Ken Friedman does not drop names, he plants them like seeds. We’re sitting at a table in a narrow hallway off the dining room of his New York City oyster bar John Dory when he causally references his role in promoting the first American U2 shows during his San Francisco college years. This leads to — several minutes later after picking at a plate of bottarga and chili on crackers — a causal mention about how “the guys in the band” (U2) are all his good friends, fans of an empire of restaurants that includes The Spotted Pig, Breslin, Salvation Taco and the forthcoming reboot of Tosca in SF’s North Beach neighborhood, his first non-Gotham opening with chef-partner April Bloomfield. It’s all very effortless. Very Ken Friedman.
The man who stretches well over six feet tall and looks tanned and relaxed after a 10-day vacation at L.A.’s Chateau Marmont with his good friend David Chang, is a former music industry executive who turned restaurateur a decade ago. It’s a career pivot that won awards and a dedicated following for the gregarious, sometimes press-shy, former punk rocker (and Pete Tong body man). But as we find out in the first of a two-part interview, the overlapping worlds of music and food most certainly predates a Tumblr dedicated to the topic. It pre-dates the guy who invented Tumblr being born. And Friedman was right there, calling shots. And ordering farm-to-stadium catering for the Rolling Stones.
What music have you listened to today?
The truth is that I wake up to Hot 97. I listen to hip hop in the shower. Hot 97 basically plays 12 songs, over and over again. You have three by Jay-Z, two by Kanye [laughs]. Hip hop in the morning gets me going. I love music more than ever and a big part of the reason that I transitioned from the music business to the restaurant business is that I didn’t like music. It was my job. I didn’t want to go home and listen to music because my job all day and night was listening to tapes — back when there were tapes — and being locked in a recording studio listening to music super loud, then going to clubs and listening to music super loud. I just wanted to go home and not listen to music. Now that I’m in the restaurant business, I hate restaurants (laughing).
What are you listening to in general?
I just heard the new Bowie single, which is great. I’ve kind of rediscovered MGMT and love them.
Did you like their second album? A lot of people were hating on it, but I think it’s really good.
Not as much as their first, but I like it. I’ve been listening to a lot of old stuff lately, too, like Steely Dan. I was recently in L.A. and my girlfriend and I were driving around and would play a lot of the Laurel Canyon stuff: Nash, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young. We were driving through the mountains in Malibu. I love The Doors.
Oh man, did you play L.A. Woman straight through?
We listened to that album while we were driving on Sunset. I’m into hip-hop now because I was so into rock for so many years. I really got into electronic and loved it. It’s funny because now it has this funny name — electronic dance music or EDM. A lot of my best friends are electronic DJ’s. At The Spotted Pig, two of the eight investors are DJ’s: Pete Tong and Norman Cook [Fat Boy Slim]. When I was head of A&R of London Records in the U.S., Pete Tong was head of A&R of London Records in the U.K. We were always in contact and doing stuff together.
And those DJs know how to enjoy themselves…
When I was trying to figure out what to do with my life — when I turned 40 and kind of had a midlife crisis which resulted in The Spotted Pig opening – I went on tour with Pete Tong. I was kind of his tour manager and booked his hotels. We would stay in great hotels and eat in great restaurants. We went to South America together, all around Europe and did two American tours. A tour for a DJ is basically L.A., Miami, Toronto. You arrive and get picked up, they pay for your hotels and dinner. It’s great.
This whole music-plus-food thing, which everyone thinks is new, is clearly not. Bands have been smart about food and going to great restaurants since when?
Forever. Good food is really important to people. I think musicians probably have a special bond with chefs — and DJs in particular — what they do is really the same thing. You take a bit of this, a bit of that, and you make something out of it — but you don’t necessarily create something new. It’s like a painter. If you’re a painter in 2013, there’s no new ideas and you’re doing what’s been done a lot. A DJ takes existing stuff and mashes it up in his own way. The same as a chef.
Did you go to any of those recent Stones shows that sort of absorbed New York City?
I didn’t go this time. Something kind of weird happened. I was going to go to Barclays Center and then they announced they’re doing New Jersey instead. I waited until they announced shows at the Barclays Center, but they said they were only doing one show. Mick’s daughter is a friend of ours and loves this restaurant. She asked if I was going to come to one of the shows and New Jersey and I told her I was going to wait until the shows at Barclays. She looked at me and said, “You shouldn’t wait. Go!” Now, this is Mick’s daughter talking and she knows something that I don’t know. She looked me in the eye and said that. I don’t know what’s happening but they’re 70 year-old guys.
Do you have any stories with those guys over the years?
I worked with Bill Graham in San Francisco and he did a whole tour in 1981 when I worked with him. I was a kid out of college though.
What kind of stuff did you do with him?
I was in college at UC Berkeley and I was playing in punk rock bands. My bands were bad and no one would hire them. I started putting on shows so that my bands could play and I became the punk rock new wave promoter there. Bill noticed me. I was doing like The Police, U2, Madness, Split Enz, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Clash. He sought me out and kept trying to hire me, but I didn’t want to work for anybody, so we co-promoted shows together. I kind of booked shows and Bill’s company did all the work — built the stage and all of that. The last Police show that I booked for Bill was at Oakland Stadium. I did the second U2 show in San Francisco — they didn’t play for me the first time because they had a big agent and I was right out of UC Berkeley.
Why the second show?
For the first show they played this club and it was bad because it was the wrong place. I tracked down [U2 manager] Paul McGuiness the next morning and called him. I told him that I was at the show and told him that I had a venue that he might like. I asked him if I could pick him up right then and there and show him this ballroom that I controlled and I did. I did the next show without Bill and when they came back again, we did it together.
And can I assume the second night was better?
Amazing. It was great. I had Romeo Void open. [The members of U2] are friends now. They’re all my age now. Very old [laughs].
Were you involved with the catering at these shows? I mean, was there any hint of your future in restaurants?
Bill used to have this guy Narsai David, who had a restaurant called Narsai’s. Along with a few others, he was one of the originators of the farm-to-table California cuisine movement. Bill used to spend a fortune on having Narsai cater all his shows. By the time I got there, it had gotten too expensive and he had stopped using him. I was really a foodie then. I had no money when I was a student at Berkeley, but made some when I started working with Bill Graham. I still lived at Berkeley, even though I worked in San Francisco. I would go to Chez Panisse all the time and dated a girl who worked there.
So you were on the Alice Waters train early?
I love her. I’ve known her forever. She was the very first person who called me yesterday when the thing came out about Tosca in San Francisco — it must have been 6 in the morning her time. She was like, “I am so happy that I am crying! I want to be involved.” Alice Waters wanting to get involved with something of mine? I think we can work that out! She’s a great friend.
So this is your first restaurant outside New York?
How long have you been thinking of doing that?
A long time. I love San Francisco. I love Tosca. It’s the most famous bar in San Francisco. It’s in North Beach, which is an amazing area and right across the street from City Lights Bookstore. It’s 200 feet away from Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope building. When punk rock first started in this country, it all happened right around the corner from Tosca at a club called Mabuhay Gardens.
Did you book there?
No, I never did. I was in bands that played there and got arrested and put in jail for smoking pot outside of it. I spent a lot of time there. I want to use my success in the restaurant business to be able to open up restaurants in places where I want an excuse to spend time in. I don’t want Vegas, I don’t love Philadelphia but we love San Francisco and London. L.A. would make sense — these are places that we want to go to. We’ve always looked at San Francisco; it’s always been first and April loves it there. I go up there a lot and we’ve almost done this project or that project.
Switching locations from the John Dory to the Spotted Pig’s third floor clubhouse, the second half of the interview — running next week — takes on expansion plans and what it’s like to run a restaurant group with Jay-Z.