The NoMad, the second venture from Will Guidara and chef Daniel Humm, was the most anticipated restaurant opening of 2012. The team billed the effort as a looser follow-up to Eleven Madison Park, the duo's fine dining bastion just a few blocks south. On numerous occasions, Guidara and Humm referred to the project as being "more Rolling Stones" than their flagship. To see that through — and to open a restaurant that from the start could efficiently serve breakfast, lunch, dinner, and room service to diners and hotel guests — Guidara and Humm tapped Jeffrey Tascarella as general manager and Abram Bissell as chef de cuisine. Tascarella came to the NoMad from the outside, having earned a reputation as one of the city's favorite front of house players at restaurants like Scarpetta and Tenpenny. Bissell came from within, moving up the ranks at EMP and landing the gig after years working alongside Humm. They seem to have risen to the occasion: in its first year, the restaurant received an enthusiastic three stars from Pete Wells, earned a Michelin star, and established a following that keeps the dining room bustling at practically all hours it's open.
Here, in the following interview, Bissell and Tascarella reflect on the restaurant's first year:
How did you guys get involved with this project?
Abram Bissell: I've been working with Daniel for about six years now. I was looking for an opportunity for growth, and he was looking for a chef to open NoMad. At the time, we just knew it was NoMad and didn't have a clear idea what it really was going to be. I was ready for it. It was about this time of the year about three years ago, when we were at Pebble Beach together, that he asked me to do it over lunch.
What did you know about the plans for the restaurant at that time?
AB: At that time, we knew it was in a hotel, we knew it was going to be 24 hours, and we knew it was going to be a long-form restaurant — it's about double the size of Eleven Madison Park. Everything else that makes a restaurant real — the concept — we didn't know. We knew that we didn't want to compete with each other. We wanted it to be approachable and casual.
How about you, Jeff?
Jeffrey Tascarella: I have been friends with Will Guidara for multiple years. We both had crazy-busy schedules, but we'd find time to get a beer after service, talk shop, and I'd learn about all the cool things he was doing. One of my prized possessions from when I first got an iPad is the photo I took of him drawing the EMP grid menu for me when it was in development. We always wanted to do something together, but he only had EMP. I was just a huge fan. I use the analogy of John Frusciante being really into the Red Hot Chili Peppers and then getting to play with them.
You're John Frusciante.
JT: Yes, with less heroin.
AB: A little less.
JT: So Will took me out for a beer the week I was getting married, and he again drew a sketch. It was of what this place was going to be, and he asked if I was interested.
And how did you two meet? Jeff, you spent some time training at Eleven Madison Park, right?
JT: We did meet at Eleven Madison. Will put me through the ringer there. It was awesome. You think you know how to run a restaurant because you've been a GM at some pretty fancy places, but their culture at EMP is pretty amazing.
What did you have to do?
JT: I went to Eleven Madison Park as a busboy first, and then I cycled through every single position. I would work in the development office here during the day, and then put on my suit and go to EMP at 4 p.m. They made me shave, which ruined my relationship with my wife for a while, because I look like K.D. Lang when I shave. But yeah, it was a total trip. When Abram shifted over here full-time, we'd work all day and became friends.
How involved were you two in the conceptualization of the restaurant? How do you collaborate with Will and Daniel?
JT: Will and Daniel have great vision and a great ability to execute it, but what sets them apart is thire ability to find people they want to work with and just letting those people go for it. I got to be involved in every single facet of this place. We have a big boardroom upstairs, and a lot of this restaurant came about by hashing it out at a table.
AB: We were playing, basically. We didn't have tables yet, we didn't have plates yet, so we spent months developing every little step of the process.
JT: To use another 90s alt rock reference, Billy Corgan said that when he recorded Siamese Dream, he got to do everything he wanted to do with a guitar on that album. That's how I feel about this place.
Tell me a little bit more about that.
JT: We worked with the ceramic artist, local metalworkers for the wine buckets and service trays, we went to antique shows, we curated all the books in library, we collaborated with Jacques Garcia's design team. I mean, we'd discuss how the beveled edge on this table would look. There was so much stuff, and that's not even the conceptual side of the restaurant.
AB: The beginning of the conceptual side was deciding that it was going to be à la carte and not a tasting menu. We wanted to use the same piece of paper for the menu. The napkin fold is the same, as is the water glass. There are these nods to Eleven Madison Park throughout the whole experience. EMP does the roast duck, so we had to come up with a similar dish, and that's how the chicken came about. We wanted it to be a place you could come to three or four times a week if you are in the neighborhood.
JT: Yeah, we wanted people to come here for a variety of reasons, whether it's a drink, a coffee in the library, a business meeting, or mom's birthday. I think we accomplished that, since we've got a good bit of return customers. Not to mention the guests of the hotel, who want to check out what's going on here.
How do you create a place that can successfully fit that wide a range of people?
JT: I don't think that our menu is particularly challenging. I think half of it is about sourcing amazing ingredients. I know people say that all the time, but I see it here. It's about cooking them properly.
AB: One of the things that has made us successful is that I don't think we've tried to reinvent anything. You could say the place has reinvented, in some ways, what a casual restaurant can be in New York. The food itself, though, is straightforward. There are not many items on the plate, and we're not taking lots of steps to get there. We just want to do it as correctly as possible, which makes it feel good and comfortable when you're having it regularly. You don't feel challenged or find yourself thinking about why a texture is manipulated or something like that.
Someone might hear that and say it's safe. What would you say to that?
JT: I don't think there is anything really safe about it. I think it's just good. Will and Daniel said they wanted a restaurant that had really great food, a great wine list, hospitable service, and was a lot of fun. It seems really simple, but I don't know if that many places pay so much attention to every area. I don't think it's safe. If you have a perfectly cooked piece of duck, like they do downstairs, it's mind-blowing.
AB: That's a great example, because everyone talks about the chicken. That comes from a farmer that we know well, and we're involved in every single thing that goes into bringing it to the plate. There's actually a story behind that simple duck breast. It's about handling things properly.
How has the food changed over the last year?
AB: I think we're evolving, which isn't to say the food is changing that much or becoming more fine dining. I think it's safe to say it's becoming more refined. We've been lucky to have a lot of the staff stay on with us, but that also means that you need to keep coming up with challenges for them. We're digging deeper into products and finding out what can be grown specifically for us, we're bringing more of the intricate techniques from the high end restaurant into a volume operation like this, but we'll always be focused on seasonality and regional availability.
How would you characterize this restaurant's connection to EMP? Per Se, for example, has that live feed of the kitchen at French Laundry. Is it anything like that here?
JT: Will and Daniel busted their ass figuring out EMP, and a lot of their systems, efficiencies, and cultures have been implemented here.
AB: One of our blessings was that our entire management staff in the kitchen came from EMP. I picked everyone out. As far as efficiency, cleanliness, and environment, that's one of the best kitchens I've ever encountered. Those systems were one of the few things we didn't need to figure out here. Those systems are mimicked, since I don't think there's much difference between working those two kitchens. We actually have a good amount of people going back and forth. There's even a similar number of plates going out at each restaurant every night.
What surprised you about the opening?
JT: We were scared when we opened this place. The idea was that EMP would never suffer for this restaurant. Abram got to take the kitchen people, and we got to take a few for the dining room, but we still had about 125 front of house people to hire before opening. And mind you, we didn't open gradually. Right off the bat, we did breakfast, lunch, dinner, and room service. Finding those people was daunting, and the result was a pleasant surprise. The hotel let us really deliberate on everything and develop the restaurant, so when we opened, it felt like we had been doing it for a while. We had a solid three months of training with the staff. It was a nice opening. I still lose like 15 pounds every time I open a restaurant, since I gain so much sitting around in the development phase and going out to eat at places I don't usually get to go to because of work.
AB: For me, it's the opposite. Everyone talks about these nightmares of opening a restaurant, since it's one of the most daunting aspects of this business, but it was smooth. We knew it was going to be a monster, so we did full mock services where we had a micro station in the back of the kitchen. I would ring in tickets in sporadic order or timings into rushes. We obviously didn't do six hours of service, but we did full service periods with each individual on staff for the two weeks heading into opening. The goal was to make it seamless. That was kind of a pleasant surprise, having the opportunity to work that way.
Another surprise was the popularity of the chicken. We wanted that chicken to be a nod to Eleven Madison Park, and we decided maybe a day before opening that the stuffing was going to be black truffle and foie gras — that that whole preparation was the perfect mix of casual and fine dining. We had started some relationships with farmers in Pennsylvania and we had told them that we would need around 200 chickens per week. Days into the opening, we knew that wasn't even close to what we needed. By our first month, we knew that a third of the guests would be having that roasted chicken. Now we're starting to edge upwards of that, with like 650 chickens a week. We didn't know it was going to be such a big hit.
Does it bum you out that the chicken might keep people from ordering other stuff you've been working on?
AB: I think it can. The thing that can bum me out — you people to try out the things that sound simpler or that are different from the chicken. I think we get good exposure from the whole menu. Another surprise was seeing that people order food for the table. We always wanted it to be that way, but we didn't know it would turn out that way. I was really happy about that.
How crazy was the review process at what probably was the hottest restaurant of the year?
JT: I love it. It's my favorite part about opening. There are so few professions where you really go through that. People freak out so much, but you really need to freak out during pre-opening. Then, after you've massaged and given birth to your baby, you want to show it off to the world and ask them what they think. You have to be able to say, "This is what I've been busting my ass creating, these are our ideas, and I hope you like it." I also love reading the reviews.
AB: Jeff has helped me a lot with this. I took that time so seriously, and that period was so hard for me and the kitchen and Daniel, riding that wire and waiting for our grades, and Jeff was a big help.
JT: And there's a lot more pressure on the kitchen, I think. You can cook that chicken a thousand times, but the only thing that matters is how you cook it now. In the dining room, I think Will shares my belief that it's just, "Here it is." I can't take down these magenta curtains for you.
I thought the whole thing was going to be big, given Will and Daniel's story, but it was just enormous from the beginning.
AB: And I think it's getting bigger. Now that we're at this one year point, one of the big goals is creating the regulars. I think we already have a bit of that, but we don't want to be the restaurant that opens big and then starts declining. It has to improve and grow.
Who are the regulars? Who would you say comes here?
JT: Some of the regulars started so soon after we opened. There'd be people who came in 12 times in the first month. There are foodie people, finance people, local people. I'm always so honored when line cooks or sous chefs from around the city will use their night off — when they're not making a lot of money — by having dinner here. That means a lot to all of us.
You talk about this being a restaurant that's a bit more rock and roll than EMP. Did it surprise you, then, to get the three stars in the Times and the Michelin star?
JT: You know, EMP — one of the most exquisite dining experiences on the planet — tuning it down a little bit is still pretty awesome. I think it's a fine dining restaurant that's fun. There's nothing hoity-toity about clearing a table correctly, having four somms on the floor, having 30 cocktails, or eating a perfect piece of fish. I believe in my heart it is a three-star restaurant.
AB: It's interesting. I spent four years with Daniel at EMP, where we had a singular goal, which was to become a four-star restaurant. Daniel is good at staying on track for those goals, no matter what anyone says. But here, that was not one of our goals. We didn't have a goal to be a four-star or even three-star restaurant. Our goal was to be the best at what we were doing, whether that's roasting a chicken or sweeping the floor. Do you want recognition for that? Yes, but we didn't have that specific goal.
Any last words?
JT: We talked a lot about the concept of this place, but I can't emphasize enough that we just wanted to open up a good restaurant. We did a lot of research into the origins of inns and restaurants in hotels. We were very much a part of the hotel development process and not just plugged in here.
Which is one of the reasons a lot of hotel restaurants here aren't well-received.
JT: Yeah, that's often the case. That was really cool.
AB: One of the things we enjoy the most about this place is that it's fun, it's loose. Jeff will even take his tie off once in a while.