The Overhead Compartment with Rick Wahlstedt

Shining a spotlight on celebrities and athletes that love to travel.

Imagine starting your career as a professional squash player, and making it all the way to the US Open in New York. Then imagine you wind up teaching the game to one of the legendary restauranteurs in the city, only to have him in turn teach you the tricks of his trade, and eventually you open your own list of restaurants, including the iconic go-to spot Le Colonial in 1993.  If you are Swedish born Rick Wahlstedt you don’t have to imagine any of it because you lived it, and to this day Le Colonial remains one of the most popular spots to see and be seen. Now boasting 9 Le Colonial restaurants all over the country, Wahlstedt has never wavered in his love for the business or the game. The Overhead Compartment was excited to meet with the highly talented Wahlstedt and learn about his latest Le Colonial restaurant opening, where he stands in the world of Squash, and of course split some of the best Goi Cuon.

The Overhead Compartment with Rick Wahlstedt stars now…

OC: Le Colonial which opened in New York City in 1993 quickly established itself as the go-to place. Not long after, Le Colonial Chicago opened, followed by others, and soon there will be a total of 9. How do you keep the restaurants consistent with one another while also making each one unique?

RW: While every restaurant is uniquely attuned to its community, the fundamental essence of the brand remains universally consistent. We design each restaurant based on the environment we enter to have each restaurant have its own feel. We make a point of this. Le Colonial is not a box where you can do the same thing everywhere. You must work with colors, menu adjustments, price adjustments, whether to incorporate private event space or not into the program or how much exterior space versus interior. You cannot build a restaurant like Le Colonial with a discerning clientele who have traveled the world on auto pilot.

Le Colonial Chicago
Le Colonial Chicago

 

On the operational side, consistency is one of the most important features of a fine dining restaurant, whether culinarily, service or experience. The training program must be excellent BEFORE the restaurant opens and let the restaurant “break-in” for no less than 60 days, if possible. A restaurant is only as good as its staff, so strong senior management that sets the tone and professionalism for the rest is one of the most important factor whether you have a consistent restaurant or not.

The atmosphere plays a key role in creating unique experiences in each of our restaurants. I see it as a two-fold art form. The first step involves crafting stunning and timeless aesthetics that feeds into our core identity, with a touch that will be particular to the local area – for instance, in Delray we have used more pastel colors. This serves as the canvas for the second aspect – the patrons, and the Maître D’ expertise in creating a dynamic room. Altogether, this creates a different atmosphere in each of our restaurants, and one that never ceases to evolve.

OC:
How do the restaurants adapt to the markets they serve?

RW: The menu is tailored to cater to the specific preferences of each local market. For instance, in Florida, our menu prominently features Southern Florida Gulf Coast seafood, while in Lake Forest, we prioritize collaborating with local farms for fresh produce and poultry. In response to market demands, we offer various options such as the Saigon Social Hour, Early Sunset menu, 3-course Prix Fixe, and wine dinners. We operate as a local restaurant in every market, rather than adhering to a rigid formula. However, a significant portion, about 50% to 60% of our menu, consists of our signature dishes that form the foundation of our Vietnamese Cuisine.

OC: You are celebrating an important milestone this Fall — the anniversary of the first Le Colonial— what does this mean to you and the brand?

RW: Any fine dining brand that has been serving clients in different markets for 30 years is special. What’s even more impressive is that Le Colonial finds itself at the center of the most rapid expansion it has experienced since we first opened our doors three decades ago. The brand is probably better today than it has even been in regard to consistency, design and service. Our operating team has done a remarkable job and our creative team keeps on pushing the brand forward. Le Colonial is just starting to hit on all cylinders….. I am very proud of the accomplishments thus far during 30 years and my hope is that the brand will be better and stronger than ever for its 50 year anniversary!

OC: You have restaurants in many different markets—-what are the most important factors you consider when choosing locations?

RW: Today you can open a great restaurant in almost any market in the US and do the same sales volume as the major US cities. Personally, we prefer to open new restaurants in secondary markets where we are a real addition to the local communities and the surrounding area. By example, Austin, Dallas, San Diego, Tampa, Orange County are all markets that I think would welcome a restaurant like Le Colonial. Internationally, cities like Berlin, Stockholm, Milan are more interesting to me than Paris, Rome, and London. Many of our clients have second homes or vacations in some of our markets so we have sort of a built-in clientele already. Being in Chicago for 26 years and Buckhead, Atlanta for 4 years, we have clients there who spend part of their time in Naples, Florida where we will open on Fifth Avenue in November this year. Other important factors that play a role are prominent retail stores neighbors, luxury hotels proximity, Class A office tenants and residential neighborhoods.

Le Colonial Chicago
Le Colonial Chicago


OC:
How often do you visit your restaurants?

RW: It goes in spurts and depends on the season but generally I visit a new market where we are opening very frequently during the design and construction phase as well as the first 3 months of operation. Once the restaurant is stabilized, I visit the restaurants for 3 to 4 days per quarter.

OC: You started off working for legendary restauranteur Keith McNally learning the tricks of the trade. What’s the most important thing you learned from the man who was dubbed “The Restauranteur Who Invented Downtown”.

RW: I learned a lot from both Keith and his brother Brian through my early days in my career. Attention to details during service such as lighting, music, temperature. The importance to the front door and the first reception to greet the client as well as the social aspect of the dining room and bar are some of the things I learned early on. Also, the importance to the design so the client feels that they are in a different place or time through the vibe and architectural details.

OC: What advice would you give to someone interested in breaking into the restaurant business?

RW: Focus on making your first place successful, consistent, and time proof before planning rolling out additional stores.

OC:
If you were not a restaurateur, what would you see yourself doing?

RW: Journalist or sports agent.

OC: You are a top squash player and still compete, what have you learned from the sport that helps make you successful in other areas of your life?

RW: The determination to take projects to completion, understanding that hard work is essential for achievement, and the competitive drive to constantly improve myself or my endeavors are all principles I’ve carried over from the court. And most importantly, the concept of NOW – You can’t win a match by telling yourself you’ll try harder next point. It’s now.

OC:
What is the next “latest and greatest” trend in food going to be?

RW: The American palate is expanding; it has grown increasingly receptive to diverse flavors and niche influences. This openness has paved the way for a captivating variety of culinary traditions to flourish across the nation. The intersection of curiosity and authenticity has increased, allowing restaurants to celebrate authentic cultural heritage in their cuisines. Looking ahead, I anticipate a rising interest in exploring lesser-known regional cuisines, allowing diners to embark on authentic culinary journeys, near them.

This trend aligns with our focus on French-Vietnamese cuisine, presenting an exciting opportunity to infuse elements from other near-by cultures, further enriching the tapestry of flavors we offer. This is something we are working on in our menus – adding elements from countries neighboring Vietnam.

Additionally, I believe the younger generation are much more interested in their well-being and aware of what they are putting in their bodies than what I was growing up and sometimes still is. Organic healthy food is here to stay, that much I know.

OC: First thing you do when arriving at a hotel in your room?

RW: Check out the bathroom and view from windows.

OC: Complete the following sentence:  I never leave home without:

RW: My briefcase and squash bag.

Rick Wahlstedt, please use care upon departure as items may have shifted in The Overhead Compartment during our journey. Thanks for choosing us for your travel tips! Have a wonderful day!