What It Takes To Manage a NYC Celebrity Hotspot
Made up of three unique dining spaces over three floors, Philippe has been one of the most popular restaurants on Manhattan’s Upper East Side for more than a decade. While rooted in upscale family-style Beijing cuisine – its honors include Best Peking Duck from the New York Observer and Zagat’s Best in Chinese -- the menu of Philippe also features some unique non-Beijing offerings, like lychee martinis, the Cotton Candy Baked Alaska, and its gluten-free flourless chocolate cake. Philippe has a major celebrity following as Rihanna, Oprah Winfrey, Kobe Bryant, Robert De Niro, and Stephen Curry have all been spotted there.
Prior to heading Philippe, John Villa was an executive chef at Tao, Le Cirque, Judson Grill, the Boathouse, and his own award-winning ventures, Dominic and Pico. Since joining the Philippe team in 2016, Villa has propelled the brand forward by overseeing its redesign of the restaurant and adding new dishes to its already celebrated menu. Villa spoke to The Daily Meal about said redesign, in addition to his journey to being a top chef.
John Villa: My very first job was washing dishes at a local catering hall. It was a catering hall on top of a large sports club. I started out as a dishwasher at the age of 14. By the time I was 16, I was in charge of weddings up to 400 people. It wasn't super fancy, but I learned a lot and most importantly realized I had a knack for the kitchen.
Who did you study under to be a chef?
I learned a lot on my own. One of my good qualities, which is also my bad quality, is I don't like to listen to other people a lot. I'm more self-driven. Most of the time it's a good thing but sometimes it's not.
How would you describe Philippe to someone who has not yet been there?
Upscale but very approachable contemporary Chinese. Amazing food with impeccable service.
How does Philippe’s current menu compare to when it first launched?
It's very similar. We have made a few recent changes and upgrades, but people love our food and it's hard to change a lot.
Do you have a favorite item on the menu?
It changes from week to week. I usually pick a dish or two a week and constantly eat it, for quality and consistency control.
You're both executive chef and president. What is a typical workday like for you?
I can be all over the place, from accounting to creating dishes to dealing with HR issues. I really don't have a typical day. But I get in before lunch, check with our bookkeeper for any accounting issues, then walk around and check the physical space. By lunchtime, I will be in the kitchen for service. Between lunch and dinner is when I work on our expansion plan and any other business issues. Then back down to the main floor where I will deal with the front of house staff, meetings and discussions with the chefs and managers. Somedays I’m in the kitchen for dinner service, other days I'm in a suit walking around the floor.
Philippe is three floors. Is there a different vibe or menu between floors? Did the restaurant redesign last year impact the layout of the restaurant substantially?
Same menu on all floors, but a slightly different vibe. The redesign did not impact the layout; it was more cosmetic.
Is there something you wish more people knew about Philippe?
That we are very sophisticated but very approachable.
When not busy with work, how do you like to spend your free time?
Playing golf or spending time with my wife and kids. Baseball with my son and horseback riding with my wife and daughter.
Aside from Philippe, what is your favorite restaurant in New York?
I love Spumoni Gardens in Brooklyn.
Finally, John, any last words for the kids?
Work hard and good things will come.