Brazilian hospitality is legendary for its warmth and Rogério Fasano, the country’s leading restaurateur and hotelier, lends new weight to the notion of “the host with the most”. But while his grandfather founded the iconic Fasano restaurant in São Paulo in 1902, he is keen to stress that the current empire – comprising 15 restaurants and four hotels, with plans for six more locations – did not land in his lap. “I wasn’t born into hospitality,” he says, sat in a deep leather chair in the lobby of one of his hotels. “My father actually closed the restaurant when my grandfather died in 1968, when I was six, because he was then concentrating on making whiskies.”
Fasano was at film school in London when his father fell into financial difficulty and so he returned to Brazil to help with the business. The notion of opening a restaurant hadn’t occurred to him before then. “One day a man called offering to reopen the Fasano,” he says. “Daddy tried to discourage me, saying that he grew up with a restaurateur father and I would never have weekends or vacations. I said no, I want it. Because I was close to my grandfather.”
That was 1982 and the first reincarnation of the Fasano in the Eldorado Mall was, Fasano freely admits, a failure from the start. “It was a disaster. The mall convinced me that French nouvelle cuisine was in fashion so we opened a pretentious place called Jardin Gastronomique Fasano. Imagine, French cuisine from an Italian family; everything was wrong so we closed it after six months.”
Unperturbed, the 20-year-old Fasano rented a house in the Itaim neighbourhood and rebooted the venture as a cosy Italian serving nonna’s food, which quickly became a roaring success. When Fábio Auriemo, now of property company jhsf (his current partners), bought the houses surrounding the restaurant, he offered Fasano a payment to leave. With the money he bought a place on Rua Haddock Lobo and transplanted the Fasano. “This became the most important restaurant in the city,” he says. “We had a wonderful wine cellar built with old bricks. Next I opened Gero [his nickname] in 1994. The Fasano showed me the importance of being a restaurateur but Gero brought me happiness. Gero was cool, it was light, full of beautiful girls.”
Three more restaurants followed – Parigi, Baretto and another Gero in the Ipanema district of Rio – and with them the idea for a hotel. “I can do a hotel but a hotel man can’t do a restaurant,” says Fasano. “Even the Four Seasons has to share with somebody; they had to give the Plaza Athénée to Alain Ducasse. For me it was the natural next step.” So he holed up with his old architect friend Isay Weinfeld and set about correcting the existing hotel formula.
The first Fasano Hotel opened in 2003 in São Paulo, with a Fasano restaurant on the ground floor, and immediately drew interest as a welcome reimagining of a 1930s-style grand hotel. Fasano is clear about his concept. “It’s a restaurant with rooms on top,” he says. “Hiding the reception behind the lobby was the best idea. Now everybody copies it. Every hotelier says you have to feel at home. If you feel at home in the Fasano then we’re doing everything wrong because it’s not a home: it’s a hotel. You don’t have room service in your house at 04.00, do you?”
Fasano is well aware of his own foibles and strengths as a boss. He’s big on teamwork, embodied in the Fasano hotel in Rio, opened in 2007 and the result of a collaboration with Philippe Starck. “I don’t know how to administrate,” he says. “Don’t give me a cheque to sign because I’ll make a mistake. I need to be free to concentrate on the details. I never went to an architect or chef and said, ‘Make me a project or a menu’. We create it together. My position is to make sure things stay in place. It’s like navigating a ship: if you relax to smoke a cigarette you end up going to Africa instead of Europe.”
With a staff of 1,500 and a reputation for tip-top service, training is crucial and Fasano takes a hands-on approach. “I tell them, ‘If you want to be good, disappear. Clients shouldn’t notice you; you don’t have to talk, just make it happen.’ I have wonderful people working for me and I think I have a good nose for them. Anyone can come into my office and suggest ideas.”
His management style is personal and, although he’s demanding, he values close relationships with staff. “I would never be angry with a waiter who falls over with 10 plates but if they get 10 things wrong that I’ve told them time and again, then I get mad. I’m friends with my waiters, I play football with them; they’re not afraid of me even if I’m tough sometimes.”
Come 2017, Fasano will be heading north for his company’s first US ventures when two new Fasano hotels – a revamp of Miami’s Shore Club with Weinfeld and a new Rafael Viñoly tower on West 57th Street in New York – open their doors with a heavy, reassuring sweep. One thing is certain: Fasano will be a pain in the arse for everyone, crumpling blueprints, relaying bricks and giving bellboys’ hats that just-so jauntiness in pursuit of the perfect welcome.
- What time do you like to be at your desk?
I’m often at work until 01.30. I think at night and don’t get to sleep until 03.30 so I try to wake up at 09.00, play tennis and get to work at 11.00.
- Where’s the best place to prepare for leadership: an MBA school or on the job?
On the job. I never got a diploma in my life.
- What’s your management style?
Personal. And without rules.
- Are tough decisions best taken by one person?
A bit of dictatorship is not bad on the job.
- Do you want to be liked or respected?
- What does your support team look like?
I have a tight team. It’s about finding people who share your culture and ideas – and then you also want to have friends at work.
- What technology do you carry on a trip?
My mobile but turned off. I’m always with someone but people can contact me if it’s urgent.
- Do you read management books?
I read biographies. I just read Isadore Sharp’s to see how he built his great Four Seasons group worldwide.
- Do you run in the morning? Wine with lunch? Socialise with your team after work?
Tennis in the morning, no wine at lunch but always at night. And I always socialise with everyone.
- What would your key management advice be?
Be happy. I never did anything I didn’t like. And be prepared to say “no”. I’ve said the odd “yes” that I regret but never a “no”.