Since opening EL Ideas in July of 2011, there is plenty to reflect upon and I have not been diligent about logging it. From the collaboration with the ultra talented Andrew Brochu, to the closing of the food trucks (already relayed), to personal trials and tribulations that have been deep (to put it gently), and to more crap that is not worth going into at this stage, the learning curve has taught me a tremendous amount and is in as stark of contrast as the glories of heaven are to the miseries of hell.
It is certainly common knowledge within the community that Chef Brochu has moved on and taken the Executive Chef position with Graham Elliot. On that subject, working alongside Andrew was as rewarding for myself as a chef as any other experience in my 23 years in the business. Regarding his talent, there is only one thing I can relate it to: When I had my first tour in Chicago from 1999-2001, I had a choice between a sous chef gig at Spiaggia with Paul Bartolotta and the same title with Tru right after they opened. The ultimate deciding factor for me was that I wanted to work alongside a very passionate and talented sous chef employed by Tru. That chef was Cesar Ramirez, who now possesses three Michelin stars at his Brooklyn restaurant, The Chef’s Table (coincidentally pretty similar in size and scope to EL Ideas). Andrew has that same attention to detail and passion for cooking and it would not surprise me at all to see him reach similar heights. In short, the collaboration was a great experience for me, one that I took a great deal from, and I personally wish him nothing but the best for and will watch closely as he goes forward.
In regards to where we are going with EL Ideas, the road is becoming more clear. This project was always my baby and I always had majority control of the menu. From the time Andrew started it was understood that there was no time table on our collaboration and I knew that before long another opportunity too good to refuse would come his way. In honesty, I didn’t feel like there was a very good chance to join forces in the first place as he had a couple of more lucrative offers on the table. To my surprise, he accepted as the opportunity for him to have free reign in exploring his cuisine was enough for him to accept the challenge of incubating a unique restaurant concept. That should speak volumes in regards to his ideals. Now I’m not going to say there weren’t growing pains or confrontations, but at the end of the day the focus was on the cuisine, the guest, and listening to the restaurant itself to discover the best way to grow without sacrificing the ideal we were developing. Initially, the restaurant was designed to be a second source of income to the food truck business, but as most also know, it soon would become the only source.
Perhaps the best advice came one night while out for drinks with him, our dining room manager Bill Talbott, and our chef/apprentice Michael Destefano: I was considering knocking down one of the walls that leads to the office to increase seating. It seemed like an obvious enough 0f an idea. As we were throwing back, Andrew stated that it would likely ruin the niche we had. To grow that much would require us to set up a traditional cooking brigade and go to staggered seating. Aside from the unique aspect of our combined cuisine – which I would still put up against most any restaurant anywhere – the biggest niche to the restaurant is the intimate experience the guests have in the dining room. We plate and serve the guests in unison and then the chef behind the creation explains the course to the dining room as a whole. It has a laid back feel more akin to a dinner party than it does to other restaurants along our lines. Though the dining room is right in the middle of the kitchen and guests are welcome to wander back and speak with us or help us plate at their leisure, additional seats would make that very difficult for us to maneuver. I agreed with his take and I believe it has turned out to be the best advice yet given.
That said, we are staying the course here and are still pushing the envelope forward. Though his artistry is irreplaceable, I don’t feel as though we’ve missed a beat and feel as strongly about our offerings as I have prior and the reviews from our many repeat guests and online reviews gratefully have reflected this. EL Ideas will likely continue to be a collaborative project with whichever chefs are in our kitchen, and it is a unique and comfortable enough of a setting for very talented chefs to walk into. My feeling on it is this: To be a truly great chef, I believe that one must maintain an open mind about learning new techniques and tricks, and it has never ceased to amaze me around which corners unconventional wisdom lies. I may rule the roost, but to have young chefs with a backbone of solid experience come in and express their own style of cuisine results in an engaged team, which then relates to happy guests. I really get excited when guests tell me that their favorite dish belongs to another member of the team. Beyond accolades from guests and publications, the most important aspect for me as a chef is to make a difference in forwarding the career of passionate cooks. This may be hard to believe – and I may be overstating – but I have yet to be at the helm of a kitchen with young aspiring chefs and I am relishing the opportunity to make a difference for them. Hell, by many accounts it is nothing short of remarkable that I have become a player on the scene at all as it was only a few years ago that I was hopping around the globe in search of… whatever. But that may be for another post at another time. That’s all for now. Change is in the air though and I am going to renew efforts to log the happenings here. There really hasn’t been much to draw from within the industry in regards to this business model, so it has very much been a work in progress this first year. I actually referred to EL Ideas as the Costner Project – build it, and they will come… well, our motto here is to question everything about the restaurant experience, and expect some tweaks in philosophy to come soon.