JAMES TRUMAN AT HIS VEGETARIAN RESTAURANT NIX
WITH A FEW OF THE TASTY MENU OFFERINGS
Just about two years ago, James Truman, the former Editorial Director of Conde Nast, opened Nix, a style and cuisine focused vegetarian restaurant in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. This was not, however, his first foray into the restaurant business. He had partnered previously with hotelier André Balazs on Narcissa in the East Village and Chiltern Firehouse in London. But, really, his first restaurant was the famous Conde Nast cafeteria at the company’s former Times Square headquarters. It was his project to oversee. He hired Frank Gehry to design the space, and it became the hot spot for lunch. The only way to get in was if you worked there or knew someone in the building.
When I’m asked to describe what is STYLE of SPORT, my one liner is it’s where sport intersects with fashion, design, art, news and culture. James Truman, who once held one of the most influential positions in fashion and publishing, opening vegetarian restaurant – with a Michelin star no less – is very much at that SOS intersection. Add to that the coincidence that he and I worked together at Conde Nast on a women’s sports magazine, Conde Nast Sports for Women, that was his idea to launch in the mid-90’s.
James and I met for lunch last week at Nix, where we chatted about his evolution from the magazine to the restaurant business, and the passion he has for sport, food, and the healthy lifestyle.
STYLE OF SPORT: I never imagined in my days at Conde Nast, I would one day be sitting here interviewing you at your vegetarian restaurant. Clearly you’ve had a long interest in this health and fitness beat, and I’m very curious where that stems from.
JAMES TRUMAN: I became a vegetarian in my late teens. I fell under the spell of the first intellectual I met. There was this radical vegetarian thinking of George Bernard Shaw in particular, who voiced in Victorian England not eating meat, and essentially eating healthy food that doesn’t involve cruelty. I became very enmeshed in the vegetarian lifestyle early on but then I moved to New York when I was 22. I found it nearly impossible, since I had very little money, to eat healthy and to eat vegetarian. I’d eat pizza every day or an omelet, so I actually fell out of the lifestyle in my 20’s. I went macrobiotic in my early 30’s and did that for a few years. I thought I was the embodiment of good health. All my friends thought I was dying because I’d turned green.
SOS: No one looks good on that diet.
JT: I’ve always been interested in diets, as I’ve also been interested in food. I got to the point where I felt I’d eaten enough meat and fish for my lifetime, and I didn’t want to anymore.
SOS: How did you get into the restaurant business after you left Conde Nast?
JT: I sort of started in the restaurant business at Conde Nast. The cafeteria was my project. Hiring Frank Gehry to design it I actually found more exciting than working on the magazines. Seeing it come to life and being this hot ticket in town was very thrilling. I had that in the back of my mind as being one of the most enjoyable experiences of my career.
SOS: How did Nix evolve?
JT: It was my friendship with John [chef John Fraser]. He was a vegetarian. We did Narcissa together and decided we wanted to open a vegetarian restaurant that was not going to be like other vegetarian restaurants. Typically, there is sort of perception that they don’t play good music, and that the lighting is a bit stadium-like. Maybe there are a few organic wines on the menu, but no good cocktails. So we thought, how do we make a vegetarian restaurant that tries to break the mold, and with the thought too that we didn’t want to do a vegetarian restaurant that only appealed to vegetarians. That was very important to us coming in. From that we created Nix. Half our guests are vegetarians, half are not. Typically, it’s people just coming to their own conclusions from health, animal cruelty, environmental concerns, that they don’t want to eat as much meat. I don’t know if they’ll go to Peter Luger tomorrow night. It doesn’t matter.
SOS: I like that they might do both. That’s how a lot of people eat I find, myself included.
Half our guests are vegetarians, half are not. Typically, it’s people just coming to their own conclusions from health, animal cruelty, environmental concerns, that they don’t want to eat as much meat. I don’t know if they’ll go to Peter Luger tomorrow night. It doesn’t matter.
JT: What I consider is this change in how we view diet is going to happen in increments. And it’s not going to come from hectoring people or shaming people. It comes through personal choice. What we can do is make the food delicious so people don’t notice they’re not eating meat. Except they do notice later because they feel better and they sleep better than if they had just eaten a steak. That’s very much the premise of this. We wanted to seduce people into this lifestyle through deliciousness, rather than through politics or rage or shame.
SOS: Is there a particular point of view to the cuisine other than just to be delicious?
JT: I think with vegetarian food you want the capacity for every bite to be a little bit different. That’s what I don’t like about some of these salad places where it all becomes one. We use different spices for different dishes. When you have a steak and vegetables, it’s what you’re very accustomed to eating. When you eat vegetarian, there is some part of you expecting to get less flavor. We are very deliberate in our dishes to counterbalance that by delivering more flavor and more variety then you would get in a meat dish. That’s part of our food philosophy.
SOS: How do you enjoy the lifestyle of the restaurant owner?
JT: Owning a restaurant is very good for one’s social life. Instead of going out to a lot of parties, I just invite my friends to come have dinner.
SOS: Everyone comes to you. How fun!
JT: Yes, I usually know between 5 and 15 people in the room every night.
SOS: How about the late hours? What is that schedule like?
JT: The lifestyle of the restaurateur is not exactly healthy.
SOS: So how do you counterbalance it?
JT: I don’t drink alcohol 3 or 4 nights a week. The easiest trap to fall into is drinking too much.
SOS: Hence that delicious Blackberry and Juniper drink on the cocktail menu. It tastes and smells like gin! Do you workout?
JT: I do. I just came from the gym. I work with a trainer and we do mixture of some fitness, core, and strength building. What I like about working with a trainer is he makes every workout different. I would get so bored just doing the same thing, same machine, same weights, again and again. He comes with a dozen different ways of working out a muscle group. That’s worth the investment to me.
SOS: You and I worked on a startup together. Creating a magazine, creating a restaurant… how are they similar, how are they different?
JT: You’re essentially designing an experience for someone who you haven’t yet met… the reader of a magazine or the guest of a restaurant. You’re using your own instincts with always some picture in your mind of who you want the guest or the reader to be. I had very specific ideas of who I wanted the guest to be at Nix. I imagined her as a young woman who either worked as a yoga teacher or went to yoga — there are about five yoga studios in the neighborhood. Having done her yoga, she might have a glass of wine, but she would want to eat clean. Or she might be starving hungry and can satisfy that, too, with the heavier dishes we have here. We didn’t want to be just her food though. That’s what sweetgreen is. It’s become the default in the grab and go. We wanted to be a restaurant. When you sit down at a restaurant, you don’t want to wolf down some food in a bowl while you check your email and then leave.
You’re essentially designing an experience for someone who you haven’t yet met… the reader of a magazine or the guest of a restaurant.
SOS: There are so many of those places like that now too from fresh&co to Dig Inn to sweetgreen.
JT: You work with a reader or a guest in mind and then you figure out how you reach that person. Magazines do focus groups once or twice a year. Here there is a focus group every night. In the first few months, I made a point of talking to every guest as they were eating. Finding out who they were. What they were responding to and what they didn’t like. You have social media feedback now too of course.
SOS: So what’s the next step for you? Are there more restaurants or do you see this evolving in a different format?
JT: Yes, hopefully by the end of this year we’ll have opened our second, which is going to be much more takeout driven than this. It will be a little lower price point, simpler cooking.
SOS: I can’t let you go without talking a little bit about Conde Nast. My god how it’s changed since you and I were there, in ways I could never have imagined. I’m curious about your thoughts on publishing today and Conde Nast today and where it’s heading. What it looks like in a year, 5 years, 10 years…
JT: Well, I tend to get my information from people who work at Conde Nast who come eat here.
SOS: Everyone I know was told farewell – all the old guard that is.
JT: They were too expensive. The economics of the model changed faster than I think anyone could ever have expected. Magazine companies were sort of monopolies. There were three big ones and a few insignificant smaller players who were bought up by the big ones. Technology took a business that had been a monopoly and made it such a low entry point that anyone could go into it. The value placed on original content just keeps getting lower and lower and it’s not going to go up again. That’s why magazines can’t afford the talent that they used to have. The after-effect of that in turn is the publications not being as good as they were. It’s headed to a very bad place.
SOS: Do you think print can survive?
JT: I think it will survive in a very marginal business and a marginal industry. I talk to some of the young people who work here and it’s inconceivable to them that print ever held that kind of sway in people’s lives. It kind of ruled New York, socially and culturally. It was a huge industry. They don’t believe me essentially that magazines had one been this enormous cultural force and focus of glamour.
SOS: Well the restaurant business is and so is the healthy lifestyle! Looks like you made the perfect move. Thanks James!
…And how appropriate that Michael Wolff (Fire & Fury: Inside the Trump White House) should walk in for lunch in the middle of our chat — perhaps the most buzzed about figure in media right now!