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Grilled In a Minute: Buzzy O'Keeffe

Julie Mautner / July 19th, 2012

Born and raised in New York City, Michael “Buzzy” O’Keeffe has been a celebrated restaurateur for more than 45 years, overseeing establishments that embody the spirit of the city and hosting luminaries from the worlds of sports, politics, entertainment, media, and more. Over the past four decades, O’Keeffe has redeveloped the Manhattan and Brooklyn riverfronts, and been recognized for his myriad contributions to the hospitality industry. Both The River Café (on a barge on the East River in Brooklyn) and The Water Club (on a barge on the East River in Manhattan) have served as icons for classic American cuisine, giving rise to a long line of acclaimed chefs, including Larry Forgione, Charlie Palmer, David Burke, Rick Moonen, Brad Steelman, and Aaron Bashy. Over the years, O’Keeffe has seen hundreds of restaurants come and go but has kept The River Café and The Water Club thriving for 35 and 30 years, respectively.

Outside of his extensive restaurant operating and consulting work, O’Keeffe remains active in philanthropy and the New York City business community. He has served on the board of directors for the Fire Safety Foundation, the Harbour Foundation of New York and New Jersey, the Manhattan Waterfront Alliance, and more, and currently sits on the board of directors of Futures in Education, which supports Catholic schools in the Diocese of Brooklyn/Queens by providing scholarships and program assistance to needy students and schools.

Forty-five years! Don’t you ever just want to say “basta!?” How do you keep energy and creativity alive?
I don’t think anybody really interested in what they’re doing is going to say good-bye to it. While it’s intense, it’s not painful work. It’s somewhat like a fancy cocktail party…you can’t just give it up. Does an artist stop painting? People are born with an energy level, and it’s with them until they die. Creativity is not something you acquire in school—you’re born with it. And one must have the talent first.

What’s the most significant change you’ve seen in the biz in all the years you’ve been at it?
The whole theme and prominence of food and restaurants has grown exponentially, and the new “crop” is always trying to reinvent the wheel. Knowledge of food and nutrition is growing by leaps and bounds.

I remember interviewing you quite a few years ago, and you talked about how New York City had not taken advantage of its waterfront…how much potential there was for thoughtful development of the city’s great asset. So my question is: has that happened?
It took me 12 years to get permission from the city to build The River Café. There were/are few places you can physically build such a restaurant. The waterfront will not be fully developed until the wakes of the recent fast ferries are controlled, but they’re not designed for low wakes. Many ferries that operate in New York Harbor were built for the Gulf of Mexico oil rigs, and they go full speed at all times. They wouldn’t be allowed to operate in any other harbor in the world—not in Chicago, Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, or any Mediterranean port. Venice would be underwater in an hour if New York City’s ferries operated there! Any normal-size boat should be able to tie up anywhere along the New York shoreline, but they can’t because they’ll be badly damaged—to death—by the wakes from the fast ferries. Full development of the waterfront is not going to happen until the wakes are under control. Very few people in the New York City government have any knowledge about the rivers, bays, waterways, tides, northeasters, boats, docking, et cetera.

OK, so tell us about the worst day of your career, ever.
The worst days are the hurricanes and the northeasters.

New Yorkers are notoriously fickle diners. How have you kept your two restaurants fresh and full over the years?
No restaurant is ever full enough—you must keep working at it. And if you have the basic philosophy to do everything at the very highest level, then all will be fresh and top quality. You shouldn’t be in this business just for money. If you are, you’ll never have a truly great restaurant. You must have a passion to deliver the highest quality product and hope some profit follows. Take a look at the great flaws in American industry. For example, General Motors recently stated that their aim was to produce a $15 billion quarter, instead of aiming to build and produce the best car possible. A 30 year old BMW has a better suspension than any car GM produces today.

If you can make it there….so what’s been the very hardest part about doing business in New York, New York?
Every level of government, everywhere, wants to control everything in their domain. Every agency wants to acquire power and control over people and things, whether it’s necessary or not. Bureaucracies can get cumbersome, with one rule possibly contradicting another rule. You just have to put up with that and get through it.

Your restaurants have hosted scores of VIPs and celebrities over the years. Which celebrities thrilled you most?
We’ve hosted stars from every field and profession: Frank Sintatra, Elizabeth Taylor, Di Niro, Pacino, Rod Stewart, U2, the Rolling Stones, Catherine Deneuve, presidents, governors, ambassadors, and all the European royalty except Queen Elizabeth. It’s hard to keep track of all the celebrities. We don’t bother them because that would be rude. Over the years, the most enlightening conversations I’ve had were with very bright people. One of the great conversations was with Larry O’Brien, who ran all John Kennedy’s campaigns and became Postmaster General, et cetera. I remember hearing of the break-in at Watergate on a Saturday…and on Sunday Larry was sitting with me in Pear Trees, my third restaurant (opened in 1969 on First Avenue and 49th Street), relating how they broke into Watergate looking for damaging information. Of course, they found nothing. He said it was just normal political stuff, but that they would push it “a little.” Another great conversation was with the architect Paul Rudolph, former dean of the Yale School of Architecture, discussing modern architecture vs classicism. And more recently, David McCullough, the great historical writer, another brilliant and ultimate charmer. Those were some of the most fun people, and they imparted tremendous knowledge.

And how about the best advice you ever received?
I’ve been getting advice since I was a kid. After school, I hung out with grown-ups and asked questions; they were so much smarter than my teenage friends. I liked going to boat yards and mechanic shops; I wasn’t running down to the field to play baseball…that was much too slow for me. I’ve received so much great advice it would be impossible to narrow it down to just one thing.

How important is culinary school these days?
It’s good. But I think it should be more intense and compressed to a matter of months, not years. A person who has a real interest and love in what they’re doing will learn quickly. A pastry chef with real interest would learn more by looking into half a dozen Parisian pastry shops than someone less interested studying two years in school. Would Steve Jobs have made better products if he had finished college? Would Microsoft be a better company if Bill Gates graduated Harvard? Some of the best cooks I know learned it as a love, not in school. The best book on pizza, Pizza Defined by Bernadette O’Shea, was written by an ex-Irish nun with a Ph.D. in chemistry.

Best tip for a young chef just starting out?
Work for a given period of time with different talented chefs—not necessarily famous but definitely very talented. Work for them for a year or two and take less pay if you have to; think of it as a paid internship.

Best tip for a young restaurateur?
If you don’t want to work six to seven days a week, choose another profession.

Did you have a mentor? Who was it, and how did they best help and nurture your career?
I had no mentor in this business. My family was not in this business. I’ve had a love of restaurants since I was a kid—but that’s a long story. I have loved going to fine restaurants since I was 19. I loved the great and beautiful places like La Caravelle and La Grenouille. No one helped me, and I didn’t get any nurturing.

Last great meal in a restaurant not your own?
I remember taking a few of my team to Paris and telling them we would dine at four Michelin three-star restaurants for lunch and dinner on Monday and then again on Tuesday. By Wednesday, if I mentioned French food, they would go “oh no!” After so many rich meals, sometimes all it takes is a classic jambon de Bayonne with Dijon on a great Parisian baguette, accompanied by an ice cold beer, at a Paris cafe. Depending on the timing, a simple meal can be as satisfying as the most refined gourmet dinner.

What one thing would you most like to change about yourself?
Be more organized and don’t procrastinate.

Best U.S. food city right now other than New York?
Chicago, I guess.

Best-selling dish of all time at Water Club? Best-selling dish right now?
Lobster and lobster.

Best-selling dish of all time at River Café?
Lobster. #2 Steaks. #3 Lamb. #4 Duck. And the best-selling dessert is the chocolate Brooklyn Bridge.

Smartest thing you’ve ever done, business-wise?
Signing the lease for The River Café.

What do you do for fun, when you’re not in your restaurants?
Boating here or traveling to Ireland, London and Paris.

Any thoughts on retirement?
I don’t understand retirement. I can’t imagine people who do nothing all day long. I just can’t imagine it.

If you were to do it all again, how would you do it differently?
I don’t know exactly how I could do it differently. Even though a lot of it is instinctive, there’s still much trial and error and an interesting learning process. Maybe early on, a first-class chief assistant would have helped greatly.

If not this, then what? What would your second choice of career have been?
That’s a difficult question, as I’ve honestly always wanted to be in this industry. Since I was young I had the dream of being a builder, and specifically, of building a restaurant on the river—that was my first career choice. However, I tried to do The River Café again and again but was repeatedly denied. So before I opened The River Café—which finally got approval after 12 years of effort—I built and operated eight other restaurants. I suppose you could say that that was my “second” career choice.

For someone who dreams of a career like yours, what’s the very best advice you can offer?
It’s easier to make money in bars or fast food. Building a great restaurant is different. Some people dream of a career like Picasso’s or Scorsese’s, but they can’t paint or make films. Those without ability can only have foolish dreams. Dreaming is a reminder to get started and bring your dream to reality. It takes a certain dedication, natural talent, and desire to turn a dream into reality…and then an intense desire for perfection. When you have an intense desire for doing things perfectly, everyone else will think you are nuts or crazy, because the masses really don’t care very much about anything. So the people who really care and want to do things at the highest level will always appear extremely eccentric. But they are the people who create all the new inventions…and make the world wonderful, beautiful, and exciting.