If you have a penchant for fine dining, chances are you’ve eaten at one of Michael White’s eight Manhattan restaurants. The list: Marea, Osteria Morini, Ai Fiori, Nicoletta, Costata, The Butterfly, Ristorante Morini and his newest, Vaucluse, which opened last month on the corner of Park Avenue and 63rd Street.
The Wisconsin native trained in the north of Italy, and as a result, only serves homemade pasta to his guests. His newest venture, Vaucluse, invokes the south of France and Paris, and White describes it as very warm and inviting. Although it is only a month old, he said, “We’ve already had people that have been there seven, eight, 10 times. That very much speaks to the due diligence and the time we spent as a team building it.”
As the co-owner of the Altamarea Group, White works with a staff of over 1,000, which has enabled him to expand overseas with eateries in Hong Kong, Istanbul and London. And he is not planning on halting that growth anytime soon. “I’m having a lot of fun. When I don’t have fun anymore, then we’ll stop,” he said.
Is it true you always knew you wanted to be a chef? Oh, definitely. Cooking with my father as a young person, just being in the kitchen. I also cooked with my grandmother. It was obviously premature, before Food Network and such. So, when I told my father that I was going to be a chef, he wasn’t too pleased right off the bat. Being a chef back then, in the late 80s, you were flipping burgers somewhere or working as a short-order cook. It wasn’t thought of as what it is today, that’s for sure.
Having trained in Italy, what do you miss about cooking there?You know I have to say, when I first started my career working in Italy as a young person, it was a mind-blowing experience. Being able to work with the products firsthand and being right at the source is such an amazing thing. But as you know now, we are able to get all those products here in such an easier way. But when I first started cooking Italian food, we didn’t have all those things that we do today. Missing obviously being in Italy, but I have to say that we’re very fortunate in America and around the world to have great Italian products.
What’s a dish you serve at one of your restaurants that has a lot of meaning to you?I would definitely say the lobster and burrata that we do at Marea. It’s stracciatella, pickled eggplant, lobster, tomato and basil. A very simple dish, but combining lobster and a milk product is not usually one of those things that you do. That was one of the first dishes that was solidified on the menu. It has never left the menu and I’ll probably never take it off unless we can’t get good product one day.
Tell us about some interesting requests that customers have made.We’re in the hospitality business, so we get everything. Obviously gluten is a very popular issue right now. Whether we’re toasting somebody’s gluten-free bread at one of the restaurants that they bring in, we’re very accommodating. We know that people have dietary restrictions, so we like to accommodate as best we can. Some of the weird things, I have to tell you ... . Even adults are like children. “I don’t want my vegetables to touch my protein.” I have to say when we get to a certain age, I can’t believe we’re still there. But we make it happen for everybody.
How is your new restaurant Vaucluse different from your others?We’re building a client base that loves French food in a relaxed atmosphere with touches of the south of France and Paris. It’s a big and comfortable restaurant with a menu that has lots of choices, so you can come back many times and use it as a neighborhood restaurant. It’s different than Marea, which is in Columbus Circle. Vaucluse is on Park Avenue. It’s not too fancy, so it invokes France, but not too much. It’s a very warm place where you can come back numerous times.
As far as the future goes, will you continue to open restaurants?I tell you, all the restaurants we have, we only have one management deal. All the other restaurants we own as Altamarea Group. We keep building restaurants as long as we have our team members that are growing along with us. It’s very difficult to open restaurants as you know, so we’re building teams to work at these restaurants, and then take team members out of these restaurants and go ahead and keep going. I don’t think we’re gonna stop anytime soon. We’re over 1,000 people in the Altamarea Group and things are going quite well.
So how do you make time for your family in the midst of all this?Wow, it’s very difficult. I can barely get on the phone with you! My daughter Francesca is in seventh grade. She has school, extracurricular activities and birthday parties. It’s a good time. The tough time is in the summer when my daughter is away at camp. But I know she’s having a great time. Sundays, we all get together and cook. We make time for sure.
If you were going out to eat in the city with your wife and daughter, where would you take them?That is a really tough question. We cook a lot of Italian food at home, so we’re always going for Korean or something like that. Sundays we’ll go to dim sum in Chinatown. Those are the kinds of thing I do with my girls.