Goldman Trader-Turned-New York Chef Opens Restaurant in London
Seth Levine headed home one day from his job on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange with Goldman Sachs Group. He noticed a line of people close to the corner of 54th Street and Lexington Avenue and asked, "What's going on?"
It was a queue to audition for Gordon Ramsay's reality TV show, Hell's Kitchen. Dressed in his business suit, Levine joined the back of the line. A few weeks later, he was in Los Angeles filming for the show's fifth series, which aired in 2009.
Why would anyone quit Goldman to become a chef? As career moves go, surely it is out of the frying pan and into the fire. (Levine had made it to Goldman via a smaller firm, Walter N. Frank & Co., which Goldman acquired.)
"It's an amazing company, but it was never my passion," says Levine, 35. "I attribute a lot of my business knowledge to Goldman. It's easy for a good chef to make great food, but it's hard to know the business side of things, to make sure your food costs, your employee costs, and your ordering are proper.
"A lot of great chefs open restaurants that don’t do well because they are not good businessmen."
He fondly remembers his time on Hell's Kitchen, after which he was soon able to find backers for his first restaurant, Georgica, in East Hampton.
"Gordon Ramsay was amazing—nicest guy ever," Levine says. "But when the cameras go on, it's completely a different story. So it was a learning curveball.
"Dealing with major CEOs on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange every day and multi-multimillionaires who expect things certain ways, Gordon was a little puppy dog compared to the people I worked with. So when he yelled and fire came out of his ears, it was like a little puppy dog.
"It was pretty hellish, but now—14 restaurants later—I'm opening in Gordon's home town. I have not seen him, but I am sure we'll bump into each other. I'd love to have him in for dinner."
Levine says he knew little about the London restaurant scene before being given the chance to open Hotel Chantelle London.
"The first time I was in London, I was 20 years old, in 2000," he says. "I did not enjoy the food. Then when I came back to look for this project, I didn’t know where to go, so we went to a few pubs, and I was not impressed at all.
"So I kind of was like: 'You know what? This is going to be the easiest thing that I've ever done. They're never going to have tasted these flavors before. I'll open 10 restaurants in London. I'll be a billionaire here.'
"Then we got here and we started going to the restaurants that were recommended to us, and it's a little nerve-wracking: There is very good food here. A lot of the top chefs are coming here."
Levine is known for his playful culinary style and presentation, with dishes such as a tuna tartare cigar served in a vintage glass ashtray. He has high hopes for his brunch menu, with options such as pancake-crusted sausage lollipops; lobster Benedict; and breakfast pizza (with scrambled eggs, Cheddar cheese, and crumbled bacon).
"I'm told that the brunch menu is a stoner's dream," he says. "And I've never smoked pot in my life. Sorry, guys. I've never gotten into it. I'm looking for people to have fun and have a dining experience."
So how does he like to relax away from the kitchen?
"I have an amazing hobby," he says: "Trading stocks."
Hotel Chantelle is at 23 Orchard Street, W1H 6HL; +44-20-7299-2522 or hotelchantelle.com
Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Bloomberg. Follow him on Twitter @richardvines.
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