On the surface, Michael White and Ahmass Fakahany seem like an unlikely pair.
One is a classically trained chef with rock-star tattoos; the other is an accomplished businessman and former Merrill Lynch president and COO.
But fate brought them together over a decade ago in New York City’s Soho restaurant FiAMMA, where White earned his first three-star review from The New York Times. After a quick exchange in which the two discovered their shared love of food, they decided that someday, somehow, they would do business together.
Long before that chance meeting, White was surrounded by cooking and a robust local farming community in Wisconsin. His father was a banker and avid home cook who planted the seed of culinary talent that bloomed in White as he sought his life’s path. “We grew up in a family where, after you finished breakfast, we were asking what we were having for dinner,” he says. “And we were doing organic way before that was a thing in the supermarket.”
Cairo-native Fakahany essentially was raised in the service industry. His father, a successful Exxon executive, understood the importance of entertaining clients at home, which made an impression on Fakahany from an early age—especially since he was put to work to make those evenings successful. “I was constantly serving in my own home,” he says. “I loved food and I loved the social setting surrounding it.”
White and Fakahany’s shared talents and passions came together in 2007, when they opened Due Mari, an Italian restaurant in New Jersey. With Fakahany still working full time at Merrill Lynch, it seemed like the perfect way to dip their toes into the business of hospitality. “I wanted to do something other than finance and I thought it was time to reinvent myself, so we started charting a path forward,” Fakahany says.
Following that endeavor’s success, they decided to take on the world’s toughest food market: Manhattan. “Manhattan is the NFL,” jokes Fakahany, adding that they decided on a new form of Italian fine dining with a killer Central Park location for Marea.
The flagship restaurant has come to symbolize the highest level of client service for the Altamarea Group, which also owns Ai Fiori, Vaucluse, Osteria Morini, and Nicoletta, with an impressive 17 restaurants in total. “We are a client firm,” Fakahany says. “Everything we create is from the lens of the client. We are constantly changing because clients’ needs are changing.”
Interestingly, the Altamarea Group has a tight ownership team and doesn’t adopt multi-investor strategies, a way to maintain control and be able to respond quickly to any issues in their restaurants. “Consistency and recalibration are part of our pillars,” Fakahany says.
They are also keeping up with the times in terms of the impact technology and social media is having on restaurants and hospitality. Given the instant gratification that millennials, among other generations, are partaking in by sharing food photos on social media, Altamarea has to fire on all cylinders around the clock. “We’re living in a 24/7 food cycle,” says White.
With an increase in food sensitivities and dietary restrictions, today’s high-end clients also expect full disclosure about where their food comes from, while also demanding the highest quality and sourcing. To that end, Altamarea finds itself in a great position to leverage its purchasing power. “The consumer is the real winner. We use a tremendous amount of striped bass and the No. 1 tuna,” White says. “If we had just one restaurant, we couldn’t afford the quality of seafood that we can because we’d be charged an exorbitant amount for it.”
For White’s casual pizza concept at Nicoletta, the same holds true for the quality of Italian sausage they purchase, using Pat LaFrieda artisanal meats. In markets like Dubai, they leverage connections to Emirates Airlines and the finest markets in Milan, Italy.
Growth and the Italian Way
Through a strong financial organization with deep data analytics, the partners carefully seek growth opportunities that align with their core values. In particular, they open new locations where they know they can incorporate local themes and tastes into their global model.
Given the group’s “international DNA,” as Fakahany and White put it, it was only natural to expand a few of their culinary concepts outside the United States, most notably in Hong Kong, Istanbul, and, most recently, Dubai, while keeping their core competency alive by serving Italian fare. “Italian is a global food and it’s probably the most comfortable for local palates,” Fakahany explains. “When you’re in Japan, or Dubai, you’ll find pasta with crab, for instance. It’s a very bridgeable cuisine.”
They also study local tastes and habits. White spent a great deal of time in Hong Kong to make sure his pizza dough was the right consistency for the region, and was mindful to not add too much cream to sauces, often found distasteful in Asian cuisine. “We had a core menu, but we had to act quickly to align it with local preferences,” he says.
For both White and Fakahany, Dubai was the right location to move to next, as it’s not only the gateway to Asia, but also to Europe and Africa.
Food Meets Finance
One thing is clear: The pair understands the art of business. They’ve spent years cultivating customers among next-generation Wall Street and global leaders who need somewhere to make deals happen. But equally they have cultivated a link from fashion and entertainment to business. For many that mix defines Marea.
They want to do the same with their new Dubai outpost, particularly for international guests who go back and forth between the two locations. Clients dining at Marea in Dubai, for example, can seamlessly make a reservation for Marea in Manhattan to align with their travel plans. That synergy means a lot to their most important clients, for whom Marea is more than just a restaurant; it’s part of a chic lifestyle, a go-to spot for dinner parties and special events.
What comes with such a lofty status is knowing precisely how to source and retain top talent. Marea’s New York general manager is heading to Dubai to maintain the level of service their patrons have come to expect over the last decade. “We are trying to change the culture of hospitality to employ best practices in management, in terms of retention and laying the foundation for consistency,” Fakahany says.
Fakahany and White know that they can’t be all things to all people, so they are turning toward strategic partnerships and collaborations for concepts like Omar at Vaucluse, which came to the supper-club scene in March 2018.
Downtown Greenwich Village supper club owner and socialite Omar Hernandez teamed with Altamarea to utilize the upper level of their Park Avenue, French fine dining restaurant, Vaucluse, together leading the charge to attract a younger generation of diners and return high-society fun to the Upper East Side.
Today, the glitz and glamour that lies beyond the black velvet curtains is a huge draw to international royalty, business leaders, socialites, and celebrities. The menu is an homage to different tastes and cultures—from Mediterranean dishes to Indian curries, also incorporating crowd favorites like the Tomahawk Chop (a 42-ounce bone-in ribeye) that feeds two to three people. “It’s eclectic and funky,” White says. “We’re following the change in lifestyle and eating habits of the global client.”
To wow the discerning palates of the international elite, the menu boasts items like Oysters Royale, a decadent plate of oysters topped with sea urchin and caviar, and an elevated cocktail menu that includes the Casino Royale with Kettle One vodka, Dolin Blanc vermouth, and Cointreau.
Fakahany believes in variety and offering new options to upcoming generations, as well as to their tried-and-true client base. There are “different horses for different courses,” he says. “We need to continually evolve the experience and romanticize the menu.”
The Future of Hospitality
For men with seemingly different backgrounds, there’s no denying their cutting-edge approach and staying power. Whether it’s expanding their New York City empire to include different dining concepts with more affordable price points, or expanding their existing concepts into Asia and the Middle East, the Altamarea Group plans to continually innovate by doing two things really well: applying analytics and good business discipline to the restaurant game and always putting the client first for an exceptional culinary experience.
Featured Image Credit: Evan Sung