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Archive for the ‘The New Restaurant’ Category

 

Meetings

Running Alison at Blue Bell. Overseeing construction at Alison two. I’ve been so distracted that I put the laundry detergent in the dryer. Then, I turned on the dryer and it came out the vent – like snow. The good news is, that things at Alison two are starting to come together.

 Here’s Michael Sedlacek designing light fixtures. You’d think it would be more expensive to have things custom-made. But we’re finding that it isn’t always the case. By the way, we call this photo with the beer “don’t try this at home.” Takes an expert to manage a soldering iron with Corona.

 

 

Soldering light fixtures

We’re getting ready to refinish the mirrors we got from The Plaza Hotel. (See “Full of Flavor and Personality” below) Thought this label on the back was interesting.

Mirror

 

 

 

 

The rest of this week is filled with meetings, more meetings and wonderful trips to Maple Acres Farm. I love those breaks when I get to hang out with the local fruits and vegetables and pick up blueberries and strawberries for Amelia. She turns them into Strawberry Pie and Blueberry Polenta Pecan Cobbler for Alison at Blue Bell . I can’t think of a better way to get 5 servings of fruit each day!

 

 

   

Strawberries

 

 

 

 

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How do I create a new dish? It’s quite a process. First, I travel and I taste. Then, I get an idea. Then I think about it — a lot. I try some things. And, eventually, I write the recipe down. If I handed you the recipe and told you to make the dish, you’d follow the steps. The final dish might taste the same as the way I make it – but it might not. So many things can make a difference. If you used strawberries from California rather than ones grown locally, for instance, the size or flavor might be different. That could change the balance. I usually taste and make changes as I’m cooking and sometimes adjust the recipe.

Creating a restaurant is like creating a recipe. First, we walked around the space. We thought about where everything should go. We researched and got ideas. We talked about it – a lot. And, eventually, the designers created the plans. Then we handed it to the crew. And, just like a recipe, the restaurant keeps evolving.

 

Building the restaurant

My electrician, Augie, for instance, doesn’t just follow the recipe. He’s awesome. He asks us a lot of questions and knows when something isn’t going to work the way we want it to. He makes suggestions that are usually right on target. He took one look at the plan for outlets behind the bar and knew that it wouldn’t work the way we wanted it to. Instead of just following the recipe he’s very intuitive about how to make sure it comes out tasting great.

Speaking of the bar, we’ve had a few issues there. We suspected that the bar might be a little big, but felt we needed the space for everything that had to go behind it. But, once the framing went up, it was clear that it really was taking up too much space in the room. So, we tore it out and made it smaller. 

 
We’ve made some changes to the living room as well. The plan calls for a 6-foot fireplace. It looked great on paper. But, when you stand in the room, its just too big. That topic alone could be a whole blog. We finally settled on a 4-foot fireplace.
 

 

 

 

Sangria on the patio at Alison at Blue Bell
The construction site may be like a recipe – but not one you can just add water and mix. I’m here every day – tasting and making adjustments as we go along.
 

 Then, each afternoon, it’s a quick shower to get rid of the dust and sweat, and heading over to Alison at Blue Bell. Since the heat broke, the outdoor patio is a wonderful place to be. It’s so beautiful right now. Everyone is really loving the peach sangria. That’s a recipe that doesn’t need adjusting.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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You know that old proverb, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all?” Well, for awhile there, I didn’t have anything to say. I usually provide a “behind the scenes” look at  the restaurant opening. But, for details about the last 6 weeks you’ll just have to wait until VH1 does a “behind-the-behind-the-scenes” exposé. But, now things are back on track and we are moving on.

 

Designing Alison two

 

We’ve made real strides in our search for the right chef for Alison two. You can’t just advertise on Craig’s list to find a chef. You get names via the grapevine – from purveyors, friends and networking. I really need a chef who is not only a talented cook with good management skills, but also someone who has opened a restaurant before. Opening a restaurant is like building a house rather than simply moving into a house. I need a chef that can make every decision – fill every drawer (how many 2 ounce ladles, how many 6 ounce ladles,  what size pots, pans and lids, how many female (slotted) spoons and how many male (traditional) spoons). Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. 

 

The new chef will need to make decisions about construction and equipment. He or she will choose vendors, hire and train staff. Since everything is new – there is no system in place. The new chef will just have to be flexible.

 

 

I’ve opened about half a dozen restaurants – Striped Bass, Venus & the Cowboy, Maritime Restaurant in Rockefeller Center, Central, Alison Café, Alison at Blue Bell.  But, the new chef will be responsible for all of these decisions – not me.  I’ll be there, of course, but when push comes to shove, the new chef will have to deal with these things. 

 

 

I’ve talked to about a dozen chef candidates. First, I get the chef’s resume and we talk by phone. If they’re currently working somewhere, I try their food. Sometimes I let the candidate know I’m coming and other times I try the food anonymously. About half of the chefs have been asked to do a tasting. I ask for three or four courses to show their style. Some candidates have real sense of what they want to do. Some ask a lot of questions. One brought his own plates. Another served family style. I want to taste their food and see how they plate the food. We talk about food pairings and how ingredients match. I really want to understand their thought process.  I’ve invited my manager and a friend to join me for these tastings.

 

 

Patio at Alison at Blue BellAs we zero in on a chef candidate, I’m busy preparing Alison at Blue Bell for spring. The flowering baskets are hanging and – if it ever stops raining – you can actually sit outside for lunch or dinner. Early crops are coming it at local farms and we’re enjoying the fresh greens, sweet radishes and local mushrooms.

 

 

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Are you sick of soffits? I am. But, it is all part of the process. If opening a restaurant were all about food, it would be easy. But, this is hard stuff. It gets harder everyday – just when I think I have it figured out, I get a curveball. Like the ventilation system for the oven or the acoustic material for the ceiling. It’s non-stop.

                                                                                                                                                               

Speaking of ventilation systems, I am busy trying to choose an oven hood. I am concerned about the people who have offices above the restaurant site and I’m working to make sure that they don’t smell food all day. The people who work at the bank next to Alison at Blue Bell  sometimes complain that they can smell food coming through the wall. I reply that I can smell their money. But, I’m just joking. It’s nice to smell food cooking when you walk into a restaurant. But, any smell – even a good smell – isn’t so great all day long if you’re sitting at your desk. At the restaurant, I thought we were immune to it. But about halfway into our “30 days of cookies” holiday promotion at Alison at Blue Bell , even we got sick of the smell of baking cookies. Sorry,Amelia.                                                                                                                                                               

                                                                                                                                                             

 

One option is to have a regular ventilation system with ductwork running up to the top of the building releasing smells high into the air. But that means we’ll have ductwork running up the side of the historic building. Another option is running the ductwork through the building. But, that eats up potential office space. A third option is getting an ultraviolet hood. It uses ultraviolet light to pulverize the air particles that carry food smells. Since it minimizes smells even before they’re vented, there’s no need to run ductwork inside or up the building. Sounds good, but UV hoods run 30 to 40 thousand dollars more than a regular hood. None the less, it looks like that’s the way we’ll be going…unless something else comes up – which I’m sure it will.

 Checking out acoustic material Meeting with Steven Schultheis 

That leaves us with the acoustic situation. As the Los Angeles Times  so eloquently put it, I’m striving for “a comfortable sound level (somewhere between bedlam and the grave).” I spent two hours meeting with Steven Schultheis at S&S Resources. It was a great meeting and I learned a lot. Their acoustic material will absorb 80% of the noise in the main dining room. Now, here’s the tricky part…we want to put the acoustic panels in the recessed areas in-between the soffits. But, we can’t penetrate the ceiling in the main dining room because it is fire rated. So, we’ll have to clip the material to the soffits. And of course, all this impacts the lighting design that we’d already settled on. The panels are 1 to 2 inches thick so they’ll limit the bounce we get from the lights. You need something for the light to bounce off to get a nice glow. It’s always something!  

Enough of ventilation and acoustic material. I have some cooking to do. I just picked up some kosher gelatin. I’m using ideas from Eileen Talanian’s new cookbook Marshmallows: Homemade Gourmet Treats  to create a kosher marshmallow dessert for my upcoming class in NYC . Then, in a few weeks, I’m helping Eileen launch her new cookbook with a reception featuring sweet and savory marshmallow dishes . When things get bad there’s always my marshmallow blaster. It shoots mini-marshmallows at high power. A great, non-violent way of dealing with aggression. I’ve been using it non-stop for the past 2 weeks. Go ahead…make my day!

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I’ve opened more restaurants than I care to admit. Some on my own and others as the debut chef. And now, Alison two.

 

It’s always two steps forward and a step backwards. We decided to carpet the bar instead of using hardwood floors. It’s a little unusual but we thought it would absorb some of the noise. We want the restaurant to have a buzz – but the noise level shouldn’t be uncomfortable. We want a place that’s comfortable to hang out.

 Meeting with Pro-Tech Floors

It turns out that a new employee’s sister is the foremost acoustic expert in the area. What luck! She wrote me an email explaining that carpet helps with low and high frequencies but it can also make a room boomy. Okay, so if that’s not the answer, what is? She sent me links to information about acoustical materials.

 

So here’s my idea for the acoustic materials. What if we can put them on the ceiling instead of the floor? We have to build soffits in the ceiling to house electrical wiring (it’s a fire code issue – don’t ask). So now I’m wondering if we can use some of those acoustic materials (instead of drywall) to make the soffits. I just spoke to my general contractor about it and he’s checking it out. Those soffits, by the way, are like lemons that we’re making into lemonade. Since we have to have them, we’re making them design elements and figuring out how to use them to actually enhance the lighting. Instead of shining straight down from can lights, the lights will bounce off the soffits — creating a glow.

 

So, if the acoustic material can go on the ceiling — instead of the floor — then we don’t need carpet and can consider going back to hardwood floors. I asked Bob Himmelreich, our flooring specialist from Pro-Tech Floors for quotes both ways. As I said, two steps forward and a step back.

 

It’s enough to drive you to drink. Fortunately, a beer dinner is on tap at Alison at Blue Bell on Monday. Tom Kehoe, Brewmaster from Yards Brewing Company, will be joining us for a special 4-course beer dinner. Should be fun. More fun than doing the two-step over carpeting or hardwood or carpeting or hardwood or carpeting…

  

 

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I suppose it would be easy to walk into an interior design store and buy new things for Alison two –  just like it is easier to open a can, dump it into a bowl and microwave it. But, that’s just not the way we do things.

 Architectural Salvage Yard

The other day we went to an architectural salvage yard. The salvage yard was just overflowing in cool things – a real feast for the eyes. Chairs hanging from the ceiling, old bureaus, doorknobs, cigarette machines, European style coat racks, window frames, tin ceilings, tiles, light fixtures, antique tables and more. We spent hours sloshing through the mud, rooting around for hidden gems – like a pig searching for truffles.

 

My favorite find was a pair of mirrors that used to hang above the mantels in The Plaza Hotel. Imagine what they might have seen!

  

 

 

Then we stumbled across some cool iron garden doors from a big, old iron gate. We’ll need to strip and finish them, but they’ll be interesting for dividing the bar and private dining room from the main dining room. The iron gates will add lots of texture, interesting detail and, once we add curtains, sound absorbency. And we’re using a design element from the grates in the sconces and the foot rail around the bar that we’re having custom-made.

Custom Ironwork

Some things we find — or have custom made — for the restaurant. Other things find me and just end up in the restaurant. I collect things along the way. My friends know that when you open up the gate to my backyard, the theme song from Sanford and Son comes on. Long before I even thought of opening a second restaurant, I was walking through the Marais district in Paris enjoying all the great little shops. They’re filled with unique items that aren’t mass produced. I found these two scrolls with a really interesting print on them. I didn’t have anywhere to put them, at that time, so they’ve stayed rolled up in the corner of my apartment. I finally found a home for them — they will flank the fireplace in the living room at Alison two. It is the perfect place for them.

I’d much rather find things I love and then find a place for them than have an empty space and have to look for things to love. The space will be newly renovated but it will be filled with things I’ve collected over the years in different parts of the world – giving it flavor and personality. Just like our food and wine.

I’m off sample some of the Yards beers we’re pairing with foods for our Beer Dinner next week and then I have to play around with a marshmallow recipe to see how it works with kosher gelatin, for the cooking class coming up in New York. Until next week…

    

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I love to read cookbooks. I can read a recipe and taste it. I can put flavors, textures and tastes together in my head. I can taste things without actually tasting them.

I wish that ability translated into being able to visualize interior design. But, it doesn’t. I just can’t look at a 3” by 3” paint chip, square of carpeting and picture of a light and get a feel for how it will all come together.

Mock-Up of Chair 

Here’s the dilemma. At the hotel show in November, I found a chair that I love. It is awesome! I don’t feel that the chairs need to be unique – but they should be comfortable and have a sense of style. Plus, the fabric and stitching can be customized. So, we fell in love with a lush ultrasuede fabric. It is blue – not blueberry, not royal, not Duke blue (sorry, Blue Devil fans!), not too much red – a deep blue. We took it to the restaurant and looked at it in lunchtime light and dinnertime light. We spilled wine, chocolate and ketchup on it to make sure it was hearty. Perfect!

  

Then, we found out that this perfect fabric had to be custom made-great. In Japan-fine. Then shipped to China, where the chairs are made-okay. Then shipped to the U.S., which could take a while, even if things go well with customs – Ooops! That means there is a possibility they may not be here in time for the opening.

That was bad enough. Then we found out the price. It didn’t seem too bad by the square foot – until you multiplied it by 120 chairs. Whoa! The fabric for the chairs ends up costing more than the chairs. I’m still trying to wrap my head around that one.

 

Mock up of Chair Needed a moment to think about that. Are these chairs so important? Is this fabric the only option? How much would it cost to rent chairs while we wait for ours to arrive? To figure that out, I took that paint swatch to Loew’s and had them make a can of paint. I painted a wall in my apartment, laid down the carpet sample and the chair fabric and lived with it for a few days. Then, I tried a second, similar fabric that Lee McGillin found. That helped me decide whether to hold out for the chair fabric we originally chose OR to order something else.

I decided to go with the original fabric we chose. After badgering the companies, Lee found out that the lead-time is less than originally anticipated. It’s just a better fabric  – it has more give to it and is a better final product. I feel that I need to be as respectful of the design as I am to the food in the kitchen.

The fabric will be a world traveler – from Japan to China to Ft. Washington. A bit like me.

 

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