Jennifer Rubell is debriefing me, as she often does, about a party she just threw at the Beach House Bal Harbour, one of her family's Miami boutique hotels. Jennifer is a 31-year-old Harvard graduate, a serious collector of contemporary art and a fearless entrepreneur, and yet only the night before, she was arranging 30 Crayola place cards and pairs of kiddie scissors on a long table set between the Beach House's pool and the Atlantic Ocean.
"The papillote was a-maz-ing," she says. A mix of sweet pink shrimp, scallops, herbs and thin slices of lemon was hidden, like a Happy Meal, inside five white paper bags running down the center of the table. Guests took pairs of scissors and, following Jennifer's example, cut open the bags and spooned the seafood onto their plates, adding either pink tartar sauce (pink is Jennifer's favorite color) or chimichurri. "It's so much about how you serve things," Jennifer says about this communal approach. "It's all about connecting." Big bowls of roasted zucchini with mint, spicy avocado salad and chickpeas with red peppers, passed from guest to guest family-style, helped make those connections too. Everything tasted delicious together, and finicky eaters (and vegetarians) had plenty of choices. Plus, almost the entire menu was meant to be served at room temperature, taking pressure off Jennifer and keeping the mood easy and breezy.
Although Jennifer spent a year at the Culinary Institute of America, entertaining, for her, is clearly as much about friendship as it is about food. In fact, the former takes precedence. "And did I tell you" she exults, "that two of my guests have already made a date!" Before I can get more details about the prospective romance or ask her who thought up the dessert of macadamia-crackle cupcakes (she did, of course), her cell phone dies.
Jennifer comes from a family of party givers. Her uncle Steve Rubell cofounded Studio 54 when she was just a girl. "Sometimes I feel like I'm living the second half of his life for him, but I'm letting everyone inside the velvet rope, making everyone feel like they belong," she says. Her parents' fascination with art also shaped her. In addition to the Beach House, Greenview and Albion hotels, the Rubells run a museum, the Rubell Family Collection. Housed in a former Drug Enforcement Agency warehouse, it is the world's largest private family collection of contemporary art, with works by Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons, among others. Drop by and Jennifer's parents are likely to show you around personally. Growing up in the art world "really taught me to think like an artist," Jennifer says. "And the most important part of thinking like an artist is throwing out all the givens. I question why guests shouldn't be allowed to wear bathing suits in the lobby. I question why minibars have itsy-bitsy bottles of alcohol in them. I question why room service has to cost a fortune."
When the Rubells opened their first hotel, the Greenview, in 1994, Jennifer and her brother Jason worked the front desk in round-the-clock shifts for a year. They had no other staff. One night, two editors from Martha Stewart Living called at 11 p.m. for room service. Even though the Greenview had neither kitchens nor a menu, Jennifer took their order for croissants and raspberries--then sprinted to a bodega for food and to her mother's for plates. Afraid the guests would see that the Greenview's owner was also its waitress, she brought the tray to their door, rang the bell and ran. During lulls at the desk, Jennifer wrote custom-tailored notes to guests--she calls them "nondenominational horoscopes." When the notes took the form of anonymous love letters, a 16-year-old model feared she was being stalked and called the police. Oops.
The Rubells' three hotels now all have real kitchens, and a fourth is planned for Washington, D.C. Each has its own look, and they draw different crowds, but all share the same philosophy: that guests should feel cared for. Jennifer is determined to prove that you can--with great support--aspire to be anything you want to be: chef, renegade stock trader, artist, politician. Her hotels mimic life in her extraordinary, and yet in some ways very ordinary, family. "My parents are incredibly open, very nonjudgmental and totally excited about new people and new ideas. There's nothing you couldn't do or say or feel around our dinner table. Well, except say you weren't hungry. You couldn't say that."
The notes still arrive every night, each different, still written by Jennifer. When I was last at the Albion, I got "You are irresistibly charming, and yet you never abuse your magnetism." I'm sure it was written just for me. The only common denominator? Each note ends, "We are honored to have you sleep under our roof. Sweet Dreams. The Rubells."Peter Elliot is the food and wine editor at Bloomberg.