Merrill Co-President Swaps Banking for Steak in London
Ahmass Fakahany ended a 20-year career at Merrill Lynch & Co. in 2008 as co-president and chief operating officer, responsible for 63,000 employees in 40 countries.
How do you top that?
With creamed horseradish, perhaps. Fakahany quit banking and became a restaurateur, opening establishments across New York. This month, he added Chop Shop, a casual venue on Haymarket in London. It’s the latest outpost of the Altamarea Group, the company he created with chef Michael White.
So what is more difficult: restaurants or banking?
“I have to say restaurants,” Fakahany says in an interview at Chop Shop. “I never thought I’d think so, but margins are so tight in this business. You really have to think through. These are long leases. You have a lot of people issues and there’s a lot of process. And if you don’t like people or process and don’t want to take time with it, it’s a recipe for difficulty.”
Does he miss banking?
“I miss some of the people,” says Fakahany, who is 55. “There are certain aspects of the complexity or the intricacy of a deal that you miss a little bit. Merrill Lynch was a formative part of my life and taught me a lot, frankly, that I’m using in this new business sector, food and beverage.
“This business is very targets-, metrics-, results-oriented. You have to measure yourself the whole time. It is very client-focused. These are very big similarities in terms of how you run the business and, frankly, being very disciplined.
“Being efficient, leveraging your scale, having purchasing power, all of these kinds of things are highly important in making some savings, so that you can spend on the client. You have to look at the whole vertical chain.”
Altamarea has quickly established itself in New York, with popular and respected restaurants such as Marea, Ai Fiori, Osteria Morini and the new Costata. The group is now expanding internationally, with a stake in Al Molo, in Hong Kong, and an establishment opening in Istanbul in coming weeks.
In London, Fakahany has gone for a New York-style industrial look, an informal service style, an accessible menu and affordable prices. The Express Menu is 22 pounds ($32). A la carte, starters such as meatballs are 9 pounds and mains are 12-15 pounds. A 180-gram fillet steak (35-day aged) costs 26 pounds, plus sauces such as salsa verde and creamed horseradish.
If the formula works in the U.K., it might work elsewhere. Fakahany says his experience of opening in London, where he spent a few years as a boy, has been positive and that it’s been good working with the Crown Estate Ltd., his new landlord.
“As far as the operational side, the setup, I would give London an A plus,” he says. “I grew up here and I was just flabbergasted by how responsive and convenient and capable the people were in opening up in London.
“I’ve never had the Queen of England as my landlord before. New York has more hurdles to jump and a lot more regulatory processes that I never imagined when I got into this business.”
(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. He is U.K. and Ireland chairman of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards. Opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Farah Nayeri on London arts and Frederik Balfour on Asian auctions.