Foodie Empire: Gabriel Stulman ’03

UW Majors: History and Political Science
Age: 34 | New York City
Restaurateur and entrepreneur

Faced with a crabby customer who was throwing a tantrum over the wait for a table in one of Gabriel Stulman’s New York City restaurants, Stulman spontaneously hugged her. Not only did the gesture succeed in soothing the impatient woman, but it also inspired Stulman’s staff to start a contest to see who could offer the most hugs.

That sort of Midwestern hospitality is just one of the reasons why New Yorkers flock to Stulman’s six restaurants. In fact, Stulman’s restaurant group was originally named Little Wisco because of the strong contingent of Wisconsinites he’d hired, though he later adopted the name Happy Cooking Hospitality as his operation grew.

Stulman quickly made a name for himself in the most competitive dining scene in the nation, opening six restaurants in five years’ time and earning serious accolades along the way: he was named Restaurateur of the Year by Esquire magazine in 2012 and was included in the 2011 40 Under 40 list for Crain’s New York Business. His restaurants — which include Joseph Leonard, Jeffrey’s Grocery, and Perla — have attracted glowing coverage from Bon Appétit magazine, the New York Times, and others.

But this was never the career the Virginia native envisioned when he arrived at UW-Madison intending to become a history teacher. To make ends meet, he took a job at Ella’s Deli making sandwiches, then decided to take a year off so he could save up and establish residency to reduce his college costs. “I lied my way into bartending at Café Montmartre,” he recalls. “Despite being underage and bombing my first-ever bartending shift, the great crew at Café Montmartre overlooked my complete lack of skills and decided to teach me. Needless to say, I almost immediately fell in love with the commitment, passion, and sense of fun that I saw in those I worked with, as well as the way the restaurant made people feel.”

After a year, he re-enrolled at UW-Madison but continued to work at Café Montmartre four or five nights a week for the next four years. “There were times when I would get out of the bar at 3 a.m., head to the twenty-four-hour library, and work all night so that I could hand in an essay the next morning,” he says. “I may not have been the best student the UW has ever seen, but even as it dawned on me that I wanted to pursue a career in restaurants, I was committed to seeing my education through, an experience which instilled in me the values of time management, hard work, and follow-through.”

As soon as he graduated, Stulman headed for New York. “In many ways, the same things that drew me to the UW were what attracted me to the city,” he says. “Luckily, I was not the only alum who moved to NYC, and as I began opening restaurants, our places immediately became hubs for others from Wisconsin. These devoted guests were drawn by the large number of Wisconsinites who worked with us, but also by the sense of fun and warm welcome that our restaurants radiated. This was ultimately what I learned at the UW. It was where I found my path, and even if I ended up in a very different place than where I’d planned, it was where I found myself.”

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