Since moving to Basel last year, I have been pleasantly surprised at how well you can eat. As much of our business is in the US and our factory and plantations are in the Dominican Republic, and their working day is just starting as we in Europe are getting ready for lunch, I tend to entertain in the evenings. Top of my list is Chez Donati, an Italian with superb risottos, pasta and vitello tonnato [veal with a tuna sauce]. Then at Les Trois Rois, Basel’s most famous hotel, there is Le Cheval Blanc. It’s formal, with a great cellar in which there is now a cigar lounge. It is cosy and elegant, with a splendid view on to the Rhine.
I enjoyed cigars even before I came to work at Davidoff. On my mother’s side, the family has been in the tobacco business for three generations, and I had my first cigar aged 16. For me, a cigar is an important part of dining well; it is as important as good wine. Talking of which, my favourites are Paulliacs, but I also have a liking for the super-Tuscans: Ornellaia, Sassicaia, Tignanello.
In Basel, the whole world of pleasure is linked with Davidoff, so I have first-rate connections. This is equally true if I go to a small, tucked away place. I thought I had uncovered a treasure with the Elsbethenstübli, a typically Swiss place for fondue, only to find that it was a favourite of the late Dr Schneider, who owned the company.
When I worked for Seagram in New York I was able to benefit from the company’s old connections with The Four Seasons restaurant, on the ground floor of the building, which meant I didn’t have to do the usual “apprenticeship” to get a good table. It is a split-level restaurant and when you walk up the stairs you have to sit on the right by the windows; that sort of thing still matters a lot in New York.
I still go to New York for business, and when I am there, I revisit my old haunts: Antonucci, an excellent neighbourhood Italian restaurant on 81st and Third; Sparks – I am a big New York steak fan; and, for a splash of old-style glamour, La Grenouille.
Every couple of months I visit our operation in the Dominican Republic. There are about five or six good-quality restaurants in Santiago, the capital of the cigar region, and I like to have at least one dinner at Camp David, which is more like a country club with superb views over the Cibao Valley and a collection of old cars that once belonged to the dictator Rafael Trujillo, including the one he was assassinated in.
My role takes me beyond Basel and the Caribbean, and, thankfully, it is more of a vocation than a business, attracting those who are passionate about cigars and the culture that comes with them. As such, there is no substitute for sitting down in a fine restaurant when discussing business. One of the first trips I made when I took over Davidoff was to see Edward Sahakian, who has owned the London shop for more than 30 years. He came from Iran where his family businesses employed thousands of people; yet over a good risotto and then a cigar on the terrace at Harry’s Bar, he told me that owning a cigar shop has given him more pleasure than supervising his family’s vast empire could have done. He’s a legend in the cigar world – and it helps that, like me, he enjoys left-bank bordeaux.
Another memorable dinner was with our agent in Beijing, Qi Jiang Hong, at Nobu, where we reached a significant agreement. The food was amazing, including one little dumpling filled with foie gras. By Chinese standards, it was very subdued, but then I don’t suppose he needed to show off to the other people in the restaurant – after all, he owns the licence there.