Rare Talent, Refined Taste

Jeffrey Steen |
Culinary Personalities

As history tells it, you immigrated from Bremen, Germany after a three-year apprenticeship and started a front-of-the-house career that lasted some 40 years. Was that always the plan?
You can never really plan the events of a life in that much detail, especially the circuitous route mine has taken over the past 74 years. However, yes, the goal I had was to have a career in the food and beverage business and ultimately own various restaurants like my father and grandfather did in Germany before me.

Instead of quietly retiring after that impressive career at Peter Luger's Steakhouse, you went on to open your own steak-centric restaurant in Manhattan. What inspired you to take on such an ambitious project?
While I was thinking about retiring, my son Peter, who was an investment banker at the time, convinced me to re-evaluate my decision and to use the knowledge I gained over my many years in the business to open up a restaurant of our own. Together with Peter's business savvy, as well as the operational support of two other colleagues I worked with from Peter Luger's (Zijo Music and Rex Feratovic), a family friend (Lydia D'Amato), and our executive chef (Amiro Cruz), we opened our first restaurant on 4 Park Avenue. Over the past nine years, we have grown and opened seven Wolfgang's Steakhouse throughout the country (New York, Beverly Hills, Waikiki Beach, and Miami). We are also in the process of opening our first international Wolfgang's in Tokyo early in 2014 and currently plan on opening two more in China and Panama.

An impressive line of restaurant, indeed. Would you say it is easier owning a restaurant than it is serving in one?
These two roles are completely different, so I can't really make a judgment. Serving has been one of many roles in the restaurant business—there is a true skill and art to it if you want to do it right. As a young man I went to school at the Berufsschule in Bremen, focusing on the principle elements of service and hospitality in the food and beverage business.

Being a restaurant owner, on the other hand, is more encompassing. You have to understand all the roles of the restaurant and make sure you hire a strong team to carry out the vision and execution of each of the roles to your liking. You have to understand the financial aspects of the business as well as the operational parts. You have to be extremely detail-oriented.

Serving is more physical and a server's workday ends at the completion of his or her shift. Restaurant ownership, however, is more thought-provoking, strategy-focused, and requires a display of showmanship at times. In addition, a restaurant owner is on call 24 hours a day.

With your seven locations, is it difficult to maintain quality and consistency across so many restaurants?
Yes, one of the most difficult parts of growing from one location to many locations, especially those that are in different cities or other parts of the world, is maintaining quality and consistency. Consistency in ingredients is relatively easy for us, however, because we ship all our products from the same purveyors to all our locations. For example, the steak that you eat in one of New York restaurants comes from the same purveyor as in any of our restaurants in Beverly Hills, Waikiki Beach, Miami, and, soon, Tokyo. With respect to hiring and training, we try to hire the best candidates in each location, constantly cross-training our staff to make the Wolfgang experience as consistent as possible throughout all our locations.

There are countless steakhouses around the country. What makes yours unique?
We like to consider Wolfgang's restaurants boutique steakhouses. We serve only the highest quality beef—USDA Prime Black Angus—for all our cuts and dry-age them for an average 28 days on premise. Our highly-acclaimed and coveted wine cellar is second-to-none, carrying a broad range of accessible wines, as well as the highly-sought after ones. Our seafood and produce are fresh, brought in daily and are of the highest quality and caliber. The desserts are housemade with the exception of the cheesecake, which is brought in from Juniors Cheesecake in New York. Ownership is extremely hands-on in all our locations. In addition, many of the other well known steakhouses have been purchased by larger restaurant groups or private funds which are primarily dominated by obtaining higher profit margins. We, on the other hand, run our restaurants as a family-run business where quality, service, and ample portion sizes take center stage.

For those who haven't been, tell us about the atmosphere of Wolfgang's. How have you designed the restaurant, and what kind of experience do you want guests to have when they enjoy a meal there?
The atmosphere of Wolfgang's is a fun, warm, and friendly environment in the setting of a New York-style steakhouse. All of our restaurants use the signature elements of the first Wolfgang's Steakhouse on Park Avenue (a long mahogany bar, alabaster lamps, walnut wainscoting throughout the restaurant, suede wall panels, Brazilian cherry wood flooring, and a showcase wine cellar) while adding elements of the local environment to personalize each location. We want all our guests to experience an unforgettably delicious meal, whether it is steak, seafood, poultry, or vegetables, in an ambience that is friendly and inviting with service that is impeccable.

Is there anything on the menu that you absolutely love?
If you are asking me limit it to one item, it would have to be our signature Steak for Two (Porterhouse) prepared rare with a side order of German potatoes and creamed spinach.

Retirement 2.0—is that coming soon, or are you content owning and managing a successful high-end steakhouse?
I thought about retirement once. I don't plan on thinking about it again while I am still an able and healthy man. This is what I do, this is what I know. Restaurateurs don't retire—they just pass on.

Looking back on two bright careers, filled with countless stories and adventures, is there anything you'd do differently?
Not at all. Looking back at my life, I have experienced some terrible hardships and downturns, but that is what defines me and gives me the experience to develop and move ahead. As you mentioned in your question, it is the countless stories and adventures—the good, the bad, and the ugly—that make us who we are.