Jim Poris / September 1999
Food Arts presents the September 1999 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Michael Whiteman, whose dexterity in conceiving projects ranging up and down the food scale has broadened the role of the restaurant consultant.
Working with the late Joe Baum and Dennis Sweeney as his partners in Joseph Baum & Michael Whiteman Co., Whiteman has shaped venues from Bogotá to Barcelona, Sydney to Singapore. In New York City, his insight and input have been borne by the monoliths Windows on the World (twice) and The Rainbow Room, which combined for revenues of $65 million in 1998. On the popular end, Whiteman has advised the chain conglomerate Darden Restaurants and is currently re-merchandising the Bruegger's Bagels chain.
"Michael knows that dining out is more than just food, that it encompasses all the details that define the experience—from human contact to design vocabulary," says architect Hugh Hardy, who worked with Whiteman on the 1996 relaunch of Windows.
"Restaurants," says Whiteman, "squeeze a lot of people into a small space. In order to make that work, you have to consider how you want people to feel in a particular restaurant and then channel their public behavior in a certain way. That's a social venture—and a social challenge. And, by the way, you have to feed them."
As the founding editor of Nations Restaurant News, the Brooklyn-born Whiteman was a hot item on the lecture circuit when Baum, then the head of Restaurant Associates (RA), recruited him in 1971 to help create the foodservice venues for the nascent World Trade Center in New York City. "As a journalist, Joe was the one I knew the least at RA. But he knew who I was and because I was traveling and speaking so much he must've figured I knew a lot. I was willing to take the gamble, hoping this would evolve into an entirely new experience."
Evolve it did. "Before, most restaurant consultants were called kitchen consultants. They'd design kitchens and as an adjunct do some other stuff—but not a lot. The first real restaurant consultants were Joe and George Lang, because both dealt with restaurants as they exist in the social realm."
Over Whiteman's objections, Baum brought chef/author Rozanne Gold into the fold as the company's culinary director in 1985. "I wasn't convinced we needed someone full time," Whiteman recalls. This is how full-time it became for him: he and Gold married in December 1987, celebrating with the first big party in the reconceived Rainbow Room, "other than the one David Rockefeller threw for 1,000 of his closest friends."
Whiteman, 60, would "like to be known for the differences we've made in the lives of each city in which we've worked. We've never done a 'Joe Baum' or 'Michael Whiteman' restaurant, and we're not interested in endlessly repeating ideas. Our fun lies in reinventing ourselves and in enhancing the spirit and sense of community wherever our clients are located."