Q+A: Leslie Affre and Alexander LaPratt, ATRIUM
Along the cobblestone streets and waterfront walkways of DUMBO, Atrium DUMBO is where the Brooklyn green market meets French technique. Atrium offers a dining experience composed of locally sourced, seasonal ingredients that are prepared with a focused simplicity and elegance, a new French-inspired restaurant from former DB Bistro Moderne alum Laurent Kalkotour. We sat down with Master Sommelier Alexander LaPratt, and Operations Director Leslie Affre, to learn more about the Atrium story.
Can you tell us about Atrium and how you got started?
Leslie: Alex and I had been living in Brooklyn Heights for eight years, and we always wanted to go out in the area to have a good meal and invite friends out for drinks–but there wasn’t much available. We got tired of having to go into the city and didn’t believe that, just because we were on the other side of a bridge, that meant we couldn’t have great wine and cocktails or be proud to take our friends out in our neighborhood!
As we started spending more time in DUMBO, we fell in love with its feel and energy. One day we came down here to grab a coffee and we were sitting on the rock “beach” at the end of Main Street, talking about where we would like to open our restaurant and what we’d like to accomplish. We decided that DUMBO was the place where we would take the leap and really try to make a business work!
We love the neighborhood and knew that, with opening a new business, we would be spending all of our time at that business, so it had to be somewhere we loved. Then we heard from our friends about the space coming in the market and we thought: “This is our moment!”
Leslie, can you tell us a bit about yourself, and your work at Atrium?
Leslie: We wear so many hats as owners! But, I spend a lot of time directing the daily operations. I try to model my ideals of a strong, confident, modern business woman and inspire our staff.
I was born and raised in Nice, France and I always keep close to my heart the memories and family I have from there–and that influences me everyday. It was a small town and I really wanted to see the world and push myself so I took a risk and moved to London when I was 18. In London, I started working in the restaurant industry and it was fascinating. My eyes were really opened when I opened Pierre Gagnire’s first fine dining restaurant in London called Sketch. It’s safe to say that at that moment I fell madly in love with the restaurant industry. I grew up surrounded by my family and food and I knew that this was the path for me. I worked in London for about 10 years and at some fantastic establishments always pushing myself to learn more and have new experiences.
Where does one go after London? It’s a difficult question to answer and it took me some time to figure it out. I had this urge to keep moving and after exploring life in Stellenbosch, South Africa, and Melbourne, Australia, I came to New York. It was here that my wanderlust was calmed and I wanted to put down roots. I started working for the design and restaurant giant AvroKO. I started at Public as a Manager and then went on to be the General Manager for Double Crown (now Saxon & Parole). They had a great eye for detail in the ambiance, the music and lighting, of a restaurant that I took with me. When it was time, I moved on to work with Daniel Boulud. This is where Alex and I met. We had kindred spirits and really clicked. We both had a strong love for this life and a similar vision on how things should happen in a restaurant. Through the long hours and years we built a strong friendship and we thought: “Why not go the whole way? Why not try it on our own?” We knew that we are good at what we do and we like what we do so why not try and create something.
When you’re looking at the city you can’t help but think “the sky's the limit.”
And what's your story, Alexander, and what do you here at Atrium?
Alexander: As a Master Sommelier, a large part of what I do has to do with the beverage program and service. I find myself trying to bring in new and off-the--beaten path wines to introduce our guests to, especially by the glass!
Living in New York City, I often look back longingly at my childhood. I grew up on a farm in Michigan. We primarily raised cattle, but we had horses, chickens, a huge garden–the whole deal. Nature, food and the circle of life has always been a part of me. You begin to learn as soon as you’re old enough to do “chores” on a farm. I was very lucky to have the experience to go out and get fresh eggs from our chickens, or taste things right off the vine in the garden. You can’t recreate or find a substitution for the smell, taste and experience of a bite of a truly ripe red tomato, crisp green peas in the pod or small, sweet, just ripe strawberries that have a flavor a million times larger than their small berry! A lot of people have never had that experience. I would bet the majority of people have never experienced the funky, intense, umami flavor of a properly ripe tomato. These are some of my earliest food memories.
I started working in restaurants from the age of 15. I continued to help me pay for college. My first experience working in a fine dining restaurant was when I was 19 years old. I was the youngest person on the staff and also knew the least about that world. It was here that I would have the experience that would have the greatest impact on the rest of my life and my destiny would be changed forever. Little did I know, but their corporate beverage director was the first female USA Master Sommelier, Madeline Triffon, and her office happened to be just upstairs. She was the one that really inspired me and opened the door to this incredible world of wine. Since then I have worked in Detroit, San Francisco and New York. In my ten years here in NYC before opening Atrium, I worked at two-and-three-star Michelin restaurants, the restaurants this country has to offer.
My favorite part of my job is that I can be able to change someone’s life with a single glass of wine!
What makes Atrium different, special?
Alex: I think one of the best parts of Atrium is that we have an incredible selection of wine with great value! Wine is an intimidating subject and can be difficult sometimes to find something we like at a price point we are comfortable with. We try to make that happen for everyone at Atrium, without the ego that often comes with it. I measure a great wine program by what is available by the glass. Everyone, as a right, should be able to enjoy a high quality glass of wine.
What is the inspiration behind Atrium’s food, décor, and concept?
Leslie: We really wanted to reflect our personality and have a good combination of elements talking about the décor. The menu is totally inspired by the local seasonality of the North East and we’ve been combining that with our technique and our world experiences.
Alex: We are using the local market (Borough hall or Union Square or even the DUMBO market) and small fishermen from Montauk and upstate beef and so much more… We want to fulfill our responsibility to the neighborhood and create something for everyone. Our background has been fine dining but we didn't want to get out there and do something too modern, too molecular or a tasting menu only, because we still are trying to serve the neighborhood.
Alexander, I know you have a very famous wine program. Can you tell us about it?
Alexander: We work really hard to represent value. We have rare vintage wines that are higher, in price but if you compare the price of these bottles on our list with other wine programs in the city, you’ll see that ours are much less expensive. We always try to create great value. If we put things out by the glass, it has to be something that I’m proud of. We spend a lot of time tasting and sourcing quality that is easily worth 1.5-2x the price we’re charging by the glass. I also think that it's difficult to find another restaurant in Brooklyn that has the scope and quality available by the glass that we do. Again, I think the measurement of a good wine program isn't how many bottles you have or how expensive they are, but it is about what most guests are going to experience. For us, and for most restaurants, that is going to be the by-the-glass program.
My ethos is that we have the opportunity to change someone’s life with a simple glass of wine. If someone comes in and says “I just want a really good glass of wine” for 12, 13, 14 dollars, they should be able to get that and while they taste it they’re gonna say “Wow this is incredible” and maybe they will start to learn more about the wine there, the food, the culture, the language and start to travel to that region. It sounds crazy but I’ve seen it countless times. And if you ask any great sommelier or any wine lover “what was the wine that changed their life?” almost all of them can remember with remarkable clarity, what wine it was and what it tasted like all these years later. That's exactly what we are trying to do, we try to give a lot of options, with great value and change people’s lives.
"My ethos is that we have the opportunity to change someone’s life with a simple glass of wine"
Wow! So, what's the wine that changed your life?
Alexander: Mine wasn't something rare or obscure. Some people have had these really rare wines at a young age but I grew up very poor, and wine wasn’t in our daily culture. It happened when I was working for Master Sommelier Madeline Triffon. I was still too young to drink, but I was at the restaurant with one of the other servers, his name is David Douglas. We were standing at the bar and he said “Hey taste this.” and I tasted it. It was a red wine and I said “Wow, there might actually be something to this whole wine thing. This is incredible, what is it?” It was Penfolds Bin 389 and it was a Cabernet-Shiraz blend from Australia. I remember that moment very clearly and that was it. That was when I said to myself that I want to spend more time investing in this and learning about it. And I never looked back.
What is your favorite spot in DUMBO?
Leslie: I would like to say that my favorite spot in Dumbo, or at least the one which is most sentimental to us and means the most is the part that we called “the beach.” That is really where this idea for Atrium started. I remember that we used to come and buy our coffee at Brooklyn Roasting Company on Jay street, walk down to Main and sit on the stairs while we were looking at the skyline. When you’re looking at the city you can’t help but think “the sky 's the limit.” It still feels that way here. That’s the gift of New York City: inspiration and hope.
We really love Dumbo and we never thought in open our restaurant in Manhattan.
"I think we are right where we are meant to be, and it really means a lot. Love you DUMBO"
Alex: For me, it would have to be the same because that is where it all started. I remember how difficult, impossible, things were when we first opened Atrium. There were many days we just weren't sure if we gonna make it. We had, and still have, a lot of technical problems with this space after the hurricane and flood. And we didn’t have any big investors. We mostly paid for Atrium ourselves. Crazy as it was, my father, who worked for General Motors for 30 years, bought a 100 acre farm in the Northern part of Michigan when he retired. When we were trying to open Atrium, he actually mortgaged that farm to get the money to help us pay for this restaurant. So I literally bet the farm on it. It was kind of like a general reaching the shores with his army and then burning the boats: there was no going back. It was stressful but I had immense faith. We believed in each other, in our partnership and in this neighborhood. It took a while but DUMBO began to embrace us and then it kept growing. I would leave work after 16 or 18 hours a day, stressed out of my mind and mentally drained. I would walk down to the water and follow its edge all the way back up to Brooklyn Heights. I’d see both bridges, the lights, the city on the way back… and there is nothing more inspiring than that.
Leslie: I think we are right where we are meant to be, and it really means a lot. Love you DUMBO!