The culinary mantra: “We buy things, fix them up, and sell them for a profit. It’s simple.” Right—simple if you have talent, money, and aptitude, as Chef Andy Nusser, along with partners Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich, do. Their restaurant empire spans the globe, with Nusser heading up Manhattan’s Casa Mono and Bar Jamón, Port Chester’s Tarry Lodge, and its Westport, Connecticut, twin.
But as with all shiny ladders, there were some rusty rungs. Nusser’s include 10 years in a draftsman’s cubicle at GM, and three failed New York City restaurants during his Culinary Institute of America days. There were the childhood years flitting from California to Spain (“My parents were hippies who sold their house”) to New York, then back solo to Spain at 18 with a one-way ticket, a bicycle, and a dishwasher gig, returning only when money ran out. And then that decade in a Santa Barbara GM cubicle. (“There was a realization that these were not my people.”) By ’93, it was enough to pack it all in and head off to Hyde Park, CIA acceptance letter in hand.
“My father was a cook and loved to entertain,” he says of his culinary inspiration. “We had elaborate meals with every friend we could have.” And then there was a certain fateful meeting in his GM years, an introduction in Santa Barbara to a cook named Mario. They kept in touch, and in 1995, following his CIA graduation, Mario Batali hired him to lead his first Greenwich Village osteria, Pó. Nusser was ready, having “learned what not to do in business” after the three restaurant failures with his CIA externship mentor, Mitsuo Kikuchi. The rest, as they say, is history: Babbo followed three years later, Lupa was already a hit, and an empire was born.
But it was an Italian empire, and Nusser was set on invading another land: Spain. He claimed it in 2003, on Irving Place. “Casa Mono was my restaurant,” he says. “I found the space, I came up with the menu.” Bar Jamón arrived at around the same time. “Why would these Italians want to open a small restaurant with an Iberian menu? Good question, but they did. And,” he says, with a bellowing laugh, “it worked.” Yes, it did, but that was hardly serendipitous; Spanish fare was ascendant, French classics being bid a tortured adieu. “Ferran Adria was on the cover of New York Times Magazine,” he recalls. “Small plates were the new way of dining, so, boom, there we were.”
And then there are Spain and Italy themselves: different cultures, same culinary philosophy. In Nusser’s word, “Humble. We don’t use [molecular gastronomy’s] meat glues or nitrogen. The food that I cook with my partners is always ‘nonna-style,’ like a bunch of ladies in the kitchen cooking, rather than a bunch of testosterone.” And then, a caveat: “I’m inspired by authentic housewife recipes, but I’m still cooking in a restaurant in New York, so things are not 100-percent authentic.” True authenticity, for him, lies a world away from the City, in the fishing village of Cadaques on the Costa Brava, eating bread with tomato and fresh sea urchin, drinking red country wine on the beach. This driven New Yorker and empire builder smiles at the memory: “Oh! This is how simple and delicious things can be.”