Hospitality Superstars Stun Swanky Spectators at Steelcase Showroom Seminar

March 2, 2004

NEW YORK - The 300 suited-up, swanky spectators crammed into the Steelcase Showroom overlooking Columbus Circle on September 16 jittered with anticipation. The crowd - consisting mostly of graphic designers, hoteliers, vendors and other professionals from every facet of the hospitality industry - had assembled for inspiration from the idols of modern design: Tony Chi, Diego Gronda, and Adam Tihany.

The three had gathered with champion chefs Gray Kunz and Noriyuki Sugie to share their sentiments on restaurant design at an NEWH-sponsored panel discussion titled A Conversation with Three Great Designers. The event coincided with the development of new restaurants at the monstrous construction project next door - the gleaming Time Warner Center - by each of the three designers.

The first thing you know is what you see, said Tihany, who boasts Le Cirque 2000 on his long list of credits. You dont know about the food; you dont know about the service. You say, This place looks nice, lets try it.

Veteran food critic Bob Lape and Hospitality Design Magazine editor-in-chief Michael Adams moderated the lively exchange, which often provoked knowing oohs and aahs and fits of laughter from the crowd. While each designer presented starkly contrasting visions of his forthcoming eatery, all said they aspired to take advantage of the magnificent views over Columbus Circle and Central Park.

Columbus Circle is one strange point that never embraced Central Park or the Upper West Side, said Chi, whose recently-opened 90-seat eatery, Asiate, will comprise part of the 35th floor. We bring the park into us.

Its really about celebrating the seasons, he added. Chi said that in deference to them, he adorned the dining room with snowy branches with glitter light.

Its the first time in my life that I can say I look out of the kitchen and right into Central Park, said Gray Kunz, culinary creator of Lespinasse at the New York St. Regis Hotel and future chef at Café Gray, a 200-seat eatery situated on the third floor.

Kunz said Café Gray would embody the spirit of an old world café without the wood paneling. He said both the dining room and kitchen would directly overlook Columbus Circle, not only allowing diners a breathtaking view of the city, but enticing pedestrians below with a glimpse at the hard-at-work staff.

I wanted to showcase the art form [of cooking] and I wanted to showcase the people that work so hard, he said. With the backdrop of Central Park, it will be something so spectacular.

Café Gray designer Diego Gronda said the increasing uniformity of modern design motivated him to discover atypical sources of artistic inspiration. He said he modeled Café Gray after Japanese robatayaki restaurants, where cooks prepare meals right in front of their customers. Its the ultimate transparency in design, he said. We try to incorporate some of that.

Tihany was more mysterious regarding his project, an urbanized version of Yountville, Californias The French Laundry. You will feel the aura of The French Laundry, he said. The smells, the materials...all spell out quality. It will be custom-made for your urban cowboy experience. Hopefully youll have the patience to wait four months for a reservation.

After the panel discussion, guests milled about the showroom chatting with colleagues, enjoying cocktails, and surveying design displays featuring table settings, fabrics, and design ideas for the upcoming restaurants.

I loved it! shrieked David Romano, a Cuban-born olive oil importer from Miami. They were very down to earth, he said of the panelists. I love how theyre from all over the world. Its whats great about America.

But some attendees expressed reservations. Elizabeth Barrett, a Lincoln Center employee, said she took issue with the designers preference for a buzz factor in their restaurants. (As Tihany put it, Would you enjoy a quiet Balthazar?)

Nobody wants a restaurant thats quiet? I do! Barrett said. Elucidating her distaste for yelling over a crowd, she said she can do it for three minutes, but not for a whole meal. Thats exhausting! I like to have an intimate conversation.

Barrett also contended that lighting was more important than a restaurants overall design. If you...or the food look ugly, it destroys the restaurant.

Peter Lu, a senior designer at Tihany Design, concurred. Lighting is the most important thing because it can kill the food, he said.

Lu said that with that premise in mind, he chose architectural and decorative lighting fixtures to create a very romantic atmosphere at the New York The French Laundry. He pointed to a display picture of the restaurants future interior, which featured a glass fireplace and bunches of marshmallow-like lights perched on sticks, complementing dark wooden squiggly wall designs.

But Gronda contended that while good lighting cant hurt, whats most important is balance among all the elements of design. The most important thing is to have a consistency, he said. Yeah lighting is important. But at the end of the day, its all about the kind of collage you create.

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