Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one year anniversary.
[Krieger; Left to right: Simon, Joaquin, and Bill]
As chef Joaquin Baca describes it, The Brooklyn Star was just finding its groove when a terrible fire closed the restaurant. Baca and his team rebuilt after the blaze, but as they were getting close to reopening, they decided to tweak their vision and move the project to another space nearby. The bigger, breezier version of the restaurant opened in March of 2011, and the crowds came back. Eater recently chatted with Baca, service director/partner Bill Reed, and bar manager director Simon Gibson about the first year of The Brooklyn Star 2.0, and the road ahead.
When the fire closed down the first Brooklyn Star, where did you feel you were at with the restaurant at that point? Joaquin Baca, chef and owner: Just about to hit its stride, like just on the verge of it. I was about to get my first paycheck. That week prior we had just caught up on like the first quarter — back taxes and stuff. You must have been devastated Joaquin: Yeah I guess so. There's not really much you can do — crying's not going to really solve anything. We all wound up out on the street in our short sleeves in the middle of winter wearing rubber shoes. There were eight fire trucks. We got back in, the place was gutted, there was like water up to our ankles in there.
That sounds surreal. Bill Reed, service director and partner: That was the word I used. I had been there just about six weeks, and I was very excited to be a part of it all. I got a call that was like, "Yeah you don't have to worry about coming in to work." And I'm like, "This is a joke right?" And when I went and walked by, it wasn't a joke at all. Joaquin: It just really took awhile to set in. Once it did, I mean it was obvious we were gonna try to rebuild it. I mean we had to leave the place as it was for probably like two weeks for insurance purposes. We couldn't really touch anything — there was food on the stoves. The day they told us we could throw away all the food, Simon came in and helped me. Simon sat there and trashed a weekend's worth of prep, and so it was pretty terrible. Sweetbreads soaked in buttermilk — that was the probably the worst.
You guys were rebuilding that space after the fire. At what point did you decide you were going to look for something else? Joaquin: We didn't exactly look so much as it fell into our laps. Before we were in the 33 Havemeyer space, this guy Jimmy had owned it. He's the same guy who owns this building, so he had kind of watched the process of us renovating the place and getting it open. I guess he thought we were good operators because he was like, "Look I got this space. Come and take a look at it." So we were probably a few months out from being ready to reopen, and I approached Simon. We took a look around and we could see that the space was big, and we crept into the kitchen and peeked in and saw this big space. We thought, "Maybe we can do things here."
So how did the reopening go? Did people immediately check it out? Bill: You know how it is — people will flock to whatever is new, and people are very judgemental in those first months. You know it feels unfair because you're trying to work out the kinks, but at the end of the day, you can't really say it's unfair. The restaurant industry is what it is, and you gotta put your best foot forward. We have definitely improved by leaps and bounds since our opening. They might seem like small details on the outside, but for us we definitely notice our game is far improved.
What was the reaction from people that had been to the original? Bill: It was mixed. I think a lot of people loved the fact that the other place was super small — that you could see the guys doing their thing, and the guys could see your expressions very closely. But then again people love the open space and being able to bring in 12 people, or 15 people. Joaquin: I remember one of the first comments on one of the blogs was, "What's wrong with these guys? They could have gotten more tables in there." Bill: I think most people that have meals here understand why we have tables that are so big. It's supposed to be family style dining — large format. It's supposed to be eight plates at a table, and everyone digging in.
Simon, what did you want to do with the bar program when you came on? Simon Gibson, bar director: I just want everything to be accessible to everybody.
You didn't get a lot of review attention when you reopened. Were you expecting more? Joaquin: Not expecting, but certainly hoping for a little bit more. I mean it definitely drives business in New York. You don't really want to be nitpicked, but you need to be nitpicked to really get the ball rolling. Most of our business is repeats and regulars, and that's really the most important basis to start from. As far as getting reviewed? Yeah, sure we'd love for the Times to come in give us that influx of seats. Bill: I think we set up every day as if we're going to get reviewed. Joaquin: Yeah, but I gotta be honest, I don't really think it's gonna happen. Because we've already been open for a couple years, and we're just like a reincarnation of an old restaurant. It's a neighborhood joint, and not so much a destination spot, but that's sort of what we set out to do so we can't really be upset for not getting hype.
Has the bar picked up as just a bar? Simon: Yeah, people still come in and eat. I mean, the bar still does a little less food than the restaurant does. Joaquin: We definitely have some bar people that are here seven days a week.
How has the menu has evolved over that last year? Joaquin: It's always changing. This is definitely the kind of kitchen where people contribute ideas if not entire dishes, so a lot of development is done when we're having beers after service. But it's also the extra space — we lost our wood-burning oven, but we gained a giant grill, and we had a metal shop guy down the street build us a smoker that fits right on top of the grill.
Does it feel like it's been a year? Joaquin: No, not at all. Bill: Especially coming from the other space, it feels like two to me. Joaquin: It feels like three months to me.
Would you ever want to bring The Brooklyn Star somewhere else? Joaquin: I don't know. I don't think I'd want to repeat this. It's so organic, and I don't know that it would exist the same anywhere else. But I'd definitely want to open something else down the line. We'll get the bug, I'm sure, after another year. It's kind of hard to replicate a restaurant and call it the same thing. Even the last Brooklyn Star to this one...it was kind of a stretch.
· All Coverage of The Brooklyn Star [~ENY~]
— With Hannah Leighton