The Recipe For Success

September 01, 2014

By Mary Seymour

How Jennifer Vitagliano’s study abroad experience at Rollins led her to open trendy New York City restaurant The Musket Room.

Jennifer Vitagliano ’06 is riding high these days. Co-owner of The Musket Room, a trendy New York City restaurant, she’s ushered it from gleam in the eye to red-hot success. The proof? The Musket Room won a coveted Michelin Star for its inventive New Zealand cuisine just four months after opening in June 2013.

“There was a lot of crying,” Vitagliano recalls of learning the momentous news. “We had a big party; it felt like opening night all over again.”

She’s had a few of those opening nights. In 2010 Vitagliano and two Australian partners opened Betel, a Thai restaurant in the West Village. Next came a burger franchise called The Counter. She learned some major lessons along the way and met her future Musket Room partners, Kiwi chef Matt Lambert and his wife, Barbara.

They turned out to be a strong team: Matt, a champion on Food Network’s Chopped, creates Musket Room delicacies like gin-infused venison and duck with carrot and huckleberries. Barbara manages day-to-day operations, while Vitagliano runs the back end of the business. She’s in the office from 9 to 5 every day, then shares a family meal with restaurant staff; many nights she’s at The Musket Room until midnight, observing and keeping things running smoothly.

Vitagliano’s twin sister, Nicole ’06, a fashion stylist, helps out too. She serves as The Musket Room’s creative director, lining up collaborations between the restaurant and fashion-related entities such as Interview magazine. Vitagliano’s New York-Italian family is also part of the team. Her parents, sister, brothers, and friends created a garden behind the restaurant that supplies fresh ingredients like nasturtium, thyme, and lemon verbena.

Growing up in a big Italian family has a lot to do with Vitagliano’s line of work. She recalls long, rollicking, foodcentric family gatherings, preceded by rustic foraging. “We didn’t just eat meals. My grandfather would literally drop me off at the side of the road. I would go pick berries or whatever was in season. We really worked for our meals. The end result was this big elaborate production.”

Her childhood dream was to be a lawyer or a chef; the latter spoke to her ingrained desire to be in control. “Growing up in a big Italian household, I was told whoever was in the position of creating a meal was in a position of power.”

As she grew older, Vitagliano grew increasingly business-minded. She majored in international business at Rollins and considered becoming an investment banker like her father. Then, through Rollins’ international programs office, she signed up for two semesters at Spain’s University of Oviedo.

Her year abroad turned out to be a game changer. Vitagliano fell in love with Oviedo’s warm, family-minded culture, the rolling farms surrounding the city, and the hearty food of northern Spain.

She came back to Winter Park with a revived reverence for food as communal rite. In her off-campus apartment, she cooked meals for classmates, savoring the gestalt of food, friends, and felicity.

After graduating from Rollins, Vitagliano took a job with Mediterranean importer Food Match, procuring food for chefs, specialty retailers, and ritzy hotels. That work led to her fascination with the inner workings of restaurants. She quit her job after two years and traveled to Australia, where she met the people who would become her business partners for her first restaurant, Betel.

“Looking back, I don’t know why or how we did that; we were just three crazy kids wanting to open a restaurant, and we went and did it,” Vitagliano recalls. “It was successful for a while. But I wanted to open more restaurants. I had the itch.”

Thus came The Musket Room, for which she single-handedly raised startup money. “It took me a year of working on my own to get the restaurant ready,” Vitagliano explains. “You can have all your ducks in a row, but you can’t control your international shipment getting stuck in customs, or the factory dropping your $20,000 oven down the stairs, or the Department of Buildings getting backlogged due to a superstorm.”

Given all those headaches—all that grinding behind-the-scenes work—surely the itch to open new restaurants is gone?

Not a chance. She’s planning to open more restaurants with the Lamberts. After all, her joy lies in hospitality, the ineffable pleasure of a gustatory gathering—echoes of Vitagliano family meals and almuerzos in Oviedo.

As she says, “To be able to bring people together to enjoy food is very full circle to me.”

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