Steven Kamali: Broker to the Chefs

Nightlife and hotel impresario Steven Kamali had barely settled into a booth inside the Soho House last week when he was asked about his involvement with the well-known art gallerist Larry Gagosian’s rumored café at 980 Madison Avenue.

The question drew a nervous laugh from the 31-year-old Roslyn native, who for the past 10 years has left his distinctive mark on both the Manhattan and Hamptons hospitality scene. The question also caused a friend of his who had joined the interview to abruptly leave the booth, perhaps to let Mr. Kamali face the music alone.

“I can tell you we are consulting with the Gagosian Gallery, and we’re helping him curate a restaurant concept for their venue at 980 Madison Avenue,” said Mr. Kamali, in a tone so casual and cool it made us forget the uncomfortable moment minutes earlier.

What had been known about Larry Gagosian’s new cafe—at least from public documents filed with the city Department of Buildings—was that it would be a multistory storefront designed by Annabelle Selldorf in the RFR Realty-owned building. If realized, the new storefront would be one-part restaurant, one-part retail space that, according to insiders, would be a bookstore of some sorts.

Mr. Kamali would not comment further on the project, beyond it being a “restaurant” concept. There was bigger news afoot, he insisted. Mr. Kamali, who for the past 12 years has grown Steven Kamali Hospitality from a fledgling brokerage business for restaurants into a hotel and nightlife consultancy group that counts more than a dozen employees under his stead, was going to add another branch to his business: The Chef Agency.

The concept is simple. The Chef Agency will help hotels and restaurants across the globe fill out their kitchen staffs with the top five most important positions, from the executive chef to the general manager.

“Part of this is we’re connecting dots,” he said. “We would like to be the first call when the Four Seasons in Asia needs a new chef du cuisine,” he said.

The Chef Agency is still in a nascent state—the website is in beta form and its “proprietary” database of 2,500 chefs from across the globe is still being assembled. But once it launches, Mr. Kamali expects the new agency to have a far-reaching impact, with hotels across the globe enlisting his help to staff their kitchens with the most promising chefs in America and elsewhere.

“There are a number of hotels that are opening in the Middle East, Northern Africa,” he said. “Morocco’s got incredible development hotels … there’s demand there for talent.”

Not bad for a man who dropped out of his junior year at the University of Indiana to pursue a career in real estate. Mr. Kamali was the son of Persian Jews who immigrated to New York. He grew up in a modest household—his mother worked in residential real estate and his father in the antiques and oriental rugs trade—and admits it disheartened his family when he decided to drop out of college while less than a year shy of graduating. “I almost didn’t graduate from high school, either,” he said. “My parents were terribly disappointed, [but] it worked out. I’m fine.”

He left Indiana and decamped to New York City to work with Morris Moinian and the Dylan Hotel, a 107-key Beaux-Arts hotel in Midtown Manhattan. Broke yet ambitious, the then-21-year-old Mr. Kamali was allowed to stay at the hotel most of the time while also tasked with making sure operations ran smoothly, from the elevators to the kitchen staff.

“I got really great hands-on experience there, and it really opened me up to a lot of different aspects of the hotel industry, and it also opened me up to the incredibly different aspects to the restaurant business,” he said.

The hotel was dealing with the failure of Nyla, pop princess Britney Spears’ Cajun-inspired restaurant. The Dylan needed a new restaurant destination. Benjamin Steakhouse came in to replace the restaurant, but Mr. Kamali barely stuck around long enough to see it through: After spending nine months with Mr. Moinian, he had decided to strike out on his own.

“I guess I was one of the individuals who didn’t have the privilege of a family business that I can go into, and I wasn’t privileged as far as resources, so brokerage was the one way where I could pick up a phone and literally grab a Zagat and start calling people and say, ‘Would you consider selling your restaurant?’” he said.

“It was then I realized that there weren’t really options for you to pick up the phone and find somebody who could provide a full-service solution,” he remembered.

He racked up a slew of deals, totaling 150 in number, that saw him working with frat-friendly saloons in Murray Hill. He moved on to more sophisticated projects, helping former employees from The World Trade Center’s Windows of the World open up Colors, a restaurant on Lafayette Street. He worked with restaurateurs Jeffrey Chodorow, Giuseppe Cipriani and Stephen Starr.

He also cultivated a hospitality and restaurant advisory wing for his business, helping hoteliers and developers make critical decisions in the art direction and financing of their projects.

“Our brokerage firm has really come out of the forefront of what people know us for, but our advisory business makes up 85 percent of our revenues,” he said.

His company has worked with private equity firms like LaSalle Capital Group  Hotel Properties and has been involved with such hotel chains as Wyndham Hotels and Resorts, Marriott Hotels & Resorts and the Four Seasons. He also played a role in the launch of Cain Luxe Nightclub, which closed in 2010, and then again with owner Jamie Mulholland with the opening GoldBar.

“I was handling all of their real estate transactions, and that’s how we ended up collaboratively, collectively buying Surf Lodge together,” he said.

In its previous incarnation, Surf Lodge was a “dysfunctional” hotel that featured an after-hours lushing club.
After he and his team of partners spent $5 million for the property, they spent eight weeks renovating the place (under the design direction of Robert McKinley, another partner of Kamali’s in the design). He brought on Sam Talbot, a semifinalist in the second season of Bravo’s Top Chef. The concept proved successful, despite a few minor municipal headaches (it racked up 700 pending code violations throughout its young career).

The business was sold in April to Michael Walrath, a tech entrepreneur.

“I think Surf Lodge did so much for my career and my business, and it parlayed into various other deals because of it,” Mr. Kamali said. He would not specify how much the property was sold for. The new ownership group went on to pay $100,000 to settle 100 violations.

“In certain instances, situations arise where you get an offer that seems incredibly enticing, and you decide at the end of the day that you would like to take the money off the table,” he said.

Mr. Kamali still has a presence in the East End: He partnered with W South Beach’s David Edelstein and Jackie Mansfield to buy and reposition the Capri Hotel, which now features a Nobu restaurant and a Cynthia Rowley shop. He also has a hand in Ruschmeyer’s, a “nautical sleepaway camp”-inspired hotel/restaurant concept in Montauk.

“Opportunity breeds opportunity. The moment you do one thing, everybody wants to talk to you,” he said. “As long as you can create value for them, they’ll keep coming back.”

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