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And follows one ambitious restaurateur's quest to turn his neighborhood eatery into an institution.
There are nearly 24,000 restaurants in New York City, but only a few are considered institutions—those rare, magical establishments famed for their loyal followings and splashy reputations. "Institutions" tend to have a certain je ne sais quois. Maybe it's the larger-than-life owner; the quirky décor choices; the celebrity clientele. Michael Sparaga’s newest documentary, The Missing Ingredient, which hits Netflix today, follows Manhattan restaurateur Charles Devigne in his quest to achieve that esteemed status.
The film starts with Devigne making a controversial decision aimed at leap-frogging his way to prominence: He decorates his restaurant, Pescatore, with the zebra-print wallpaper made famous by Gino’s, a beloved NYC restaurant that shuttered in 2010. Sparaga interviews Devigne about his decision, and he also talks to former Gino’s patrons about their favorite red-sauce joint. The Missing Ingredient investigates why places like Gino’s become institutions while others, like Pescatore, seem to miss the mark. We spoke with Sparaga about what it takes to create an iconic restaurant, and why it never hurts to have famous regulars.
Did your background in food spark your interest in creating a film about NYC institutions?
Michael Sparaga: I worked in restaurants for 15 years as a waiter, in both owner-operated joints and big chains. I actually enjoyed the social aspects of being a waiter and the family-like atmosphere that exists, not only amongst the staff, but also between the staff and regulars. Being a waiter also helped me become a filmmaker. Working nights left my days free to write movies, and when I decided to self-produce my first feature, I conscripted a bunch of the restaurant staff as my cast and crew. My second feature, Servitude, was a semi-autobiographical comedy about a waiter rebellion at a kitschy steakhouse that I wrote while working at a kitschy steakhouse.
With The Missing Ingredient, I just thought the story about someone copying wallpaper was so unique and specific and would be a fascinating jumping off point to delve into what makes a restaurant an institution. I wasn't so much interested in making a "food film" as a "restaurant film,” going behind-the-scenes to show how much hard work it takes to run a restaurant.
Do you go to any dining institutions in NYC? What draws you to them?
MS: Dining institutions are right up my alley. I think the real flavors of a city are experienced in the old school joints, not a new, trendy place. And when I say flavors, I mean more than just the food. I'm talking about the people, and the atmosphere. Today's diners, certainly younger diners, don't necessarily want to be regulars or have a restaurateur at their table talking to them for a chunk of their meal. They want to go to where Yelp tells them is good, add their cellphone photos to the Yelp page, and move on to the next Yelp-recommended place. But I like when Cathy Treboux, the owner of Le Veau d'Or, sits with me and we talk about what's going on in the world. You feel like you're in her living room. That's the way Charles [Devigne] and Gino's are connected, too. Charles, like Gino himself, is that old world restaurateur, a host through and through. He shines in that personal connection with his guests.
Do you think timing has anything to do with a restaurant becoming an institution? When Gino’s opened, it was the only Italian restaurant in the neighborhood, and according to some frequent patrons, the food was “good, not great.” So, what do you think the draw was? Did they happen to be at the right place at the right time?
MS: Certainly Gino's was in the right place (across from Bloomingdale's) at the right time (1945), when it was the only Italian restaurant in the area. Back then, Italian food was ethnic food, kind of the way Ethiopian food is today, so if you were looking for something different in the area, Gino's was your go-to place. Today's Italian restaurants serve food that is higher-end, more refined, but Gino's food was always good, and back when it opened, post-WWII, I'm sure it was positively great. That said, I think food, timing and location are just a few of the elements that make a restaurant an institution, along with hands-on owners, loyal regulars, and décor. All of these elements combine to create a tone or a feeling for a restaurant and it's the ability to maintain this tone, over time, which makes it an institution. I really don't like when a restaurant is declared an institution after three or even five years. An institution, by definition, is something that's been long established. But what I've discovered is that you can't set out to create an institution. It's like setting out to make a "cult film.” It happens by itself. It's organic.
What about celebrity? Both Alfred Portale, executive chef at Gotham Bar & Grill, and Kenneth Johnson, head chef at Pescatore, comment that Food Network changed everything. Portale says he wants nothing to do with “institutionalization,” but regularly rubs shoulders with celebrity chefs like Tom Colicchio. Knowing people in the industry can clearly affect your success as a business, but does it create a dining institution?
MS: Celebrity certainly doesn't hurt. It's good to have a celebrity chef these days because they'll attract diners and that's what every restaurant needs. When Gino's opened, there was no such thing as a celebrity chef, but the restaurant itself was regularly written about in the society pages and famous people flocked there in droves. Celebrities remained a big part of their clientele throughout their history so celebrity sightings became part of the tone of dining at Gino's. Although celebrities have dined at Pescatore over the years, it’s in no way known as a celebrity hangout. That may have hurt them in taking the next step toward becoming an institution, but that said, it is very possible to have an institution that isn't a celebrity hangout. There are fried chicken joints in the middle of nowhere all over America that no celebrities have ever visited that people would consider institutions. Still, when people ask me "So what's the missing ingredient?” I often tell them, "Well, it doesn't hurt to have Sinatra as a regular."
Something that struck me in the film is how institutions become known for a signature “thing," often a design choice—The Missing Ingredient detailed the toys at 21 Club, the pool in the Four Seasons, and of course, the iconic zebra wallpaper at Gino’s. It seemed like Charles knew that he needed to find this kind of element for Pescatore, but instead of doing something unique, he riffed on Gino’s wallpaper. To me, this seems like the exact opposite of what you should do if you’re trying to create an institution. Do you think Pescatore will ever be an institution?
MS: When Charles made the decision to use Gino's wallpaper, he had just recently taken over Pescatore and was looking to make his mark. At that time, it was also clear that Pescatore needed to make some big changes to survive as a handful of glitzy new neighborhood restaurants had just opened all around them. The fact that Charles' family lived above Pescatore made the stakes even higher. If the restaurant failed, he'd also lose his family home. As an entrepreneur myself, I know its not easy to make great decisions with your back against the wall. Should Charles have done something more original? If he wanted Pescatore to be an institution, yes, definitely. Institutions are originals. But what I think Charles wanted most of all was a boost in business, and I think he thought the Gino's zebras, whether the attention of using them was positive or negative, might do the trick. But all of that aside, I think Charles chose to use the wallpaper because he liked the zebra pattern. How can you not? It's quite striking.
I'm not sure Pescatore will ever be an institution, and I don't think it needs to be. It's a neighborhood eatery that's been open for 23 years, which is a great run for a restaurant, especially in NYC. Cities need their institutions, but they need places like Pescatore, too.