Recipe for Success
Central Jersey Is Eating Up "The Restaurant Guys" Radio Show
By Laurie Granieri, Home News Tribune Online
It all began over a hunk of provolone and a loaf of bread.
Back in the mid-'80s, Francis Schott would get off work in a supermarket around midnight, head back to his Rutgers University dorm with some half-priced cheese and bread and encounter a frat guy named Mark Pascal.
"Mark would have been drinking beer for three hours at that point, smell the provolone . . . and say, "Hey, you're the new kid, want a beer? Can I have some of that provolone?' " Schott remembers. "Mark had the good beer."
Francis and Mark, Mark and Francis - the co-owners of New Brunswick's swanky Stage Left Restaurant and co-hosts of 1450 WCTC-AM's weekday foodie talk show, "The Restaurant Guys," go together like hand-harvested French sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.
They're nothing if not fresh.
"We play devil's advocate a lot," Schott says of their increasingly familiar banter from the radio show, which has been on the air from 11 a.m. to noon weekdays since the end of February. "To listen to us is maddening."
Pascal claims they're "as different as two human beings" could be. Friend and fellow restaurateur Nicholas Harary of Red Bank's Restaurant Nicholas calls them "Laurel and Hardy. Listen to Mark alone, and he's funny. Listen to Francis alone, and he's funny. Together, they're hilarious."
And this afternoon, in the hushed, pricey Livingston Avenue restaurant they have co-owned with Luis Riveiro since 1992, they are bumping into each other like a pair of bowling pins.
Schott, a ruddy, baby-faced blond dressed in a gray suit, emerges from behind a curtain and warmly pumps the hand of a reporter; his burly, olive-eyed friend and business partner arrives a moment later to do the same, bouncing off Schott's shoulder in the process.
Then they sit down to chat over oolong tea, coffee and mammoth dishes of delicately arranged molten chocolate cake, blueberry bread pudding and creme brulee.
After a moment, they move to another table. Pascal insists the table by the window is too wobbly.
"The fussy Restaurant Guy," Schott jokes.
"I don't want to be at a wobbly table," Pascal says in a "What do you want from me?" tone.
Schott is a fast talker - literally; Pascal is more laconic.
And Schott and Pascal say it all works - the business, the show - because their friendship comes first.
"At certain points in the partnership, we've said, "Listen, this is really rocky,' " Schott says. " "I'm not going to lose the friendship. If we have to walk away from the business, we walk away from the business.' "
Besides, Pascal says, "Francis is the mean one."
Off the air and on, Pascal and Schott share an easy rapport, what Hollywood directors like to call "chemistry." But they don't intellectualize it. Schott and Pascal claim their new radio show works because it's just two guys talking about their passion - high-quality, sustainably grown food, the best wines and, of course, yummy places to chow down.
"We're just talking about things we love," Pascal says.
"With people who are involved with them," Schott adds.
They both love going to restaurants. Pascal calls it his "favorite thing to do."
"Every show that we do . . . the idea is that somebody can learn a little bit and laugh a little bit," Pascal says. "And if you can do that in every show, then we've accomplished what we're trying to do."
But it's more than that: Schott and Pascal care deeply about what we're eating and how food reaches our tables.
"Sustainable agriculture, family farms, all these things are part of the show," Schott says. "Good ecology and good economy are one in the same."
"These guys are born naturals," says Ralph Saviano, host of WCTC's "You and Your Money" show, producer and director of "The Restaurant Guys" and longtime Stage Left customer. "They're not at all shy."
No, Schott and Pascal are not silent business partners, ceding the glory to a celebrity chef. Stage Left patrons know Schott and Pascal because they hang out there.
"It's not an act, it's not shtick. It's what we do," Pascal says.
The show "is very similar to our everyday conversations," says Pascal, 39, who is married, lives in Cranford and is expecting his fourth child with wife Jenifer. "The reason that it comes so naturally is that's how we talk to each other. That's our every-day."
"People have said, "It sounds like you've been doing this for 20 years,' " says Schott, 40, of Jersey City. "Mark and I said, "We have been doing this for 20 years. This is exactly what we do.' "
Schott grew up in Livingston. He says he began cooking out of desperation, at 14, when his parents decided to join Weight Watchers.
"There wasn't a lot of great food going on," he says.
Pascal grew up in Nutley with Italian and French parents who, as he tells it, were "very, very into food." On Pascal's ninth birthday, his mother made him Duck A L'Orange. At one point, his father owned an import-export business, which allowed the family to travel extensively - and dine at top restaurants - throughout Europe.
Schott double-majored in political science and English at Rutgers and went on to graduate school in political science; Pascal triple-majored in economics, statistics and psychology, then spent nine days working in "cubicle hell" as a statistician for Blue Cross Blue Shield before he returned to the restaurant business.
Schott still remembers their first meeting.
"I want you to picture a guy in a ripped-up purple Sigma Pi sweatshirt, shorts, flip-flops and a beer in one hand," he says. "And what I hear from the hallway is Mark speaking French. That big, dumb guy in the frat is speaking French."
Pascal chimes in: "Francis is the guy who wanted at 19 to have a semi-formal Christmas party. At the same time, Francis would come to a frat (party) and roll quarters off his nose . . ."
"Roll quarters off my nose," Schott says in unison with his college buddy.
Saviano, a longtime local radio host, noticed Schott and Pascal's rapport at one of the restaurant's wine dinners, in which patrons eat, sample vintages and talk to winemakers.
"There was great banter back and forth," Saviano says. "They are very easy with one another. There's a lot of kibitzing, but a lot of information, too. If you can combine personality, information and the ability to learn," you can be successful on the radio. Harary agrees. He thinks the show works precisely because "I don't think they specifically stay on subject," whether the subject is Kosher wine or cast-iron pots.
Last summer, Saviano broached to Schott and Pascal the idea of a radio show. By February, they were holed up in a Freehold studio with Saviano, doing a half a dozen practice shows. By the second show, Saviano says, he was "listening to two guys who were doing it."
On the air
Schott and Pascal have interviewed TV chef/cookbook author Mary Ann Esposito, renowned chef and author Charlie Trotter, as well as the fishmonger from the East Brunswick Fish Market and various food purveyors. Ratings won't be released until next month, but the show seems to have a strong word-of-mouth. And the pair say their Web site, www.restaurantguysradio.com, which includes recipes and excerpts from past shows, has already had nearly 2,000 hits.
They say planning the show is not difficult; it flows out of what they're discussing at wine dinners, what they're reading in numerous food publications, who they're dealing with at the restaurant.
"There are literally thousands of pieces of the puzzle in putting a restaurant like this together," Pascal says, and therefore just as many topics to cover on the show.
Sure, the discussions about sustainable fishing, balsamic vinegar and the upcoming Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, Colo., are interesting, Saviano says, but Schott and Pascal's personalities really make the show.
"You can't lie to an audience," Saviano says. "They know when you're fooling them. They have it. They just plain have it."
And both readily admit that they would be lost without the other. Schott and Pascal know they need each other to make it all go - Stage Left, the neighboring Old Vines wine shop, the radio show. There's also the more moderately priced "Brooklyn-Italian" restaurant, Catherine Lombardi, named after Pascal's maternal grandmother, which they plan to open above Stage Left later this year.
"We're both trying to get to here," Pascal says, demonstrating "here" with his hands, "and we're coming at it from different angles," which makes for a creative and fruitful collaboration.
"There's no person in the world, as much as it pains me to say this, there is no person in the world I would do this radio show with (other) than Francis," Pascal says.
The key, Saviano says, is that Schott and Pascal complement each other.
"Mark is the rock," he says. "Francis will go on and on, and then Mark will throw a hand grenade into that."
"They're like the No. 10 standing next to each other," Harary says.
"Part of the energy of the radio show is the ideas exchange," Schott says. "The differences of opinion come from well-thought-out perspectives. We're not screaming at each other. We're very down-to-earth guys. I say it like it is, and so does he."
In an age when local radio is on the wane and trash-talking "shock jocks" are the norm, "The Restaurant Guys" are a refreshing change.
"One of the things that we wanted to avoid in the beginning was being a cooking show," Pascal says. "We've done a lot of research. I'm listening to a show, and I'm hearing someone say, "OK, now you chop the carrots, chop, chop chop.' "
"What do I care about this?" Schott says.
Pascal and Schott, both of whom started in the food business pushing carts at Shop Rite and, later on, working as managers and behind the bar at Jim Black and Betsy Alger's seminal upscale New Brunswick restaurant The Frog and The Peach, are not chefs. They are businessmen, purchasers, restaurant owners, what they call "front-of-house" guys.
In the early '90s, Pascal and Schott came up with the idea to open a wine bar, Pascal says, and the idea just grew. Riveiro, a customer at The Frog and The Peach, agreed to go in on the project with them, and Stage Left opened in 1992.
"The first time I walked into a fine-dining restaurant, I was applying for a job," says Schott, whose father was a fire chief. "Mark and I both went to public college, we both worked in restaurants, started on the bottom and worked our way up . . . but at the same time, there are some real issues to (discuss) . . . Going out to dinner is fun. And everybody does it. Everybody. Well, not everybody."
At this point, "the show is its own entity," separate from the restaurant, Pascal says, then asks the waiter, "Where'd this cup come from?"
"They're washing all the others," the waiter responds.
"Oh, OK," Pascal says, trying to be OK - or at least appear OK - with it. "Good."
"Mark can handle that," Schott says with a laugh, as the waiter retreats.
Schott admits they are eagle-eyed about the restaurant.
"We're nuts," he says, matter-of-factly.
But they can wolf down a burger or dog with the best of them. The food doesn't have to be precious; it just has to be the best. And they mean the best. This is a pair of guys whose menu boasts a $15.95 wood-grilled Angus beef burger topped with two-year aged Vermont cheddar, tomato and red onion.
Sure, foie gras is great, Pascal says, but "a great hamburger and hot dog for a cookout day when the kids are playing in the back yard? Spectacular."
"You didn't invite me?" Schott says of the cookout.
"No, I didn't," Pascal laughs. "Seventy hours with you this week? So much more than enough."