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The brothers behind New York Best have some beef

Tommy and Nicholas Diacono, founders of New York Best and Fat Louie’s, talk business, politics and architecture. Ceramic lions get a mention too

Big boss man: Nicholas Diacono smiles for the camera at Fat Louie’s, the sister to New York Best
Big boss man: Nicholas Diacono smiles for the camera at Fat Louie’s, the sister to New York Best
This interview was carried out before the 'Last Supper' incident

The Diacono brothers don’t do half-measures. Their businesses, advertising, body art, but most of all, their cuisine, point to a desire for perfection in everything they do. “Don’t bother, unless you’re going to do it exceptionally well” summarizes their ethos. The fact that they say Malta is not receptive to this approach and they are looking to expand away from our shores should worry us.

Meet the founders of New York Best (NYB) and Fat Louie’s: Tommy Diacono, 32, part-chef, part-force of nature – a human tsunami of ideas, utterly uninhibited and radiating business acumen – while his younger brother Nicholas, 28, equally fearless and knowledgeable, is calmer and more hands-on. Both are a riot to chat with, tremendously entertaining.

“Tommy’s very energetic, creative and a bit insane and I’m very down to earth, straightforward and get things done. Together you get the idea guy and the machine,” Nicholas explains as he announces plans to move the NYB brand abroad. “The reason that we’re moving is because we gave up. We gave up operating in this market. You do things that take extra effort and involve an extra cost, above industry standards, to provide something special and people just don’t get it.

“For example a full butter brioche bun and meat delivered fresh and cooked from raw to order, pre salted, three times a week. Cooked from raw to order and you’re complaining to me about the size, because it’s expensive? It’s a losing situation, there’s no winning. I get complaints where quality is not even on the agenda, it’s not mentioned – it’s just size and price. I can’t compete with that, I’m sorry. My brisket is two slices. I had three complaints about it. Sir, you have 300g of smoked meat, 12-hour smoked meat. It’s from England. What do you want – half a kilo of brisket? Was it good? – ‘Only two slices.’”

Nicholas puts his face in his hands. “Our chips, they’re cooked three times. They go through a huge process to get the fluffy interior and crunchy exterior. It’s not easy. It’s also double the weight of the skinny ones. You get six 20x20 fries – a potato and a half. ‘It’s small’ – because there are six fries – they count them. It’s like the weight per fry doesn’t matter. It’s very upsetting. It’s all about the quantity, here. It’s nuts.”

Tommy Diacono says his prices are seen as expensive locally because he doesn’t cheat on his taxes. “Everything is correct, mathematically calculated to contribution per minute, per onion, so I know what my prices are. Most of the guys I compete with don’t pay VAT... I know for a fact that [one competitor] loses money on every portion of fries he sells. It’s mathematically impossible to sell a fistful of that brand of chips – I know what brand he uses – for €1.50.”

Plans to move the brand abroad are at an advanced stage, says Nicholas. “It’s very, very close.” The brothers will still have a business interest in Malta, though and plan to bring an Asian catering franchise to Malta .

NYB was Tommy’s idea, who noticed a gap in burgers in Malta. “At that time there weren’t really any good options. He convinced me to do it and we did it,” Nicholas says. Catering is very much part of the Diacono DNA. “Father had a restaurant when I was a kid, he got rid of it when I was born because it was too much work,” Nicholas says of Sardinella, “The work was insane.”

Restaurants Giuseppi’s and Rubino are all Diacono family affairs. “My grandma was a cooking legend,” says Nicholas of Rita Diacono, whose recipes were extensively featured on MaltaToday.

Nicholas can usually be found at NYB’s sister restaurant, Fat Louie’s, in Paceville. “Fat Louie’s is a mix of everything that we love. It’s like old school French mixed with Texan... it’s nose to tail eating, farm to fork, sustainable.” To say that Nicholas knows his cuts of meat would be a miserable understatement. “The butcher’s cut steak range – €15 for a cooked 300g steak, it’s unheard of. It’s basically cuts that the butcher takes home because he can’t sell. Like the Denver, which is the chuck blade, or chuck roll which is exactly like rib-eye...”

“We stress the respect for the animals that we eat. We don’t understand how they don’t get that. I guess the lack of protein – If you don’t eat bone marrow, you can’t think,” he joked, before delivering a surprise scientific left-hook. “After all meat is what made us what we are in terms of brain development. The consumption of meat and bone marrow changed our brain structure.”

Surprisingly, there is a scientific basis for this. Some scientists believe that early hominids’ use of stone tools allowed them to get at a food that no other creature could obtain – bone marrow, which contains fatty acids, vital for brain growth and development – leading to an increase in brain size and complexity. Jaw, meet floor.

Tommy complains that unfortunately, catering in Malta tends to be seen as a “plan C” amongst young people. Pay is not an issue, he says. “If you’re good, we’ll pay you, you’re an outlet manager in 2-3 months.” More responsibility means higher wages, he says. “My outlet managers make a good salary.”

Nicholas’s face clouds over. “It’s a huge human resources nightmare, catering in this country. It’s nuts. The turnover is insane. We spend so much on training... a lot of them just do the bare minimum. They’re just here to make money and so their parents don’t shout at them. There’s no passion, nothing. This affects your standards.”

His uncompromising suggestion for instilling a positive work ethic in the next generation of the workforce will win him no popularity contests though. “Remove the university stipend, or give it only if you work in catering. It’s nonsense. You live at home – no one moves out at university age, it’s unheard of. So why are you giving them money to buy books, why can’t they earn the money? I don’t understand – it doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world. It’s like teaching people how not to grow up, that’s how I see it.

“Most of my staff are foreigners, because [Maltese kids] have their stipend, they don’t have to spend money. Mummy washes for them, mummy cooks for them, they can catch a cheap bus to wherever. It’s a Maltese dynamic. And also renting is insane now... it’s unaffordable.”

A bleak future for Europe’s culinary ‘rubbish dump’

The usually irrepressible Tommy says he finds the local restaurant scene depressing. “Malta is the rubbish dump of Europe in food. Good food doesn’t come to Malta, it’s not true. It’s a lie. In the culinary world we are the worst case scenario. Nobody eats as badly as we do.” Tommy says the Maltese have the world’s biggest food handicap.

“The consumption of salmon is through the roof – we’re surrounded with the Mediterranean Sea and we’re eating farmed, Northern fish. What? Go to Sicily and try to find salmon, it doesn’t exist. You’ll find smoked salmon in a packet. But we don’t eat anchovies. You’re on a tiny island in the Mediterranean, Sicily, Greece it’s all anchovy this, anchovy that. In Malta we don’t eat it.” In Sicily, Tommy says, there are about 20 Michelin stars. Licata has two Michelin starred restaurants. Gela (“the arsehole of Italy and Licata is the pimple on the arse”)…. “Have you been to Licata? It’s terrible, but they have one Michelin star, La Madia [run by leading chef] Pino Cutaia and another restaurant is going to get one soon.”

“Who’s going to open a Michelin star restaurant in Malta? In Malta we haven’t even scratched the bottom of a spoon. Nothing. Iceland has. Faroe Islands, with a population of about four goats, has a Michelin star. Malta? Not even close.” Tommy says he wants to expand the NYB brand overseas, discouraged by Malta's obsession with portion size and “pseudo-Italian trattorias” that eschew local produce for huge Argentinian prawns – and portions to match.  

To those considering starting their own business, Tommy has one message: “Go for it.
To those considering starting their own business, Tommy has one message: “Go for it."
Malta doesn’t reward hard work, Tommy says. “It works like this: ‘I know a guy, so now we cheat, and then we do this and that...’” and he turns to the recent election result that saw Labour re-elected by a 36,000 majority. “We’re not OK with corruption, we love it because we feel we can get something out of it.” Malta, Diacono says, is all about “short-term, low-hanging fruits.” The election was the cherry on the cake that convinced Tommy to leave, he says. “This country’s schizophrenic. I don’t know how they’re going to pull it off now, this situation makes zero sense. It would have made sense had Labour won by 10,000 votes – I’d have said wow, they won despite all these scandals, but 40,000? Good bye. Have fun, idiot.”

“I haven’t procreated yet, but I don’t want my child to be raised with these people. It’s a poisonous country of mediocrity… Harmont & Blaine, collar up, Rolex in the street going ‘hawn namber wann! il-King, dan il-King!’ He raves against what he describes as a culture of mediocrity. “Look at the new buildings: cheap aluminum, graffiato, the same ugly colours – this is going to be around for another 20 years. A tree? Fuck trees. Trees are a hassle, you have to water them. You know what we’ll do? Put a giant fucking ceramic lion outside. That’s a good idea. This little maisonette in Birkirkara, and he puts a lion outside. He comes home from his 9-5 and puts a lion outside.”

Entrepreneurship

To those considering starting their own business, Tommy has one message: “Go for it. There’s never going to be a right time, where you go ‘ah now’s just right.’ Do your homework and make sure it’s something you’re psycho passionate about.” Selling real estate doesn’t count though. “If you work in real estate, you rent out a flat, get a grand a week to go ‘kitchen, living, dining,’ stress free. You work whenever you want, they call you self-employed so you feel like you’re an entrepreneur, renting flats. It’s genius isn’t it?” “You have to have balls,” says Nicholas. “If you have a good idea, you have to just go all in. If you don’t, it’s never going to happen. It’s never going to be a cushioned, comfy transition. That’s what I’ve learned in my experience. Lots of risks.” 

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