Uncle Boons is the new Nolita Thai restaurant from husband-and-wife team Matt Danzer and Ann Redding. The critics haven't started filing on Uncle Boons yet, but the early word from diners has been incredibly strong. The pair's attention to detail and respect for products comes out of their time working at Per Se and other fine dining restaurants and has inspired comparisons to Andy Ricker's smash-hit Pok Pok. That said, their overriding goal to make a restaurant that is (as Udon-born Redding puts it) "not serious" has led to a menu that's filled with their favorite dishes from across Thailand rather than strictly hewing to a specific idea of what a Thai restaurant should be.
In the following interview, Redding and Danzer talk about the inspiration for opening Uncle Boons, the challenges of their approach to Asian cuisine, and their take on authenticity.
First off, when were you both at Per Se?
Ann Redding, co-owner: Matt came in for the opening. He was at The French Laundry before getting ready to open Per Se. I started right after the fire there, which was like four weeks in.
What was in between Per Se and opening Uncle Boons?
Matt: After Per Se, we came to the conclusion that we wanted to do a project together. Originally we were looking at doing a restaurant in the North Fork. We came across this opportunity on Shelter Island, between the North and South Fork, kind of like a mom and pop general store, grocery store, market, everything. It's on the water so it was breakfast, lunch, dinner all to-go at a gourmet deli.
Ann: Very romantic in theory.
But not in reality?
Matt: We jumped on that opportunity. It was really good for us, but a big challenge in the sense that we'd never done retail and there was a lot of retail involved. And it was very seasonal. It was a great experience. It was a great opportunity. That is what enabled us to do this, where our heart really is. We know how hard it really is, opening a restaurant, but that was very challenging. The schedule was very taxing. Just super intense for those four months. But winter was great.
That's how this whole thing came about. In the winter, we would go to Thailand. So I guess five years ago I went for the first time. I stayed with Ann's aunt and uncles, hung out with them. That is when I really fell in love with the cuisine. And it was like, "Why don't we have this all the time? Why aren't we eating this food all the time?"
Had either of you cooked in a Thai restaurant before?
Ann: It never even occurred to me.
Matt: But you worked in a Thai restaurant, your mother's Thai restaurant.
Ann: It was my first job when I was 14. I was a waitress. The worst waitress in the world. But yeah, it never occurred me actually to cook Thai food when I first started cooking. I think my mom was really mad at me?typical Asian mom. She wanted me to be a lawyer or an engineer because she grew up poor. Her whole family did. My grandma, she sold vegetables, she was a farmer. They all sold food. So it was just like, "Dear God, it's in her blood. She's going down that path." She was kind of horrified, and she still is.
When you started planning it, what were the values that you were trying to bring to the restaurant?
Ann: I think we're not very specific planners. We just kind of fly by the seat of our pants, but the overall feel we were going for was just some place really fun and casual and not serious. We wanted to serve good food but wanted people to just come and have a good time.
Matt: We want everyone to feel welcome. We just want it to be a fun, exciting place that is food focused. As far as the decor and the?
Matt: [laughs] The visual aesthetic you see here, that is really Ann and her sister. And it changed, I don't know, two dozen times. "Remember what I told you yesterday? Forget about all that, it's completely ridiculous! This is what we are going to do now." I'm like, okay.
Ann:There's no plan. And then you walk in when it's done and I was like, "This is weird. This place looks really weird."
Not having cooked Thai professionally but having a lot of experience with the food and the culture, how did you go about building the menu itself?
Ann: That was easy. It wasn't so much of a process per se, it was just our favorite dishes. It really wasn't serious, like, "Let's do regional, let's do food from this province and that province." It was more just, "What do I like to eat? What did my mom cook? Oh, I know this dish because I ate it with my grandma." Just whatever we liked.
What are the challenges for you cooking food you grew up on and now serving it to strangers?
Ann: As you talk to any restaurant owner who has an Asian restaurant there is a misconception that the food is supposed to be a certain way. We just really wanted to compose our dishes and present them kind of more what our restaurant background is used to doing and how I want to eat the dish. This is how I want you to try it. You know there is still a lot that you have to do.
Say when I was talking to my mom about doing the menu. There are like 10 of her friends who have restaurants, and there is the must-have list of pad Thai, the green curry, the red curry, with your choice of chicken, beef, shrimp, all that. It gets up to a hundred items that you must have on the menu, which wasn't exactly the route we wanted to take so that's been a challenge. But I think more that our diners that have come so far haven't really expected that, that much. They've been really open and adventurous and great, but you do get a bit of that. You definitely always get the "really expensive for Asian food" reaction. That's been the only challenge I think, really, has been trying get over that stigma.
Matt: One of the most difficult parts was narrowing down the menu. We had a list of like a hundred items that we had just fallen in love with and wanted to have on the menu and at one point we were just like, "We have to scale this down. Yeah, this is going to be ridiculous."
Has the menu changed, to let you bring in those other dishes?
Ann: It's about to. We've been trying to staff, get everyone settled and comfortable. We want to make sure everything we're putting out right now is as perfect as we can get to and then start to grow. Matt and I have both been on the line just due to a lack of cooks in the industry right now, so as we're hiring and getting more people in that will allow us to step back and build it up a bit. It's a lot of fun.
Matt: Well, yeah, I mean we're constantly tweaking stuff and changing the dishes that we do have.
What are the ones that are really resonating with diners?
Matt: The beef cheeks. They're taking off like wild fire. It's braised beef, and we're doing it with the Massaman. Originally we were doing it with another sauce, [like] a Salisbury steak. We had this dish at one of the last places we ate in Thailand. It was like Salisbury Steak on a plate, it was delicious!
Ann: That's what we're calling it.
Matt: For lack of a better term. It was basically ground pork and fermented fish steamed on a plate with soy, garlic and onions. So simple, but just amazing. So I think that's one of the things that we try to capture: great dishes that are just so elegant in their own way. For me it's been hard to hold back as far as all things I know?French, American, Italian. Ann's been like?
Ann: I like to pull out the "My people don't do that."
Matt: It's been a really good challenge, though, in making me think outside the box. I think that's the part that's authentic, the flavor profiles, more than the presentation or anything like that.
Ann:The best part is that while I'm doing that to him, really my mom's yelling at me, "Oh no! You do not do that!" Same thing.
How does your experience at places like Per Se play into what you're doing here?
Matt: The attention to detail, the quality of the ingredients, the way to work, how to work, and how to organize is always the same in any kitchen. If you know those basics, you can adapt it to any place.
Ann: Respect for products, too.
Matt: Yeah. How you handle stuff as well as your flow and everything in the kitchen. As far as the flow we have, I would say it's a more traditional bistro-type of flow where everything comes up to the expeditor, everything goes out of our small pass. I mean it's not this big huge table where you have 12 runners or anything like that, but it's just that kind of traditional set up.
How do you envision it changing as you move forward?
Matt: There are so many things that we want to do. Where to start?
Ann: Survival. We want to build this and just feel good about this. We'd love to do other things.
Matt: I want to get my garden going. That's one thing I really want to do. Start doing our own herbs and vegetables that have been really hard to source, that are kind of integral for certain dishes that we want to put on. So I'm like, "Why don't we just grow it?"
Like what specifically? What's been hard to get?
Ann: I would love fresh tamarind leaves. Rumor has it there are some in Hawaii, some in Florida. My aunt is in Richmond, VA and she actually grows veggies.
Matt: It's ridiculous. They look at a plant and it flourishes. I don't understand. And her mom is like, "No, no, no. When you wash your jasmine rice you are supposed water your plants with that." So we do all these little tricks but they're still just like, nothing. I don't know what it is.
Ann: Yeah, but short term, getting off the line, the garden, simple, simple things.
Any parting thoughts?
Ann: We need line cooks. [Laughs] I try to hide the fact when we do ads that it's a Thai restaurant because people don't come in. I'll be like, "Big, modern technique restaurant opening please come"
Matt: Modern techniques? Such as braising and sauteeing? And grilling. [Laughs] I think the one thing that we kind of have to give a shout out to is that we've had a lot of really unexpected support from a ton of people in the industry. That's been incredible, overwhelming. And people in the neighborhood, who we don't really know but who have just been coming in and supportive of us. As cooks, that feel amazing. We're pretty fortunate so far.
· All Coverage of Uncle Boons [~ENY~]