In part two of our interview with recovering music exec — turned restaurant empire builder — Ken Friedman, the scene shifts to the third floor of The Spotted Pig, the restaurant’s private event space and big-boys clubhouse. We’re sipping pilsner on a cold weekday afternoon while members of his staff eat family meal in the background. (Also see: Part 1 of interview.)
“I treat April the way I treated bands when I signed them,” he says of his British-imported chef/partner. “I never said, ‘Turn the bass up’ or ‘I don’t like the vocals’ or ‘I don’t like the sequence.’ I was a failed musician, so if I signed a band that was great, the last thing I was going to do was to tell successful musicians how to do their thing.” We’re discussing his hands-off approach to menu development, which he leaves to his hired guns including Andrew Carmellini at Locanda Verde and Damon Wise at Monkey Bar. He has stakes in both restaurants, and jokes that the real reason behind his Monkey Bar collaboration with Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter was “solely to get my mother into the Oscar’s party.” With awards on the mind, we get to business.
What do you think of the James Beard Awards?
I don’t know, it’s hard to tell. I think James Beard is a great guy and the fact that the foundation is keeping alive his legacy is great. It’s great for us because every single restaurant that does a James Beard Award night always ends up at The Spotted Pig a few blocks away to eat and drink.
Would you compare the awards to the Grammys?
I think The Grammys were never ever about rock and roll. I wouldn’t say that The James Beard Awards are anywhere near as bad as the Grammys are. They gave a Best Metal Performance award to Jethro Tull after all. The Beards are fun for all of us to get a chance to get dressed up and go and prance around.
What’s your comment on The Spotted Pig’s tradmark situation with Gordon Ramsay?
It’s hard to have a comment, you know? If we take him at his word, what he told us is that people who work for him are very aggressive and they decided that they are going to get into the gastropub business in a big way and reserved every single gastropubby name they could, including, but not limited to, The Spotted Pig.
So it was like a lawyer thing?
It was one of his people. He sent us a nice email saying that it was a fuck up and he was sorry and would give us back the name.
We said, “With all due respect, you don’t have the name, you just applied for it and we’re going to challenge it and you’re not going to get it anyway, so why don’t you just drop the challenge?” And he did. Everyone thinks he’s an asshole and I don’t want to say that he’s not because he probably is. I don’t really know him. He’s been here and has said complimentary things to people about us and about April specifically. He’s probably a jerk, but he wasn’t a jerk in this regard.
You guys aren’t in the business of expanding The Spotted Pig brand, are you? Like, you’re not about to open 12 Spotted Pigs…
Not even two Spotted Pigs right now. But it would be nice to have the option. Everybody wants to date the girl that doesn’t want to date them. The month we opened this place, Vegas came calling. We could have opened Spotted Pigs in Vegas and been millionaires in 2004. April and I were really in-sync, though, and agreed that The Spotted Pig exists on the corner of West 11th and Greenwich Street. We could do a Spotted Cow or Striped Pig.
You might have to fight a beer company for Spotted Cow.
Is there really a Spotted Cow beer?
The reason why The Spotted Pig is called The Spotted Pig is for two reasons. One is that pubs in the old days were public houses for poor people who couldn’t read and had to work in the farms and stuff. There was no point in putting up a sign with letters, so they would hang a pig or wooden cow or a wooden duck or Queen Elizabeth – something that people could say, “Let’s meet at this place and not at that place.” Also, because I have collected pigs all my life. My friends wanted me to clean my apartment out and the way to do that was to open The Spotted Pig and put them all in here.
This room we’re sitting in is the private dining room?
It’s another kitchen. It’s a test kitchen and a room that we choose to not have as another floor of the public. It’s mostly for ourselves and occasionally we’ll do events if it’s friends and only people we know. Whenever Jamie Oliver is in town, he’ll do things up here. When Mario Batali and our chef friends want to hang, we’ll come up here. It’s like an apartment. It could be an apartment, we just chose not to rent it out as one. It’s a luxury that most New York restaurants don’t have — a space to just do whatever. It’s a lot of foodie people and a lot of chefs. There’s a lot of stuff we do here with James Beard chefs and we’ll do wine and beer pairings. It’s a very foodie kind of room and we don’t really advertise it as party space. Otherwise, it’s too much wear and tear on the building.
You have a relationship with nature’s sweetest herb…
Yeah, and we’ve lost deals because I’ve shot my mouth off in the press about that. It’s like saying that I’m into wine. I don’t have a relationship with hard drugs, but weed should be legalized. You shouldn’t have to call up a criminal to come into your home to open up his bag to sell you weed. You should be able to buy it anywhere and the state should tax it. It would help the economy tremendously.
We’ve seen some interesting legislation in the last six months, with Colorado and Washington State passing decrominalization measure. The Times wrote a really interesting story about how these days it’s basically like wine in L.A.
The state of California is broke and it needs to tax. People were making money off marijuana as organized crime and now the states are receiving valuable tax dollars. It’s like having wine. I’m not an alcoholic, nor am I a weedaholic.
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