Lunch With Sean Parker
The Napster co-founder arrives late.
Sean Parker is late. He was due at Gramercy Tavern at 1pm and at 1:15 p.m. his assistant calls to say he is on his way. By 1:25 p.m., there is still no sign of him and I sit wondering if he is going to arrive. He has cancelled lunch once already, complaining of a knee injury and he has a reputation in Silicon Valley for being unreliable and flaky.
Parker is indulged because he has been a driving force in several pioneering internet companies, including Napster and Facebook (although he was ejected as president of Facebook for alleged bad behaviour) and has others up his sleeve. He is portrayed in The Social Network, the Facebook film, as a gifted but amoral playboy who charms his way to the side of Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's founder, and brutally ejects a rival.
The devil has the best line in the Aaron Sorkin-scripted film. When Parker, played by Justin Timberlake, meets Zuckerberg at a New York restaurant, he floats across the room, orders food for everyone, spins enticing tales and leaves with the come-on aphorism: "A million dollars isn't cool. You know what's cool? A billion dollars." In real life, Parker's Facebook stake is now worth $2 billion.
So it is hard, waiting for him at a "very private banquette" (as Parker's office has specified on the booking) at the Danny Meyer restaurant in lower Manhattan, to disentangle fact from fiction. Parker is having trouble with it himself since some parts of the script, for which Sorkin won an Oscar this week, ring true. He is indeed a bon viveur who wears designer suits and at the age of 31 has just spent $20 million on a carriage house in nearby Greenwich Village.
At 1:30 p.m., the real-life figure turns up, shaking my hand apologetically. True to form, he is dressed immaculately in a dark suit, grey and white checked shirt and a black tie secured with a silver tie-pin. He says he has flown to New York from San Francisco for our lunch because he felt guilty about cancelling last time and is staying at a hotel—the heating in his house is being repaired.
"The lateness thing is part of my branding almost but, in this case, I'd planned on getting here on time," he says. "I had to go by the house to pick up some things. I was trying to find a belt to come over here and it's like a nightmare. I'm crawling through this ET-like maze of plastic sheeting." He waves his arms around to portray the scene and gives a wide-eyed, high-pitched laugh, somewhere between a giggle and a whinny.
Those who know Parker say he is kinder and more sensitive than the Sorkin portrayal. Indeed, the man now perched on the banquette before me is friendly and solicitous and is working to offset his new reputation as, as he puts it, "an asshole". Yet he is also more like a Sorkin character than anyone I've ever met—if not the anti-hero of The Social Network.
He is pale-faced and intense, with a mop of reddish-brown hair and a beard, and talks as fast and rhetorically as a West Wing wonk. An auto-didact who did not attend university, he will happily extemporise about any topic from Italian wine to network engineering, and has the self-confidence-cum-arrogance of the Silicon Valley elite. I mention his knee and he gives a long, precise explanation of his cartilage problem, with hand gestures. "The meniscus is this piece of cartilage. It's like there's a bone here and a bone here and they fit together. Ordinarily bones have a ball and groove, that's the typical joint structure. The knee is different. It's flat bone to flat bone and this thing in the middle is the meniscus." His own meniscus, "instead of being shaped like a [ring] doughnut, is shaped like a Boston eclair."
The anatomical details done, we turn to the menu. Parker says Gramercy Tavern is his favourite restaurant but, as a night owl who often does not rise before noon, he tends to have dinner. "I don't think of it as a lunch place so I have no idea if it's going to be any good," he says, before diverting into an explanation of the importance of table placement in gaining a third Michelin star (Gramercy Tavern has one star).
"Have you had the smoked trout?" he asks. "I'm not normally one for smoked fish but this is not like any smoked fish you've ever tasted. It's amazing. Even if you're not into fish, we could get one and you could just taste it. It's really, really good. It's like the best thing on the menu." He pauses. "I might have hyped it now so if you don't like it, you'll blame me. It's awful." He laughs uproariously.
We both order the trout with cipollini purée and pickled onions. After quizzing the waitress about the snapper, Parker takes the rack and belly of lamb but decides not to have the belly ("I'm not super-hungry"), while I opt for sea bass with Swiss chard, capers, pine nuts and sweet onion sauce. We both have water and also order an Arnold Palmer (a mixture of lemonade and iced tea).
John Gapper is the FT's chief business commentator.
Photograph of Sean Parker by Ethan Miller/Getty Images.