Florent Morellet, best known for his eponymous 24-hour diner, is the subject of David Sigal's documentary, Florent: Queen of the Meat Market. The film, which highlights Florent's role in social activism and the downtown scene, premiered at the New York City Food Film Festival, winning Best Film Made In New York and The Feature Film Award. Amidst the premiere's festivities, I had a moment to chat with Florent about how and why it all started and what he plans to do next.
Louise McCready: In an article you wrote for Papotage about becoming an American citizen, you wrote that you always felt out of place and were born an American son. What do you love most about America?
Florent Morellet: The ease of contact between people. You can be in a subway car where something's happening and you can turn to the next person and start a conversation. For example, there were two people--a couple--that were loud and fat, but visually, incredible to look at. I turned to the woman next to me, and said to her, "Only in New York," and she said, "Oh my God, yes." But everywhere in the country, you can strike a conversation with anybody: blue state, red state, rich, poor. I realized that in 1967 when we went around the country. It was a revelation to me because that was how I was born; yet France is very much the opposite.
In France, people won't answer you if you've not been introduced. When I was younger and lived in Paris, I would go into the bakery and say, "Bonjour," and then nobody would answer. Everybody would look at me like I was an obnoxious person from Mars. People aren't worried to be ridiculous here. People say Parisians look beautiful, but I say, "No, they look boring. They are so afraid to be ridiculous. Everybody dress the same. The whole country dresses like it's on the Upper East Side."
LM: Hal Rubenstein says you took the foreignness out of French food and served traditional French bistro food next to American diner food. Did you have a signature dish or what do you like to make at home?
FM: The best selling dish was hamburgers. We made a fierce hamburger--half a pound of good quality meat. If I'm going to have beef, it's got to have some fat in it. Lean meat beef is boring for me. But if any dish was signature, it was the French fries. Most restaurants serve frozen French fries. There are very good frozen French fries and bad frozen French fries, but you don't find many that serve fresh ones--and there's good reason for that. There was always somebody peeling French fries in the basement, washing French fries, and then cutting the French fries. It took a while to get the frying right. You have to do a first frying, cool them, and then they have to be cooked at the last minute. We sold so many of them. You should have seen the basement on a Friday! We found the right oil and so eventually were able to recycle the oil for the fireboat.
LM: That's great--eco-friendly before that was de rigueur. What were your initial goals when you opened Florent in 1985?
FM: Not to fail because I had a restaurant in Paris that failed. It was a social success, some people still talk about it, but it didn't work. There was an unpretentious French restaurant where I worked in Soho from '78 to '84 that was a precursor of a lot of what I later did at Florent, but it was more bar than restaurant. I found the bar part to be very taxing and rough. What I liked about Florent was that it was a diner. I established very early on that the culture was not just a dining culture, but a real diner culture--which was easy for the first nine months because we didn't have a liquor license. After we got the liquor license, I made a decision that no one with a full liquor license had ever done: I decided not to serve vodka, scotch, gin, tequila, rum, or mixed drinks--only wine, beer, cordials, cognacs, aperitifs, and beer. That was quite unusual because it was during the boom of '85 and '86, when the term "yuppie" was created. That kind of clientele would come in, see that we had a license but wouldn't serve those drinks, and get really upset. We'd say, "Go to tortilla flats! They have the best margaritas. Do go there."
LM: More than a place to eat or see friends, Florent was the site of social activism. You handed out voter registration, living wills, and organized trips to DC in protest. To what do you attribute your leadership skills and desire to bring about social change?
FM: I grew up in a very liberal family with leadership skills. I was very politically engaged when I was young, but then sex, drugs and alcohol took over. When I opened the restaurant it was all about the graphics with Tibor Kalman until our mutual friend Larry Rosenberg got sick with AIDS in 1986 and died in 1987. That threw the two of us completely together in the AIDS crisis. After we experienced a person abused by the medical industry and hospitals, the graphic designing was not enough for us. We embarked into making political graphic design. Then, we had the living will brochures and everybody was in the trenches. It was like having a soapbox on the corner of Hyde Park. We could do so much more with the restaurant. Everyone was so eager to do something, to be active.
From my father and grandfather, I have the French sense of humor to always look at something serious with irony. I love when tears are followed ten seconds later with laughter. That's the only way to deal with adversity in life. You can look at poverty in Africa and dying kids, but with Sally Struthers tragically serious, you cannot help laughing -- and I know Sally Struthers, because my late husband, Daniel, worked with her. She's hysterical. What I brought to the political theater, or tried to, is that there is always an angle. Try to find that angle.
LM: I've heard you have a new restaurant is in the works. Can you tell us any more?
FM: No, not any more. For the first year and a half after the restaurant closed, I considered it. I had that engrained in my brain because I'd done that very well. Everybody told me I was a genius and that I had to do it. It was like my center of gravity pulled me forward, but then, my art was in a book called The Map As Art. There was a show at the same time with a dozen new works; most of them sold in November. I was invited to show in Europe. My family needs me more. My parents are in their mid-eighties, so I've been to Europe more. Why would I get myself into something new? I've been writing at a very slow pace, but I enjoy writing my memoirs.
LM: I really liked your article.
FM: Thank you. I love self-deprecation because you can write funny things about other people as long as you write even more self-deprecatingly about yourself. It gives you a little room.
LM: What are your favorite places to eat in New York?
FM: Nobody has ever asked me that question! My boyfriend would attest to you that I don't really like restaurants any more. There are three things that I don't like about restaurants. One, that they're too loud. Maybe I should start a mayor's commission on lowering the volume. Tourists, French people always ask me why it has to be so loud.
LM: There was an article in the Wall Street Journal about that. The noise is related to the popular design of restaurants now--no carpets or curtains, high ceilings...
FM: But there's also the music. You'd think Delicatessen would be a very nice place for lunch. I went there, I sat down and thought, No, no, no. On a Monday at 1pm, the music was blasting. The doors were open, but it was too loud. Tonight I gave an ultimatum to some people here: if you don't leave the volume down at a level where I can hear myself think, I will leave--at 8, 9, or 10. I get so angry when I can't think.
Second is attitude. I like going where people are happy to see me and I don't like going where there are too many people. I love a place that is dead.
Food is actually the least important because I find food has become so serious. New York has a lot of place to eat, but I like when food is simple. There is a place to go in the neighborhood called Jack at the corner of 11th and University; it's simple, nothing great, but decent and value for your food. Go for a burger. I love Danal--that's very classic. I've lived for years on Lafayette, just north of Spring, so we used to go to The Kitchen Club. I like, to a certain extent, Spring Street Natural. I have been going to Gansevoort 69, and they are so happy to see me.
LM: I'm sure they are!
FM: It's like the old fairy godmother coming. It's really nice, they're not very busy, and the back room is pleasant, but the last time I was there the music was loud. I have to talk to them about that. NY1 asked me where in the neighborhood they should interview me. I said, "Let's do it at 69 Gansevoort." It's part of my message to the people who loved Florent and to other people in general: a) don't blame them and b) we move on.
LM: And those are wise words to end on.
Follow Louise McCready Hart on Twitter: www.twitter.com/lookinglab