PAUL NEWMAN led me to the deck of his new restaurant, behind the famous old theater that his wife, Joanne Woodward, helped save. He put his arm around my shoulder and pointed to the side of the building.
“Now, what do you think of the color?” he asked.
It was green. Kind of a bad, bilious green. But do you tell Paul Newman, 81 and still racing cars, that his latest obsession suffers from a bad paint job?
Maybe he hand-picked the color. Maybe his wife did. Maybe he’s colorblind.
Or maybe — and please let this be so — maybe he hates it, too.
“I hate it?”
“Exactly!’ he said. “Me, too.”
The color of the restaurant is one of several points Mr. Newman is learning to compromise on as he ventures into his first, and probably only, restaurant. The architect assures him the green will weather soon, complementing the soft red of the theater, the couple’s beloved Westport Country Playhouse.
In the same way Mr. Newman turned a salad dressing into a multimillion-dollar food company and charity, he hopes the restaurant will help feed the financial health of the theater.
In 2005 Ms. Woodward, the theater’s artistic director, unveiled an $18 million renovation. The playhouse, which opened in the 1930’s and has played host to Dorothy Gish, Groucho Marx and Ethel Barrymore, was for years was the most famous thing about the town (perhaps until Mr. Newman and Ms. Woodward took up residence in the 1960’s.)
The idea, Mr. Newman said, is to return the theater to the significance it once held, while making the grounds a community gathering spot.
To that end he and the team behind the restaurant already have a weekly farmers’ market going in the parking lot. Mr. Newman hopes to add electric go-carts too, a point that he likes to bring up as often as he can and that the people around him try their best to ignore.
The place, warm with reclaimed barn wood, antiques and vintage play posters, is called Dressing Room: A Homegrown Restaurant. After some legal wrangling, they decided to forgo including “Newman’s Own,” the trademark of his 24-year-old food company.
Dressing Room will open to paying customers the first week in October, but for a couple of weeks dozens of friends have been eating there regularly so the staff can fine-tune things. Mr. Newman is often at a table, applying his critical eye to every dish, every item that hangs on the wall and every touch of service.
“It’s creative chaos,” he said.
Mr. Newman said his decision to open a restaurant was as spontaneous as the one to start selling salad dressing, which was essentially a Christmas-gift project for the neighbors that became an obsession.
“It has grown on me,” he said of the restaurant business. “It is now slightly less than an obsession.”
His title is director of opinions, and he takes the job seriously.
When the young people on the staff first started serving him, they carried the food out like nervous ring-bearers.
“You’ve got to get a little looser, guys,” he advised.
He’s a fellow who loves to tinker with things, so at dinner one recent night, between sips of nut brown ale and sweet glances at his wife, he dissected a few dishes in the name of making the menu stronger:
• The pickles served alongside the P. L. Newman Burger should be sliced in a way that makes them easier to put on the sandwich, the bacon “just adds insult to an already unwieldy stack,” and the meat itself doesn’t have a good charbroiled flavor.
• While the meat in the pot roast — a sort of fussy but delicious Manhattan version served in a cast iron pot with Japanese turnips — is made with brisket, just as Mr. Newman wanted, it needs some boiled potatoes to smoosh into the sauce, of which there should be more.
• The chopped salad made with local apples and feta from a nearby sheep farm needs a touch of onion — Vidalia, from his wife’s home state, Georgia. The lemon meringue pie is too sour. And the chocolate soup with gummy coconut gnocchi? That has to go entirely.
The careful notes he made at dinner would go
directly to the man Mr. Newman calls his co-conspirator, the very
patient chef Michel Nischan. His résumé, while not as lengthy as the
actor’s curriculum vitae, is impressive. He’s into backyard food, a
philosophy he explores in both his latest book, “Homegrown Pure and
Simple: Great Healthy Food From Garden to Table” (Chronicle Books,
2005) and as a regular contributor to Rachael Ray’s new daytime talk
show and to other cable ventures.
Recently Mr. Nischan opened Pure, a restaurant in the Taj Lands End hotel in Mumbai, India, based on the “wellness” recipes he developed when he ran Heartbeat in the W New York hotel on East 49th Street starting in the late 1990’s.
He wasn’t looking for a new gig when he got a call from Nell Newman, one of the couple’s daughters. Although persuading her famous father is never easy, in the early 1990’s she got him to let her start an organic line of Newman’s Own by cooking him an entire Thanksgiving dinner with organic ingredients.
She has since become a respected player in the close-knit world of sustainable agriculture and organic food. When she heard that her father wanted to open a restaurant, she asked around to find a chef who would help him do it right.
“Dad wanted someone who’d make him meatloaf, and I knew I’d have a place to go where I could eat organic,” she said.
Ms. Newman turned to Mr. Nischan, who impressed Pop, as she often calls him, with a vision that included the farmers’ market and a cooking and gardening curriculum in the local schools.
The deal was sealed when Mr. Nischan’s wife, Lori, pointed out that not only was the job 15 minutes from their house, which made it easier on the five children, but it would be the first time the chef wouldn’t have to persuade his bosses to do business in a way that was agriculturally sustainable, good for the community and hospitable in an old-fashioned way.
Mr. Nischan’s company, Wholesome Wave, shares ownership of the restaurant with Mr. Newman, fifty-fifty. Each put up $1.5 million, but Mr. Newman will be kicking in as much as $500,000 more because the project is over budget.
Mr. Nischan has assembled a kitchen team that includes his executive chef, Franz Fruhmann, who cooked most recently at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, and the Manhattan pastry chef Bill Yosses.
Ms. Newman warned Mr. Nischan that her father could be ... well, difficult. “The first thing I said was, Good luck pulling this off, buddy,” she said. But the two men have forged a mutual respect based on Mr. Nischan’s business confidence and kitchen skill and Mr. Newman’s competitive drive and respect for other people’s creativity.
“It’s the greatness of his karma,” Mr. Nischan said. “I think my karma’s great, but Paul’s karma is unreal.”
The servers, most of them young people from the area, hardly know how to approach Mr. Newman, who is sometimes shy and reflective, other times as corny as a grandpa. He might suggest that the Oscar statues would be better if they were made of caviar. When a server offers to get him a glass of water, he will bellow a favorite line: “I haven’t had water since 1951!”
Mr. Newman has always been quite political but he has never focused on the politics of food. Still, he trusts Mr. Nischan’s view of things, understanding the need to use local beef, seafood and produce as much as possible. Their tussle over Dressing Room’s exceptional hot heirloom-tomato soup is a good example.
When Mr. Newman describes it his blue eyes go wide with pleasure. (And yes, they are even better in real life.) He pushed to keep it on the menu all year, but after a quick tutorial in seasonality he understood why the soup had to end when the local tomatoes did.
Much of the menu features comforting American dishes with Southern touches, but almost all have a culinary twist upward that doesn’t always please Mr. Newman, a good cook who loves the basics.
“Paul makes the best hamburger,” said Ms. Woodward, who is enjoying the restaurant journey as much as she has any of the projects she has seen her husband devour in their 48 years of marriage.
Although Ms. Woodward recalls making some fine cakes for her daughters and proofing bread in Mr. Newman’s sauna, she said he is the cook in the family. They virtually live on his chicken soup recipe, which starts with an aseptic package of organic chicken broth. “Then you add about 40 chickens,” he said.
He freezes the broth and when they want dinner, he tears up a barbecued chicken from the local organic supermarket and adds fresh carrots, celery and egg noodles.
Mr. Newman makes his own salad dressing at home, too, though he occasionally reaches for the stuff that started the Newman’s Own empire. To date, the food company has generated $220 million in charitable donations and has expanded to include popcorn and a line of fruit drinks and salsas, which he sometimes buys in jars at the grocery store. While the stunned checker grapples with the fact that Paul Newman is buying Newman’s Own salsa, he gets a kick out of saying, “It must be really good if I’m paying retail for it.”
Mr. Newman hopes the restaurant will do for the theater and Westport what all that salsa and salad dressing did for his Hole in the Wall Gang camps for sick children and hundreds of other charities.
Only this obsession is a little more personal. The theater is a special place, not only for its history but for the solace it offers him.
“When I’m having a rough time,” he said, “I can just sit in there for five minutes, and I’m good for a half a day.”