CULINTRO A Community for Restaurant Professionals

Hospitality Design (HD) ) magazine and Culintro, a culinary trade organization in New York that brings together restaurant professionals, have teamed up to bring a monthly online Q&A with some of the nation's top restaurant designers. Each month, we will feature a Q&A with an industry leader, talking about his/her newest project, the industry, what works, and what's next.


Russell Stilwell - Next Step Design


Russell Stilwell
Next Step Design



Russell Stilwell is changing the look of kitchens one step at a time. Working with the likes of top chefs and design firms such as Danny Meyer, Alain Ducasse, and the Rockwell Group, he and his Annapolis-based firm Next Step Design create not only functional, but good-looking kitchens that, thanks to the changing atmosphere of restaurants, are not always in the back of the house. And his inventive solutions are making his firm one of the most sought after foodservice design consulting companies around. Here, he sounds off on working and playing hard, the importance of speaking up, and how he’s living a dream.


HD: Did you always know you wanted to go into the food/hospitality industry?

RS: No. When I was young, I wanted to be a lawyer and possibly go into politics. My dad took me to New York City when I was about 15. We went to the Jockey Club and Windows. I think that was the moment I got the bug. It was a Holden Caulfield kind of moment; I never forgot that trip. I had just recently started a job as a dishwasher and was working my way up to line cook. Everything about the business peaked my interest: the people, the fast pace of the dinner rush, the teamwork, and an opportunity to put out a product people liked.

HD: What are some of your first memories of food?

RS: I remember from an early age that food was important to me. My dad liked nice restaurants, my sister and brother would order hamburgers, I would order frogs legs. I was a weird kid.


HD: How did you end up where you are today?

RS: In high school, I worked in a family-owned Italian restaurant with some good friends. I goofed off a little too much my senior year, so heading for law school was not going to happen, so I headed to the Culinary Institute in Hyde Park instead. I worked in several cooking jobs and even tried being a pastry chef with a bunch of insane French guys but that wasn’t for me. I ended up as sous chef at Chevy Chase Country Club and really enjoyed the multi-functional aspects of the foodservice operations. During that time, I was offered a job at restaurant equipment supply company that was looking for someone with chef experience to help layout kitchens. I jumped at the opportunity because I never worked in a kitchen that I thought functioned properly. I started out part time, working two jobs for a year or so, and then I jumped in with both feet when I was offered a chance to buy in.

HD: Why and when did you want to start Next Step Design?

RS: While designing for the restaurant supply company, I never liked the idea of designing kitchens to sell equipment. I thought my worked stood on it own merit and I wanted to be independent. I could see the writing on the wall as my partner and I were always fighting over how the business should be run. I bailed just as the Titanic was sinking and a few months later started Next Step Design (NSD) in 1987. Why, Next Step? Because I like process and I did not want to name the company after myself. I wanted it to be about the product, not me. Since then, NSD has grown (through two recessions) to be a successful design firm with wonderful clients and exciting projects.

HD: Give us your elevator pitch about NSD?

RS: NSD is a creative foodservice design consulting firm with a strong culinary approach. We have a 25-year track record of collaborating with great chefs and design firms like Rockwell Group, Tihany Design, Hapstak+Demetriou, Jeffrey Beers International, tonychi and associates, Gensler, etc., to create some of the most iconic projects in foodservice. We take a great deal of pride in our product, and put the hours, the care, and attention to detail into creating an inspiring product, on time and on budget.

HD: Talk to me about your corporate culture...what is your office like?

RS: I would say we probably fall into the ‘work hard/ play hard’ category. We have a casual office that runs on jet fuel. We are a dress casual, pet friendly, foosball-playing office. We try to keep the refrigerator stocked with beer and take some Friday afternoons off to play volleyball or have a cook out. Our standards are very high, so not everyone fits in. If you are a slacker, it is usually the staff that runs you out of town, not me. I think we all generally like each other’s company. We look for people who get it, that can anticipate what NSD needs, and that go the extra mile even if it’s not their responsibility. ‘Kool-Aide Drinkers’ is what I call it.

Park Hyatt Istanbul

HD: What is a recent project that you worked on that you are most proud of?

RS: Andaz Wall Street is one our team is really proud of. Hyatt, like a chef-owned restaurant, does not treat kitchen design like a second-class citizen. They also really look to do something different. This challenge gives us an opportunity to be playful and creative along with the rest of our design team. The result is a very unorthodox design, spearheaded by David Rockwell and his team. I love the bar, open kitchen, and most of all the lobby café.

HD: What is one project you are working on that you are most excited about?

RS: Just one is too hard. We are very fortunate to have a lot of great clients. We are very excited to recently be awarded the Grand Hyatt in Rio de Janeiro, and are in the process of developing another Andaz in Hawaii. On the restaurant side, we are very excited about the near completion of two restaurants with Danny Meyer and Union Square Hospitality Group in New York, Blue Smoke and North End Grill at Battery Park. Also, there are two projects at the Yonkers Raceway for Alain Ducasse and chef Chris Lee. We also just finished up what I think will be a cult favorite, Mas La Grillade with chef Galen Zamarra, in the West Village in New York.

HD: What trends are happening in the foodservice industry? What factors are influencing these?

RS: One trend that I think will carry through the recession is casual concepts by world-class chefs. While the recession has evacuated the white tablecloth restaurant, the casual and crafted dining experience is thriving. Wine bars, gastropubs, food trucks… they all have honesty and we love designing them. Ethnic foods are also strong and we love to learn about new cuisines.

HD: What are the keys to a successful collaboration?

RS: First, I would select a good design team and have them all meet before making the final decision to see how the chemistry works. From the client, a focused concept is good. For us, we start by listening.

Inn at Little Washington

HD: Greatest lesson learned?

RS: I would say in relationships and in business, it would be to ask for what you want—speak your mind and be honest. It's not honest to be a doormat. People are paying for your experience, not just to agree with you all the time.

HD: What's one of your favorite restaurants for design? For food?

RS: For me, the Inn at Little Washington will always hold a special place. It was the first truly iconic restaurant for NSD and the food and service are excellent. A kitchen tour is always a must. [The chef] Patrick O' Connell is like a brother to me. It would have been hard to even charge him for design services.

Andaz Wall Street – Lobby

HD: Dream job?

RS: We have worked very hard to establish relationships in our business, which allow us to be creative and work with incredible people. My sister always says the best sailboat is the one you use. I really love my job and I love going to work every day. So, in that sense, every job that NSD does is my dream job.

La Vista

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Thanks to Beth Scott, Hilton Worldwide is taking a new approach to F&B. The recently appointed vice president of restaurant concepts has come up with a new type of matchmaking service, which pairs full-service Hilton hotel owners and participating restaurant companies. As she says, the site, “provides a way for our stakeholders to access information easily and provide them with F&B solutions that fit their needs.” Here she talks about getting inspiration from an online dating site, working in China, and dreaming about pork shank. 

Hilton Worldwide