“Even a great boxer has butterflies before they get into the ring,” says Gabriel Stulman. “And if they don’t, they should.”
From running a handful of smaller, neighborhood spots to some much larger, hotel spots and back again, Gabriel is a restaurateur who has stepped into many different rings throughout his career. Over lunch at Simon & The Whale at the Freehand Hotel, we talk about some of the strategies he has employed over time, and how he ensures that Happy Cooking Hospitality continues to evolve.
Glancing around the hotel — not his most recent project but easily the biggest — I ask Gabriel what lessons he has learned here that he’s taken back downtown. “In all of our West Village restaurants before this we didn’t report finances to anyone other than me,” he explains. “Here, we have financial reporting that is due to other people: hotel partners, financial institutions who fund a project of this scope, and so on. In this process, we have been exposed to ways that other companies do this. Sure, we had our own pro formas, P&L sheets, etc. for five restaurants. Then you meet someone who has twelve hotels. We had an accounting team of one; they have a team of twenty.”
Never one to make it easy on himself, Gabriel has been known to take over some long-established New York spaces — a hundred-year-old West Village tavern, say, or a NoHo cafe around since the 80s — and make them his own. So how does it feel each time he’s tasked with that challenge? And with several successful projects already under his belt, do openings get any easier with time?
“Here [at Freehand] for instance, we knew the scope was substantially larger. But we proactively pursued this opportunity, as we sought to increase our footprint. At that point it becomes super important to have the right level of self-awareness. I’m always nervous of failure — nervous of disappointing myself, my colleagues, our guests.”
And how does he quell those nerves? “We operate on feelings. We operate emotionally. We make choices with our hearts as much as our minds. And can you respectfully pay homage to the story of a place, while also confidently making it yours? Abso-fucking-lutely. We are honoring the past life of a place like The Jones. We kept the orange facade, the neon sign, the Elvis. There’s a huge photo of Fedora Dorato that sits behind the bar at our restaurant Fedora…”
“It’s the same conversation when it comes to designers like Kim Jones [of Dior], Marc Jacobs, or Virgil Abloh [of Louis Vuitton, and coincidentally, Stulman’s college roommate]. When they came into those jobs, they couldn’t just keep doing what those brands had been doing for the last 150 years. They had to make them their own. I don’t think creative directors in the fashion space take those jobs if they’re not allowed to do their thing. I don’t think musicians get into the studio if they’re not going to be able to make their own music.”
Asked who he admires among other creatives, Gabriel cites restaurateur Andrew Tarlow (who “doesn’t get a fraction of the credit and celebration he deserves”) and tattoo artist Dr. Woo. Notably, every person he mentions has — like Gabriel himself — managed to successfully bridge different aspects of their given industry, whether it’s linking together small neighborhood restaurants with larger hotel spaces, or streetwear and haute couture.
Finally, I wonder how he has changed along the way: “Your level of responsibility when you have 1 restaurant, 0 managers, and 22 employees is very, very different than having 9 restaurants and 300+ employees. When I started Little Owl, I was single. Now, I’m married with kids. I’ve changed how I view and divide my own time, as well as other people’s time. Meanwhile the industry landscape never stops changing. What worked for us ten years ago might not work today. You just have to keep evolving.”