Industry Insiders: Eugene Remm, Mark Birnbaum, Michael Hirtenstein, & Hung Huynh
It looks like it’s going to be a while before Eugene Remm, Mark Birnbaum, and Michael Hirtenstein (seated, left to right) get a vacation. While they’re already busy running such white-hot New York nightspots as Tenjune and SL, the EMM Group partners now have two exciting new restaurants to oversee. The first, Lexington Brass, is a stylish New American bistro in the Hyatt 48 hotel that serves three meals a day, seven days a week, along with signature cocktails and craft beers. The second, Catch, is poised to become nothing less than Manhattan’s seafood Mecca, with multiple levels, a glass-enclosed rooftop lounge, an outdoor terrace, and some major firepower in the kitchen courtesy of Top Chef Season 3 winner Hung Huynh (standing).
“Catch represents a dream come true,” says Remm. “It keeps our company expanding while maintaining the integrity and standards of our other properties.” The restaurant fits the Meatpacking District to a tee, while offering an experience that is at once comfortable and invigorating. “From the outside, Catch fits in with the industrial aesthetic of the neighborhood,” adds Birnbaum. “Inside it’s such a warm, glowing space – people have raved about the interior, and, most importantly, they’ve loved the food.” As striking as the design is, it’s the people that complete the experience. “It’s a beautiful space, and we have the staff and team to do it justice,” says Hirtenstein. But what can the dining public expect from a trio with a background in nightlife? “When we opened Abe & Arthur’s there was a lot of chatter that we were just club kids, and that we would be one-hit wonders in the restaurant world,” explains Remm. “That just motivated us to put out an exceptional product. Our food is excellent, but our client base wants more than that, and we know how to deliver it.” For his part, Executive Chef Huynh is in his element. “For as long as I can remember, all I ever wanted to do was cook, and every day I’m striving for perfection,” he says. “I turned down a lot of opportunities in search of this. This is my dream kitchen.”
Tell me a little bit about your background. Where were you born, where did you grow up, and what kinds of things were you into as a kid?
Remm: I was born in Russia and immigrated with my parents, first to Queens and then to Bergen County, New Jersey, where I grew up. I’ve always loved sports – basketball and tennis in particular. And I’ve had a passion for music from a very early age.
Birnbaum: I was born and raised in Long Island. As a kid I liked driving go-karts and playing tennis. And I played video games … Constantly.
Hirtenstein: I was born and raised in New York City and hope to never leave!
Huynh: I was born in Vietnam, where I lived until I was 9 years old. I then moved to America, to Pittsfield, Massachusetts. For as long as I can remember, all I ever wanted to do was cook. It was the only thing that interested me. I was always cooking and eating, from the time I was five years old in Vietnam. I would cut myself every day.
What kinds of jobs led to what you’re doing today?
Remm: I started out in public relations and promotions, working at Harrison & Schriftman here in New York. From there I went on to work at Midnight Oil, where I was the promotions coordinator for their properties. I then landed at B.R. Guest Restaurant Group where I was lead of promotions and operations for Level V, among other spaces. It was after that that I joined forces with Mark to form EMM Group and open our first club, Tenjune.
Birnbaum: While in college, I ran a club in Ithaca, New York. I also promoted parties in NYC from the time I was 17 years old to roughly 22. I tried my hand in insurance but left at age 23 to return to nightlife, opening my first club in 2002 and starting EMM Group with Eugene in 2005, when we pitched W Hotels for the bar deal at the then-under-development W Hotel in Hoboken, New Jersey.
Hirtenstein: My background is in telecommunications and real estate – which I still do to this day. I came to know Mark and Eugene as they were first making a name for themselves in hospitality. I knew they were on their way to building an empire so when I was invited to be a part of it I happily came on board.
Huynh: When I came to America my parents had a restaurant – I started working there, washing dishes, when I was 9 years old. Then I started filleting fish and slowly getting acquainted with all aspects of the kitchen.
Tell me about Lexington Brass and Catch. Where did the idea to open them come from, and what was the process like? Do they represent a dream you’ve had for a long time?
Remm: With Lexington Brass and Catch we sought to add something new and different both to the hospitality landscape and to our own company portfolio. We don’t want a customer coming into Abe & Arthur’s one night, and then feeling as though they don’t need to check out Lexington Brass or Catch. Lexington Brass is a three meal period bistro and Catch is a seafood restaurant with a raw bar. Each place offers a different experience, but with the same standards of service. With Catch in particular, we saw the space open up seven months after opening Abe & Arthur’s. We love the Meatpacking District, we work here, we live here, and we knew there wasn’t a seafood restaurant of note in the neighborhood. We wanted to bring in something different.
Birnbaum: Lexington Brass and Catch are very different from each other – Lexington Brass is a 100-seat brasserie on the ground floor corner of the new Hyatt hotel in midtown that serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner 7 days a week. Catch is a much bigger operation – three floors, 275 seats, a glass-enclosed rooftop lounge and outdoor terrace. We jumped on both spaces as soon as they were presented to us. We knew they were the perfect locations for us to create new concepts and expand without having to get on an airplane to do it.
Are you having fun?
Remm: I Love what I do. I get to spend my days working with my best friends and colleagues, with all of us working towards the same goal. We’re willing to take enormous financial risks to keep doing what we do. There are always challenges – I encounter something new every day.
Birnbaum: Lots of fun! If we didn’t love what we did it would be impossible to do this job. The things I enjoy most are working with ICRAVE to design and build out new spaces, and brainstorming with our team to come up with original concepts for people to enjoy. The biggest hurdle has been dealing with community boards and finding the perfect spaces.
Hirtenstein: Yes I’m having a great time. My background is in telecommunications and my other current endeavors focus mainly on real estate, so anything having to do with EMM Group is a nice change of pace – I enjoy being a part of this world.
What do you do to relax when you’re not working?
Remm: Music is my passion. I have a DJ booth in my apartment and it’s something I take real pleasure in doing. I love to work out. Boxing and spinning at Flywheel are so therapeutic to maintain a balance with all that we have going on.
Birnbaum: I love to travel when I can – and I try to unwind a little during the summers and enjoy weekends with friends at our house in the Hamptons.
Hirtenstein: I am extremely active –a healthy lifestyle is important to me. I swim, golf, play tennis – I love it all. I also love to travel and like to escape to unwind.
What’s the secret to your success? What advice would you give to a young restaurateur or chef?
Remm: There’s no blueprint for success in this town – the landscape is constantly changing. I think we’ve managed to do what we’ve done based on an unwavering commitment to consistency and attention to detail.
Birnbaum: Take your time in developing any new concept – make sure you have the menu and the service on point before opening. Also, if you’re opening your first place, find a manageable space, nothing too big with too large an overhead. A great location is also essential.
Huynh: There is no secret to success, but every day I try to improve and get better. My words to a young chef would be that this is not glamorous, this is nothing like TV. Put your head down, work hard, be dedicated, and work your way up. In a kitchen, there are a million things that could go wrong with each dish you put out. Every time I show up to work there’s a new challenge to address, but it’s part of the excitement.
[Photo: Brett Moen]