Clark Kent in the Kitchen

“It’s all a luxury, expense accounts,” he said. “With [Lupa and Otto,] people are there because they really want to be there, they really want to enjoy themselves. Whereas a lot of times people come here for a plethora of other reasons that don’t involve food or personal enjoyment. Like business-related events or social obligations, or just wealthy people that are used to being catered to in a certain way. All these things that we underestimated, primarily due to naïveté.”

However, he said, “I ended up enjoying this job more than I initially thought I would.”

While Mr. Ladner won’t soon be rubbing shoulders with his well-heeled patrons in the dining room, friends swear he is more animated than he at first appears. “He’s painfully shy, which I think comes across as aloof,” Ms. Burrell said. “But that’s absolutely not it at all. When he’s comfortable, he is funny and he’s quirky and incredibly intelligent.” Ms. Burrell recalled one night after an Iron Chef taping when Mr. Batali took a group out to Per Se. “Mario’s wife was with us, and after about two courses she said, ‘Are we going home yet?’ And we had about 18 more courses to go. Finally, she was like, ‘O.K., I’m settled in,’ and Ladner screams ‘Whoo-hoo!’ and the whole dining room stopped. It was like that Visa check commercial when someone tries to pay with cash. When he’s comfortable, he has no problem screaming at the top of his lungs at a place like Per Se.”

Mr. Ladner is a regular, with others in the Batali orbit, at Spotted Pig’s late-night chef scene. “He’s notorious for leaving without saying goodbye,” Mr. Dufresne said, and presumably decamping to West 11th Street, where he lives with his girlfriend, whom he met 12 years ago at an Oasis concert, and their two children, aged 8 and 4. She is not in the industry. “I wanted to be able to have a part of my life that wasn’t all consumed with this,” he said. “I couldn’t imagine being married to, like, the maître d’ or something, that would drive me insane.”

Mr. Ladner has also been working one day at week at Lupa recently, reconnecting with his casual-dining roots, and he professes an interest in egalitarian concerns like attracting more vegetarians to his meat-driven restaurant. It all helps lend perspective to a world of $55 veal chops and $175 tasting menus. “This recession could become a recession, or it could become a depression, and this restaurant could be gone in two years,” he said. “Who knows.”