Over the past five years, restaurateur Gabe Stulman has come to run a mini-empire, with most of his ventures sprinkled throughout the West Village. Perla, which opened one year ago on Minetta Lane, might be one of the best of his bunch, thanks to the contributions of Michael Toscano and Matt Kebbekus. Toscano is a young chef steeped in Italian cooking traditions and fond of the nose-to-tail proclivities of Mario Batali's cooking. Kebbekus is a passionate front of house player that served in managerial roles at Joseph Leonard, Jeffrey's, and Fedora before becoming a partner at Perla. In the following interview, Toscano and Kebbekus reflect on year one and talk about the future:
How did you guys get involved with Perla?
Matt Kebbekus: Gabe and I were friends in college in Madison, Wisconsin. Although Gabe and I weren't in any classes together, I did see him at the bars that I went to and at the restaurants I worked at. That's how we initially became friends. People have batted around this Little Wisco moniker about our restaurants, and there is a lot of truth to that. A core group of people that met through restaurants and bars there ended up, for some reason or another, in New York working together.
I first worked with Gabe at Little Owl, when I came here for a summer from San Francisco, where I had been working at Delfina and Hawthorne Lane and Boulette's Larder. When I came out a second time, I worked as a lunch server at Joseph Leonard. I went on to work every position there, then to Jeffrey's Grocery, and when we opened Fedora, I took on a managerial role. I became the general manager for Joseph Leonard and Jeffrey's, and when Perla came up, I joined in as a partner here.
How about you, Michael?
Michael Toscano: When I moved to New York, I worked at Bouchon Bakery with Jim McDuffie, who is the executive at Joseph Leonard. From there, I went to Babbo, which was a block away from Joseph Leonard, where Jim was building it. I was the sous chef at Babbo for four years, but during this time, I met Gabe. Then, I went to open Manzo at Eataly. I was the chef. I kept in contact with Gabe, and we started to talk about opening a restaurant together. It was time to move on from Eataly and do my own thing.
How did you get into cooking, by the way?
MT: I played golf in high school. Through playing golf, I got a job at the club so I could practice every day. Through practicing and working at the club, I got to know the chef. Around this time, I was watching lots of Iron Chef Japan, and I became intrigued by all of it, for some reason. I grew up in a family where my parents were great cooks and always making great food. I would ask the chef at the club all sorts of questions, and he was very helpful. Eventually, he offered me a job in the kitchen instead of being out on the course. I started out as a dishwasher, but I loved it.
I ended up being a cook there, and that was it. Then I went to Pinehurst Resort in North Carolina to do my apprenticeship and then moved to New York as soon as I graduated.
Can you talk more about how you got hooked up with Gabe and what you wanted to do with Perla?
MT: So, Gabe approached me about a project while I was opening Eataly, so I had to turn it down. Later, though, we started looking at spaces. We saw a few places, but after seeing this one once, we knew it was it. Luckily, it worked out. It usually isn't like this. He loved my food, so we were going to maintain my approach to cooking Italian food. It was just finding a space.
How would you describe your cooking?
MT: It's very simple. I try to get amazing products but go with a primitive way of cooking. Nothing about my food is particularly modern. I like to go back in time and deal with off cuts and things that people usually discard. I like to use just a few ingredients and make them as good as possible.
It seems like there's a good bit of Mario Batali in your cooking.
MT: Sure. He was a huge inspiration to me. Reading the Babbo book was very inspiring. No one was ordering beef cheeks when he was ordering beef cheeks. He started all of that. I was so intrigued by that. Growing up eating a whole beef head and tripe in my house and then seeing the elevated version of that was amazing. I realized it was the kind of food I wanted to cook.
Aside from working at Babbo, I took a job at Dickson's Farmstand and learned to break down whole animals. That exposed me to the whole process. It wasn't just about ordering it anymore. I try to approach cooking by really looking at the whole animal and being respectful of it.
MK: Something I love about Mike's cooking and something we're proud to see people appreciate — whether it's the cheeks, the ears, the testa — is that he's able to push those towards the front of the dish, but not in a way where it's a challenge. It's not about "Can you accept this food?" and "How gross is this?" It's about having people who might not usually order something like that clear the plate. People come back for lamb belly, for sweetbreads, for veal tongue. It's become a self-reinforcing thing.
Matt, we've talked about what Michael and Gabe wanted to do with the food, but can you talk about conceptualizing the restaurant and atmosphere? Did you want it to be a neighborhood restaurant or a destination spot?
MK: There were a couple of things that attracted us to the space, like the simple bones of it. The ceilings were there, the pine floors were there, both the bars were there with the marble tops. The place that was there before was almost empty, so it was basically a clean slate for us to do anything we wanted. We ultimately built a space around Mike's cooking.
MK: We made decisions we hadn't before. For instance, there are some really large tables, despite the fact that it's only 60 seats. We still manage to have three booths that can seat six or seven people. We have an eight-top in the front, too. It doesn't leave a lot of two-tops, which I think gets into this feast mentality of the cooking. We wanted people to come here and roll up their sleeves and maybe tuck that napkin into their shirts. Mike really ran with that by having dishes for two, a veal head for three. People are calling ahead to make sure that stuff is there.
Neighborhood is definitely the other part of it. It was about taking something so fit for a neighborhood, but still finding a way to elevate what that experience can be. We wanted it to be as accessible to people living across the street as to those who travel to eat here from uptown.
I'd like you two to talk about how you collaborate and communicate with Gabe.
MK: Mike is always here and he really is the cornerstone of what's happening in the space. The general manager is Leah Morgan, and I'm the director of operations. Gabe is a real presence. Not a week goes by that he isn't coming in for dinner multiple times a week or isn't there for the manager meeting. And there's a really voracious e-mail climate. I mean, he's in Scotland right now and we've already heard from him twenty times today. He keeps the perspective and aims the ship, but he's always been very vocal about trusting the people that he works with.
What were some surprises — pleasant and unpleasant — about the opening.
MK: I've got one right off the bat. You just asked us about the concept of the restaurant and the idea of the neighborhood restaurant, and I think the popularity of the restaurant — the immediate popularity of the restaurant —was really a reality check. I don't know if it surprised us, but it was a kind of reality check. Being able to meet those goals of making it accessible for people in the neighborhood and reservable to others was something very difficult to get sorted. We did not have that in balance at the beginning. We've gotten a lot better at how we manage our tables and communicate with people. The initial stumbling block had to do with figuring out how many tables we would leave open for when the doors open at 4:30 p.m., and how many would be reserve-able.
MT: For me, it was getting acclimated to the space. It's one thing to have a menu and then have a place that has plenty of room, but here it's really small and limiting. We're in the middle of the dining room cooking. I'm right next to a six-top. I'm standing a foot in front of them expediting. What a lot of people don't realize is that the space that they see us cooking — that's it. So, in the morning, they're making pasta where I expedite at night. We're using every inch of that.
And there's a lot going on on that menu.
MT: Oh yeah, it was tough getting everything organized so we could execute it. Certainly. We've been trying to progress and strengthen our crew to the point where now there are things we can do that we couldn't have dreamed of at the beginning. We're adding a good amount of stuff.
What are some of those things?
MT: We're making our focaccia in-house, we're curing things, we're making every single pasta on the menu here. Our menu may have started out with seven dishes in each menu category, and now we have nine. That's in addition to the large format dishes and the additions to the menu. At first, we were just trying to keep up.
MK: Something that I've realized, also, is that some of these things will take a lot of space and prep time to put on the plate. How many days does it take to get the veal tongue ready?
MT: About a week to brine.
MK: We didn't start with a veal head when we opened. We started with a lamb head, since it's half the size. The veal tonnato on the menu now is more forward than at the beginning. We're also lucky to have most of the staff from the beginning, which is crucial in making these things happen, and also being able to sell some of these items to a table of five.
What's the hardest part of your job now, Matt?
MK: Losing key players is the hardest part, but like I said, we've been pretty lucky in that department. But when it does happen, it takes time to get someone used to our systems, to doing what someone else got used to over hundreds of hours of lineups and meetings and services.
Another challenge for me is getting better at communicating with diners that want to come in. But I think there's always room for improvement. We're in the process of building a main reservations hub for all the restaurants, so that everyone can get through to a human being and not risk having to talk to an answering machine.
How strange is that early rush, where everyone wants to come eat here, and the transition into the period that follows that?
MT: Those two months, those first two months, you're simply trying to keep up and make things organized enough so that the people that are trusting you and working for you can be motivated and do their jobs. All my cooks are coming in and working a ton — and we only had a week to get used to the kitchen before we opened — so to get reviewed and scrutinized for every little thing is huge. It's especially interesting now, since what we're doing these days is a completely different ball game. We weren't pushing for those reviews, we were just pushing to achieve the goals of the restaurant. Everybody came at such an early stage of that process.
MK: Our ambitions were really big, and we have so much left to do. We hired a pastry chef, added the bread, did so much. I would love to be reviewed now! It would be so awesome if someone came in and reviewed us tonight. Awesome.
Finally, what are your goals as you look ahead?
MK: For me it goes back to that question you asked that had to do with the balance of a destination and neighborhood restaurant. I want everybody that comes in to eat here to feel, in some ways, like family. They're eating a holiday meal, basically. People need to leave full and drunk. You shouldn't be able to go out and dance afterwards. Hopefully that makes us some friends.
How do you manage to create that sense of family while at the same time running a business.
MK: You just have to be honest. We are in the hospitality industry, and it is an industry, but we try to maintain as much honesty as possible in our communications with guests. So, if someone comes in and just wants to have a drink at the bar, I may have to tell them that a seat is taken because someone wants to have dinner there. I'll try to make room for them elsewhere.
And what are your goals, Michael?
MT: It's about maintaining the drive and keeping my cooks focused and excited about what we are doing. A big part of that is changing the menu all the time, so that they can be on their toes and happy about the changes.