A Q&A with Robert Hesse, Corporate Executive Chef at Noto’s Old World Italian Dining
As it turns 20 years old this year, Noto’s Old World Italian Dining has plans to grow. The longtime Italian eatery and banquet center in Cascade Township has brought on self-proclaimed celebrity chef Robert Hesse to assist with that growth strategy. A veteran of reality television show Hell’s Kitchen with fellow chef Gordon Ramsay, Hesse is open about his past as a drug addict and drug dealer who also suffered two heart attacks and eventually lost approximately 400 pounds. Hesse spoke with MiBiz about what he believes he can lend to the food culture in West Michigan.
What does the future look like for you at Noto’s?
I’m here because the Noto family decided that they not only want to do Italian food, but within the end of this year they’re going to open two new concept restaurants that have nothing to do with what they’ve done before. It’s going to be chef-driven. I’ve been brought in to be their conceptual chef — everything from writing the Noto family cookbook (to helping) to change the menu.
What are the new concepts?
I’ll let you know of one: We’re going to be reopening Johnny Noto’s pizzeria on the West Side (of Grand Rapids), the store that started it all. The concept is to give that back to the West Side. It’s what got them here. Where is it going to take them the next 20 years? Now we’ll form Noto’s Restaurant Group. It’s a big deal for the family and for myself.
That sounds like it must be pretty exciting for you.
I’m a guy who opens restaurants. It’s what I do. But I’ll tell you this: Fine dining is dead. Everyone wants comfort. People want a sense of value, farm-to-table. The concepts are fresh ideas that Grand Rapids hasn’t seen before. They’ll be popular and they’ve been proven in other cities. We’ll also open a full-fledged bakery at the restaurant, a marketplace where you can get wedding cakes, cannolis. We have a sauce line coming out. It’s a lot of exciting things. This is why I’m here.
You’ve done chef stints in New York and Los Angeles. Why come to Grand Rapids?
I saw there’s a lot of growth potential and a lot of (people with) double incomes, no kids in my age group that are staying here, buying houses. And all the big corporations like Switch coming in, it’s going to blow up. And people like to eat out around here. So they set up an interview with Noto’s. I’m from Brooklyn, so normally I can tell in 10 minutes who you are and I get my feeling about someone. I had a good feeling.
What was it about the restaurant that sold you?
What sold me was not the restaurant and not the banquet rooms. I’ve seen that a million places. It was the cellar (downstairs dining area) that sold me. I wanted that. That could be my playground. To be honest, I like being a big fish in a small pond. I’m one of many in New York City and one of many in L.A. Everyone has a celebrity chef or a guy from TV. Competition breeds business.
What that means is, if a restaurant has a person like myself here, it’s got the edge at the moment and hopefully they’ll realize they need to step up their game and do something cool or trendy. I’m telling you right now, I came and said, ‘We’re using the best (products).’
What impact do you see that having?
It’s going to make my job so much easier. We pay for it, but we make it up in volume because people appreciate what you put into it. They also brought up an authentic Italian chef from Italy. You can’t get more Italian than that. We’re doing everything scratch-made, so it’s all honest. Grand Rapids better watch out. Competition breeds business and people will come.
What do you think of the food scene here?
I think there’s a food culture that’s booming. It’s on that borderline where it’s either going to be a fad or it’s going to blow up. I want to be the first one here to join what’s already here and bring in visiting chefs. You’ll see celebrity chefs coming here.
What impact does the ‘celebrity chef’ status bring to the restaurant?
I don’t mind the spotlight, but I don’t necessarily need it in my life. Most of the people I work with on shows, they don’t have the passion. They’re one-hit wonders. Most people get 15 minutes of fame, I’ve had a half hour, plus 15 minutes, plus another 15 minutes. I feel like a rare bird. And I try to stay relevant.
How do you go about doing that?
People resonate with my story. They like to see a guy hustle, but at the end of the day, the novelty of all that will bring you to a restaurant I’m at. People want to meet me and ask me questions about Gordon (Ramsay) and Guy Fieri. All that is the novelty to draw you in.
How do you help get beyond the novelty?
The food and what we create here and the team we’ve built here will bring you back. I made a business and I made a lot of money over the years … as a chef consultant. People need help. I go in and don’t make any promises. I give them the playbook, and then I open the place and give them my celebrity to get the ball going, and then I phase myself out.