I actually try not to yell at anyone unless they do something really stupid because it wasn’t all that long ago that I was in their shoes. I usually approach the first time calm, with the idea that I’m going to teach them. I’m going to explain what’s going on. But after the fourth time, it becomes, ‘You idiot! You know better! You’ve been taught this a million times!’ And you start to lose it over a few fucking beets and you hate yourself and you hate them for making you hate yourself. If they’re smart, they say ‘Yes, Chef.’ If they start going into explanations, that’s when it gets worse and worse and worse. We’re all trained that way. Every fucking one of us. It’s ‘Yes, Chef’ or ‘No, Chef.’ Period. There’s no ‘maybe.’
The reason there are so few butchers left is that they’re all dead. Nobody wants to be a butcher anymore. They want to be movie stars. I’m looking around. You know anyone who wants to be a butcher? No. People don’t think that it’s a classy job. And it’s not. But personally? I’m much more geared to money than I am to ‘classy.’People look down on this profession. That doesn’t bother me anymore, but it sure did when I was younger. I don’t think I’ve ever asked anybody what he or she does for a living. Ever. First of all, I don’t care. And second, what difference does it make? Still, in New York City, nine times out of ten, I meet you, you’re going to tell me what you do three minutes into the conversation. You’re going to have to because you’re going to have to find out whose is bigger.
Some people think Peter Luger is stuck in the past. We don’t think of it as being ‘stuck.’ We’re a conscious throwback from the fifties, and that’s the way we like it. We still take our reservations over the phone and enter them by hand with a pencil in a reservation book. We’re always booked six weeks in advance, so apparently no one cares how we write down their name.
So there was Uncle Gus, selling frankfurters to the city’s German population, topping them with sauerkraut, which was a favorite of the Eastern Europeans, and asking everyone to wash it all down with exotic tropical drinks—which appealed to no one. Slowly, though, the customers came around and they started to consume, and then actually enjoy, these tropical drinks. And in time, I suppose, the combination of these two different foods became so customary, no one thought about it anymore. They just ordered them together. A dog and a drink.
Here is my third dream, which I didn’t talk about before. It’s going to New York City. This dream is with me since I am fourteen years old, in 1969, when I saw on TV that the American men go to the moon. I knew then that America is a country like no other. I also saw on TV a movie with Liza Minnelli. And I remember after that movie saying to my mother, ‘I am going to New York City. I want to live there.’ And my mother tells me about Al Capone and she says, ‘No! Is too far!’ I stormed out of the room and I yelled back at her, ‘You say no, but one day I go!’
(After 9/11) Morgan Stanley relocated in Harbor Side, New Jersey. I hated the commute and I decided if I was ever going to strike out on my own, now was the time. I found a small bakery for sale, bought it, and hired a master baker to teach me to make bread. It ran fairly successfully for around four years, but the hours were killer. Every day—five a.m. to eight p.m. I never saw daylight. I rarely saw my family or my friends, and I’m thinking, ‘I’m a young guy. My buddies are all out having fun, going to clubs, doing crazy things and I’m here, running a bakery.’ And . . . I wasn’t meeting any chicks. All that changed in 2010 when my Uncle Wally made a proposition to me to take over Nom Wah. It was a very simple proposition. ‘Wilson,’ he said, ‘I’m eighty-five. I need to get the fuck out.’ For me, those were words from heaven.
[One day] I got an e-mail from a man telling me in this strange Japanese that he saw me in the Jiro movie and he wanted to open a sushi restaurant in New York with me as the sushi chef. I didn’t answer for two weeks because I needed help to understand his letter. And when I understood what he was saying, I thought, ‘This man is crazy! Why does he want me? He doesn’t even know me!’ I didn’t think he was serious, but I got someone to help me call him. We e-mailed back and forth using Google to change our words to each other’s language. And then, he sent me an airplane ticket to New York so I could meet him and learn his ideas. I went, because this was what I always had in mind—my own sushi restaurant in New York City.