Chef Josh Capon is a bit of an entertainer. “Everybody says wow, you’re blowing up, you’re blowing up,” he says. “I don’t know what that means. I’m just trying to keep up!” Capon is the chef and co-owner of four restaurants in New York City—Lure Fishbar, B&B Winepub, El Toro Blanco and Bowery Meat Company—and a second outpost of Lure Fishbar in Miami. He also runs Pressed, a gourmet grilled cheese stand, at Citi Field.
His newest restaurant, Bowery Meat Company, opened six months ago and has already been named a New York Times Critics’ Pick. “We just kind of nailed it,” Capon says. “We’re serving some of the best meat in the country, but we’re also focusing on everything else around the steaks, everything north of the menu.” For example in addition to grilled ribeyes and dry-aged New York strips, the restaurant serves duck lasagna and roasted cauliflower steaks. “We figured out the formula so to speak over there. Once people go, it becomes their new go-to steakhouse in the city.”
Capon walked through SoHo and talked to us about the challenges of running a successful restaurant downtown, the pressure on chefs to come up with craft cocktail programs, and the greatness of Guns N’ Roses cover bands.
You just opened a new restaurant downtown, but a lot of other places are closing or being pushed out because of rent hikes. How will downtown dining evolve in the next couple of years?
New York is the greatest city in the world, but it’s also the most freaking expensive. With all the new laws and rules regarding healthcare and minimum wage, the government is making it very difficult to operate a restaurant in New York City right now. A lot of the little restaurants that don’t do the volume or have the support of a bigger umbrella are going to find it very difficult to survive.
What’s frustrating for us is that we employ a lot of people and trust me when I tell you that we take very good care of our people. Some of these new laws are abusive to ownership. We’ve gotten to the point where we have to ask, are we running a business to take care of our staff or to operate a business, make money, and take care of everybody? The bottom line is if a restaurant’s not making money, nobody else is making money.
How do you feel about the minimum wage for fast-food workers getting raised to $15 an hour?
Look, no disrespect to what anybody does for a living, but when fast-food workers are making more than professional line cooks in a restaurant, I don’t think that’s fair. My cooks are not cooks. My cooks are serious chefs. These guys are trained and are really professional. [Raising the minimum wage for fast-food workers is] taking the motivation away, if you will. Why shouldn’t one of my guys go work at McDonalds?
We give people raises all of the time when they do a great job. But when you have people coming in at entry level positions making whatever the crazy number is, we can’t give you a raise for three to six months after we wanted to, because you’re already at that number. So it’d be nice if we had a little bit of room. If we could start somebody at $8 and hour and three months later give them $1, they feel like they’ve done a great job. They’ve earned it. It’s nice when we can do that. But if you’re starting people at $12 an hour and three years later they’re asking for a raise, I’ll have to be like dude, you started at $12. You’re way ahead of the game.
How do you feel about getting rid of tipping?
There are high-end restaurants, four-star restaurants, that are automatically including 20 percent now. At some of these places you can’t even leave extra. It’s just 20 percent. I always tip 25 percent because I’m in the business. I get bad service and I tip 22 percent. But you’re not even leaving it to the diner anymore to say hey, great service, thank you so much. Well you know what, maybe I want to leave 25, maybe I want to leave 30 or maybe I want to leave 18 because we couldn’t find our server for the last half hour of our meal. I don’t think changing the whole format is necessarily for the better.
How do you compete for diners’ attention when everyone’s always looking for the next new thing?
What’s kind of fun right now, I’m very modest by the way, is that Bowery Meat Company is one of the new hottest restaurants in New York. Probably one of the best steak houses in the city. We also have Lure Fishbar, which has been there for 10 years. So I’m on both sides of that equation. I have the new hot place, and we have an absolute staple, an iconic restaurant, of the city. Ten years in New York City is a big freaking deal. The average lifespan of a restaurant in New York City is about two, two and a half years. When you see a restaurant closing in two years, I promise you, they didn’t make their investment back and somebody lost a lot of money.
New and hot is good, but you can’t be that restaurant that people go to once and say, wow that was great, and then never go back. I see a lot of places like that. There are 10 thousand billion restaurants in New York City that people can go to. I can say this with all honesty, people eat at Lure Fishbar between three and five times a week. And I always genuinely thank them for coming as often as they do because it’s a big deal. They’re not just coming for the great food, but it’s consistent service, consistent quality across the board. And they feel like family.
Lure Fishbar in Miami and its adjacent tiki bar, The Rum Line, are known for their great cocktail programs in addition to their food. Is there a lot of pressure on restaurants now to have craft cocktails?
One hundred percent. At restaurants, it’s definitely as important as the menu is. When people go out to eat, that’s a very exciting element and a huge draw now. They want to try cocktails. They’re like appetizers; I find people are sharing a couple of cocktails for the table.
There’s no question that the cocktail programs across the country are really taking leaps and bounds. It used to be that when you staffed a restaurant it would be executive chef, sous chef, manager. Now you get a mixologist. I’m thrilled to have Rob Ferrara [in Miami] because he just loves his craft. Sometimes I go down there and order 12 different cocktails just to taste them all. It’s not about getting drunk to me, it’s just about having fun. Great flavors, great presentations. It’s a party down there.
You opened Lure Fishbar in Miami a few years before the influx of New York chefs began. Why is Miami so attractive right now?
I’ve fallen in love with Miami. It’s a very easy trip from New York—three hours. Getting to Vegas or California is a pain in the ass. And Miami happens to be an absolutely beautiful city. The beaches are gorgeous. There’s a tremendous restaurant scene going on down there. There have got to be 20 to 30 great restaurants. I happen to be friendly with the mayor, Phil Lavine, and his line to me is, we’re going to get you. It’s just a question of when, because everybody eventually moves to Florida. The joke is why wait until you’re 70? Go now. You will enjoy it.
What kind of music do you listen to while you’re cooking?
Rock ‘n’ roll all day, baby. Zeppelin’s my favorite band of all time. Sometimes I prep to the Grateful Dead, but Grateful Dead’s not for service. My wife hired a Guns N’ Roses cover band for my 40th birthday party last year and it was the greatest party of all time.
Alyson Sheppard is the resident hangover specialist at Playboy.com. Follow her on Twitter: @amshep