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Mark Kozak Talks About Getting Into The Pump Room

This is The Gatekeepers, in which Eater roams the city meeting the fine ladies and gentlemen that stand between you and some of your favorite impossible-to-get tables.

Pump Room's Mark Kozak [Photo: Tim Hiatt]

Even though Pump Room food and beverage director Mark Kozak is from Chicago, his career took him away from the city for years. Before being lured back by Ian Schrager, Kozak spent about a decade away from Chicago, most recently working at the Mondrian in LA for three years and logged time in Vegas at Mandalay Bay before that working with the China Grill Management Group. Before he left Chicago, however, he worked with Lettuce Entertain You at Joe's Stone Crab as the assistant GM. Kozak said that working at the Mondrian in a way put him on the periphery of Schrager's world and was pretty excited to get the chance to work with him at the insanely busy Pump Room, where he would dine as a child with his family. Funny how things come full circle. Kozak talks about what it takes to get a table at the reborn restaurant in the Public hotel and why it's once again such a hot spot.

So it's 8 p.m. Saturday night. Realistically, what's the wait for a table?
Two-and-a-half to three hours probably.

Why do you think there's such a demand to get in?
I think it's a combination of the market range: the young hipsters in the mid-20s to people in their mid-40s and upwards of that. Its a super-interesting place where they co-mingle. I'm not catering to one specific demographic. How this happened is kind of the magic. I have no explanation for how that is.

Are there any other places where people can eat off the full menu, like if they just grab a table in the bar?
We have a limited menu of food offerings in the bar that includes the flat breads and small bites, the toasts. The full menu is only served in the Pump Room.

What about the lobby? Can people eat there?
The lobby is kind of neutral territory. We want the people who are actually staying in the hotel to experience a hotel welcome instead of walking into a dining space. We call that area the Living Room and it's neutral ground.

How hard is it to get a reservation on busier nights?
During the week, the prime time reservations are much earlier than the weekend dictates. Is that a Chicago thing? I don't know. But it seems that everyone wants to dine earlier during the week. It's the 6:30 or 7 o' clocks that are in high demand. Once we start getting into the weekend hours, it's the 7 to 9 range.

How far out do people need to book a reservation?
For the weekends, we're booking out a couple of months for those in-demand times. You can definitely get the 5 or 5:30 and the 10:30 or 11 o' clock spots. The prime time hours book up quickly. We're lucky. There's no question about it. We don't take anything for granted. We're super happy we're in this situation.

As a customer, is there anything I can do to make my wait shorter, like cash or gifts?
Yeah ... no. [laughs]. That's not something we encourage by any means. The reality is that it probably occurs, but we're not selling tables. That's not the end game.

What about the old era folks?
You know the neighborhood we're in and there are people who have been coming here for decades. There's almost a sense of ownership on their part because they've been frequenting the spot for so long. We have some super high-profile neighbors who come in all the time and we try to accommodate them and continue what they've been experiencing. It's a tightrope and a balance and we have amazing people who are masters at dealing with the clientele. My host stand is super engaging and we all want everyone to get in and we'd love to say yes to everyone, but that's unfortunately not the reality.

Tell me about your favorite types of customers.
I like people who are open to experiencing something new and different. I love the people who have come 15 to 20 times already and you ask if they've thought of trying like the wiener schnitzel or fried chicken. And then you come back an hour later and the [customers] say that it was life changing. I also like the challenge with the people who took an extra half hour to get here and when they leave they forget how long it took to get here. Our mission is to make sure these people have an amazing time.

There is no doubt a certain element of entitlement. How do you handle that on a busy night?
It's an everyday challenge. I think it's a matter of chatting with these people and doing the best we can. There just are times that it just can't happen. Can we do something at a future date or can we find somewhere for them to have a bite to eat in the lounge or library? To me it's a matter of not shying from the confrontation or discussion and you have to deal with it head on and be as gracious as you can be. If I could create 300 more seats on certain nights it'd be amazing. But I have 140 seats.

What about celebrities? Do you get a lot over there?
We've had a fair share of high-profile people and we do everything we can to keep their privacy and confidentiality so you won't hear about it in the papers. There certainly is a curiosity and we're a high-profile restaurant and we're attracting some high profile names.

How do you deal with VIPs when there are no tables left to give?
It's something that we will try our best to accommodate whether that's asking them to grab a seat in the bar and have a cocktail and making the magic happen in getting them a table without disrupting the entire evening. If a six-top walks in at 8 on a Saturday night, it's a challenge, but we'll do everything we can to accommodate those people who have been good to us. I would never ask anyone to get up from a table or anything like that. Phone calls and heads up would certainly be appreciated. Sometimes people don't show for their reservations so miraculously magic happens.

What's the strangest request you've gotten from a customer that you've accommodated?
We have a lot of people who want to, I don't know if it's replicate dining experiences in their homes, but there are a lot of people who want to come in and take what I consider a beautiful space and kind of embellish it. They want to make it special, but I think the dining room ... there was an original intent for the dining room in terms of the design and color schemes. I think it's such a beautiful space so the embellishing by bringing in florals and things like that ... people don't understand that wasn't the intent of the room. That's probably the strangest thing other than completely modifying a dish on the menu that doesn't even exist.

When people are done eating, are you able to secure them a table in the bar or Library or is that first come?
It's the general tagline that it's first come, but if people give us enough time to secure something we can. And we do also do bottle service in the Library. The Pump Room really gets kind of crazy very quickly in terms of the bar so there's not a whole lot of seating in that space, but we do have more opportunities in the Library and Screening Room.

What's the one Gatekeeper tool you need to do your job well?
A phone. The iPhone is seriously the best thing ever. And time. I know that sounds crazy, but we ultimately want everyone to come in and experience everything that we're doing, but that to realize it may take more time to get things done than they expect.

When you're not at the Pump Room, where are you drinking and eating?
I know that I worked there, but I still think Joe's does such an amazing job. I love to go to Joe's. Just hanging out for drinks? Somewhere local, nothing that's in the know. I can't do clubs anymore. I just like to go have a drink and have a great margarita. I had an amazing margarita last night at Tavernita.

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The Pump Room

1301 N. State Parkway, Chicago, Illinois 60610 312 787 3700