Tag Archives: spherification

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.

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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.