Julian Niccolini & Alex von Bidder
Jim Poris / May 2009
Food Arts presents the May 2009 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Alex von Bidder and Julian Niccolini, the suave and savvy duo who have maintained The Four Seasons as the default gathering ground for the intersecting spheres of New York City's business, cultural, and political heavyweights while building on its 50 year legacy as one of the first restaurants to champion seasonal American ingredients and dishes.
Born in 1959 during the full bloom of the American century, midwifed by the great restaurant impresario Joseph Baum of Restaurant Associates, molded by architects Philip Johnson and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe inside the seminal Seagram Building, and shaped by James Beard's American tastes, The Four Seasons was already catching its second wind under new owners Paul Kovi and Tom Margittai (see Silver Spoon, Food Arts, May 1993) when von Bidder and Niccolini came aboard as banquet manager (1976) and Grill Room head waiter (1977), respectively.
Von Bidder (right), 58, a Swiss veteran of the hospitality giants Mövenpick Group and Hilton International, came to the United States to attend the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration and then worked as f&b manager at Leona Helmsley's Park Lane Hotel before switching to The Four Seasons. Niccolini, 55, emigrated from Tuscany in 1975 with an apprenticeship at Monaco's Hôtel de Paris on his résumé and two English words in his vocabulary. Gregarious and charming, he landed a job at the Palace, then the most expensive restaurant in New York City. Discerning and appreciative of the twins food and wine, he wound up with control of The Four Seasons' hothouse, where the power lunch was born and still resides. Together they succeeded Kovi and Margittai as managing partners in 1995.
Along with longtime chef Christian Albin, they revamped the menu, including a $25 bar menu at lunch; opened the influential American-dominated wine list to offshore selections; refreshed the landmarked restaurant's bar and seasonally themed Pool Room; and extended a welcoming foretaste to future diners by initiating an annual Children's Day lunch. And a formal vestige, the requirement that men wear jackets, may expire this summer, Niccolini hopes.
"I fix the dishwasher and make sure the lights are on, and Julian makes sure everyone is well fed," jokes von Bidder. "We have a perfect relationship: He'll say, ‘Why isn't this [machine] working?' and I'll say, 'Why is this restaurant empty'?"
But The Four Seasons isn't empty, and every part, front and back, works like a charm.
"To succeed you have to have patience and perseverance, building your reputation brick by brick--and bricklaying is hard work," von Bidder says.
Says Niccolini: "We have a very fine clientele, and we take care of them.You know, lots of people say they're in the hospitality business. We actually practice it."