Interview With James Beard Semifinalist Myles Chefetz, Part Two

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Photo by Seth Browarnik/Red Eye Productions
Myles Chefetz
In Part Two of our interview with restaurateur Myles Chefetz, we discuss celebrities who dine at Prime One Twelve, his new hotel, and other upcoming projects. For more information about the James Beard semifinalist for Outstanding Restaurateur, see Part One of our interview with the man who owns Prime One Twelve, Prime Italian, Prime Hotel, Big Pink, Nemo, and Shoji Sushi.

New Times: How often do you change the menu at the various restaurants?

Myles Chefetz: They change. In fact, I'm coming up with a new menu at Big Pink in the next couple of weeks. Nemo is really evolving. I'm going to be changing the concept there. That restaurant has been open for 15 years. I want to do a broader-based fish concept. My plans are to redo that in the summer. I might even change the name. But I will keep the signature Nemo dishes, like the wok-charred salmon and the prawns. At Prime One Twelve, we are constantly coming up with new ideas. As soon as I come up with a new idea, it ends up on six other local menus. It's quite flattering, but it's kind of annoying too.

Too bad you can't trademark this stuff.

No, you can't. You can only protect the format if it's likely to cause confusion.

Your portions are so huge. How much food is wasted?

We charge a lot. I believe that you have to give people value. They will pay more if you give them value. There's a secondary marketing intention with that. People all take the bags to go. I see people coming out of Prime One Twelve and it looks like they just came from Epicure because they are carrying so many bags. We go through a tremendous amount of paper products. They are eating that again, so they are thinking about Prime One Twelve the next day, or maybe even the day after. It's the same thing at Big Pink. It's an American gluttonous concept. I don't know if it would work in Europe. Some people complain about the portion sizes, but then if you make it a little bit smaller, they flip out. Once you start with something like this, I believe you can't change. Then you're just looking for trouble. They are going to say, "Myles is cutting back and we're not getting as much value as we used to."

Your customers are very demanding, it seems. Is that important for you to have that open-door policy with your clientele?

It is. I make myself very accessible to the customers. My cell phone number is on my business card, so obviously I'm accessible. Everyone who gets my card now has my cell phone number. During Christmas week, I get 300 to 400 texts a day for reservations. Here's the line always: "Myles, I hate to bother you." It always ends with: "Will you be there?" When I write my book, it's going to be called Will You Be There? And it's the same whether it's a person who is unknown [or] a major celebrity. Sometimes I feel guilty if I'm talking to a big-time celebrity and a local is looking at me. I never want them to think I'm paying special attention to the celebrity. I've made myself very accessible, almost too accessible. You won't see me sitting down at a table at 9 p.m. on any night eating dinner. I like to be working the room. And I always felt that people would look down on me while they are waiting two hours with a reservation and the owner is sitting there eating. It doesn't look good.

I've known you for 15 years, and I think you've probably sat down with me only once, and that was back during the Nemo days.

It was probably 11 p.m. at night. And I was probably squirming in my chair. Typically, I eat at 1 a.m. I sit down when the kitchen is about to close.

What do you eat at 1 a.m.?

The first year Prime One Twelve opened, I ate steak every night and my cholesterol went soaring through the roof. I gained a lot of weight. Now I try to cut back on the heavy meat at 1 a.m. I eat mostly fish.

Why did you decide to open a hotel?

It was a preemptive strike because somebody else was going to build the hotel with the restaurant component on the ground floor right next to Prime One Twelve. I wanted to control the market. Second, and this was before the economy turned, I really needed an additional kitchen. It was more about the restaurant downstairs than it was about the rooms. I love having the rooms, though. It's an amenity and it keeps the Prime allure going on that corner. Now you see Prime One Twelve, Prime Italian, Prime Hotel, Prime Lounge. It creates this whole party atmosphere almost on a nightly basis. I wish the hotel had 50 rooms; it has 14. It's a very boutique, cool hotel. I put the same design passion into it that I do into the restaurants.

How does it differ from running a restaurant?

It differs in a lot of ways. The hospitality is the same. You don't see the customer as much.

I hope they aren't texting you complaining about the pillows.

Nah. I did get one about better-quality toilet paper. I'm going with softer toilet paper now. Other than that, no. It's too new [for people] to be texting me.

Is Prime Lounge an extension of Prime One Twelve?

It's mostly the same menu items. We have a separate and distinct kitchen over there. The plans are to do a late-night slider bar over there, which will be taking some elements of Prime Italian and Prime One Twelve and serving them late-night.

My favorite is the chicken parm sliders at Prime Italian.

That's been copied too. I came up with that at 1 in the morning. I was scribbling down things that might be fun. I was a little frustrated when that was copied. C'est la vie!

How does the celebrity quotient affect your business?

It's a huge part of my business. Customers expect to see celebrities. I'll have people say, "Who's coming in tonight? Is anybody there tonight?" I'm like, "Well, you're there. And your family is there. Isn't that enough?" Because the restaurant is so small, you rub elbows with major celebrities. It's a big thing. For me, it was fun meeting them all, but then I realized they are just regular people. Some of them are more demanding. Some need to be more demanding for security reasons. Some celebrities will wait; some won't wait. Some will wait in their car until the table is ready. The sports celebrities are very important. I think Prime One Twelve gets more athletes than any restaurant in the country. And I know most of them too.

Can Shaquille O'Neal and Michael Jordan eat at Prime One Twelve without being harassed?

It depends on how you define harassed. We usually don't let customers go up to them while they are eating. The people who come to South Beach in general have seen a lot of celebrities, so they aren't as crazy. You don't have people running after them. I've had situations where they do get bothered, and I deal with it on a night-to-night basis.

You started your career as a lawyer. When you moved to Miami in 1994 to open Nemo, was it on a lark, or did you think this was going to be a permanent career change?

When I came here to build Nemo, I still had Conscience Point in the Hamptons. My intention was not to live here full-time. It was to create a resort lifestyle where I spend my winters here and summers in the Hamptons. Of course, Nemo was a huge success. It really dominated the market, until China Grill opened. The summer was packed, so I ended up selling everything in New York.

You mentioned you are going to be changing Nemo, but does it still hold a special place in your heart?

It always will. It makes me feel old when I walk in there sometimes. Restaurant years are like dog years; you age quickly. It holds a special place, but I also feel like I'm in a time warp. That's a '95 installation décor-wise. I just did a big menu change, but I think people today want variety. I'm not opposed to change when change is necessary.

The bacon craze is so big right now, but you've been serving bacon at the bar at Prime One Twelve for six years.

It's there every night. It's applewood-smoked bacon from a company called Nueske is Wisconsin. It's the best applewood-smoked bacon out there. That's a real signature of Prime One Twelve. It's an idea I came up with years ago. I thought it would be fun and different. It's very expensive to do. But people expect it now. I have people come in, just eat bacon, and have a glass of wine and leave because they are full.

What are some of your favorite restaurants in town?

I go to Joe's Stone Crab, but I rarely eat out in Miami. I'm always in my own restaurants. People look at me funny when I'm at other restaurants. They want to know what I'm doing there, why I'm not at work. Typically, I know most of the staff because they've worked for me at one point or another. There's a lot of whispering and the chef will come out. It's not an anonymous experience. It's not all that relaxing. I don't like having special attention. I prefer to be quiet. I am so on every night. Imagine being onstage every night: You're on. You're smiling. You can't come in a bad mood. It's shaking hands, going to table 34, 42, 35; this one wants to say hello. Everyone wants to say they know the owner. That's what I do. I call myself jokingly the King of Superficial Conversation. I have the same conversation over and over again. It's like Groundhog Day. You go through this with thousands of people a week. Literally thousands of conversations. So when I go home now, I've almost become reclusive. I don't like to be social in my free time because I'm social so much. People always try to get me to go to events. Going to a gala event is not peaceful. You're going to hug and a kiss 1,000 people. I'm doing that every night anyway. But normal people don't do this every night. Typically, a person goes home at 6 p.m. They come home and say, "What are we going to do tonight?" I don't even think about what I'm going to do at night. Mechanically, I have the same routine. I'll spend all day in my office, do some cardio, and then I get back to work. I'm not thinking, What am I going to do tonight? It's not even an issue. I haven't seen a movie in two years.

What do you think of the success of your former chef/partner Michael Schwartz?

I'm happy for him. He had some movement since I had bought him out in 2002. The Design District is perfect for him because it allows him to be creative and do his own thing in a smaller setting. That's what he thrives on and performs the best on.

You were going to do a project in New York. What is the status of that?

A deal for me has to be so perfect for me to risk what I have here. Right now, I have too much to lose here. I know that I'm very fortunate. I realize that. I'm humble about my success. To risk that for a little bit of more ego-stroking is not worth it. Prime One Twelve is the pinnacle of a restaurateur's success. When you open up in other cities, it takes away the specialness of it. There's only one Prime One Twelve. Every day I wake up, I don't take it for granted. I always have this fear that it's not going to be there one day. That is what makes me successful, because I have that neurotic fear that it will be gone. I can never settle for status quo.

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