Empire of the Rising Starr

With two Manhattan restaurants opening and annual sales approaching $100 million, Stephen Starr is reluctantly adjusting to running a 13-restaurant profit machine. In the cocktails-and-calamari mogul’s own words: “I hate that corporate s**t”

Meanwhile, the other projects on Starr’s plate are boringly conservative. The contract to manage restaurants in the 10 W Hotels is almost risk-free, offering a management fee and a percentage of the net profits, but demanding no up-front investment. Morimoto New York, in which he is investing $4 million, will benefit from the involvement of one of the world’s best-known chefs. The Atlantic City ventures will benefit from one of the casino industry’s proven developers, Sheldon Gordon, whose company is putting up most of the cash required to build Starr’s restaurants in the Pier at Caesars.

Starr is also through, for the moment, with recruiting pricey, finicky celebrity chefs. A brief affair with Marcus Samuelsson, the wildly photogenic Ethiopian-Swedish executive chef of Washington Square, went sour once mediocre reviews led to empty tables, and Samuelsson is being replaced by Barclay Prime chef Todd Mark Miller, whom Starr describes as “a real team player,” as if Miller is such a team player it scares him. For Buddakan New York’s executive chef, meanwhile, Starr has chosen Michael Schulson, the chef at Pod, largely on the basis of his turning around the numbers at the once-­beleaguered University City restaurant, where his menu innovations increased sales to $5.5 million last year from $4.5 million. “Schulson is a chef and a businessman,” muses Starr. “You don’t want a chef who is so much an artist he’s not concerned about the numbers.”

Setting Starr’s pragmatical corporate agenda is a new management team, the franchise player of which is a pudgy, confident Cornell MBA with an endearing smile who is named Howard Wein. Wein, age 32, comes from five years at the Starwood hotel group, owners of the Sheraton, Westin and W hotels, but before he sold out to a corporate job — a move about which Wein expresses nary a twinge of wistfulness or regret — he attended California’s Pitzer College ­(possibly the hippie-est college in a state full of hippie colleges; he describes the experience as “too, like, whatever”), dropped out to cook on a kibbutz in Israel, enrolled at and graduated from Hampshire College (the Pitzer of the Northeast), and served as a traveling chef for the Beastie Boys. Then Wein decided he’d like to open a restaurant. Not one to leave his ambition in the hands of instinct, he enrolled as a graduate student at Cornell University’s famed school of hospitality, which landed him the Starwood job.

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