obtain well-rounded experience in both the front of the house and the back and in all aspects of the business, so that they can be an effective owner. But the most important thing can’t be learned at a culinary school. You have to really love it.
“It’s really a way of life and it’s more than just a job, so you have to be passionate about it. I really think that you should not listen to everybody. And women too, I think there’s a tendency to try to act like a man if they’re unsure of themselves, because it’s such a male dominated industry. I think they should really know who they are and be proud of their talent, their professionalism to be the best at what they do. And if you are perfect at what you do, then everything else falls into place.”