After airing his views on “Sensory Deprivation” at the Fashion Culture Design conference, former Condé Nast editorial director James Truman discussed his life as a restaurateur.
Eleven years ago he unceremoniously exited the magazine world, giving up the top editorial job he’d acquired at the age of 35 to move to Spain for a stretch. Upon his departure, Truman told The New York Times’ late media critic David Carr, “I think you have to step away from comfort. If I stayed here, it would essentially be a repetition of what I had already done.”
Nix, his University Place vegetarian restaurant, is “going gangbusters,” so much so that Truman recently soundproofed it to ensure dinner conversations would be just that. Truth be told, his culinary pursuits are creatively challenging and of-the-moment culturally. “Food touches everything right now. It’s fashion, it’s culture, it’s politics, it’s society, it’s history, it’s the future — It’s so amazing how it just has a foot in everything,” he said. “As I said on the panel, it’s one of the industries that Steve Jobs couldn’t kill because people still need to eat. That ritual of eating, I think when you’re so dispersed in your mind so much of the time and you’re connected with people who you’re not connected with, the actual sitting down to eat becomes actually more magical and more meaningful in a digital age.” http://wwd.com/fashion-news/fashion-features/gary-wassner-andrew-rosen-fashion-week-fcd-new-school-1
Owning a restaurant requires tapping into some of his editorial past. “Because of my history, I find restaurants not unlike magazines. It’s an experience where every honed detail creates excitement and memory,” he said. “What I like about restaurants, and I don’t like about media, is that you experience the thing with the audience. With the media, you see it in a focus group and you hear about what people thought of what you’ve done. When you open a restaurant, you’re there every night, you see how people are responding, what they’re eating, what they’re talking about, how long they stay and how much they want to drink.
“This is all kind of beautiful information to synthesize because you’re seeing an actual experience unfold in front of you and it sort of feeds into your interpretation of what you need to do differently and what you need to do better,” he continued. “It is somewhere between media and theater with this elemental experience of eating.”
The fashion crowd may recall Truman’s wide-ranging interests and occasional Buddhist monastery stays. He also has teamed with hotelier André Balazs to create one of their favorite London haunts — the Chiltern Firehouse — among other projects.
Once Nix starts serving lunch in September, Truman said he will zero in on finding restaurant No. 2 “probably in Manhattan.” Uncertain about whether that will be uptown or downtown, the location will absolutely be vegetarian. The way things stand about half of Nix’s diners are “self-defined vegetarian — people who know instinctively that they don’t want to eat as much meat and fish as they used to,” he said.
With chef John Fraser (of Dovetail fame) manning the kitchen, Truman said of Nix, “That really is who we’re there for. We’re not there necessarily just to be another diehard vegetarian restaurant with patchouli oil and Birkenstocks. We’re trying to make vegetables as fun and sexy and hospitable as a meat or fish restaurant is. Vegetarian restaurants have generally been these rather joyless restaurants where everyone looks slightly ill, and the service is terrible and the wine list has no thought given to it. We want to sort of reclaim, rebrand the vegetarian restaurant for people who just naturally find themselves wanting to eat more vegetables and less animal proteins.”
As anyone who has punched the clock in a kitchen can attest to, the dining life is a different story when you help run the joint. The work day tends to elasticize. “I am ashamed to say I haven’t read a book since we opened the restaurant because it is a 14-hour day job,” Truman said.
“So I have no summer reading list, and no book that I am currently in the middle of — other than cook books. I tend to just read food media now — I like all the blogs, I like Food & Wine, all the apps, Saveur — I think they’re all doing such a good job. It’s such an exciting time for food.”