He pours a round of Champagne into flutes for us and for his wife and then assumes a position reclining on a small set of steps that leads into the kitchen from the living space. Now I see it: Somoroff reminds me of a Buddha statue. A more cosmopolitan Buddha, for sure, but sharing that look that you only get when you’ve decided that your worldview is correct and things have worked out in your favor. And why not? At 57 years old, the son of Ben Somoroff, one of America’s great still life photographers, has a career that’s included photo shoots for Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar in Europe, fine art housed in important permanent collections (at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.), and a job as a prolific director and
As it happens, I’ve known Michael Somoroff for years — and you probably have, too. A few weeks before I met him I was having a conversation with a group of people, including a commercial director who was lamenting missing out on a gig making a television advertisement for Red Lobster. “They do the same thing every time”, he said. “Those damn flying shrimp, cartwheeling through the air.” I lost track of what he was saying and started thinking about how much I wanted the Admiral’s Feast, a fried platter of shrimp, bay scallops, clam strips and flounder. The commercials that thwarted this guy’s pitch — seafood that spins, sizzles and bounces off the plate — leave a lasting impression, it seems. Many of these emotionally indelible spots are the work of Somoroff, who has been directing Red Lobster, Olive Garden and Chili’s commercials for 20 years as part of his work for MacGuffin.
Somoroff is not the guy you’d expect to be behind the advertisements of bottomless salad and bread sticks. For one thing, he’s suggested that we finish off the Champagne and head to the Olive Garden’s doppelganger, Eataly, the emporium of Italian imports and serious Italian cuisine owned by Mario Batali and the Bastianich family, 20 blocks uptown in the Flatiron district, for some late night eats. It also helps to understand that his life and work — he doesn’t really draw a line — is informed by a set of very focused core values.
“I think we all have an existential responsibility toward self-realization of our utmost potential, which is infinite”, he says. “I’m into things that are extremely creative, are the highest expression of dignity and creativity and that express a very high level of commitment to quality. Human beings are magical in that way. We can really dream; we are great creators. We are, in that sense, partners with God.”
One needs only to look around his home to see that he puts this philosophy to practice. What was a warehouse for his artwork until the late ’90s became a renovation project when he and his wife, then living in a small apartment in the Village, decided they wanted some more space. “I loathed the idea of doing it in Manhattan because it was going to be stupid”, he says. “I knew it was going to be a bloodbath. So I said, ‘Okay, I’m only going to do this if I turn it into a work of art.’”
He studied social traffic through the empty space of the apartment and found that the pathways were reminiscent of photographs of subatomic particles taken at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. He then got mappings from CERN and laid them over the floor plan, building space where the human traffic intersected with the activity of subatomic particles. The horizontal stratas of the loft are based on Kabbalah — Somoroff studied under the Israeli Kabbalist scholar, Avraham Brandwein — in which there are 10 dimensions of human experience.
“So basically the loft is the intersection of subatomic particle theory and the most ancient spiritual ideas that civilization sits on”, he says. “Okay?”
Flatiron, 10:45 p.m.
We’ve spent way too much time eating canapes and talking about subatomic particle theory, but if there’s one thing you never worry about in New York it’s that you’ll be too late to find a good meal. We drive 10 minutes uptown in Somoroff’s pastel-colored, ’90s-era Porsche and find a spot right across the street from Eataly, which is almost too good to be true. We’re all in a sort of state of disbelief, so we examine the spot to make sure it’s not a ticketable offense. The signage in New York is always just vague enough that you could either be ticketed or not depending on the preference of the traffic cop. There’s some discussion about an electrical unit protected by yellow pipes, in the same way that fire hydrants are protected by pipes, giving the impression that it’s off limits. Somoroff gives it a little victory kick, as if to say, “We won this round.”
We are, in fact, too late to eat at La Birreria, the rooftop restaurant at Eataly. The kitchen stopped serving plates of salumi, bohemian steaks and house-made sausages about 30 minutes ago, and we’re in the mood for more than just drinks. Fortunately, Eataly really is one of the crown jewels of food in this city. You could go broke shopping there every day, but if you’re in a pinch for dinner and need to pick up museum-quality vegetables, freshly-made pastas and big slabs of Piedmontese beef, this is your place. And there’s still a restaurant, La Pizza & La Pasta, open inside the complex with room for a table for four. It’s a humble space with lucite tables and a menu of superb carbohydrate-based dishes, all of them under $20.
Somoroff and I order a round of Birra del Borgo Reale, an American-style IPA brewed in Italy and recommend by the waitress. “This is awesome”, he says, hanging on the “awe” for just long enough. Then it’s on to pasta. Between the four of us at the table we’ve got a few plates of gnocchi with Italian sausage, house-made ravioli stuffed with ricotta and spinach, and paccheri with mussels and scallops in a sauce of tomato, white wine, garlic, parsley and chili flakes — plus a bottle of red from Tuscany.
We’ve all had a little wine and the conversation dips and dives, from the perfect steak (a ribeye three inches thick, cooked and sliced) to French intellectuals (elitist) and back to his work making commercials for chain restaurants, which still seems incongruous for a guy who enjoys fine cuisine and speaks fluently about philosophy.
“I have an empirical track record, that when I shoot commercials, and when you commit to them for long enough, they will increase sales”, he says. “What I’m doing when I wield my craft is asking myself a very basic question: why should people care about this and how can I touch them? I’m asking that question whether we’re making a cabinet or I’m shooting a commercial for Red Lobster or I’m doing art for the Venice Biennale.”
The restaurant is empty at this point. Glasses are clinking, silverware is clattering, the sounds of hospitality running out. The waitress suggests that Eataly is closed and we’re the last people here. I look around and confirm that it’s a ghost town in here. Somoroff has this look in his eye, though, the mischievous excitement of a guy whose Zen meditation is taking things to the next level of production. “Now I’m really hungry”, he says. “Now we can go to Peter Luger and get a steak.” There are serious objections from his wife and his publicist.
“You can’t bail now”, he says. “This is the magic. Now we can really go do something.”
2 Birra del Borgo Reale $24
1 Bottle 2011 Bacco in Toscana $35
2 Gnocchi con Salsiccia di Agnello e Melanzane $36
1 Paccheri con Sugo di Mare $18
1 Quadrati con Ricotta e Spinaci $17
1 Antipasto Misto $13
Total (including tax and tip) $185.78