A brasserie opens in Brooklyn, during the pandemic, and wins a Michelin star. Meet the Chef, General Manager and Investor behind Francie. By Hunter Hallman.
During a long career with General Electric, including 21 years as CEO/President of various regions of General Electric Asia, Mark Norbom dreamed about the restaurant industry. He’d grown up wanting to cook. “I’ve always had cooking in my family,” he says. His grandfather, a chef and restaurant owner in Europe, had cooked for the Grand Duke of Luxembourg. Norbom had cooked at a French restaurant for four years during school, and had cooked ever since at home.
“Food at his house was a precision cooking affair,” recalls Tim Payne, Brunswick Senior Partner and Head of Asia, who over the years dined several times at Norbom’s home. “At the time I put it down to the exacting standards of a GE boss, but I came to realize it was the deep love affair of a gastronome.”
On retiring from GE, Norbom moved back to the New York area, and engaged a real estate broker to scout out locations in the city to start a restaurant with a chef he'd befriended in Florence, Italy. But before they could execute their plan, the celebrated chef had to take a new role. At just that moment, Norbom received a call from his real estate broker, proposing to introduce him to two possible partners, both superstars of high-end New York dining.
The chef was Chris Cipollone, who had first gained attention at an obscure hotel restaurant in east Midtown. A New York Times reviewer, happening upon that restaurant in 2011, had foreseen Cipollone becoming a star. “Imagine yourself telling friends how you used to eat the chef Chris Cipollone’s food back when he was cooking in that grim hotel space in Midtown,” the Times reviewer wrote.
Next, Cipollone served as Executive Chef of Piora, a West Village Italian restaurant where he won a Michelin star. A Times reviewer in 2013 wrote that his party of four diners wound up fighting over an appetizer of carrots. “Some of the carrots were roasted in ham fat until they collapsed into their own sweetness; some had a humming spiciness locked inside them; under them was tangy white yogurt and on top, a pink drift of powder.”
Now it was 2018, and Cipollone had just returned from California, where he’d hoped to open a restaurant, only to find that he missed New York. A native of New York’s Hudson River Valley, Cipollone had grown up cooking with local and seasonal ingredients. “I’m a New Yorker born and bred,” he says.
Yearning to start anew, Cipollone ran into John Winterman, whose resume included front-of-house positions for notable chefs Charlie Trotter and Gary Danko, before he served as maître d’hôtel at New York’s Daniel (by some lights the best restaurant in America). Now he was an owner and operator of the Michelin-star-winning Bâtard in Tribeca. The history between him and Cipollone went back aways.
“He ate at my old restaurant, I ate at his restaurant,” says Cipollone. There was also a supply-chain connection: Winterman’s wife owned a Korean importing company from which Cipollone ordered specialty goods for Piora.