Founder of the Feast
We talk to David Schutte of Oliver's/Sear
Photos by kc kratt
Name: David Schutte
Current restaurants: Oliver’s/Oliver’s catering, Creekview Restaurant, SEAR Steakhouse
Past restaurants: “The first restaurant I owned was Babalu; I was 29, young and foolish.”
David Schutte was born and raised in Williamsville, and started working in the restaurant and catering business by the age of fifteen. At sixteen, he worked at Shepherd’s Pub on Transit Road, where, he recalls, a “young chef named Mike Andrzejewski” was starting out. Later, Schutte trained as a chef at the Culinary Institute of America and earned a degree in hotel management and administration from Cornell University.
Schutte’s career progression in Western New York has led to ownership of two city-based white-tablecloth restaurants and a beloved suburban eatery. His newest venture, SEAR Steakhouse, at the Avant, includes business partners who are former and current Buffalo Bills: Fred Jackson, Terence McGee, and Brian Moorman.
Can you name any major influences?
After Cornell, I moved to New York City and met Joe Baum, the legendary restaurateur. He started the Four Seasons, Windows on the World, and Aurora. He was responsible for renovating the Rainbow Room.
What advice would current you give to younger you?
I love what I do now; I have a good overview of the whole operation. But my passion is for the back of the house. I might like to have stayed there longer. I did stages in kitchens in Europe, New York, and San Francisco.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to open a restaurant?
Put in the time and effort to be trained, find a mentor, and perfect your craft before you do it. That’s a mistake many make, in addition to not having enough capital or the right location. Those are difficult to overcome.
How hard is it to succeed?
Given the right tools, including timing, concept, location, and the right people, it’s not as difficult as it’s made out to be. The key is the people—you can’t do it without the right chefs, managers, bartenders, and servers.
What are the challenges unique to Buffalo?
The challenge is primarily translating wider industry concepts to be acceptable for Buffalo expectations. Buffalo is a great food town, overall tastes are a little more basic, and people are very price conscious. But a restaurant can never compromise on quality or portions. Even if you have to raise a price or two, you have to find ways to run an effective operation, make a profit, and not sacrifice quality. Give guests the experience they expect.
What is the most rewarding aspect of restaurant ownership?
The people—the guests who come in and their appreciation for what we do, the staff I work with, the energy and passion they put into their craft, and giving the guest their experience.
What’s your management style?
Empowering and building up people to do their jobs, rather than putting them down or criticizing. They need to feel supported, to have proper equipment, tools, schedules, and staff.
What makes an ideal restaurant employee?
Personality and attitude are big. You have to put hospitality first. That trumps skills, which, unlike attitude, can be taught.
What is a restaurant trend you love?
The modern steakhouse. It combines the energy and fun in the room; the bringing together of craft cocktails, fine wines, and small plates; and the creativity in a chef-driven menu.
If you weren’t a restaurant owner, what else might you have done?
Even though I never formally tried it, I might have become an actor. Joe Baum says people don’t go to restaurants because they’re hungry, they go for the overall experience. A restaurant is like theater; we are the cast and the guests are the audience.
What do you order at your own restaurants?
At the Creekview, I love the steak sandwich, potato pancakes, and soft shell crabs in season. Every Saturday, I have the seafood omelet. At Oliver’s, I enjoy the seven-course tasting menu. At SEAR, I’d get the thirty-four-ounce, dry-aged prime tomahawk chop with the Gruyere popover.
What makes you happy?
It’s fun that my daughter is following in my footsteps. She’s the assistant manager at SEAR; I hope that some day she goes to work in Chicago and/or California.
The best meal you ever had?
I went to French Laundry on my fiftieth birthday with my girlfriend and my two kids. The hospitality they provided, from the service to the meal, and then having an audience with [Chef] Thomas Keller in the kitchen—it was special.
Jana Eisenberg, an independent writer and editor, is a frequent contributor to Spree.