Grilled In a Minute: Tony May
Julie Mautner / May 6th, 2013
To say that Tony May is one of the country’s most respected, best-known restaurateurs is a major understatement; he’s a national treasure, a legend in the world of Italian dining in America.
Born in 1937 in Torre del Greco (“10 minutes from Naples City Hall,” he says), May attended hotel school while still in his teens. Then he traveled, took various hospitality jobs, and spent several years working on cruise ships. After a number of visits to our shores, he finally moved to the United States at age 25 and quickly found his professional footing. For five decades, Tony has worked diligently and passionately to elevate the image of Italian cuisine in America.
After working in a number of Manhattan’s finest restaurants, May landed at the legendary Rainbow Room, high atop Rockefeller Center, and worked his way up from captain to maître d’ to gm. In 1974, he took over the lease and ran the entire operation until 1986. F&B sales in 1985 exceeded $15 million.
In 1979, May founded Gruppo Ristoratori Italiani to improve the quality, authenticity, and visibility of Italian restaurant food. In 1982, the group began hosting annual educational trips to Italy for GRI members and American journalists. Working with the National Restaurant Association, they also established the GRI/Giacomo Bologna Scholarship for U.S. Students.
Although it has always been particularly close to his heart, GRI is just one of the many organizations and institutions to which May has given boundless energy. He’s been a huge booster of the NRA and The Culinary Institute of America, for example. In 1984 he established the Caterina de Medici Restaurant at the CIA’s Hyde Park campus. In 2001, he helped establish the CIA’s program to build the Colavita Center for Italian Food & Wine.
May also founded the Italian Culinary Institute for Foreigners in Costigliole d’Asti, Italy, the first culinary school in the country designed to teach foreigners about Italian food and culture.
In 1986, May opened his first Italian restaurant, Palio, and followed it, two years later, with San Domenico, which garnered enormous international praise. Among the accolades bestowed upon the restaurant were three stars from the New York Times. A number of well-known chefs, including Paul Bartolotta, Odette Fada, and Theo Schoenegger, toiled in the San Domenico kitchen before May closed it in 2008, after 20 years, citing landlord difficulties.
“San Domenico was the Roman Empire, and May and his daughter, Marisa, were the Caesars,” Alan Richman wrote on GQ.com in 2009. “For more than 20 years the family maintained unadulterated standards of elegant Italian dining, struggling first against Bronx-Italian cooking and then against the onslaught of Mario Batali’s beautifully bastardized American version.”
In 1997, May opened Gemelli in the World Trade Center, followed by PastaBreak in 1998. Both restaurants were destroyed on 9/11. A new PastaBreak opened a year later in the E-Walk complex in Times Square.
In 2009, May and Marisa opened the tri-level SD26 Restaurant & Wine Bar on Madison Square Park North, showcasing contemporary Italian cuisine for a younger generation.
Today May remains the chairman of GRI, a trustee emeriti of the CIA, and president of the Italian Culinary Foundation, which he founded in 2006. He’s won more awards than anyone can count, including two IVYs (1981 and 1992), the Who’s Who of Cooking in America (1989), an IFMA Silver Plate (1990), and a Silver Spoon from Food Arts (1992), to name just a very few.
Tony’s book Italian Cuisine: Basic Cooking Techniques (Scholastic, 1991) was a textbook distributed to U.S. culinary schools. It was later republished by St. Martin’s Press for the general public.
Tony, you must have come from a very foodie family!
My mother couldn’t boil water—she was too busy raising eight kids.
When you moved to America in 1963, what inspired you? What was the plan?
I came to New York City a number of times before settling here permanently. I loved New York from the first time I visited the city in 1960. I loved the energy, the diversity of its people, the fast pace at which everything and everybody moved. I was 25 when I finally “came off the boat” in 1963. I came with a professional background acquired during eight years spent working in Europe and on cruise ships. I spoke English with a British accent, so at the beginning I didn’t understand anyone and they didn’t understand me! I went door to door looking for jobs, with much success I must say. My first jobs were at The Colony (Gene Cavallero and Sirio Maccioni), 21 Club (The Berns), Orsini (the Orsini Brothers), Oscar’s Delmonico (The Tucci Family), and from there, to The Rainbow Room in early 1964. At The Rainbow Room I started as a captain and eventually became maître d’hôtel; by 1968 I was the gm, and then, in 1974, I earned the lease on this American institution, with Brian Daly, my former boss at the Brody Corporation. We owned the lease until Joe Baum took over from us in 1986. It was a fast 22 years.
Ah, the wonderful Rainbow Room! What did that chapter of your life represent to you? What are some of the most memorable things that happened there?
Everything that happened at The Rainbow Room was a new experience for me! I learned how to manage customers, employees, business. I learned restaurant operations from my future partner, Brian Daly, who was The Rainbow Room's general manager when I started working there. I learned business from my first real boss in America, Jerome Brody, the former president of Restaurant Associates, the creator of The Four Seasons Restaurant, The Rainbow Room, and the Sherry Netherland.
So many of my experiences are so difficult to put in writing! There were parties to celebrate Broadway openings, with Barbra Streisand, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Zero Mostel, Anthony Quinn. There was the experience of working with the Rockefeller family and Nelson Rockefeller’s political campaigns. There was the night club: Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, etc.
And then there were the blackouts: we had two of them that affected the entire East Coast. Being 65 floors above the ground, it’s not easy to manage hundreds of people stranded without elevator service. We kept feeding them and provided tablecloths for blankets until they were able to get back to the street. The first blackout was about 16 hours, the second perhaps six hours.
And then there was the time when gay male couples were challenging the establishment to let them do their own thing in public places. They were sort of “breaking into” a straight world and having a good time with their partners. The objective was to call attention to their cause. We had no problem with it. In fact, we enjoyed the experience as much as they did.
Then there were the bomb threats and the economic crises… The Rainbow Room made me what I am today.
Who, in all the people you’ve met over the years, left the strongest impression on you…or who were you most thrilled to meet?
Jerome Brody, my first boss. Luciano Pavarotti, Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, Sergio Mei (executive chef of Four Seasons Hotels), and so many others! I learned something from each and every one. But the one person that I was most thrilled to meet is my wife, Halima.
Who is or was your mentor? How so?
My father, a sea captain, was a man with more common sense than anyone I ever knew. When I told him that I was thinking of moving to the USA, that I wanted his opinion and advice, he had only four words: “Son, you know best.” Is that what I expected him to say? I knew that he wasn’t going to preach to me, that he used words very sparingly. And this time was no different. Would he have said something else if he felt it was more appropriate? Absolutely!
And if you could work with one person, alive or dead, who would it be and why?
Jerome Brody, my first real boss. He taught me business and, like my father, used words sparingly!
Tony, you’ve devoted so much of your career to culinary education in general and Italian cuisine specifically. Why is that?
Education is the future. All of us in this industry must give something back to our profession. In my case, I’ve given—and will continue to give—to education.
And what inspired you to found GRI in 1979?
When I first came to America, I found that Italian cuisine wasn’t really appreciated or understood…and it wasn’t a problem that could be corrected quickly. I realized that generations had to pass before we could make a dent into the Italian-American cuisine that our early immigrants had invented, in a futile attempt to try to replicate the cuisine of their native villages in Italy. They didn’t have the products they needed to achieve the taste and flavors, so they made do with whatever they could find. And many times this meant inventing new dishes. In the process, they created an Italian-American cuisine that became the ultimate comfort food—good, plentiful, cheap. I believed that changing this perception would be a group effort, not just in New York City but all over the country. So as an active member of the Italy-America Chamber of Commerce, I got together with several colleagues and created a committee; eventually we became independent and called ourselves GRI. Our aim was to achieve a better understanding of Italian cuisine through education: at the institutional level (in culinary schools) and at the operational level (in our restaurants). GRI is still very active today.
Your restaurant San Domenico was wildly successful for 20 years…and still is today, in its most recent incarnation. What’s the secret to its longevity and relevance, after all these years?
San Domenico on Central Park South closed in June 2008; in 2009 we opened SD26 Restaurant & Wine Bar, a continuation of what I started at San Domenico. I take a lot of pride in thinking that perhaps I created the first two luxury Italian restaurants in America, Palio and San Domenico. San Domenico’s longevity is due to desire, passion, dedication, and hard work…the drive to achieve excellence by me, my daughter Marisa, and my staff. Did we ever achieve it? Perhaps not, but we came damn close to it and we had fun in the process. Today the same desire drives us at SD26. We always aim higher than we can reach.
So what’s eating you? Everyone has a gripe…what’s yours?
The denial of the American critical food press that authenticity is important. This isn’t fair to all the Italian professionals working hard to serve in America a cuisine that has the taste, flavors, and feel of the way Italians eat today—not the way they used to eat. Authenticity may not be important to an American who’s just looking for great taste and great food, but I do think we still need to ask ourselves “What makes a dish Italian?” Is it Italian because the celebrity chef tells you it is? Or is it Italian because one recognizes the taste, flavor, and nuances of the dish? The table, for Italians, is one of the most important pleasures of life, and authenticity is extremely important to us. It’s easy to dismiss something if you don’t understand it.
Three adjectives, please, to describe honestly the kind of boss you think you are.
We should never forget that a restaurant is first a business and I’m therefore driven to achieve a profit. I’m opinionated and difficult, as I work hard to get in the black. I think I’m a good boss if the business is profitable and difficult when we fall behind.
Three adjectives, please, that your staff would use to describe you as a boss.
Hard worker, crazy about golf…and difficult! And a few other names that I’m not familiar with! One former employee said that one doesn’t work WITH Tony May, one works FOR Tony May. He was right!
Were you ever fired? Where and why?
No, never fired! And I never asked for a raise in salary. I always worked hard because I enjoyed my work, and higher salaries were always a consequence of my work. I always tell my staff to become indispensable to the boss; that way he has to keep you happy on the job because he can’t afford to lose you.
What recent culinary discovery (a new flavor, new ingredient, new dish, etc.) really intrigued you…and why?
Just this month I discovered the pomodoro of Gennaro Esposito of Torre del Saracino, a Michelin two-star restaurant in Seiano, Napoli. Gennaro buys his tomatoes from a family growing them at the foot of the volcano Vesuvio, overlooking the Bay of Naples. The land is mostly volcanic and dry, in a reasonably warmer climate than other production areas. The result is tomatoes that are almost dry when picked. Then they’re quartered, bottled, and pasteurized for use in winter. Gennaro bottles the tomatoes just like his mother did when he was growing up, but he leaves the peel on because the peel contains minerals that keep the quartered tomatoes more flavorful. He uses Magnum bottles and jars, and the results of his hard work have created a taste that I hope will become the point of reference worldwide. [To learn more, go to torredelsaracino.it]
Tell us about a wonderful meal you had recently, in a restaurant not your own?
On Pantelleria, an island off the coast of Sicily, I had the best roasted black bass I ever had, in a local restaurant.
How is the restaurant biz in NYC different now from what it was when you started out?
I remember when we used to make money!
What’s one thing your customers do that makes you nuts?
They put cheese on a simple tomato sauce (made with Gennaro’s tomatoes, for example) or put grated Parmigiano on pasta with fish sauces.
And what’s one thing your chefs do that makes you nuts?
Not much–we work well as a team.
How about some advice for someone who dreams of a career like yours?
Make sure you know what you want. Do your work with passion, dedication, and a desire to succeed.
Career highlight or professional moment of which you are most proud?
One of the moments that I cherish most was when, in 1984, as chairman of GRI, I handed a check to CIA president Ferdinand Metz to convert the Sheraton Coffee Shop into the Caterina de Medici restaurant. It was the first Italian restaurant there, and it’s still the most popular. Another highlight was in 1973, when the president of Rockefeller Center called and wanted to discuss the lease on The Rainbow Room. Two more very proud moments were the opening of Palio in 1986 and San Domenico in 1988.
For any chef visiting New York City right now, please suggest three or four restaurants that show the best of what the city offers, culinarily.
Restaurants and cuisines are difficult to select for others because it’s so personal. But if I have to, I’d say Daniel for French food; The Four Seasons Restaurant as a New York landmark for restaurant design; SD26 if I may, for Italian; Masa for Japanese; and the steakhouse Smith & Wollensky.
What’s the next restaurant concept you’d like to open?
The next idea will come from my daughter, Marisa. I will be there to help.
Finally, what haven’t you done, personally or professionally, that you would still love to?
If I had to start all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing. But I’d love to be a golf pro in my next life!