Philippe Restaurant owner Stratis Morfogen discusses his tasty success and migration to Miami.
By Laura Perlongo
Photography by Bob Martus
To bring his business to the next level, Morfogen knew he needed a great chef. Enter Philippe Chow.
If you happened to be eating at one of the Chelsea Chop & Steakhouse restaurants in Manhattan in 1974, you may have seen a chubby Greek boy diligently placing lemon and parsley on your salmon entrée, coyly slipping french fries, and singing the Beatles. Fast-forward 30 years and that same Beatles-loving boy runs one of the most successful restaurants in Manhattan and is branding the biggest name in Chinese cuisine, all while expertly translating his achievements to new regions, ensuring that taste buds worldwide will never fail to salivate at the name Philippe Chow.
A third-generation restaurateur, Stratis Morfogen is as pure-bred in the industry as they come. His grandfather came to the United States from Greece in the late 19th century and became one of the most successful restaurant owners in Manhattan. Likewise, Morfogen’s father owned multiple steakhouse and seafood restaurants in New York City, his uncle ran the Grand Central Oyster Bar for 45 years, and his brother has been rated one of the top 10 chefs to watch by Food & Wine Magazine. “We are a real hardcore food family,” Morfogen smiles.
Despite his family’s successes, Morfogen was far from born with a silver spoon, and worked hard to earn a buck. “We were brought up working extra hours and my paycheck was a dollar. I would say, ‘You are crazy! This is not acceptable! I worked twelve hours!’ and my father would say, ‘Twelve hours is half a day,'” Morfogen recalls with a laugh. Working his way up the ranks under his father’s skilled hand and watchful eye has enabled Morfogen to become the reputed restaurateur he is today. “I used to get really mad because I had to mop the floors, peel shrimp, and clean the bathroom. My dad always said theory is great, but to learn how to mop a floor, you have to mop it yourself. I hated it but I learned the value of a dollar and the value of work ethic. I am going to do the same with my kids.”
Obviously his father did something right, because under Morfogen’s ownership, Philippe Restaurant has tripled its projections in just two and a half years, thus paving the way for new openings and a firm place in history. Known for its minimalist, stylish atmosphere and graced by the “who’s who” of the fashion, music, sports, and film industries, it’s hard not to ask if his wife’s high-power job at Vogue could be a piece of the success pie. “My wife [Filipa Fino] is the accessories director at Vogue, so fashion plays a very strong part of the restaurant. She has one of the most respected eyes in fashion, so when you have the core fashion people like Anna Wintour coming here and the athletes and music industry coming it’s great, but trends really do never last. To me, and what I tell my staff, is that Joe Smith who comes in a pair of blue jeans and a T-shirt, he lives on Park or Madison or Fifth, he is my celebrity. That is the difference between us and a lot of the trendy restaurants in New York,” Morfogen explains. “The three pillars to success, my father’s words: food, service, and atmosphere. They go hand in hand. If you are missing one of those elements from the equation, then you are out of luck.” Although these elements might make a great restaurant, they may not be enough to build the globally recognized brand of the Philippe Restaurant’s magnitude. “I had Gotham City Diner. I had a place called Hilltop Diner. I mean, I had an amusement park when I was 18 years old called Kids Kingdom… but this, this has been a really amazing ride,” Morfogen beams.
To bring his business to the next level, Morfogen knew he needed a great chef. Enter Philippe Chow. Famous for many of the popular dishes at Mr. Chow, a well-known fine-dining Chinese restaurant also on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, Chef Philippe Chow had developed a huge following over his 27 years working under owner (no relation) Michael Chow. So how did Morfogen and Philippe’s partnership come to fruition? It begins with a Porsche and a promise, and ends with a dynasty. Until now, a story untold, Morfogen spills, “I’m like a record company, I just look for talent. I went to Mr. Chow and said if someone took this food and just made it more customer friendly and a little more hip, I think we could really have something here.” Not thinking anything would come of it, Morfogen slipped a busboy at Mr. Chow a $20 bill and his business card to give to Philippe. The next day his phone rang. “A few hours later, we met for coffee and he said, ‘What are you offering, I think I’ve had it.’ The odds of that are one in one hundred million!” Morfogen exclaims.
Having family across all fields within the restaurant industry, Morfogen understood that the relationships between chefs and owners are often strained. “I know a lot of my colleagues make deals and then it kills them to write these big checks to chefs. It is actually the percentage they offered, but then, so much money comes along that they hate writing the checks. They start leasing boats, and houses, and cars through the business so the restaurant never truly becomes a profit.”
Knowing the broken promises of many restaurateurs, Morfogen was aware he needed to show Phillipe he was a different breed. “So I told him I would offer him an equity stake in Philippe New York and residual on every Philippe that opens. He wasn’t impressed by that offer. So I said, well, give me your W2 and I will add 30 percent. And he looks at me like he has heard that before, too,” Morfogen recalls. “So I am thinking about all the guys I know in the music industry, all the tycoons tell me this one thing… I said, ‘What about I take you to the Porsche dealer and you can pick out any Porsche you want and that is your signing bonus.’ His hand came so fast across that table I thought he was going to punch me. He said, ‘You show me a Porsche, you got a deal.’ So I called up the dealer, he picked out a car and the rest is history. Now we are like family.” To this day, Morfogen has kept his promise. “I don’t take a salary. Philippe takes a salary because I promised him that. I love that this guy is buying a multimillion-dollar home and has all three of his kids in private schools instead of public. It really drives me.”
Walking into Philippe on the Saturday night of our interview, it became clear that Morfogen’s deep family values and ethical business practice have translated into the vibe within his restaurant. Smiled at by equally stunning hostesses, waiters, and food-runners, it seemed as though I had stepped out of Manhattan, where the pretension of a fine dining experience runs rampant, and into a parallel universe, where everyone was a little more fun, a little bit friendlier, and clearly better-looking.
But what is any good restaurant without food? As Morfogen eloquently states, “Philippe Chow is the art, I am just the art collector.” And food as art is an understatement for Phillipe Chow’s delectable dishes. Menu favorites include Chicken Satay, Crispy Beef, Nine Seasons Spicy Prawns, and Peking duck, their cult following reason enough to open more Philippe Restaurants. “The time came due when we needed to take the market and brand Philippe. The way Daniel is French. The way Wolfgang is French/American. They way Morimoto is Japanese. No one has really taken the Chinese market and Philippe Chow deserves it,” Morfogen says.
With a successful restaurant in Mexico City that opened last year, Morfogen is wasting no time in taking the Philippe Chow experience to multiple markets. On the boards for new openings are locations in Cabo San Lucas, Chicago, Las Vegas, and Fort Lauderdale, not to mention overseas locations in Europe and the Middle East. First up: Philippe Restaurant in Miami.
Opening at the new, posh Gansevoort South Hotel, Philippe in Miami will be located on the corner of Collins and 23rd street. With investors that include NBA and NFL stars Jerome Bettis, Chauncey Billups, Tyronn Lue, Stromile Swift, and Chris Brantley, it seems palpable the address is sure to draw some big name diners. “I love the Miami crowd; our demographics are there, the culture, the well-educated palates. For us to go into a market where there is no one doing what we are doing is really exciting,” Morfogen explains. “I have been to the great restaurants in Miami, and there are some really great ones, but it is hard to compare a steakhouse or a Japanese restaurant to Chinese, sophisticated Chinese is untapped.”
Besides being the first Chinese restaurant of its caliber in South Florida, Philippe Chow is making waves with another first: a noodle bar. The Chinese variation of the Japanese sushi bar, patrons at the Gansevoort South Philippe Chow will be able to sit at a sushi-esque bar and watch what Martha Stewert has called ” the culinary magic” of Chinese noodle making. In under three minutes, chefs turn a ball of dough into thin strands of pasta with no tools but their hands. Steven Yim, who has held the record in the Guinness Book of World Records for Fastest Noodle Maker (1972-1977), and considered a rockstar in Chinese culinary art, will spearhead the effort, bringing this age-old practice that has gone on behind closed doors for years, to the wonderment of Philippe Restaurant Miami diners.
Whether it’s for unmatched sophisticated Chinese cuisine, great music, or to mingle with the Miami elite, Philippe Restaurant in Miami has something to offer everyone-that is, everyone but OJ Simpson and Dina Lohan. See Stratis Morfogen at Philippe Miami for the scoop.
Just don’t tell him we sent you.