Sara Waxman: Your formal training is as a graphic designer. Was it a natural progression to go from print to interior design?
Nadia Di Donato: Very much so. My print experience expanded when I worked for an interior design magazine. I had exposure to that industry. Our company grew from two to three dimensions organically.
SW: What is your role at Liberty Entertainment Group today?
NDD: I am Creative Director. What that entails is conceptualization and implementation of all of our new projects. My focus is new buildouts. I oversee all the marketing of our new projects. Our company has been growing, so there has always been a new project on the table. We’ve opened two new venues each year for the past ten years.
SW: Spice Route opened in 2008. Walking into that restaurant we were saucer-eyed. You had a vision and created a mood evocative of some- where else. There was sensuality and drama.
NDD: Before we develop a concept there is a lot of research. We study what is happening internationally. I don’t design a restaurant using the trendy materials of the day; I design with the thought of how I want the customer to feel. I create a story board from start to finish. What the space should look like; what food we’ll serve; what the music will sound like; what the servers will wear. First I create a general, broad imagery board of all the concepts. Then I narrow it, massage it into focus. I have been working with my team for thirty years, so we have synergy. We start the construction process. I stand with my foreman, carpenters, painters and create the space like an art canvas. I see things, and things come to me. I am outside the box with all my concepts and approaches. I never conform to a typical construction method. I am a visual person. Often my contractor will say, “It’s never been done that way,” and I answer, “I know, that’s why we’re doing it.”
SW: You have a partner who happens to be your husband. How do you deal with your creative differences considering the fact that you are going home together at night? NDD: We have differences. We are both passionate about what we do. I learned something right at the start: Nick is a visionary. He sees things before anyone else, and has a way of leading and directing. At the onset, he was also hands on in directing the creative side, but as we worked together I began to do a lot more. Now he has confidence in what I can do, and because the company has grown so much, we’ve taken on different areas of responsibility, so we don’t really step on each others toes.
SW: What do you do in your leisure time?
NDD: I don’t have leisure time. I don’t do lunches or shop- ping. In the morning I have my coffee and do my emails. Then about two hours are spent paying all the personal bills. Then I move on to our site, going to suppliers, meeting people all day that are related to our project. I always fit in a pilates session. Evenings, we often have a fundraiser or an event going on in one of our restaurants. We also have to be aware of what others in the business are doing. At night, I put my head on the pillow and I am out.
SW: What are you working on now?
NDD: Right now, its Xango. I want to capture an authentic non-design look and juxtapose the restaurant with the high design Arcane club that shares the building. Xango has a separate entrance, but you can also enter from Arcane. We have also purchased eight acres in Prince Edward County. It has a 12 thousand square-foot old school house on the property. We plan to have a 200-person banquet room and ten bedrooms. It will be like an Inn, a destination, a place for special events. It’s a big project, and that makes it a little challenging. We’re now past the permit process, and this will be an exciting and different project for me.
SW: Where do you see yourself in the future?
NDD: There are always opportunities that present themselves, and we will be a lot more selective in what we do. The PEC project is taking us in a new direction. I love designing, Nick loves creating. I don’t think we’ll ever retire, but our focus will be in an area where we can have a lot more control.
Nick and I have known each other since we were teenagers. At the end of the day, our core values are the same, and we still like each other. He gives me a lot of room to do what I want. Design is very subjective. You can’t listen to everyone, but the one person whose opinion I really value is Nick.
Sara Waxman is an award-winning restaurant critic, best-selling cookbook author, food and travel journalist and has eaten her way through much of the free world for four decades, while writing about it in books, newspapers and magazines. She is the Editor in Chief of DINE and Destinations magazine.