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.
[John Bush, Dale Talde, and David Massoni by Krieger]
Dale Talde, John Bush, and David Massoni had a hell of a year. Six months after opening their Asian-American hit Talde, the boys shifted gears and opened Pork Slope, a casual bar project. A few months later, Dale came on board as the chef and partner at David and John's first project, Thistle Hill Tavern. In October, Pete Wells gave Talde one star — a rating that was lower than the team had hoped for. His review suggested that the quality at Talde had dipped since the partners began expanding their empire. Dale, John, and David say that Wells's criticism changed the way that they operate, and they believe that their flagship restaurant is better because of it.
Here's the story of the first year of Talde and the creation of a Brooklyn restaurant group as told by Dale, David, and John:
How was the opening?
David Massoni, owner: The thing that I was most surprised at doing the door was just the mass of people, and how many of them were willing to wait. Often times, I would say to them, "I love what we do here, but I really don't know if it's worth waiting two hours tonight. I don't think I should put your name on the list." And they'd say, "No, put my name on anyway."
Did you feel a greater pressure to deliver because people were waiting so long?
David: I think we would have had the same pressure no matter what. The pressure comes from striving for perfection. That's where the pressure always starts.
Dale Talde, chef and owner: I can be serving one person or three hundred people, but for me, it's about making the meal and the dining experience as good as we can make it. So, the pressure is from within. The first Saturday we were open, we filled the dining room in seven minutes.
John Bush, owner: Luckily, we were really embraced by the neighborhood. It's what we strive for, and what we got.
David: One of the hard parts about opening this restaurant was that we didn't break any ground here, but it also didn't fit into any preconceived notion of a certain concept. So, early on, I think we had worries. Are they gonna get what we're trying to do? Are they gonna think the melamine plates are too chintzy, and will they get our playfulness? Are they gonna get that we're having a really American-focused bar program that's going to pair well with what Dale's doing? Or a really focused Italian wine program that's going to pair well with what Dale's doing? And then also the title of "Asian-American cuisine, chef-driven by Dale Talde"? You don't get the opportunity to spend 20 minutes with every diner before they sit down to make sure that they understand what we're trying to do before they look at the menu. So, that was the pressure.
Did you have to change anything after the first month?
Dale: Oh yeah, we changed a lot of things. I'm a self-hater just from the beginning, I doubt everything I do. I just doubt if it's good enough — it's never good enough. A lot of chefs do that. When we first opened...we did a few things. Like, we said, "We're doing a wedge salad. We love this wedge salad, and we think it's dope." We had Chinese bacon on it, and Sriracha. We were like, "This is our thing." And what we realized was that the neighborhood was like, "Yeah, it's cool, but we can get a wedge anywhere. We just waited two hours for dinner. What can you bring that we can't get anywhere else?" The neighborhood really pushed us in terms of doing better.
And the dumplings. Honestly, before that got written up in New York Magazine, I was telling David and John, "We're pulling the dumplings. I cannot execute this properly." It was a combo of being so busy — it was really hard to staff this restaurant — and we just couldn't get it down to where I wanted it. I looked at Dave, and I was like, "We're pulling these dumplings." He said, "Dude you're selling like 50 of them a night." And I said, "I don't care. They're not good enough. They might be good when I make them, but something's getting lost when other people are making these dumplings." So then, I sat down and worked on it for literally a day with the crew — nothing but dumplings. We made like 200 dumplings. It was just about executing consistently.
David: We threw a lot of dumplings in the trash.
Dale: Yeah, we threw a lot of food in the trash. Like any restaurant opening — you make something, it's not good enough, and you can't serve it.
So at what point did you start talking about Pork Slope?
John: In reality, before we opened. We'd be working all day and then say, "Let's get a drink, or let's get something to eat. Where do we want to go?" And we'd start talking about our favorite places to eat back home. It literally just spawned from us wanting to create a place that we wanted to go to after work.
David: And then a good real estate friend of ours, Judith, said, "You guys haven't even taken the paper off the windows at Talde yet, but there's a space I think you should see, and a woman I think you should meet." That woman was Irene Lowery, who was the owner of Aunt Suzie's and she is our landlord at Pork Slope. There were about three ideas were talking about in our bullshit sessions of, "What will be next?" The idea of Pork Slope and even the name — which Dale had come up with — was something that we had already been working on and talking about, but it wasn't necessarily the thing that we thought would be next. We walked into Aunt Suzie's, and before even shaking a single hand, the three of us turned back and looked at each other and we were like, "This is Pork Slope." That was December of 2011.
Were you worried that it might be too much work to open two restaurants in one year?
John: In retrospect, I don't know if I'd do it again, but I'm happy that we did it.
Dale: It was something where you really couldn't think about how much work it was going to be.
David: If we had, we wouldn't have done it.
Dale: You almost had to think about the best opportunity. You had to think about it as you're doing it because you have a great concept, and obviously it's a business, but also you're doing it a little bit for the community — there's a need. And that's what we did here, too. When we talked with Irene, she was like, "Who are you guys?"
John: The three of us went and talked to her and we said, "Can we invite you to dinner? Come up to Thistle Hill, we'll buy you dinner and you can see what we're all about." So her and her partner came to Thistle Hill, we kind of wined and dined them, and then when they were done with dinner, they came to the bar to have a drink, and then we were like, "Let me we walk you down to show you the space." And then we walked them down to Talde and let them in. It wasn't finished, it was still pretty much construction site, and we just said, "This is our vision, this is the food that we're going to do, and these are the cocktails that we're going to do." And she gave me a hug when we left, and the next day she was like, "I really want you to have this place." We weren't the only people talking to her about it. She chose us. She could have went with anybody.
Dale: It wasn't like a real estate person saying, "Give me my cut." This person was hand-picking the successor to the restaurant that had been there for 25 years. It was the first restaurant on the block.
John: The one thing that I like about Pork Slope the most is that everybody I talk to says, "The neighborhood needed this place, this is great." The kitchen's open late, we get everybody that gets off work up the block, and everyone comes by and eats and drinks. In my mind's eye, it's the perfect place.
Did you change anything about the operations or anything in the kitchen after the New York Times review of Talde?
David: Hmm...Yes and no. I think it's really important that it did affect us, and of course it did, of course it would, but we wanted to make sure that it did in the right ways. Pete Wells is a great writer, with a great palate, and he understands restaurants. And he did not have consistent experiences in our restaurant. And that, at the end of the day, wounds us mortally. What we got as far as stars went, what people read, and what people then have an opportunity to assume about our restaurant worries me and worries us less than the fact that somebody, whether the New York Times was paying for it or not, came to our restaurant and did not have the experience that we wanted them to have. And at the end of the day, that upsets me. I want every customer that walks through the door to love Talde. Talde is one of my children that I share with these two men, and we want everybody to come in here and love it, and he didn't.
So, one of the things we've done is...he didn't give us two stars, which is what we hoped for. So every single solitary day since that day, the three of us go out of our way to make this a two star restaurant. I guess the silver lining at the end of it is that our customers benefit from the fact that Pete did not give us two stars. I know it sounds a bit roundabout, but we are working harder because of it. We work harder every single day, and our management team is exactly the same, and they also work harder every day. Because we believe that when we're at our best, this is a two star restaurant.
Dale: You might be packed on a Saturday night, and people might be coming up to you telling you that they love the food, but you can't rest on that. I took the dish that he had that he didn't like, the lemongrass calamari, we ate it and said, "Is this good enough?" We looked at all the food and asked, "Is this good enough?" And that dish wasn't good enough. A lot of other food I thought was great. But that dish prepared by us at its best wasn't good enough to be on the menu, so we took it off. But yeah, I mean, you know, you take a little bit away from Tim Tebow and say, "You know, you'll never see anyone work harder to make this restaurant better than it is." It's an opportunity to learn. When I worked with Stephen Starr, he took every criticism to heart. If someone didn't like something while he was there, he would say, "Let's all eat it, and eat it again." We'd dissect the dish, and see if it was good enough. And we still do the same thing here.
How are things at Thistle Hill?
David: In many ways, they could not be better. Dale has breathed so much fresh air and new life into the menu. Dale brings a certain thing that I think that John and I, and all of our managers and all of our chefs, love. He's my buddy and my partner. He makes us all want to be better. Thistle had fallen off a little bit. It had become a little stale, and it didn't have as much passion, and now it does. It has a ton of passion in the food, it has a ton more passion and friendliness in the front of the house staff.
Dale: We try and have fun. And whether it was the chefs who were there prior, or the service staff, it just didn't seem like they were having fun. And I said, "This is a business where we should be giving people an experience where they should be having fun." I mean, in all honesty, we're not doing anything in any of our restaurants where people are going to take a picture of and go, "How did they do that? That's so crazy avant-garde, I don't know what that is." We're doing meatballs over there, really good meatballs. And we're doing grilled cheese Tuesdays. And that to me is cool and fun and it's something that I want to eat and, hopefully, it's what the neighborhood wants to eat. For some of the specials, we're going to do traditional Filipino food. I've got two Filipino cooks that work at Thistle, and two Filipino cooks that work here. My cooks make Filipino food for family meal, so we're pushing that over here and over there. Thistle Hill is an American tavern, but you know what's American? I'm American. I was born here. My heritage is Filipino, but I was born here.
David: One of the things with Dale's involvement with Thistle is that there's a fun element, but America means a lot of different things. American can mean Thai mussels, it can mean a very Italian-influenced pork chop, it can mean a pasta dish that is coming from so many different angles, and it can mean Filipino food, too. It's going to be fun.
Do you foresee opening another restaurant in 2013?
Dale: We're going to be talking about restaurants in 2013. I don't see us opening one.
David: I think that 2013 is going to be the year where we focus really, really hard on the three things that we have, all while possibly planning for something big in 2014.
Can you elaborate? Will this be a new project outside of Brooklyn?
David: We're Brooklyn. We want to be in Brooklyn. But something big for Brooklyn. We want to bring things to Brooklyn that people are going to get excited about. And that doesn't mean that you can't find it in another city or even just across the East River. But we want to make sure that what we bring isn't here now.
Dale: We're thinking about something bigger than anything we've done, or I certainly have done.
John: So much so that it's going to take us a year to plan it.
Does it feel like it's been a year?
David: January 15, 2012 feels like yesterday, but who we were a year ago seems like different people.
John: Our lifestyles have changed a lot this year.
Dale: When I first opened this restaurant, I dropped probably 20 pounds, and then stacked about 45 after. It's like...you bust your ass to get this restaurant open with a great crew — I could not have done it without my chef de cuisine, my two sous chefs, and they guys that we have here now. But we had a skeleton crew when we opened this place. We had six guys and a dishwasher. And we've been able to almost double that staff to get some guys some days off, but also because we knew that Pork Slope was opening and I had to be away for that. I won't ever do that again, that's for sure. I won't ever open two restaurants within six months of each other.
· All Coverage of Talde [~ENY~]