QandA with Restaurateur Paul Fleming

May/June 2009

Great Taste recently had the opportunity to spend some time with one of the nation’s top restaurateurs, Paul Fleming. Here Paul dishes on growing up in Louisiana, building iconic brands, living in Napa and his latest venture, Paul Martin’s American Bistro.

GT: Your success in creating and building brands like P.F. Chang’s China Bistro and Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar is legendary. But no one starts at the top. What and where was your first job in the business?

PF: I went to LSU in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and began working at a local restaurant. I started as a dishwasher, and progressed to a busboy, server, bartender and finally manager during the course of my college years. The name of the restaurant was Saturday’s, a rip-off of T.G.I. Friday’s.

GT: Did any of your family work in hospitality?

PF: No. But I grew up in a family where food was a big part of our lives. My grandfather was a farmer and he raised his own chickens and squab. We did a lot of fishing and ate with the seasons. Everything was fresh. I developed a great love of food from a young age-it’s part of the culture in Louisiana.

GT: Before you began Fleming’s with co-founder Bill Allen in 1998, you cut your steak chops with Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, licensing the concept in Arizona, California and Hawaii. What were the most memorable things you learned from restaurateur Ruth Fertel?

PF: Ruth used to say a meat salesman will know there’s 16 ounces in a pound when he can roll over in his grave. In other words, be vigilant, check your bills, oversee your checks going out. Buy the highest quality, never the cheapest. Keep it simple. And remember you’re in the food, not bar business.

GT: You collaborated with restaurateur Phillip Chang to create a contemporary Chinese restaurant, originally because you and your wife wanted good Chinese food in Arizona. How did the concept take off with such momentum?

PF: The first day we opened P.F. Chang’s, we had a line of people waiting to get in within the first hour. The public gets it very quickly when you keep it simple. Our goal was to deliver high quality at moderate prices. Authentic recipes, everything sourced locally, vegetables chopped and meat cut fresh for the day. Wines by the glass, a nice ambiance and good service. It’s still working 15 years later.

GT: Your track record shows you instinctively know what the dining public wants. How do you do it?

PF: We’re not reinventing anything. It’s obvious what people eat and want when dining out. It’s not about starting a new concept, but how you can do it better.

GT: Your latest venture, Paul Martin’s American Bistro in El Segundo and Roseville with co-founder Brian Bennett, has hit another dining nerve with its focus on natural, sustainable and seasonal food. Why is this trend being embraced by so many?

PF: Again, we didn’t really start anything. People today want to know where their food is coming from; they want it safe and what’s good for the environment. Brian and I personally eat this way, and we want to make this kind of product available to the public outside of expensive restaurants. It’s the right thing to do.

GT: When will you bring Paul Martin’s to O.C?

PF: The only place we’re considering another location now is Orange County-probably either Irvine or Newport Beach in the next year or two.

GT: Tremendous service is a hallmark of all your concepts. How is that accomplished?

PF: Our management doesn’t have the turnover associated with the industry because we make them our partners. The incentive to do well is there, and because they have a vested interest in the ownership of the business, the staff they hire has longevity.

GT: After years of living in Arizona and raising your family there, you moved to Calistoga in Napa Valley where your wife makes Kelly Fleming wine from organic grapes you grow. Convey in three words what it’s like to live in the wine country.

PF: Inspiring, humbling and a blast. Inspiring because we live off the land with our farm and it’s impacted how we eat and helped form the Paul Martin’s concept. Humbling because of the sheer beauty of the area and living and working with the seasons of the wine world. A blast because the people are so wonderful. Everyone cooks, entertains, and the quality of food and wine is fantastic.

GT: Starting with an appetizer, entree and dessert, what are your favorite dishes on the Paul Martin menu?

PF: The butter lettuce and Pt. Reyes blue cheese salad; right now either the mahi mahi or halibut, and our strawberry shortcake. The strawberries from the local farmers markets are phenomenal.

GT: If you were to address a group of graduating hospitality students, what advice would you give them?

PF: Go work for a big company that is well funded, food oriented and has a great culture. Get experience and training before you strike out on your own.

GT: What is your favorite inspirational quote?

PF: When I graduated from college and was getting ready to go out into the work world, my dad said: “Never order a cocktail at a business dinner that has a parasol.”

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