Food | The Captain’s Table

John Demsey’s dining boltholes

John Demsey is group president of The Estée Lauder Companies Inc, which includes Mac, Estée Lauder, Jo Malone and Tom Ford Beauty. He engineered the Mac celebrity campaigns, which have raised $140m for Aids charities.

November 10 2009
Vanessa Friedman

“There are people in this world for whom meals are the nexus of how they operate in business, and they have restaurants that function almost as canteens or conference rooms; that’s a style to which I aspire, but in reality I’m halfway between that and a sandwich at my desk. Generally, I make it out for lunch – and it’s almost always lunch since I work out in the morning, so I don’t do 8am breakfasts, and dinners are for my personal life – only about twice a week.

At this point in time, there’s less of everything: fewer suppliers, restaurants and magazines. This consolidation of the world has lessened the networking opportunities available, and this is a huge part of the purpose of lunch. It’s important to get out of the office and find out what’s going on. It’s easy to get so involved in your own world that you forget about all the other things you should be paying attention to, and simply by virtue of seeing someone across the room, you get a new idea.

This is important in my business, which is all about people and what’s new. I’m not trying to get deals signed; I’m trying to seduce someone into doing a project, or get information. If I want to find out what’s going on with my competition, the absolute best tactic I know is to go out to lunch. It’s much more effective than reading the newspaper. Once a month, for example, Michael Gould, who is chairman and CEO of Bloomingdale’s, and I meet for lunch at a pizza place called Brio, just to catch up, and every time I learn something. In social situations, and lunch is one, even if it’s with a colleague, people are chattier, less guarded and they reveal a lot more.

I usually go to industry watering holes that are buzzy and where I know I will run into people. These include Michael’s, Cipriani Downtown, Harry Cipriani and the Four Seasons in New York; Claridge’s, The Wolseley and Le Caprice in London; Bice in Milan; and L’Avenue, Café de Flore and the Plaza Athénée in Paris. They are fun and efficient – all done in 90 minutes. They also act as a crossroads, and often if someone is in from out of town they will be there, and you’ll run into them.

Of course, you also have to take into account the tastes of the person you are eating with, and whether they are a foodie or a powerbroker; it makes a difference. If I’m eating with someone who loves Gordon Ramsay, for example, I won’t take them to the Manhattan equivalent of The Ivy.

Where you eat says something about who you are. This is why I like the Monkey Bar (pictured) in Manhattan; aside from the fact that I’m good friends with the owners, I’ve been collecting all things “monkey” for years. I have a sort of Curious George thing going, so it feels familiar to me on many levels. Going back to the same place makes you feel at home, and provides a comfort level that allows you to concentrate on your guest. It’s like Cheers: you want to go to a place where everybody knows your name.

Once, for example, I was in Los Angeles having lunch in The Polo Lounge, which is a place I often go, and I ran into someone I knew in the music business, who started telling me about this new singer he thought we should know about called Lady Gaga. And that led to her being signed as a Mac spokesperson. Another time – this was probably my strangest meal – I was at Citrus, also in LA, and I was eating a duck salad when I choked on a bone, and Bill Boggs, the television reporter, who was sitting at the table next to me, had to give me the Heimlich manoeuvre. That was the start of another relationship. The truth is, almost every meaningful person I’ve hired, every important celebrity relationship Lauder has started, has happened after a lunch. It adds the personal connection to the business connection – and that makes all the difference.”

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