Food | The Captain’s Table

Peter M Brant’s dining boltholes

Peter M Brant is chairman and CEO of White Birch Paper, the second largest producer of newsprint in North America. He also owns Brant Publications, and is a serious art collector.

April 25 2009
Vanessa Friedman

“The idea of breaking bread with someone is a very powerful thing, and I have always seen it as a great opportunity to learn about people: there is so much involved, from conversation to body language. In a way it’s a test: is this someone I can have a long-term relationship with, beyond a one-off deal?

I’ve come away from lunches thinking, “I’m going to do business with this person for years, when times are bad as well as good,” and I’ve also come away thinking, “Wow, I really don’t like that person, I just don’t trust them” – but to me, a successful lunch is when you come away knowing more than you did when you went in, and because of that, I think there always has to be a specific reason for setting up a lunch, whatever business you’re in. In the 1950s and 1960s, executives routinely had three or four lunches a week, and they used them as opportunities to check in with what was going on in the industry: the date book was like a dance card, and they filled it. I don’t see lunch that way, and so I usually don’t have more than one a week. I also try not to have business breakfasts.

My idea of what a business lunch should be was really influenced by the art dealer and gallerist Leo Castelli, one of my mentors when I was in my early 20s and starting to collect. He never went for just 30 minutes or an hour; he’d really spend time over the meal, and you couldn’t do business unless you were willing to put in that time. He had to believe you were a believer. In fact, many of my most important early business relationships were formed over lunch. Ted Newhouse – who used to buy all the paper for the Newhouse [magazine and newspaper] empire – and I used to have regular lunches, and I used to go to Andy Warhol’s lunches at The Factory, which were full of all sorts of different people and very inspiring.

I’ve always been reluctant to impose any strictures or definitions or time limits on a lunch: you have to go where the conversation takes you, and that could take one hour, or it could take three.

There are places I like to go, like the Four Seasons, where Newhouse always took me, and Da Silvano in the West Village, and Bottino in Chelsea. When I’m travelling I like Santini in London, Le Stresa in Paris and Joe’s Stone Crab in Miami. I love good food, and that’s important, as is simplicity and having some privacy, but whatever business you’re in, choosing a restaurant that reflects your guest’s world can help to show your interest and level of commitment.

No matter whom I’m dining with, I try to find out as much as possible about them first, because that way you can carry the conversation if you have to. A politician would never meet someone without having an aide research them first. I usually go to a computer and find out what I can. Knowledge is especially important in the art world: you have to prove to them you are willing to enter a universe that’s their whole life.

I also like to invite people into my office, whether it’s the White Birch offices in Greenwich or Interview downtown; instead of entering their world, I’m inviting them to mine. The food isn’t fancy – we don’t have kitchens in either company, so we get lunches catered, often from a place downstairs or across the street – but it’s a bit like inviting people to your home; you expose a part of yourself to them, and it often creates new understanding and ties. When guests come to White Birch, I think they immediately get a sense of the efficiency and productivity of the company, and they may see the art we have on the walls, and at Interview they see the work that goes into the magazine, and how hectic it is.

When times get rough, as they are now, people cut back and lunches are often the first things to go, but I think that’s a great mistake. Really, lunch is one of the least expensive ways of building relationships. If used properly, it’s a crucial tool that should never be relinquished.”

See also

People