Risk Taker

I admire people who take risks. I speak not of those who like to jump out of airplanes high in the sky, or those who challenge us to look, or avert our eyes from their daring cleavage. Rather, I like risk takers, who dare to dream up something they’ve never done before and take the plunge.

Legendary restaurateur Joe Baum with Alan Lewis & Chef Andre Rene

Legendary restaurateur Joe Baum (right) with Alan Lewis & Chef Andre Renee

The person’s risk taking may be as simple as highlighting a Five Ingredient Fix, then elegantly presenting it in an original and charming manner. The risk taking could involve a variation, a new interpretation on a very good idea. It is also why I so admired and often speak of my friend and mentor, Joe Baum.

(He has been in my thoughts since my recent sentimental journey of Windows on the World.)

Few have taken risks and demonstrated such powers of original thinking as Joe. We would be astonished to learn that Charlie Trotter had opened a hot dog stand or that Alice Waters was presiding over a steak house. Yet this is just the sort of thing Joe did, over and over again. He produced one extraordinary stretch of the imagination after another.

Among the 167 restaurant concepts he created were Zum  Zum (a hot dog restaurant), Charley Brown’s (a steak house), Charley O’s (an Irish Pub), John Peele’s (with the menu written in olde English and beer served from yard-long hunting horns), The Hawaiian Room, The Forum of the Twelve Caesars, The Four Seasons and the Brasserie, La Fonda del Sol, Aurora, The Tower Suite, Trattoria, Paul Revere’s Tavern and Chop House, The Fountain Café and Tavern on the Green in Central Park, Spats (a twenties-style speakeasy), The Newarker at Newark Airport, The American Restaurant at Crown Center in Kansas City, and The Heartland Market (the forerunner of the now-ubiquitous food court).

Joe was also responsible for the menu at the International House of Pancakes, the restoration of The Rainbow Room, and two incarnations of Windows on the World. Each site had a distinctive regional or historic flavor and covered territory extending from the Pacific Islands to France, Italy, Latin America, Germany, England, Ireland, and Colonial America.  He targeted his places to every taste and all sizes of purses.

One of Joe’s few regrets was that he never created his own version of a genuine Jewish deli.

At first all of these restaurants may seem wildly different, but conceptually they were built from the same DNA. Just as a successful mystery writer writes the same book, with the same characters, over and over again, Joe Baum created one plot and made 166 variations on the theme.

He created his own language for restaurants and wrote it in many different dialects. All good restaurateurs, of course, share the same basic grammar. What differentiated Joe from others was the boldness and clarity of his concepts, the design of his physical spaces, the wording on his menus, his care for his guests and respect for his staff.

Joe was the kind of risk taker we should all aspire to be like–even if we must do so with both hands firmly holstering our money bags.

2 thoughts on “Risk Taker

  1. For a short but very important time in my life, I worked close-in to Joe Baum, Alan Lewis, Fred Rufe, and George Lang opening RA’s Fountain Cafe – three guys from Cornell, and one who wasn’t – who were all in their own way amazing. Later I again worked for Mr. Lewis in another company. The foundation that these four gave me, along with my formal education, allowed me to succeed for 10 years of running the F&B operations of a Mobil 5 Star/AAA 5 Diamond hotel/casino. I doubt I could have done the job without those earlier developmental years working for those men.

  2. For a short but very important time in my life, I worked close-in to Joe Baum, Alan Lewis, Fred Rufe, and George Lang opening RA’s Fountain Cafe – three guys from Cornell, and one who wasn’t – who were all in their own way amazing. Later I again worked for Mr. Lewis in another company. The foundation that these four gave me, along with my formal education, allowed me to succeed for 10 years of running the F&B operations of a Mobil 5 Star/AAA 5 Diamond hotel/casino. I doubt I could have done the job without those earlier developmental years working for those men.

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