How to Become King of the Jungle

by Alan Philips
08.12.2010

“Things may come to those who wait, but only the things left by those who hustle.”
- Abraham Lincoln

I often wonder why people born within a 50-mile radius of Manhattan are so prevalent in the business world. You can travel all over the world and you will see them—in Hong Kong, Los Angeles, Miami, and London—working, harder, faster, and smarter to extract more out of life. It’s not just in business though, it pervades all areas of our existence. It is just the way we function. From a young age our environment shows us what we must do: either we accept what the world gives us or we shape the world around us into our desires and dreams. 

After I got my first big break (recognition by a business worth hundreds of millions of dollars), my business partner, Josh, and I applied all of our skills toward making this client’s business a tremendous success. When we achieved that goal and successfully launched the project, the organization’s Vice President of Marketing said to us, casually, “You guys are incredible, but you got to stop hustling.”  When I heard this I was hurt, much more than he or I probably expected. I had just put my heart and soul into launching a multimillion dollar business for this corporate behemoth, and on top of it, I looked up to this man. His comment, for the moment, sullied our achievement. It felt dirty, like because we didn’t sell our soul to the man, wake up at 8 a.m., rock a Men’s Warehouse suit, and check out before the job was done, our success was somehow criminal. This comment stuck in my side for years after that, as I always wondered whether our desire to do anything (within reason) to achieve the end goal was wrong.  That the fire that was lit from the playground pick-up games, trading baseball cards, telemarketing mobile phones, and starting out as an entrepreneur at the age of 14, was somehow suddenly bad.

The truth is, though, that all those things I was questioning at that moment and for years to come were what separate those of us who are born and raised in Manhattan and the surrounding areas from the rest of the world. Rich, poor, young, old, we are all hustling to make our dreams come to life and get our piece. Mr. Vice President of Marketing, you got it all wrong. You got to start hustling, baby, you ought to know. I am from New York, and I hustle ‘cause it’s in my soul.

And this brings me to John DeLucie. For those of you who don’t know, John DeLucie, is chef and partner in the current “king of cool” restaurant, The Lion. Mr. DeLucie’s story is an interesting one filled with food, desire, and ambition. As expected, he is one of us, born and raised in Merrick, Long Island, and he did not begin cooking in any capacity professionally until he was 29 years old. (Now, I am just as guilty as any of you. At 31, I regularly think that I cannot change my path, but John was able to change from corporate salesman to celebrity chef, so for those of you scared to jump, there is your inspiration.) Now around 50 years old and divorced twice, every action has a reaction, and he could easily pass for a youthful 35 year old. His culinary career started at Dean and Deluca and went up and down like a roller coaster until he landed with Eric Goode and Sean Macphearson at La Bottega, almost 10 years ago. From there he was able to cook and talk his way into becoming chef and partner at Graydon Carter’s Waverly Inn in 2007. With simple food based off of the original Waverly’s menu from Prohibition, along with massive hype and an everyday guy’s personality, John won the hearts of the Waverly’s clientele, both celebrities and non-celebrities alike. He parlayed this success into a book deal and now into his helm as chef and partner of the city’s hottest new restaurant, The Lion.

The Lion is a reincarnation of a 1960s village hotspot, where Barbra Streisand was discovered after winning a talent contest. It has been restored impeccably, with a beautifully classic and comfortable bar area and a dining room boasting dramatic 20-foot ceilings. This room is adorned with an incredible collection of art including multiple Basquiats and other recognizable pieces from one of the partner’s personal collections. I recently visited the restaurant on a Thursday evening, and though pleasantly surprised by the scene and ambiance, I was less than impressed with the Maitre d’. The door is run by a skinny and self important gentleman with little skill in the art of saying “no”. As anyone in the hospitality business knows, there is a good way and a bad way to say the most powerful word in the English language. We got our reservation through a friend for 10 p.m., and ended up having to wait 45 minutes.  We enjoyed the scene and generously poured cocktails, but when requesting our table we were offered one in the bar area. The Maitre d’ quipped, “You can have it, but it is a shitty table.” Now if I was John and I had worked 50 years to achieve this level of success, I would quickly deactivate this incompetent from being the first interaction I have in this restaurant, because, as they say, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” Unless, of course, you are Adriana Lima. Once we got seated in this dining room it was as close to an incredibly beautiful woman as any dining room I have seen.

Entering the main room of this restaurant is an experience in itself. Our entire meal from this point was filled with exemplary service and food. New Yorkers are always looking to try something new, but when it comes down to it, all we really want is a little action and well prepared, simply delicious cooking. Reference Minetta Tavern, Raoul’s, Waverly Inn, Odeon, Pastis—they are all just riffs on classically prepared bistro or pub fare, with great drinks, fabulous lighting, and a good looking crowd. The Lion hits on all cylinders. I am not sure why people like Sifton or Platt feel the need to look for something more in these restaurants. They give people what they want and that is all that really matters. 

We started our meal with 12 deliciously fresh Kumamoto Oysters, a standard bistro style beet and goat cheese salad, and artichoke fritters with Meyer lemon and baby leeks. Although the oysters were incredibly sweet and flavorful, the appetizers where nothing more than well prepared versions of what DeLucie from the Waverly Inn is known for. The high notes of the meal definitely came from the main courses. My lady started with a beautifully presented Lamb Porterhouse, served upright and seasoned to perfection. I couldn’t resist ordering the “Special Blend” Burger, which I had watched pass by me so many times that evening. I did not believe it could taste as good as it looked, but the perfectly fatty meat topped with smoked gouda, bacon, and caramelized onion was perfection in every way. I tasted the pan-seared Halibut with fruits de mer, serrano ham, baby fennel, yellow and red pepper, and saffron broth. It was well prepared but a little too salty for my taste. I was also able to taste the homemade sheep’s milk cavatelli with San Marzano tomatoes, oregano, and Castella's olive oil, which was once again simple and nicely prepared. We had a hard time navigating desserts, as there was not one over-the-top exciting item, so we settled on apple beignets. They were nicely executed but lacked that memorable sweetness that finishes a great meal. On the way out, I ended up meeting John DeLucie and followed that by arranging coffee at his quasi-office in Mcnally’s Morandi. 

Over espresso, DeLucie wowed me with stories of his past and charmed me with his down-to-earth personality and thankfulness for where life has taken him. DeLucie is just a guy from New York, like any of you. But guys born and raised in New York are celebrities to the rest of the world, especially when provided the right introductions and platforms to showcase their hustle. DeLucie got his shot and he is making the most of it. My meal at The Lion was not groundbreaking, but it was very good and my hunch is that toward the fall it will keep getting better. DeLucie and his team will work harder and longer than the next guy because it took so much of him to get to where he is today. John and I laughed when we realized that my pop-up restaurant and his biography share the same name, The Hunger. Both names taken from the 1980s David Bowie/Susan Sarandon movie and identified with because of a boundless passion for food combined with desire and unbridled ambition. I live everyday looking for the platform to showcase my hustle like DeLucie, sleeping with one eye open so I don’t miss the shot. So if you were born in Manhattan, the boroughs, or just have that unmistakable desire running through your veins, when you get your chance, don’t hesitate, just show the world what you learned on the playground.  

Live deliciously and see you next time at Cocktail Hour, where more often than not one drink turns into ten and no one knows where and when the night will end.
-AP

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