Restaurant Giant Drew Nieporent Lived to Eat, Now He Eats to Live

On the last Thursday of August, restaurateur Drew Nieporent sat at a lone table outside TriBakery, one of 16 restaurants–including Montrachet, Tribeca Grill and Nobu–that his Myriad Restaurant Group owns or co-owns. The wind off the Hudson was promising fall, and beneath a three-tiered, white-frosted wedding cake that loomed in the store’s window, Mr. Nieporent was recounting a harrowing experience he’d had at a restaurant.

The week before, he had traveled to California to attend the 30th-anniversary celebration of Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse in Berkeley, and while he was there, he decided to check out Ana Mandara, a Vietnamese eatery in San Francisco owned by Nash Bridges star Don Johnson.

Once Mr. Nieporent’s party had been seated, the waiter approached the table to hand out menus, but the manager intercepted him and snatched them away. Behind the lenses of his lacquered wire-rim glasses, Mr. Nieporent’s eyes registered urban disbelief, as if he were describing a brazen homicide attempt.

“I know the whole body language,” he said. “He didn’t have to say anything.”

Ana Mandara’s manager told Mr. Nieporent that the chef would like to prepare a special tasting menu for him and his guests. Mr. Nieporent knew that to spurn the chef’s hospitality would be to risk insulting him and the restaurant’s owners.

It wasn’t that Mr. Nieporent didn’t want to take up the offer. Mr. Nieporent loved food, but he also knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that his love was killing him.

In 1983, Mr. Nieporent weighed 170 pounds and ran the New York City Marathon. Eighteen years later, he had ballooned to 335 pounds, a personal record.

Mr. Nieporent’s friends were worried, and in April, at the urging of Café des Artistes owner George Lang, Mr. Nieporent traveled to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., for an exhaustive assessment of his health. (His pre-examination meal included Wiener schnitzel and herring soaked in sour cream at a local German restaurant.)

After two days of tests, the clinic issued a 25-page report on Mr. Nieporent. The results were not good. He was, it said, suffering from “morbid obesity,” “significant coronary arterial calcification” and, alarmingly, “hypertrophic cardiomyopathy”–a condition which may put him at risk for sudden death. One member of the Mayo team recommended that the restaurateur undergo “bariatric surgery” to reduce the size of his stomach because, the report indicated, “it would be highly unusual and unlikely for this patient to achieve long-term weight reduction.”

The cold, clinical terms and their grim ramifications stunned Mr. Nieporent. He had grown up in this city wanting to be “bigger than life,” like his idols Bill Graham and Muhammad Ali–a man who would make an indelible mark on the culture of New York. In his 30’s, he began to achieve his dream. His first restaurant, Montrachet, which he opened in 1985, helped establish a neighborhood, Tribeca; a chef, David Bouley; and a style of elegant but casual dining that is prevalent today. Subsequent ventures–Tribeca Grill and Nobu, in which he partnered with actor Robert De Niro and other investors, and the Middle Eastern-influenced Layla–helped turn the area into a culinary destination and a legitimate neighborhood.

Mr. Nieporent opened restaurants in San Francisco, Seattle, London, Martha’s Vineyard and even Pittsburgh. By 2001, he had 16 places.

As New York came to feast at his restaurants, Mr. Nieporent feasted on the city. And New York coursed through Mr. Nieporent. He devoured its popular culture, its sports, its gossip, its energy and, most of all, its endless menu of edible delights.

Mr. Nieporent was a genuine, big-hearted New York character; a much-loved, wisecracking, extra-large part of the firmament. But he became a physical caricature of New York’s most ambitious restaurateur. And the Mayo Clinic’s report confirmed it.

“It was a wake-up call,” said his wife, Ann Nieporent, with whom he has two children, Andrew, 13, and Gabrielle, 9.

By his own admission, Mr. Nieporent is a man obsessed with food; a man who spent much of his life “living to eat–literally, every day, planning the rounds [of] where I’m going to go and what I’m going to have.”

His restaurants facilitated his obsession–and when he hungered for more, the city’s chefs and restaurateurs were always out there, waiting to impress and delight him. “I probably never said no to almost anything, unless it was really poorly prepared or even unsanitary,” he said.

He had been struggling with his weight since high school, and as a result, was well-versed in the science of food. He can wax eloquent about the anti-cancer properties of lycopene in tomatoes and quote you the assets and liabilities of virtually any meal. Fats, proteins, carbohydrates, cholesterol and nutritional values roll off his tongue. In 1998, he’d even opened a restaurant, Heartbeat, geared toward what he called healthy, “risk-free” dining. But even though he knew better, Mr. Nieporent kept on eating. “It was like it didn’t pertain to me,” he said.

Now, Mr. Nieporent said, “I was finally faced with a life-threatening circumstance.” He began taking prescription medicine for his heart and cholesterol levels, but drew the line at getting his stomach stapled. With the help of Mayo endocrinologist Dr. Ian Hay, he put himself on what he called “low-everything diet.” The Mayo Clinic report calculated that Mr. Nieporent was consuming at least 3,000 calories a day. He has cut back to 1,000, much of it protein. That means virtually no fats and few carbohydrates, no tasting his chef’s specials, no Chinese food, no pizza, no bread, no fried chicken, no potatoes, no rice and no cheese.

“I’d fucking kill for a piece of cheese,” Mr. Nieporent said.

The man who once lived to eat was now “eating to live.”

At press time, Mr. Nieporent had dropped 100 pounds from his frame. He’d gone from a 56 waist size to a 44. The metal band of his Omega wristwatch was sliding up and down his left arm like a chunky bracelet, and his glasses seemed a trifle big for his tanned face. He sounds calmer, too, although he attributes some of it to the beta blockers that he’s taking to relax his heart.

Almost every day, Mr. Nieporent looks a bit closer to the photo that he has of himself at the finish line of the New York City Marathon. And for inspiration, he’s been referring to a fairly famous series of photos that photographer Bob Adelman took of himself naked as he dropped a cartload of weight. “That’s me,” Mr. Nieporent said.

“It’s a big deal and a big accomplishment,” said Mr. Nieporent’s wife, Ann. “We are all thrilled, delighted and grateful.”

Drew Nieporent grew up in Manhattan’s Peter Cooper Village, the son of Sybil Trent, a radio actress, and French-born Andrew Nieporent, an attorney for the State Liquor Authority. Because of his father’s job, Mr. Nieporent’s childhood was spent–with his older brother Tracy, now director of marketing and special events for Myriad–in one restaurant after another.

“We used to go to a place called Paul & Jimmy’s,” he said, “and the owner, Jimmy Delgado, would come over and kiss you. But he’d wrap his hands around your face. He exuded warmth, and the food tasted better. They also had the most incredible fried zucchini.”

“That was the theater that I really loved,” Mr. Nieporent said. “And when I would get the food, I’d be, ‘How did they do that? How does the cheese melt? How does it get breaded?’ As a kid, I’d buy a Milky Way and a Three Musketeers and compare which one was better,” he said.

“My father used food almost as an expression of love,” he continued. “He used to come home with the bagels and the herring and the smoked salmon and the Chinese food. Our lifestyle was almost, ‘Where are we going to eat tonight?'”

At age 16, Drew Nieporent weighed 225 pounds and realized that if he wanted to start dating, he’d have to shed some fat. He began to bone up on nutrition and dropped 75 pounds. At the time, he remembered thinking: “I’ve finally gotten to a place in my life where I can love food but understand it. I will never get obese again.”

But the summer after his freshman year at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration, Mr. Nieporent got a job as a waiter on a cruise ship. The cruise ship was a 24-hour floating buffet. He tried everything, often more than once. “It was part of my education. I had to taste it to have a reference point, to have a taste memory. Good and bad,” he said. Mr. Nieporent gained 30 pounds in almost as many days.

In his last year of college, Mr. Nieporent shed the weight once more and took up running. He got a job working for Warner LeRoy’s organization, first as a manager of Maxwell’s Plum, then as restaurant director of Tavern on the Green. But he aspired to something more.

He wanted to be like Muhammad Ali or concert promoter Bill Graham. “He was an outspoken guy, a flamboyant guy. I wanted to have a point of view,” Mr. Nieporent said. “I wanted to be bigger than life … I wanted to be involved with something creative.” And Mr. Nieporent wanted “to have something to do with the culture of New York that’s lasting.”

Mr. Nieporent discovered his canvas one day while running through the industrial neighborhood south of Canal Street.

After finding David Bouley in San Francisco, he opened Montrachet in spring of 1985. Within a year of The New York Times ‘ three-star coronation of the place, Mr. Bouley was out, his pots and pans packed into a van by Mr. Nieporent. At the time, Mr. Nieporent accused him of working on future business deals in Montrachet’s dining room. For years, the men–who own restaurants within blocks of each other–did not speak, and their falling out became legend. Not long after that, Mr. Nieporent’s weight began to creep up again.

On the table before Mr. Nieporent sat a large plastic takeout container of unsweetened green tea and a sports bottle of water. As soon as he finished the water, he explained, he was going to fill the bottle with the green tea, which has replaced the massive quantities of cream-and-Sweet’N-Low-laden iced coffee that he used to consume throughout the day. He was dressed in a blue oxford-cloth button-down shirt that was embroidered with a red lobster where the left breast pocket would be, and khaki pants–a departure from the dark, girth-masking clothes that he used to wear.

Mr. Nieporent planned to lose another 40 pounds before starting on the maintenance phase of his nutritional plan, where there won’t be the incentive of watching the pounds come off. “I am worried about it,” he said. “I’m terrified.

Then again, by dropping the weight, he has regained a “sense of clarity” that he hasn’t had for a while. “Food was my narcotic,” he said. “I used it to sedate myself, and it was an excuse for me to work at a quarter or a half of my potential. Not that I want to work at a 100 percent of my potential, because that even scares me.”

The thought of Mr. Nieporent living a life more frenetic than the one he’s been living now is truly a scary thought. Even when he was carrying around 335 pounds, he moved at a breakneck pace. His cellular phone–which he answers with the mellifluous greeting, “Headquarters”–never stops vibrating with calls from friends and V.I.P.’s seeking Nobu reservations, and employees keeping him informed of charity events, business deals and gossip.

Later in the day, Mr. Nieporent was scheduled to leave for Miami, a trip that he cut short so that he could attend the funeral services for restaurateur Jeff Salaway, who died in a car accident on Aug. 31. In the following weeks, he’d be flying to San Francisco, Las Vegas and Boca Raton on business.

But since his trip to the Mayo Clinic, he has scaled back his hectic lifestyle. “It’s very hard to change behavior that’s ingrained in you. But Drew came back with this information, and it helped him reorganize his priorities,” Ann Nieporent said. “As great as every opportunity is that crosses his desk, he’s learned when to say no. It’s taken him a lot of years, but he knows that it’s more important to be on my daughter’s soccer field than at a food event.”

“Try to get me back early on the 24th. It’s my daughter’s birthday,” Mr. Nieporent said to his assistant, Dana Sardinia, who was arranging his itinerary. He pronounced the word “birthday” as if he was Curly from the Three Stooges.

After Ms. Sardinia left, Mr. Nieporent was approached by a number of passers-by whom he knew. A fellow Cornell alumnus stopped to complain about the surly experience that he and his boyfriend had had at Chanterelle, a restaurant a few blocks away. A Miramax acquisitions executive gave the high sign on his way to the Tribeca Film Center at the western end of the block, where the Tribeca Grill is located. And two more guys walked up to Mr. Nieporent and gave him the once over, telling him that they had read about his weight loss “on Page Six.”

Mr. Nieporent thrives on the social component of his lifestyle, but, he said, “the daily temptations are starting to heighten a little bit.” The pitfalls are many: hors d’oeuvre trays, open bars, as well as the restaurateurs who remember Mr. Nieporent from his human Hoover days. “A lot of people know me from being this gargantuan eater, and they like the fact that I come in the restaurant because I love food.”

Three years ago, he opened Heartbeat after watching a post-bypass Michael Eisner give a symposium on coronary disease on the Charlie Rose show. But “nobody gave a shit,” Mr. Nieporent said. Then again, Mr. Nieporent said, “I didn’t conform to the Heartbeat regimen, either.” Indeed, the Mayo report noted that although Mr. Nieporent owned the restaurant, he “does not go there as often due to location and formality of dining.”

“I’m not going to bite the hand that feeds me, and it’s not up to the industry necessarily to stop serving [artery-clogging] food,” he said. “It’s up to the people to have an education, at least about what they’re putting in their bodies, and then figure it out for themselves. Because at the end of the day, whether you drink or smoke or eat, you’re ingesting things that ultimately will lead to a longer or a shorter life.”

All of his chefs at Heartbeat, where he’s been eating more often, and at Icon, Pulse and Nobu adhere to his stringent requests. But when Mr. Nieporent made the same request at the restaurant of another well-known chef–whom he knows but won’t identify–the response came back: “‘I cook with very little fat.'” Yet as the chef was telling him this, Mr. Nieporent said, “I’m watching him baste a scallop with butter. A scallop.”

“So guess what,” Mr. Nieporent said, shifting in his seat. The chef sent out a tasting dinner that consisted largely of dishes that Mr. Nieporent couldn’t eat: a lobster dish made with coconut milk and more buttery scallops. “My guests, they’re embarrassed … but I didn’t want them to be deprived, and you don’t want to hurt the chef’s feelings .… But the fucking guy won’t change anything.”

So Mr. Nieporent restricted himself to tiny tastes of the food, and the scallop ended up in his napkin, where he attempted to squeeze out its excess butter.

“There’s got to be a refuge in this world, this city, wherever, where you can go and somebody understands exactly what you’re saying,” Mr. Nieporent said. That includes Rochester, Minn., where he’d like to open a Heartbeat as an adjunct to the Mayo Clinic.

This afternoon, Mr. Nieporent was lunching at his own place, Nobu. After heading in a side door, conferring with the hostess and checking out the three women feverishly working the reservation phones near the front entrance–it was around noon–he headed to the restaurant’s back room. After giving his nose a mighty blow on the cloth napkin before him, Mr. Nieporent ordered dishes of seafood ceviche, yellowtail jalapeño with ponzu, and scallop tiradito and a plate of two pieces each of tuna, sockeye salmon, yellowtail and eel sashimi. He admitted that he shouldn’t really be eating the sauce on the eel, but, he said, “it’s only one piece.”

When the rather large ceviche arrived, Mr. Nieporent seemed a little alarmed by its size.

“Pull up a chair,” he said to the waiter.

Then he seemed disappointed by the freshness of the tomatoes. Instead of big portions, Mr. Nieporent is learning to focus his senses on big tastes. When the yellowtail arrived, he put a sprig of cilantro on top before he ate it. “When you taste this, all of the flavors start out separate,” he said, “but then they all meld together into a unique flavor. You don’t get that a lot. You get that with peanut butter and jelly, bacon, lettuce and tomato, and probably pizza.”

Mr. Nieporent has also been doing some soul-searching. He knew that all the diagnoses of his problems can’t be found on that Mayo Clinic report. “I was completely entrenched in a lifestyle,” he said. “Overeating compensated for any of the other problems. In order to feel that I could be successful, I had to be so focused on the goal, which meant I had to work harder than anybody else and get ahead of everybody else.”

Mr. Nieporent’s eyes were blazing, but there was hurt there, too. “And you want to know something? That’s the only way you get there. But at what cost?”

Mr. Nieporent said that his itinerant, workaholic lifestyle “almost destroyed my marriage.

“You’re doing this for yourself, but you’re also doing it for your family,” Mr. Nieporent said. “Now if they turn around and start hating you, you stop. You go home and you see that it runs without you.” “Maybe it doesn’t run at the highest efficiency. But the tradeoff is that it’s a different way of looking at your own life, and that maybe you deserve at this stage to step back before it’s too late.”

The last few years have been trying ones. There were business setbacks. Berkeley Bar & Grill, a restaurant he had envisioned as an homage to the 60’s and Alice Waters’ neck of the woods, failed. And he had been working on another W Hotel co-venture in Times Square when management changed direction and leased the space to restaurateur Steve Hanson. “They hosed us,” Mr. Nieporent said.

He also watched a number of friends get sick. Warner LeRoy died. Jean-Louis Palladin was battling lung cancer. And now Mr. Salaway. “Being at that [funeral], it was such an emotional service–Jeff was a big personality,” said Ann Nieporent. “Everybody loved this guy. For Drew, I think, it was almost a glimpse into his own mortality.”

But Drew Nieporent is alive and 100 pounds lighter. “There’s a moment, now, where I think you realize your mortality, and you realize that your ego drives you more than your talent,” Mr. Nieporent said. “There’s a limit to your talent. So I’ve sort of come in the last couple of years to understand my limitations.”

Drew Nieporent chased a piece of yellowtail with his chopsticks, popped it in his mouth and closed his eyes. He seemed to be tasting the food.

“I guess I ate twice as much as anybody because I wanted to be twice as big,” Mr. Nieporent said. “Not physically, but in my mind. I wanted to be big. But now, it’s better to sit back a little bit and watch.”

Comments

  1. Artie Gold says:

    Ah. Bundini.
    Gotta love the date on this one, though….