Fourteen years ago political-science major Robin Leigh C’88 graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, with an acceptance to Georgetown Law School securely in hand as he stood within a sea of more uncertain Penn classmates. But today he is not the high-powered attorney or political figure one might expect from his college career. Instead, Leigh has reached what he recalls is his “faraway dream from childhood”: He works in the restaurant business.
After graduation, he overcame intense peer pressure and deferred his Georgetown acceptance for a year—it took him a little longer to turn it down altogether—and entered the French Culinary Institute, a program he picked not just for its prestige, but also for its brevity. “I knew the degree was important, but what I really needed was hands-on experience. Everything I learned happened nine months later, when I stepped into a kitchen.”
The first kitchen he entered, Montrachet, was part of the successful Myriad Restaurant Group, created by Drew Nieporent, of Tribeca Grill fame. After six months he moved on to JoJo, where he worked side by side with chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Leigh calls this experience “great, but brutal,” and speaks fondly of the infamous Jean-Georges, who once gave kitchen employees breaks in the cooler on a day when the air conditioner was broken.
At Montrachet and JoJo, Leigh was involved with some of the hottest restaurants in New York as he was starting out—and right as Jean-Georges’ career was taking off. Ever eaten a molten chocolate cake to finish off a nice dinner? They’re ubiquitous now, and they were created at JoJo. Leigh remembers the “mad feeling making hundreds of molten chocolate cakes at JoJo’s when this dessert was still original.”
He continued to work with Nieporent, opening up two restaurants in the Hamptons and then the Harley Davidson Café, a theme restaurant. Leigh changed directions a bit after spending a month traveling in Asia. He returned to a job as a consultant with Nobu Matsuhisa. In 1994, Nobu opened with great fanfare, with 2,000 people at the opening, and Leigh “knew the restaurant would be successful.”
In two and a half years, Leigh says, he worked every position in the restaurant. Nobu first got two stars in The New York Times, then worked its way up to three stars, and it continues to be a raging success eight years later.
Fickle celebrities can still be found at the tables, and others have devised intricate plans for getting coveted dinner reservations. Leigh has since been working as an international consultant for Nobu, opening up branches in London, Milan, and Paris.
While working with Nobu Leigh has been a partner in another set of hot spots, including Bond Street, Town, and Smith. The most notable of these is Town, which opened in the Chambers Hotel last year, and got three stars from William Grimes, the notoriously picky restaurant critic for The New York Times. In a recent e-mail Leigh nonchalantly mentions, “Tonight President Clinton is at Town.”
But while he thrives on the attention, which is needed to stay afloat in a tough business, he is also involved in a lot of less glamorous charity work. “All my restaurants participate in Kids for Kids, which raises money for pediatric AIDS, and we recently raised money for the American Heart Association.” When the World Trade Center attacks destroyed Windows on the World, Leigh and many other restaurateurs banded together in a charity drive for victims of the disaster.
What’s next for Leigh, who seems to have mastered every aspect of the restaurant business? Noting that restaurants are their own form of entertainment, he may turn to Hollywood. “There’s a fascinating drama to restaurants,” Leigh says. “It’s about providing atmosphere and ambiance, putting people into seats for a transcendent experience.” With his track record, filling seats wherever Robin Leigh turns his attention shouldn’t be a problem.
—Allie D’Augustine C’02