Shareef Malnik got his steakhouse start by peeling potatoes and flipping hash browns as a teen at his father’s The Forge in Miami Beach.
Peter Zwiener remembers taking the subway to Brooklyn with his mother and brother to see their dad, then the head waiter at the venerable Peter Luger Steakhouse. The aroma of sizzling butter on meat and the exuberant faces of diners made an impression on the boy.
Michael Stillman and his elementary-school classmates would take field trips to his dad’s Smith & Wollensky in midtown Manhattan and marvel at the chefs.
None of the three intended to make careers out of the restaurant business. But all of them wound up following in their fathers’ footsteps, and today the father-son teams of Malnik, Zwiener and Stillman are the driving forces behind three of South Florida’s top steakhouses: The Forge, Wolfgang’s and Quality Meats.
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The men spoke with the Miami Herald about working together, adapting to changes in life and in restaurants, Father’s Day plans and more. These are edited excerpts:
Al and Shareef Malnik
Al Malnik, founder, 82.
Shareef Malnik, owner, 57.
Al Malnik bought and reopened the historic Forge in 1969, building its wine collection to one of the world’s most coveted and attracting a never-ending stream of celebrities and high rollers. He passed the restaurant to his son in 1991.
Q. Whose idea was it for Shareef to take over The Forge?
Shareef Malnik: “I was 10 years old when my dad opened The Forge. We dined in the restaurant frequently, and by the time I was 13 I began to work various jobs in the restaurant: construction, in the kitchen, on the floor as a maître d’ and manager.
“In the kitchen, I started out peeling potatoes and graduated to flipping hash browns. It made me feel very grown up, working a man’s job at the restaurant when I was a kid. I loved bringing home a paycheck. I worked summers at The Forge throughout my undergraduate education, as well.
“I moved back to Miami in 1991 from London. I was unsure of what I wanted to do. At the same time, The Forge experienced a fire that closed the restaurant for several months. My dad told me he was thinking of closing the restaurant unless I took it over. I accepted, as the restaurant had always been dear to my heart.
“In retrospect, I don’t think he ever intended to close The Forge. He could have brought the restaurant back on his own. He used that as a smokescreen to get me to commit. His chief motivation was generosity. To this day, he has never revealed this to me.”
Q. How do you work together these days?
Alvin Malnik: “Shareef operates The Forge on his own. It’s his baby through and through. We speak every day about other family businesses, and The Forge always comes up. Shareef is always eager to hear my opinions about the restaurant and enjoys picking my brain. Then he makes his own decisions.”
Q. What’s a typical day like?
SM: “6 a.m., wake up. 7 a.m., work out. 8:45 a.m., arrive to work at Nextwave Funding, a family finance business of which I am chairman. We fund small to midsize businesses across the country.
“5 p.m., go to The Forge for staff and management meetings, observe the dining room, connect with guests. Midnight, go home.
“Sunday is family day with no workouts and no work. Monday is date night with my fiancée, Gabrielle Anwar.”
Q. What effect has the restaurant had on your relationship?
AM: “Shareef and I speak daily about family businesses and personal matters. The Forge is something that is very dear to both of us and, as such, will always bring joy to us together.”
SM: “I am honored to carry on the tradition and legacy my father started. My dad and I each ran the Forge for more than two decades. No one else could understand it the way we do.”
Q. What are you doing on Father’s Day?
AM: “I will spend it with Shareef, my nine other beloved children, my children-in-law, my grandchildren, my great-grandson and my wife.”
Wolfgang and Peter Zwiener
Wolfgang Zwiener, owner, 76.
Peter Zwiener, managing partner, 50.
The first Wolfgang’s Steakhouse opened on New York’s Park Avenue in 2004. The idea was to take what German immigrant Wolfgang Zwiener had learned from a lifetime in the restaurant business, including 40 years at top-rated Peter Luger’s, to elevate the steakhouse experience. Wolfgang’s opened in downtown Miami in 2013.
Q. How did Wolfgang’s come to be?
Peter Zwiener: “My father always wanted to open a restaurant on his own. His grandfather and father owned restaurants in Germany prior to World War II. My dad studied and trained in restaurant and hospitality services in a trade school in Bremen in his late teens before coming to the States. Due to family commitments and lack of financial resources, opening a restaurant was too risky of a venture for my dad while I was a child.
“In 2003, after working 16 years as an investment banker and realizing my dad was going to retire, I approached my dad, told him he was too young to retire and he should not let all that knowledge and experience of restaurants go to waste. I told him, ‘Let’s open a restaurant together.’”
Q. And he said OK?
Wolfgang Zwiener: “I actually asked him if he was sure if he wanted to get into this business, one that entails long, arduous hours and one in which he would have a completely different role and responsibilities than investment banking. It appeared he was definitely committed, and I agreed.
“I guess you could say the restaurant and hospitality business is in our blood.”
Q. Peter, what do you remember from your dad’s days at Luger’s?
PZ: “My father would come home very late from work every night, so most of the time I was already asleep, but on the few occasions I was still awake or woke up, I can still remember the smell of steak and the grill on his clothes.
“As a banker, I would bring clients to dine at the restaurant as well as to see my dad. He was always very proud to have me dine there on business, and I was a equally proud to introduce my clients to him.
“All these positive experiences and memories definitely molded my desire to enter the hospitality business, especially with my dad. Who could have possibly been a better mentor for me than him?”
Q. How do you split time between the Wolfgang’s locations?
PZ: “Running restaurants takes more than one or two people. In addition to us, we have four other operating partners, who started the concept with us and are involved in every detail of the operations.
“We currently have 13 Wolfgang’s Steakhouses worldwide, with 3 more to open before year-end. Owning restaurants in different countries and different time zones while still remaining hands-on makes your work day truly 24/7. We constantly strive to achieve consistency in our product and service throughout each of our restaurants as well as ensuring that each of our guests truly has a memorable experience.”
Q. Has working together changed your relationship?
PZ: “As a banker focused on emerging markets for 16 years, I hardly saw my father because of my travel schedule. Now that we own restaurants together, we get to see each other more often and work on projects together. It is quite rewarding.”
Q. Father’s Day plans?
PZ: “We plan to spend Father’s Day together in Miami, where we traditionally have done so for many years. We have been spending much of our time, including holidays, for over 40 years there. My dad’s birthday is during the same time period, so we have a double celebration.”
Alan and Michael Stillman
Alan Stillman, founder and partner, 77.
Michael Stillman, founder and president, 35.
Alan Stillman started the T.G.I. Friday’s chain with a $5,000 loan from his mother in 1965. He went on to found Smith & Wollensky. Together with his son Michael, he formed Fourth Wall Restaurants, which opened the first Quality Meats in New York in 2006. A second location opened in South Beach in February.
Q. Michael, what memories stand out to you about growing up around your dad’s restaurants?
Michael Stillman: “What I remember most is his passion for art, design, travel and his obsession with unique places and creating unique experiences. I remember the artwork he selected for the restaurants, like a Christo in the Post House or the Picasso ceramics at Manhattan Ocean Club.
“I did like going to visit the restaurants with him and loved to answer the phones. Once a year, he would invite my elementary school class in to learn from one of the chefs, and we would be on the news. My friends and I thought we were famous.
“He encouraged me to do my own thing, which obviously intrigued me about what he was doing. I worked in the restaurants as summer jobs here and there, but when I began working for Danny Meyer [at Union Square Hospitality Group], my dad realized I had the bug and was all for my pursuing a career in restaurants.”
Q. Who is responsible for what in the company?
MS: “I run the businesses day-to-day, and he manages everything to do with Smith & Wollensky NYC and acts as chief cook and bottle washer, adviser, taster and opinion-giver on all aspects of everything we are working on.
“We are both in meetings with investors, chefs, managers, brokers, and our paths cross several times during the day, but we also go to lunch or dinner together a few times a week.”
Q. Day off, no work, someone else is taking care of the restaurants. What do you two do?
MS: “Talk about the restaurants! “We have shared passions in art, the Knicks and sushi. Between those three, we get lots of father-son time — to talk about the restaurants.”
Q. Alan, how does it feel to have Michael in the family business?
Alan Stillman: “Profound pride. The restaurants are my life’s work, and seeing Michael thrive and make his own mark as a leader has been an amazing experience.”
Q. What are you doing on Sunday?
MS: “On Father’s Day, we have having an epic BBQ showdown in the Hamptons.”
Evan S. Benn is food editor of the Miami Herald. On Twitter and Instagram: @EvanBenn.
Ultimate Father’s Day Gift
You have until 11:59 p.m. Saturday to enter the Miami Herald’s Ultimate Father’s Day Steakhouse Gift Package. We’re giving away meaty prizes worth almost $1,500, including:
▪ A $500 gift card to The Forge in Miami Beach.
▪ A $500 gift card to Quality Meats in Miami Beach.
▪ A $250 gift card to Wolfgang’s Steakhouse in Miami, plus father-child aprons from Hedley & Bennett.
No purchase necessary. For details and to enter, go to MiamiHerald.com/contests.
Top Dining Deals
Go to Miami.com/restaurants for Evan S. Benn’s top 10 Father’s Day dining deals for Dad.