This is part of NRN's special coverage of the 2013 Food & Wine Classic held in Aspen, Colo., June 14-16.
A funny thing happened to Lee Maen on the way to getting an MBA from UCLA and launching a career in commercial real estate. While still a student, he opened a bar and lounge that turned out to be one of Hollywood's most popular nightspots. Call it a game-changer. Today he is a founding member of Innovative Dining Group, which has opened more than a dozen hip dining spots, most of them in Los Angeles, including Sushi Roku, BOA steakhouse, Katana, Robata Bar, Delphine, Soleto Trattoria & Pizzeria and RivaBella.
RH: Your restaurants, certainly most of them, have an unmistakable L.A. feel: ultra hip, young and energetic. Can this style translate to middle America as the company grows—or are you going to tone it down?
Maen: I don't know if we would do so well in Kansas. Middle America is not on our short list. We're going to go for major cosmopolitan cities, where people like to go out and play and entertain.
RH: You've created this growing empire without the help of a big-name in the kitchen, until most recently with RivaBella. Why bring on Gino Angelini, and is this a new course for the company?
Maen: We could have done a great Italian restaurant without a celebrity chef, but we wanted to go out of the box because the location of the restaurant is a significant landmark. We wanted to set this place apart. And even though Gino is highly regarded—he has a true mom-and-pop osteria [Angelini Osteria] and it’s beloved—not enough people get to see what he's doing because it's a small foodie paradise. We're now exposing him to the masses and it helps us put that foodie degree on our resumes. He's a great guy and he's taught us the culture and he has no celebrity chef ego.
RH: You've been opening restaurants since 1997 at a rate of at least one every year or two. A growth rate like that has broken the back of a lot of other restaurant companies. Can you sustain this pace, and are there other parts of the country you're targeting?
Maen: Luckily, our top guys have enabled us to grow, and they're all looking for their next step. For example, we have a g.m. at one of our restaurants who is incredible and he's ready to move on after five years. The only way for him to move on is to leave us or for us to grow. It's all about the people. In fact, we're in the process of raising capital so we can increase our growth even faster. We're ready to move strongly into New York. We have a very strong operations team and we're technologically advanced. We did a licensing deal in Abu Dhabi and they were blown away with all the manuals we gave them that spelled out every aspect of operations. We're ready to roll.
RH: When you built your most recent restaurant, RivaBella, you also built at the same time another restaurant concept, but you waited to open it until your Italian restaurant got traction. What's the story behind this new concept?
Maen: Chi Lin opened a few weeks ago. It's right next door to RivaBella. It's the first time we're sharing a kitchen between two completely different concepts. One side of the line is the Italian side, and the Chinese line is on the other side. Dishwashing is in the middle for both. Both restaurants also share common bathrooms. We have one g.m. who oversees both. We hope to take Chinese in a direction most people haven't seen. We're excited about the concept.
RH: I'm sure you see no shortage of Hollywood stars in L.A., but are there any culinary stars here in Aspen you hope to meet?
Maen: I came to Aspen to see the usual suspects: Mario Batali, Tom Colicchio, Drew Nieporent. I really wanted to see David Gordon from The Cheesecake Factory. He's on one of the panels and he's a big deal to us.