One recent early evening in the throes of summer, Becca Parrish is sitting at a corner table inside the Odeon with a dozen oysters, two orders of fries and a couple glasses of rosé all laid out before her. “This is really hitting the spot,” the slim blonde tells me, her green eyes lighting up.
Parrish, 46, is a regular here, and not just because she lives around the corner. When she started her public relations firm, Becca PR, in 2004, the venerable Tribeca writers' haunt was her first client. “I literally remember pushing open the doors and I was like, ‘Oh my God…’ I hadn’t prepared,” she says. “And then I was like, ‘Becca relax, just say what you think.’ And at the end of that meeting, they said ‘You know, we don’t like publicists, but we like you. You got the job.’”
'She's not like other publicists' has become Parrish's calling card in the competitive New York food world, a quality she has cultivated to become the gatekeeper to some of the city's most high-profile chefs and power dining spots - Tom Colicchio (Craft, the forthcoming Fowler and Wells inside the Beekman Hotel), Eric Ripert (Le Bernardin), April Bloomfield (The Spotted Pig, The Breslin), and Masa Takayama (Masa).
"She was very different," says Ripert, recalling his first meeting with Parrish. "The discussion was basically not talking to a publicist, the conversation was more friendly, and I was extremely refreshed by her."
So, how did a 46-year-old Southern blonde from Pensacola, Florida, where the most famous culinary destination is an annual crawfish festival, become the woman between you and that hard-to-score reservation, the insider other insiders call when they can't get the center booth at Polo Bar or the corner table at Sant Ambroeus?
“I always thought that not being from here, and being hungry – literally – is why I made it,” she says.
Parrish credits the homegrown food of her childhood, specifically her family's garden, for shaping her palate, but what she was most interested in then was writing. That is until she encountered the tasting menu at Danny Meyer's Gramercy Tavern.
She was 26 and working in communications for a rechargeable battery recycling program - with a masters in journalism, she had logged time as a reporter by then - and one of the perks of the job was an expense account that allowed her to indulge in frequent trips to New York, where she discovered the pleasures of fine dining at Le Bernardin and Le Cirque. Then there was Meyer's crown jewel.
"I fell in love with the city," she says, especially after learning that "going to restaurants could be a job." Immediately, she was hooked with the theater of restaurants. “It’s fascinating to me how the alchemy of every night is different, based on the weather, the mood of the chef, what happened in the general manager’s day, the server, the other guests; if someone’s going to drop a plate, or if it’s all going to come together beautifully."
She didn't know Daniel Boulud from Dan Barber, but at 32 she started learning the tricks of the trade after landing a job as managing director at the hospitality firm KB Network News.
"That’s when I got to know everybody. [Before that], I vaguely knew who Bobby Flay was… [I remember] Rocco DiSpirito was opening Tuscan, and I was working the door [at a party]. Bobby and I had just met. He was like, do you know who that chef is? It was Marcus Samuelsson—I had no idea,” she says.
Flay was an early supporter, someone she consulted with during her seven years working menial PR jobs, and before she decided it was time to strike out on her own. “I felt confident knowing people around me were saying ‘Hey, if you ever want to do your own thing, I would be interested in talking to you,'" she remembers. "Which makes it much easier, because it’s pretty terrifying. I look back and it seems so ballsy.”
Judging by her first assignment, it was the right move. The Odeon (previously owned by brothers Keith and Brian McNally, and Keith’s first wife Lynn Wagenknecht, who by this time was the sole owner) hired her to handle the bistro's 25th anniversary celebration - 1,500 people came to the party, including Lorne Michaels, Fran Lebowitz, Julian Schnabel, Candace Bushnell and Andre Balazs.
"Becca has an infectious enthusiasm," says Wagenknecht. "It felt like we were having a party just talking about the one we wanted to do, and she took charge from the get-go in the most competent but unobtrusive manner."
At the Odeon, she got to play reporter again, interviewing the likes of Nell Campbell, Jay Mcinerney, and high-wire walker Philippe Petit at the weekly dinners she choreographed to create buzz. “[I remember] trying to convince Philippe Petit to walk between these two poles [for the 25th anniversary party]," she says. "He ultimately refused.”
Soon, other chefs came calling, including Hearth's Marco Canora, Scarpetta's Scott Conant and Gabriel Kreuther and on and on. A year ago, she opened a Los Angeles office.
For all the flacks in this town, Parrish has managed to become to the restaurant industry what Sue Mengers was to Hollywood in the '70s, a charming handler beloved by her clients, not to mention the upper crust of New York’s dining scene that she now calls friends.
"She has a sixth sense, an understanding of who she’s working with," says Ripert. "She’s not pushy - she’d rather lose a story and give you good advice than plug you everywhere. She’s extremely sensitive, in a very smart way."
"She's up for anything and wonderful company - funny, intelligent," says Wagenknecht. "I feel extremely fortunate to know her and call her a dear friend; working with her is a bonus."
Parrish is, in fact, the type of woman you want to spend an afternoon eating oysters and French fries with. She doesn't skimp on booze, fat, whole milk or bread. "I go in," she admits gleefully. We are headed to her sleek offices nearby and it dawns on her that she's come a long way from Pensacola, Florida.
“I remember wondering, am I a big enough asshole to be successful in this city? Am I too nice to be successful?” says Parrish. “And now, thank goodness, you realize no, of course not. You can’t be a pushover, but you can be nice, and be successful.”
But you don't become a star in your own right on personality alone.
In her office, once you get past all the food magazines and a bold orange painting by Guy C. Corriero, there is a signed photo of Philippe Petit walking the tight rope between the Twin Towers. It reads: “To Becca, who knows what she wants.”