Tag Archives: bill seleno

A Restaurant Is Born: The Paperwork is In!

12 Dec

It has been an unbelievably long road to open The Keys. (For a full recap of the story so far, you can start from the first post of “A Restaurant is Born”) The original open date was aimed for Summer 2012, and here we are at the end of the year, without a place to enjoy Chef Bill’s awesome food.

The owners were really the hold up here.  Paperwork just would not move along since there were so many cooks in the kitchen (pun intended) on the owner’s side.  They went through 3 different lawyers, and each new lawyer wanted his own new deal.  Once word came that they could move forward, it still took a full 5 weeks to get the contract together.  They had to figure out the exact terms to keep the owners on as partners (at 25%) so they still were invested in the restaurant to everyone’s satisfaction. Finally, the contract was signed this past week! It required 6 owners and partners to sign, from all over the world.

The design firm that was going to invest is no longer going to be used, because 10% is a big chunk to give away.  There is a new architect involved now named Shay who works for Perkins Eastman. He is busy getting measurements and putting the plans together so they can start construction the moment the lease is signed.  They hope this will be just a week or two away so they can be in there by mid-December. This will allow the Concession (you can read more about what a Concession from this previous post) to extend to March, giving the restaurant time to get on its feet.

There is a $150K budget for the full build out and equipment. The brick oven is a key piece of the restaurant, but repairing it will cost about $8K, so it has got to be worth it! Bill is busy figuring out some awesome dishes that can come out of it, including suckling pig, plank seafood, and, of course, the homemade bread.  (Bill is posting about some ideas on The Keys’ Facebook page. Go on over and become a fan!) Bill is also excited about putting in smokers, so he can make his own bacon and the bar can make smoked ice for cocktails.   The outside patio will get a new fortified roof so he can have an herb and chili garden on top.  He also plans to put a macro grower in the kitchen so he can grow some super sized greens.  The in-season menu is back in play.  Shay is already taking measurements and making sketches and I’ll be posting more about this in the next few weeks when things start getting really exciting and we see how the physical restaurant changes.

Bill is ambitious and hopes to have a Friends & Family opening by the last week of January.  He will start with dinner, then add lunch a month later, and brunch when the weather warms up.  There will be Jazz music downstairs, which will start up right at opening, and Bill plans to have some house instruments so that Jazz musicians will look at The Keys as a place to just stop by and jam from 11-4am.  There will also be a DJ on the weekends with molecular bottle service downstairs.  This is not going to be a club scene, however, and more for people who will be excited that the cocktails include homemade bitters.

I am excited to say that it is finally time to announce where the restaurant will be!  The Keys will be bringing great food and music to Mulberry Street, between Prince and Spring Streets, in the space currently occupied by the Australian restaurant, 8 Mile Creek.

Stay tuned in the next few weeks as the construction starts and the menu takes form!

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A Restaurant is Born: Movin’ Again!

28 Aug

So… what is happening with The Keys?  (If you have no idea what that even means, I am currently documenting the opening of The Keys Restaurant in NYC by Chef Bill Seleno.  Please see Part 1Part 2, and Part 3, and Part 4 to learn more about the concept and menu.)

Everything was humming along back in June. A few delays had caused a few investors to back out, but a few others had come along. Bill got a big “yes!” from Crown Consulting and Design, the firm that is going to contribute by taking care of the build out.  Bill didn’t know how much their contribution would be and was hoping he wouldn’t have to trim his 1920’s concept back too much.  He was thrilled when they agreed to cover all build out expenses, without cutting any corners, for 10% interest in the restaurant.  

But the hold up is still the owner.  Turns out, the owner had to resolve a lot of financial issues before he could sell the space.  He dragged his feet for so long that Bill asked his broker to look for another space.  He happened to know someone who just came into a space, so they went to check it out. Bill told me that the space didn’t have some of the perks of the 1st place (which had 3 floors, a downstairs club area, and an outdoor space) but it did have an impressive kitchen.  But the space is really beaten up and has been vacant for weeks.  They also only have a liquor license until midnight.  Bill was set to negotiate for this space, and was hoping to receive a copy of the lease and the details about the space 2 weeks ago.  But, in what seems to be a trend, feet were dragged.  

Enter fate.

Bill met up with an old friend from his Gustovino’s days, Heather. Turns out, Heather had been trying to open  up her own restaurant for quite some time, but luck was not on her side. When Bill told her about his vision, she jumped on board.  She walked through both spaces with Bill, and said that the 1st place was really the winner. Heather really wants to get things done quickly, and signed on as a partner. She brings to the table her craft behind the bar and she is excited to use some of Bill’s chemistry vision in the drinks.  Turns out the delays brought about an opportunity for a fortuitous partnership.

As for the menu, Chef Bill may have to modify the menu to run his seasonal, local menu and will be utilizing the brick oven even more to maximize the resources he has at his disposal.  He plans to bake all the breads in house, including a table bread of sour dough dinner rolls with pearls of olive oil, gorgonzola cremificato, and olives.  He’s exploring adding a selection of meats and pizzas as well.

So how is Chef Bill staying afloat with all these delays? He has been all over the country catering various friend’s weddings and their kid’s Bar Mitzvahs. He will be working for a Kosher catering company throughout September. Heather will be his right-hand woman to take meetings and act on Bill’s behalf while Bill is out of town.  

The opening is now probably more likely to happen in February.  I’m amazed to see how much a restaurant opening can be delayed. Everything was on target for a July opening back when we started this project, and now he’s looking at nearly 9 months after that, and that’s only if the space can be secured in the very near future!

Thankfully, the owner of the 1st spot is currently being a bit more forthcoming, so Bill hopes he can secure the last of the information next week.

And then it’s full steam ahead!

A Restaurant is Born: Development Update

7 May

I am currently documenting the opening of The Keys restaurant in NYC by Chef Bill Seleno.  Please see Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3, and Part 4 to learn more about the concept and menu.

Part of my following the opening of The Keys is to learn more about the logistical side of things so I can share the “underbelly” of how it all works with all of you.  I want to know what steps need to be taken, how much it costs, and what really goes into the opening of a restaurant from start to finish. When Chef Bill and I got together to talk about his trips to California and Maine, he also gave me an update about where things stand with the opening.

Turns out, the current owner of the restaurant  is causing crazy delays by disappearing for weeks on end.  Bill loves the space, but the owner was dragging his feet so long, he was considering that he may need to start looking for an alternative. Bill also found out that there is a lien on the property that the owner supposedly didn’t know about.  So it has been a roller coaster and it is hard to keep investors “on the hook” when Bill can’t make an immediate start.  As of right now, the May 1st opening is pushed back to July 1st because of the delays. Though it isn’t necessarily a bad thing entirely, since this delay nicely puts the “concession” time (see below for more info) during the summer, which is the slowest time of the year for restaurants.

I asked Bill to explain more about how concessions work, and he told me that the landlord of the building will be giving Bill the first 3 months rent free to give the restaurant time to get on its feet. It’s an investment, in a way, by the landlord to make sure that the restaurant has some time to get started successfully, hopefully ensuring a lasting and loyal tenant.

According to Bill, restaurant sales go down 20-30% in the summer as people flee the city or when it gets too damn hot to go more than a few blocks away from your apartment. So having the slowest 3 months of the year being in concession could really benefit the opening.  This will put the first rent month around September, a busy month in the restaurant business and also the month of the San Gennero Festival. The Feast of San Gennero is a street fair in Little Italy that features local restaurants.  According to the current owner of the space, he saw a $40K bump for the 10 days after the festival last year.  This will be a very nicely timed boost during the first month of paying rent.

The restaurant is 2,200 square feet, split into 2 floors.  The upstairs cafe can seat 70, another 70 downstairs, and 40 in the patio area.  The rent is ~$15K per month, which includes property taxes (here’s an excerpt from an older version of the lease, that I find fascinating: “In addition to the Base Rent, the Tenant pays a real estate tax escalation of 40% of the tax increase over the Base Tax Year of 1998-99.  In 1998-99, the total taxes were $16,343.64; for 2011-12, the total taxes are $98,805.00.  The total increase over the Base Tax Year is $82,461.36, and the Tenant’s proportionate share of 40% equals 32,984.66.  Therefore, in addition to the Base Rent, the Tenant pays $2,748.72 per month to the Landlord for the tax escalation, which brings the total amount due to the Landlord per month to $11,905.72.“)

He is offering his investors 18% equity in the restaurant with a plan to have a full return on their investment in 2 years.  As we talked about this, I couldn’t help but think about the incredible investment (in both time and money) that must be made upfront for a restaurant.  Few other ventures require so much of a single person. As Bill was saying, every square foot in that restaurant has a dollar value.  Each seat is a square foot.

Bill left for a few weeks to do a gig in Miami (“to get some money in the door”) and then took a trip with his son up to Maine.  Now that he’s back, he will be renting a commissary kitchen (test kitchen) for a month to start working on the recipes. His goal is to find a line cook who is interested in stepping up and learning about new processes in the test kitchen.  He is hoping to find someone who is aspiring to learn some new things and hopefully will be able to come with him to the space once it opens up.  He wants to explore the menu so that it is classic but with molecular gastronomy touches, where it makes sense.  This will “accent” the menu rather than direct it.  The opportunity for the aspiring line cook of working in the test kitchen is that since it’s a learning environment, there is time to get more creative and learn new concepts as a side project to their “day job” (I guess in the restaurant world, it’s really a “night job”). He also hopes to have his entire staff in that kitchen so they have a hand in development. A waiter who has helped work a recipe will be that much more attached to the concept and food. (It’s also a good testing ground to determine how dedicated his staff is… it’s better to find out who flakes and doesn’t show up, who has a bad attitude, and who isn’t cut out for the job in a test kitchen rather than when you’re up and running.) One other benefit of training staff in the test kitchen is that it will cut down on the time in the actual restaurant, so when construction is done, he can hopefully open up within a few days after testing all the systems. All of this is an added cost, but the size of the kitchen and intricacy of the dishes necessitates the commissary kitchen, so might as well make the most of it! And Bill views it as an investment to make sure the restaurant is successful.

As soon as the lease is signed, they will shut down the space and construction will begin.  One investor is specifically for construction. The permits, designers, materials, etc. will be their actual investment. Bill is thinking of a very aggressive 1 month build out (usually I’d question this, but he flipped around Albert Hall Tavern from a night club to a tavern with his own hands and a few others in a short amount of time as well).  Bill will provide the direction and concept, and then the investor will realize it.

California and Maine had an influence on Bill, and he has decided to change up the menu a bit to focus some more on fish and vegetarian dishes.  And he has decided that he is definitely going to brew! I’m so excited for this, as I love a good micro microbrew and there are few places in NYC that do it.  He plans to bring in Yiga from Port Brewing in San Diego to do a west coast brew, and talk to Bar Harbor Brewing in Maine (my own personal brewery) about doing an east coast beer.  He hopes to have them collaborate to do an East meets West beer.  He also wants to try to get Shmaltz in to do a Prohibition style, “Keys Brew.”

Can’t wait!

Bill is also planning to have live jazz every night and have a DJ mixing with Jazz music on Thursdays through Fridays.

So what’s next? All information was submitted to the investors and next week is the big week.  Bill will be buying shares in the current LLC and keeping the owner on as an employee, to keep more of the operating capital in the restaurant itself.  The owner’s partner is now working with Bill (to try to keep the owner out of it, since it all seems to be too much for him), and the lien and loans will be coming out of the purchase price.  Bill and his lawyer put it all together and sent it to the decision makers. The thumbs up or thumbs down is 1 week away.  Eek!

Stay tuned for more news as it develops.

A Restaurant is Born: “True Food”

18 Mar

If you haven’t caught up on the first parts of this story, I am chronicling the opening of the restaurant, The Keys, by Chef Bill Seleno. You can start at this introduction post, then read about the concept and the menu. In the last few weeks, Chef Bill took an adventure out to California to learn more about food sustainability, real farm-to-table cooking, and brewing beer.

Bill believes that clean food is very important and that no place lives this ideal more than California.  He calls the concept “True Food” and it’s all about being honest and transparent about where food comes from.  He is looking to bring this into every facet of The Keys.

And come on… if you’re going to do some R&D for a restaurant, there are few better places to do it than Southern California:

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Chef Bill was kind enough to send me his pictures from his trip. So all images included in this post are courtesy of Chef Bill.  (I especially love his picture of sandpipers above… I love birds almost as much as I love food.)

Bill took the nomadic approach and hiked his way through the (beautiful) area.

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He stopped by the Malibu Family Vineyards where he met up with owners/sommeliers, Tammy and Ron Semmler.

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In his own words, Bill tells me about his adventure:

“After hiking miles from Pacific Coast Highway to Mulhalland Highway through brushfires, police blockades and closed highways I made it to Malibu Wines.

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They are nestled on five acres in the Saddle Rock-Malibu AVA [American Viticultural Area] about 6 miles from the Pacific Coast Highway on what used to be an avocado plantation. The Semmler’s have owned the property since 1978 and converted it from an avocado farm to a vineyard after a severe freeze wiped out the plantation. After doing some research they found that the soil was perfect for wine production. The high altitude with separation from the coast, perfect Cali weather, and rocky soil allow them to produce wines very reminiscent of the Rhone Valley.

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So, the Semmler’s are growing in Malibu and production takes place in San Luis Obisbo. Currently they have applied to begin production there at the vineyard making them one of only 3 other vineyards in the area to be doing so (Aquadulce and San Antonio are the others). 2000 brought on their first vintage. They currently are producing two labels, Saddle Rock and Semmler. Six labels under the Semmler line and six under the Saddle Rock. The Saddle Rock line includes a Rose and a Blanc de Blanc sparkling wine.

Of the two I tasted, four were from the Saddle Rock line and here is what I got…

2009 Saddle Rock Pinot Noir: Tea Leaves and Strawberries on the nose, sweet not overly ripened red cherry and spice on the tongue adding a fresh bit of tartness on the pallet. It is aged six months in french oak and finishes with a hint of vanilla and earthiness. Light by Pinot standards with but a nice back of the tongue fullness.

2010 Saddle Rock Merlot: My favorite of the line. It holds a dark ruby red color with an assertive fruit nose of Blackberry and Plum. It’s medium body was accented with ripe Raspberry and Tahitian Vanilla leads into a smooth and supple finish with touches of tobacco, wet rock and caramel.

2009 Saddle Rock Syrah: This is their inaugural vintage of Syrah. Deep purple color with a nose of Blackberry, Blueberry, and a hint of Vanilla. It’s a medium to full bodied wine with dried Cherries being most predominant. the finish had some light tanins with what is best described as Chocolate covered Espresso beans and a hint of Star Anise.

2009 Saddle Rock Petite Sirah: This one had the same deep purple color with Blackberry and and Violet on the nose. It was jammy on the palate with smooth tanins that left notes of Blueberry, Black Licorice, and Plum on the palate. Balancing it all out were the accents of moss and a touch of the attic.

Overall a smooth selection of young fruity wines that were well balanced. There are now over 70 privately owned vineyards in the region and growing as more land becomes available. The one thing that stood out was their devotion to the preservation of the area. They limit growing area to individual producers ensuring that the region is not decimated.”

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As Bill hiked back down from the vineyard (which, apparently, is something that most people do NOT do according to the cops that drove up to him to inquire what the heck he was doing), he stopped by a farm he had passed earlier in the day, which was advertising balsamic lemonade. He determined that he had to try this and found himself at Vital Zuman Sustainable Farm. It is a Certified Naturally Grown Farm owned by Alan Cunningham. It sits on 6 acres of land that his family has owned since the 50’s. He produces over 21 types of fruit and a full array of winter and summer vegetables. In addition to the fruit and vegetables that he grows, he also produces his own raw honey by the beehives he keeps there. He pickles his own vegetables as well.

Chef Bill found his way to Santa Monica which he found very touristy, other than a dive bar called Gas Lite Karaoke Bar where he found out that Jim Morrison is actually still alive according to a haggard regular (there’s hope Doors fans!)  After this adventure with the locals, he discovered the real attraction in Santa Monica: The Farmers’ Market.  The market operates on Saturdays from 8am until 1pm and is located on Main Street. There are over 102 restaurants in the area that shop and support the farmers markets regularly for their produce.

I personally visited this Farmer’s Market a number of years ago and still remember how impressed I was with it.  Gorgeous produce and flowers… strawberries have never smelled that good since.

With a focus on the 1920’s as the theme of the restaurant, tying into “True Foods” is a no-brainer.  In the 1920s, everything was local and sustainable by default. It was before chemicals and hormones became part of food production (now… manufacturing). When all farms were “free range” because no one had determined it was more cost effective to put chickens in tiny pens and pump them full of chemicals to make their breasts so large that they can’t even walk.  The products came right to your door, every day, from a local farm. Honest farm-to-table food.

Bill wants to focus on this real, true type of farm-to-table. Any Farmer’s Market can call their food “right from the farm” but just because it’s a farm, it does not mean it is necessarily organic, sustainable, or chemical/hormone free. Many Farmer’s Markets we see in NY have food that is more marketing than it is the “local” good food they want to say it is.  Sure their hogs may be free range, but is their feed chemical free? (To learn more about this, check out this link  and this link  posted by Chef Bill on The Keys Facebook page.)  At the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market, they are very particular about being completely transparent about growing practices, including chemicals and sustainability.

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In his own words, here is how Bill described it:

“While I was there I ran into a couple farmers that I had called prior to my leaving and a couple more stands that stood out. Lindner Bison being one of them where I met with Kathy Lindner. They sell in five of the local markets. I recently found out that there is a Bison farm in Long Island. I think this is the cut I will be using for the slider. Lindner is 100% grassfed, sustainable, no hormones, no chemicals, no feedlots or mobile feeding tubs, and no pesticides. Bison meat as a whole has less cholesterol, calories, and fat. Yet, at the same time has more Omega 3’s and more protein, nearly twice that of Beef. In addition to that there is less shrinkage in cooking. This will allow me to keep the cost down as I will be cutting it with Marrow… On a funny note, while we were speaking a woman shopping for some top-round told me that her Bison converted her vegan husband. A lot of info can be found at www.eatwild.com on the practices of grassfed foods.”

Bill wants to bring this “True Food” mentality to The Keys.  His goal is to have a website that breaks down his ingredients, their source, and facilitates conversations with their producers.  He wants to put together a co-op style partnership between small, local farms and restaurants.  For example, he would organize a truck to stop by multiple farms and then sync that up with multiple restaurants to buy their ingredients.

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It will take a lot of homework and organization, but that is part of what he is working on now.  By the time the restaurant opens, he wants to have established this network.

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After exploring the LA area, Bill made his way to San Diego where he became fully immersed in the culture of Craft Brewing. He was enthralled that there is a group of craft beer enthusiasts who will send out a mass text message to insiders who are “in the know” to come to a certain bar at a certain time to enjoy the one remaining keg of a very specific beer.  It is like a flash mob where they all come, enjoy the beer, and then disperse.  They “live, drink, breathe” craft beer and it is part of their culture.  It is a movement and a way of life for this group in San Diego.  According to Bill, comparatively the craft beer movement in NY is years behind.  He was especially excited about his meeting with Pizza Port, an award winning craft brewery.  Bill plans set up his own small microbrewery at the restaurant so that he can brew his own batches with the help of some of the people he met.

I am excited to see all these ideas come together, and especially excited to be along for the ride on this great project.

A Restaurant is Born: Menu Sneak Peak

14 Feb

As Chef Bill and I sat at a table chatting about his concept and menu, I couldn’t help but look down with a hint of sadness at the tater tots we ordered.  I love tater tots, but they just seemed to get more and more boring as Bill described his menu.  Each dish sounded more delicious than the previous one. He’s using molecular gastronomy to elevate the food and to make it downright fun.  Here are some highlights that got me especially excited:

Appetizers/Salads:

Bone Marrow Sliders with Tomato Dust on Brioche: Chef Bill is looking forward to hand selecting the fats and the meats that go into his slider and burger dishes.  Usually, you choose a well marbled cut of meat and you go with the ratio of fat that is organically within that cut.  Chef Bill plans to combine a lean cut of meat and grind it up with the right amount of a delicious fat: bone marrow.  He set about solving the burger “leaking” problem with this dish: No matter how fast you get from kitchen to table, some fat and blood leaks onto the bun or onto the plate.  His solution: he will be making an acetate sheet from mustard and using the broiler to shrink the sheet around the burger to seal in all the juices (he affectionately called this method “Shrinky Dinking”). He plans on making his own ketchup and turning it into a dust, and making his own pickles, liquefying them, and then spherifying (making a liquid into a sphere that resembles caviar) them so they will be an intense punch of pickle flavor as you bite in.

Seared Duck, Butternut Squash Soup with Pear Parisian in Glass:  He plans to serve the squash soup in a shallow bowl with soft slices of duck breast fanned out on the side of the plate.  He will then make pear balls and dip them in a gelee that includes star anise and Asian 5 spice.  The soup will be dotted with these balls so that they glisten like marbles in the bowl.  (Since the restaurant will be opening in May, it may not be butternut squash due to seasonality, but this is TBD)

Chipotle Pork Belly with Pickled Parsnips and Smoked Paprika Fondant Over Parmesan Polenta: The plan is to cure the pork belly and finish it with a chipotle glaze that resemebles a mole. It will add a smokey, spicy heat to cut through the richness of the pork belly.  He will use fondant (that is somewhat sweet) made with smoked paprika (so it’s red) that will wrap an über rich and simple polenta in a bundle.  It will be topped with short rib and finished with pickled parsnips to cut through the richness.  (To say that I am sad that this will be something I can never eat is an understatement.  To all you pepper eaters, I can’t wait for a full review).

Seared Foie Gras Over Pear Panna Cotta with Port Gelatin and Bitter Chocolate Biscotti: Foie gras will be seared and served with a pear panna cotta that retains the “grittyness” of the pear so it tastes like, well… a pear. He will wrap the pear panna cotta in a port reduction gelee so that it has a red outside and white inside, like a poached pear.  It will be finished with a bitter chocolate biscotti with pistachios.  This will be a great combination of sweet, bitter, and buttery flavors.

Waldorf Salad: Because what says 1920’s better than Waldorf Salad?  Dressing pearls, spherified apples macerated in brandy, frozen grapes, and black toasted walnuts will bring it into this decade (if not the future).

Entrées:

Seared Skate, Caper Powder, Celeryroot Mousseline and Crisp Lemon Cured Sweetbreads: I have known for a while that Bill has a “thing” for skate. It’s not a popular fish, but one thing that we agree on is that it should be.  It will be seared so it’s crispy and melts in your mouth. It will be served with dehydrated caper dust, celery root mousseline, and sweet breads cured with lemon and fennel pollen and then fried. A microgreen will be included to add a fresh and “living aspect” to the plate to balance the rich, gamy flavors.

Lamb Loin with Pistachio Crusted Chevre and Red Wine Braised Cabbage: Farm raised lamb loin (from the Berkshires) will be seared with salt and pepper to bring out its natural flavors. It will be served with a lamb demi-glace, braised red wine cabbage (to add some tartness), clove and bay leaf. It will be served with goat cheese that will be freeze dried in pistachio dust so when you break into it it will emulsify the cabbage demi-glace to create a vichyssoise sauce once you cut into it.

Roasted Monkfish Loin, Hazelnut/Prosciutto Brittle, Double Stout/Coconut Cream: The monkfish will be crusted with fennel pollen and roasted. It will be served with a hazelnut, prociutto brittle so it is crispy with a toasted hazelnut flavor.  The stout cream is made with creme fraiche, Belhaven stout reduction, and Malibu Rum (to avoid coconut allergies).

Braised Beef Shortrib with Spiced Tomato Bourbon Jam and Potato Puree: The short rib will be cooked with the sous-vide technique and served with a potato puree (because, in the words of Chef Bill, “You just don’t fuck with that!”)  It will be served with a spiced tomato bourbon jam and then a shot of bourbon will be added at the end to give it that slight burn.

Duck Confit, Brie and Avocado Brick, Cucumber/Mango flute, and Apricot/Curry Sauce: The duck confit will be cooked in a classic way, but everything served with it will be anything but classic.  Brie and avocado will be freeze dried and compressed into a layered brick to give a textured  bite (like a tough marshmallow).  It will be served with a cone of sliced mango and cucumber on the side which will be filled with an apricot curry sauce.  The sauce is cooked by “burning the shit” out of onions until they become like charcoal, then roasting the apricots on top of them.  It will be colorful and fun, but based on fundamental ingredients.

Steamed Mussels with Grilled Rosemary and Black Garlic Over Pappardelle: Of all the items on the menu, THIS has me the most excited.  The menu item that originally made me fall in love with Bill’s cooking was the mussels he served at Albert Hall Tavern that came with grilled rosemary and black garlic.  I wanted to bathe in that sauce… it was so good.  We would always ask for extra bread to sop up that amazing sauce.  So the idea of serving this over pappardelle (my favorite pasta) sounds like a dream come true.  As Bill said, “it’s sex in a bowl.”  He commented that there are a few dishes that you look back on and think to yourself “yeah… that one worked” and give yourself a good pat on the back.  He says he has probably created thousands of dishes but this one really stands out.  (I CANNOT WAIT!)

He plans on adding more vegetarian dishes and he recognized that all restaurants had some type of fruit cocktail on their menu in the 1920’s.  He plans to do his own spin on this with some unique flavors like avocado and tropical fruits.

Chef Bill is not a dessert person, so he will be bringing in a pastry chef. It’s extra cost, but he wants to throw everything he can into this restaurant so it’s the best it can be.  He plans on having foods that came into fashion in the 1920’s be especially prevalent on the dessert menu.

I absolutely cannot wait to try every last bite.

A Restaurant is Born: Conception

13 Feb

How does a restaurant come to be? I am fascinated by this topic.  I’ve read enough of Anthony Bourdain’s musings to realize that it is ridiculously difficult to open (and keep open) a new restaurant.  Any romantic fantasies I had of opening my own little place were quickly squashed when I realized the hours, dedication, expense, and pure cajones needed to make it work.  While I’ve always wanted to cook or bake for a living, I have come to the simple conclusion that it takes a certain kind of personality to do that (mainly a maniacal one without any need for sleep).  Therefore, I have the utmost respect for people who embark on such a journey.  Which is why the prospect of sitting down with Chef Bill Seleno to write about his journey of opening a new restaurant from the ground up was more intriguing than I could explain.  Chef Bill has graciously invited me in for an all-access, behind-the-scenes look at all that goes into opening a restaurant.

We first sat down on a Thursday evening at a place that can only be described as a “joint,” Milady’s Restaurant.  2 hours and nearly 30 (30!) pages of notes later, Bill had grown hoarse and my hand had developed a serious ache… I couldn’t help but feel like we were on the edge of something insanely exciting.  Bill’s energy and enthusiasm for the project basically radiated from him.  He talked with such excitement and passion about this project that I was exhausted by the time we were done talking.  Exhausted in the best way possible.

Here is the scoop on the new restaurant:

What’s it called?

The Keys.  It’s all about being in key. In key with the food… with the theme… with the pairings… and of course, with the piano.

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What’s the theme?

Welcome to the 1920’s.  Do you just love the aesthetic in Boardwalk Empire? Are you unable to contain your excitement for the new version of The Great Gatsby movie being released this year?  Does the new 20’s inspired Gucci Collection tickle your fancy? Do you find yourself craving jazz music, art deco, and flappers? There is no arguing that the 20’s are back.  Even the economic, war-time, and political spheres render memories of the 20’s.  Chef Bill is embracing everything about the era, including the music.

The main dining room is inspired by Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris.  It will be a simple, cafe style with a bar that seats 12 and about 30 tables along the wall.  Chef Bill has plans to blast open the kitchen (can’t wait for those pictures!)

Outside there is a wood deck that seats 30 and is inspired by the poolside party aesthetic of The Great Gatsby. There will be a retractable roof in the upscale, white-and-wood decorated space.

The downstairs is an ode to the prohibition era Cotton Club and the Roaring Twenties.  It will be the core of the restaurant and Bill’s goal is to make it feel as though you are walking into an authentic 1920’s place (he mentioned some less-than-stellar knock-offs of late that have determined that acidic drinks, locker room smells, and bad service equates to authenticity… but we’re not naming names here).  Think dark, rich tones, lots of wood, and an art deco glass ceiling illuminated from above.  All place settings will be antique 20’s and all the cocktail waitresses will have flapper dresses as designed by Aaron, a high-end clothing retailer opening up next door.  And of course the wood burning oven at the end of the bar (where Bill plans to roast some of his famous suckling pigs).

Here it will be more wine-heavy with mostly domestic varieties to match the 20’s prohibition vibe (whereas upstairs will be more imports to tie into the European 20’s vibe).  Bill is also bringing in a master mixologist and a Level 2 Sommelier to get the job done right.

There will be a stage complete with Cotton Club style risers. The plan is to bring in musicians with a jazz influence and background for  live sessions. His goal is to bring in Martin Sexton for opening night and to keep the music playing throughout.  He wants the music piped throughout the entire restaurant, with monitors upstairs, so even if you didn’t pay to be in the concert area you can still experience the great music while you eat.

The goal is to wallpaper the bathroom walls with headlines from real 20’s newspapers.

And what 20’s era stomping ground would be complete without a private, secret room?

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Where will it be?

The location is still hush hush until everything is signed, but it’s in the Mulberry area and is positioned to be close to neighborhoods that inspired its inception.

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What about the food?

Chef Bill is pulling inspiration from the area and the 20’s… A huge influx of Italian and Irish immigrants entered the US in the 20’s, bringing with them more depth of flavors, interesting ingredients, and (thankfully) refrigeration.  Tons of new foods came into the American household in the 20’s (corn flakes, Worcestershire sauce, jell-o molds, and Domino sugar to name a few). Bill mentioned the “holy shit” moment of throwing meat into sauce and suddenly you have a bolognese.  It doesn’t have to be complicated to taste great.  And it doesn’t have to be expensive to be fun and creative.

Bill talked a lot about how food television has had a huge influence on the way we look at food. People now have a much deeper understanding of food (and where it comes from) and sustainable, organic, and humane food is a big part of Bill’s goal.  He wants to see a restaurant where every server knows the name of the guy who milked the goat to make that cheese on your plate.  He wants to invest in environmentally friendly energy alternatives and share this with his suppliers.  That’s not to say he won’t serve foie gras, but he is going to take the time to find the most humane foie gras producers he can find.  And he wants it to be more on the healthy side… no saturated fats and he plans to choose the fats that get mixed with lean proteins to customize the blend, fresh micro-greens on every dish.

Food TV also has influenced the menu inspiration by providing people with visibility into the fun and creative methods of food preparation (think molecular gastronomy, spherification, sous vide).  But these methods have been mostly unattainable by the masses, unless theywant to spend $180 for a 3 course meal that belongs in an art gallery (and probably tastes damn good too).  Chef Bill doesn’t think there is anything wrong with that, but he wants to bring these fun and delicious food styles to the masses.  He wants to use the methods where they make sense with the goal of impressing and delighting his patrons.  He thinks people deserve to expect more from what they’re eating and to give them the opportunity to eat the type of foods that have mystified them.

Chef Bill wants to have fun in the kitchen.  To share his passion and his enjoyment for food with all of us. He wants his open kitchen to have jamming music (when the live musicians aren’t playing) and he wants to cultivate an atmosphere where people want to be (if his stint at Albert Hall Tavern is any indication, we are all in for a treat)!  He wants people to walk out and say, “What the fuck just happened?”

The more we talked about the food and the menu, the more excited I got.  Especially as Bill explained the individual dishes on the menu.  Stay tuned tomorrow for a preview of the menu!

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When do I get to sink my teeth into duck confit with a brie and avocado brick, cucumber/mango flute, and apricot/curry sauce?

The opening is on target for May 1st.  Chef Bill plans to have his waitstaff do a 1 week intensive training to live and breathe the menu and the pairings.  He wants the front of house to work in the kitchen and the back of house to serve food. He wants everyone to understand each other’s roles and to act as a family where everyone has pride and respect for what everyone else does.  He will start with dinner, then lunch a month later, and then jazz brunch a month after that.

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On Tuesday, Chef Bill is leaving for an adventure in California to visit breweries and wineries, to learn how to brew beer and to see where the wine comes from.  He will also being visiting some farms, cooperatives, and fisheries to explore how the food gets from them, to us.  He will be chronicling his journey on Facebook and Twitter, and I’ll be sharing his postings here.

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Next up: A preview of the menu! (get ready to drool)

A Restaurant is Born: A New Adventure!

10 Feb

The day I heard that Chef Bill was leaving Albert Hall Tavern was a sad day for me.  Not only did I love his inspired cooking (and the fact that it was right around the corner), but his energy and passion for food created such a great dynamic in the restaurant.  It was a big loss, but Chef’s energy couldn’t stay dormant for too long.  He soon let me know that he was on a quest to open up his own place and wanted me to join him along the journey to write about the opening of his new restaurant.

To say I was excited would be an understatement. I have always been fascinated with how restaurants work, and especially how you bring one to life.  I will be following Chef Bill’s adventure from the lease signing, to the decorating, to the menu testing, to the opening (targeted for May 2012).  It will be a real behind-the-scenes glance into how the magic happens.  I look forward to having you along for the adventure!  This will have a special section on the blog, so you can add a bookmark and check back regularly.

Last night, Chef Bill and I sat down to discuss the theme (20s and jazzy!) and the food (molecular gastronomy for the masses!) and how the restaurant was conceived.  My first interview with him will be posted on Monday, so stay tuned!  

Welcome to…

A Restaurant is Born

“Off the Menu” Part 2: Q&A with Chef Bill Seleno

8 Jul

I could have talked to Bill for hours about his history and passion.  We took a few minutes after discussing his history (posted Wednesday) for some quick fire questions (and some goofing off in the kitchen for the camera, where he showed off how he cooks his one of my favorite dishes at Albert Hall Tavern, the mussels with black garlic and charred rosemary).

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(Chef Bill, on the left, goofing off with a trusted
coworker who he worked with years before)

What inspires you about food? 

Bill: “Flavor combinations. It’s like chemistry… architecture comes into play to balance using mathematics: Burnt lemons for citrus plus buttery lettuce plus fatty prosciutto and duck cracklings and artichokes… it lingers on the palate.  It should be like a roller coaster ride, always up and down, wondering what’s in the next bite. It’s important to play with flavors… smell is a flashback and the palette is the longest memory.  Burning wood reminds me of my Grandma in Germany. You never taste the same tomato twice, so you need to change the method to change the flavor to get it right. The staff finds it tough because there are no recipes.”

(On the topic of staff, Bill is looking for people who are as passionate about Albert Hall he is about the place… but is having problems finding and keeping good staff at the restaurant right now.  I would have to agree with him on that one, with the staff sometimes being quite lackluster, but Bill mentioned that he has some good people coming in soon, so I’m hopeful… update: huge improvements in waitstaff these past few weeks!)

What is your favorite dish to cook?

“Seafood.  Skate is my favorite fish.  You can do so much with it and it holds up to flavors well.  But most people don’t know it so it doesn’t sell.  It depends on my mood, but there are days I want nothing but burgers.”


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(Prepping the mussels)

Least favorite?

“Paella.  I don’t get it.  And I once tried to make a cardamom-crusted filet.  Turns out cardamom is really bad on food.”

Favorite to eat?

“Duck confit with blood sausage and beans…pub cassoulette (‘a perfect foil’)…. Branzino whole, because the flavors of the meat stay in the meat… fish and chips (‘fried love’)… comfort food in the summer… fried homemade thin pasta with tomato and squid ink…”  (It was obvious he could have gone on and on…)

Hardest thing ever made?

“Baking… I still haven’t finished the German Chocolate Cake.  And Paella.  Never again.”

 

Biggest kitchen mistake?

“Vegetable moussaka and Guastovino’s.  There were 5 different vegetables, all roasted and seared with a tilt skillet.  We would do it by the ton, put a lid on it and put it into the walk-in.  It would take half a day to sear the vegetables.  I went to the walk-in and when I went to open the lid, there was a layer of mold on top.  I wasted an entire day on vegetables.”


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(Charring the rosemary… UNDER the pan directly in the fire)

Worst night cooking?

“Valentine’s Day at Summit Restaurant.  We were booked solid and had a galley kitchen with a single in and out.  It was my first busy night and we were serving a prix fixe.  My sous chef got wasted (“he fell off the wagon”) and was sitting across the street with a paper bag in his hand.  It was a complex menu that could not be done by one person.  It was the one and only night I wanted to cry and I still get the chills thinking about it.  But the good days far outweigh the bad.”

Favorite memory?

“My daughter was on the line with me during her 1st year of life.  She grew up in the restaurant.  I have so many awesome memories of having her there with me.”

What kitchen tool can you not live without?

“Tongs.  They are extension of my hands in the kitchen.  I’m a big ol’ hot beast without them”

What is the most underrated food?

“Skate.  Nobody orders it so I have to eat it so it doesn’t go bad.”

Overrated?

“Filet mignon.  Why eat something with no marbling when you can eat something like a braised short rib?  It’s wedding food.”

If you weren’t a chef, what would you do?

“It has been years since I thought about that…  I couldn’t sit behind a desk. I have too much energy.  Probably carpentry.  It’s creative and hands on and has an end result.  Or design… design and build houses. I like going from concept to execution.”


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(The finished mussels)

What is your opinion on celebrity chefs?

“They have a mystique.  Many were talented chefs before they were celebrities.  But you can make a celebrity chef out of anyone with a good publicist.  But it has made the standards and baseline for a good chef go up.  The staff has a better idea of what happens in the kitchen and it pushes chefs to be better.”

Do you have advice for someone looking to be a chef?

“Take 6 months off from earning money and find the most different construction job you can find, do it for no money… then consider being a chef.  At first, it’s working your ass off, cutting yourself, getting yelled at, not getting paid.  It’s like golf.  There is a lot of anger but then one good shot keeps you coming back.  Come hang out in my kitchen.  Train in a real kitchen and work for free to see what it’s really like.”

What is something that customers don’t know that they should about restaurants?

“The truth about the amount of work that goes into it.  On the Food Network, they see it quick. It all fits into 30 minutes.  They don’t see that I’m here from 7:30am until 1:30am every day.”

Favorite curse word?

“Shit”

Favorite type of meat?

“Lamb”

Where do you eat in NYC?

“Blue Ribbon… The Alley… The Spotted Pig… Minetta… Employees Only… The Frying Pan” (he loves the Frying Pan and has his staff meetings on the top deck)

Best Food City (besides NYC)?

“New Orleans… maybe Chicago”

Favorite smell?

“Bacon… bread is runner up”

Where do you want to be in 5 years?

“On a beach. Cooking and relaxing.”

Last meal?

“Surf and turf”

For my full review of the food at Albert Hall Tavern, see the full post here.


“Off the Menu” Part 1: Interview with Chef Bill Seleno

6 Jul

Welcome to Off the Menu, a new section of NYC Nom Nom, which will feature “behind-the-stove” interviews with the people that make it happen.  I have a certain curiosity for how things operate in restaurants that we, as diners, don’t see.  I spent a summer as a hostess of a popular seafood restaurant at the Jersey Shore (the nice part… no Oompa Loompas present) and that gave me my first glimpse into what happens in a busy kitchen.  I found it both fascinating and terrifying.  I now have a lot of respect for what happens, and am constantly curious to find out how things work from the people that live it every day.

So without further ado, here is the first installment of Off the Menu…

When I asked Chef Bill to be my first interview for my new Off the Menu series on the blog, he said “yes” without hesitation.  As the chef of my new favorite neighborhood restaurant, Albert Hall Tavern, he seemed an obvious choice.  One thing that immediately made me admire Albert Hall Tavern was the staff, and especially Chef Bill, due to their absolute passion for what they were doing.  Bill welcomes me with warm greetings and conversation every time we enter the restaurant.  Between busy orders, he will regale us with conversation about baking German chocolate cake or bring out a sample of something new he just started experimenting with to taste.  We have never been disappointed with being the guinea pigs for his cooking experiments.  His personality is such that I can see him (and want to see him) on a cooking show someday.  You just can’t help but get swept up in his enthusiasm for food.

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(Albert Hall Tavern Entrance)

I came in to speak with Chef Bill for our interview during a weekday dinner at the restaurant.  He was as warm and welcoming as ever, excited to sit down and chat.  I had written out a number of questions for him and launched right in, asking how he went from Architectural school in Georgia to being a chef in New York City.

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(Collection of old liquor bottles in Albert Hall Tavern stairway)

Where It All Began

Chef Bill started by washing dishes at Mill Bakery Eatery and Brewery on Tybee Island near Savannah, Georgia.  He was doing a number of jobs at one point; working breakfast on River Street, taking the bus to South Street for lunch, then driving to Tybee island for dinner service.  While he says he burnt out, he also said that “something clicked.  There is a kinetic energy in the kitchen. Multitasking at 5 things at once.” He was hooked.

When I asked him how he came to New York, he said that it was a classic story of “someone who knew someone who knew someone.”  His mom had a customer who had a catering business who connected him to a chef named Peter Johnson in Rye, NY.

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(Bar at Albert Hall Tavern)

Peter Johnson was opening up The Kitchen Sink and needed some hands for his 16-seat restaurant.  He put Bill on the line and taught him everything he knew.  Bill refers to him as an “old hippie” who was “an animal” with unconventional thoughts on cooking and flavors.  Bill said it was a brutal education, but he learned quickly.

Peter Johnson was cooking Pacific Rim and Asian flavor combinations that were unconventional and well before their time, earning The Kitchen Sink a three star review in the New York Times.   (This also earned Bill the bragging rights to say that they had Christmas parties with Donna Karan and all sorts of celebrities during those days).

Bill’s excitement and nostalgia was palpable as he showed me a picture of himself and Peter in the kitchen; Bill with a long pony tail (which is now gone), working in shorts and flip-flops.  Bill went on to explain that there was always tequila in the freezer on this “debaucherous” line and there were no formalities in that kitchen.

It was at this point in the conversation that Bill had to get up and check on things in the kitchen.  When he returned, we both noted that we had been talking for almost and hour and were only on question one.

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(Tables and antique paintings at Albert hall Tavern)

Three Stars to NYC

Bill went on to work at Crew Restaurant in Connecticut with some high school friends.  Crew received three stars from the New York Times and was the first time his name was published as chef.

While Connecticut may be the hot spot (if you’re Martha Stewart) Bill had his sights on NYC and he took a step down to become a line chef at Maamba on 13th and 7th.  While at Maamba, his resume fell into the right hands at to Guastavino’s, which was under the 59th Street Bridge and was Esquire Magazine’s “Restaurant of the Year” in 2000.

At Guastavino’s, Bill learned volume.  He wistfully recalled a Mother’s Day where they ran 1,200 meals.  Fortuitously, he also met Artan there, who would come back into Bill’s life years later to build Albert Hall Tavern (but more on that later).  Bill said that every restaurant in NYC has a connection to Guastavino’s.  (Even his new fish supplier recently mentioned that he knew Bill from somewhere…)


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(Dining Room in Albert Hall Tavern)


“The Ivory Coast of Manhattan”

We had a brief chat about Albert Hall’s neighborhood, which is still regarded as less than ideal, being tucked somewhere between Penn Station and Port Authority, on the lesser visited 9th Avenue.  Seeing as though this is where I choose to live and work, Bill and I had a moment of mutual appreciation for a neighborhood that is changing every day.  He mentioned one of his first Hell’s Kitchen memories is of his three year old picking at a stuffed quail from the Hell’s Kitchen Street Fair.  “It’s full circle to own a restaurant here this year.”

Rumors abound that an offshoot of the BLT franchise is moving into the neighborhood (confirmed: Casa Nonna opened a few weeks ago) and there are even murmurings of a Trader Joes (oh heavens!)  We had a good laugh when he called this little strip of New York the “Ivory Coast of Manhattan.” (There was also a great write up about this upcoming neighborhood in The Wall Street Journal recently, highlighting the new places including Albert Hall Tavern)

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(Private Back Room at Albert Hall Tavern)

Albert Hall Tavern: The Beginnings

So how did Albert Hall Tavern come to be?  Bill visited a restaurant for rent in his “Ivory Coast” and fell in love with the space itself on 9th Avenue that now houses Albert Hall Tavern.  After a short lived run as a night club, Bill decided he wanted to create a restaurant that was all his own.

Bill quickly brought Artan (his friend from his Guastovino’s days who now runs Juliet Supper Club amongst many other projects) to visit the space and a partnership was formed.  They wanted to create a place that was an upscale tavern, with solid food and a good vibe.  A place like they went to when they went out.  A place you could sit for hours and feel comfortable. (And we do… often)


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(Taxidermied lion in the private back room at Albert Hall Tavern)

As it turns out, Albert Hall Tavern was personally constructed at the hands of Bill and Artan themselves in just under 3 months.  They started decorating before the lease was signed and Bill hasn’t taken a day off since October.  The decorations are an amassed collection of flea market finds (the Hell’s Kitchen Flea Market is open every weekend across the street, and there they found the pages from antique books that now decorate the walls. See photos throughout this post).  They found church pews and pulpits at a closing church in Long Island and they built the tables themselves.  Bill talks about a bakery sign he ripped off the walls in college that now hangs in the dining room.

They opened on New Year’s Eve and were packed until 4am.  (I fortuitously stumbled in just 3 days later)

Bill described his menu as being in waves with the season and is looking forward to adding Farmer’s menu specials as a clip-in.  He wants to keep it simple and comfortable.  It’s a labor of love, with 14-15 hours spent in the restaurant every day.  He called the restaurant “always a work in progress” and said “it will get softer and evolve naturally as the tables and chairs get warn and the locals become part of the operation.”

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(Kitchen entrance at Albert Hall Tavern)

And Then….

When asking Bill about the future, he said that he wanted to Blue Print Albert Hall Tavern and open it up in other parts of town that need this kind of vibe.

To explain Bill’s passion on paper (screen?) is like trying to contain a firecracker.  It just can’t be done.  He said Albert Hall Tavern is his dream come true, with years of work coming to fruition.  While he wishes he could spend more time with his kids, he is living his dream.  And you can taste it.

My interview with Chef Bill was actually so interesting that I would up having to split this into 2 parts… check out Part 2 to read the quick-fire part of our interview.  And for more information about the food at Albert Hall Tavern, see my full review here.