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Branden McRill on the Nightly Parties at Pearl & Ash

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This is The Gatekeepers, in which Eater roams the city meeting the fine ladies and gentlemen that work the host station at some of New York's most popular restaurants.
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[Daniel Krieger]

Pearl & Ash's Branden McRill got his start in Chicago, where he landed a job at Alinea as a student. After moving up the ranks there, he went on to work for Donny Madia, the owner of Blackbird and Avec, and then at the acclaimed Tru. He came to New York to take on a sommelier position at The Modern, and then went on to manage the openings of Benoit, Fishtail, The Mark, and Red Rooster Harlem, among others. He was the manager in charge of the transformation from Bowery Kitchen into Pearl & Ash, and now he co-owns the restaurant with chef Richard Kuo, sommelier Patrick Cappiello, and restaurateur Alessandro Zampedri. In the following interview, McRill discusses late night revelry, the three requirements for working in restaurants, and what he's got planned for the future:

On a Saturday night, at around 8 p.m., what's the wait for a party of two?
If you're flexible, which almost everybody who comes to the restaurant is—because I think they have kind of a preconceived notion that it's kind of a fun, approachable restaurant—the wait will range anywhere between 45 minutes to an hour and a half. But the thing is, we love having people come in, grab a seat at the bar, and have a couple of cocktails. And then some people decide to have dinner at the bar, which works out really well. I think that's kind of how we make it work.

What's the typical crowd like?
I think the crowd is definitely energetic, and I think generally they're people who want to try new things. They're coming from all over New York, for sure. Some of them are super excited to try the food, some of them are super excited to try the wine, and some of them just live in the neighborhood and they're like, "What's that new spot that just opened? We wanna check that out." And then also we get a lot of industry people — a lot of people who cook, a lot of chefs, a lot of restaurant owners, a lot of restaurateurs, a lot of wine directors, a lot of sommeliers, a lot of people who also write about restaurants. It's kind of like a clubhouse for people who like food, who like wine, who like restaurants.

Who are some of those regulars who come hang out here?
Wylie [Dufresne], who has been in the restaurant a couple of times. Justin Smilie, who's the chef at Il Buco Alimentari. Michel Couvreux who's the wine director at Per Se. Hristo Zisovski, who's the beverage director for the Altamarea group. Dustin Wilson, who's the beverage director for Eleven Madison Park comes in sometimes. Aldo Sohm, who's the wine director for Le Bernardin is a pretty big regular. I'd say that's a good group of the guys who have been here often. Oh, and Carla [Rzeszewski] from the Breslin. She's been in quite a bit as well.

What's your favorite time to be here?
I think when it reaches a fever pitch.

Which is when?
It can happen any time. And it does happen. Sometimes we'll get this great bar crowd going right off the bat, like early on in the evening. And sometimes it's your classic time, where it's 7:45, 8:30, and the room is completely full, and the music's set at the perfect pitch, and the lighting's at the perfect pitch, and everybody's had that first glass of wine, and everybody's relaxed, and you just feel it. There's this comfortability, and this emotion of levity and fun in the environment that you can almost touch. And then a lot of times we'll have industry come in late at night. At 11, 11:30, 12 o'clock, we might be starting a whole new evolution of what's about to happen. And so for the next couple of hours we'll open up a couple bottles of champagne, a couple of magnums, maybe Patrick will get up on the bar and saber a bottle...

I was going to say, I've seen a few photos of that.
Yeah, and that can happen on any night at any time, and it just spontaneously will come out of nowhere. Like we'll be sitting down and winding down at the end of the evening, and there will be a couple of guests left in the dining room, and then 12 people in the industry will show up. And we're there for the next two or three hours, hanging out and having a good time, drinking wine, having dishes, talking...

How did you get started as a restaurant manager?
I was working at a restaurant when I was 15. I was actually parking cars and washing dishes at the Grosse Point Hunt Club before I even had a driver's license. It's an equestrian club in the town that I'm from, Grosse Point, Michigan...I was working in restaurants throughout the rest of high school. And then when I started college, I was also working restaurants, I was working in a Greektown restaurant in Detroit. Then I transferred schools to Chicago, and I started working at this pizza place. I'd been working in restaurants about five years at this point, and I saw an ad on Craigslist for a new restaurant that was opening, and I went and met with the GM. He sat me down and he asked me if I'd ever heard of Gourmet magazine, or if I ever read the New York Times, or if I liked to cook, or if I knew who Thomas Keller was, or if I'd heard of the French Laundry, or if I'd ever heard of this restaurant called Trio. And I said no to everything. And he goes, "You're perfect." And that restaurant was Alinea.

They hired me in, and I came on as a food runner, and then I was a back waiter, and then a front waiter, and the last position I held was a floater, and I would go around to all the different rooms and seek out where anyone was having an issue and kind of help them with it, then go on and do something else. Because I'd done each of those jobs, so I knew how to stop trouble. And I lost my mind when I started working there. We did a tasting prior to the opening as part of the training, and we went through the entire menu...I had never eaten in a fine dining restaurant before. I had never been to anything even remotely like that. I didn't even know it existed, and I was so floored. Like knocked out, backwards, crazy, out of my mind, over the moon about how good it was, and I just said, "This is what I want to do. I've already been working in restaurants, but just for a job, this is what I want to do."

From there your resume is pretty extensive, and it seems like you've opened a lot of places. Why is that?
I love openings. I absolutely love openings. Some people do them and they say, "I'm never going to do that again." And then some people do them and they're like, "I wanna do that." Because it's so stressful and so crazy. Things are changing all the time, and you're making the budget work, and you're working 20 hours a day, seven days a week, and you're just going out of your mind. But it's such a fun, creative part of the restaurant, and it's such a fun part to be able to add to. You get to put your two cents in, and the collaboration of the people that are around, that are enthusiastic and passionate about it...there are not a lot of things that I've been a part of that are equivalent to that kind of drive, that type of a push.

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[Daniel Krieger]
Are there any ones that stick out to you as a particularly hard opening? Or a particularly great experience?
This one for sure is definitely my favorite...This project started out where it wasn't mine. I just had a conversation my partner, Richard [Kuo]...who wasn't my partner at the time, we were just both employees of [Bowery House]. I said, "What do you want to do?" And he said, "Well, I wanna do this." And I said, "Well let's do it." He said, "I don't know if the owner [Alessandro Zampedri] is gonna go for it." And I said, "Well why not?" He said, "Well, you know, he wasn't super excited about the previous iteration that it went through." And I said, "Well, you didn't have anything to do with that, you weren't really involved with that. What's the worst case scenario? We're gonna tell him this is what we wanna do and he'll say no. We won't have lost anything. " So he said "OK."

We pitched [Alessandro]. He asked us how long it was going to take, and how much it was going to cost, and we told him how much it was going to cost, and how long it was gonna take, and he said, "Let's do it." Two weeks later we closed the restaurant down for six weeks, and opened it as Pearl & Ash 2.0 on February 5. All during that whole entire time, we were just employees of the restaurant. But we were working seven days a week, between 16 and 20 hours a day. On Christmas Day, Richard and I spent 14 hours at the restaurant, sanding and staining the tables... Because it was going to cost us $4,000 to get it done. And we were like, "We could use that for something else! So let's just do it." So that's what we did...I think Alessandro saw that, and I think he realized that we were going to put time into it, and he asked us if we wanted to be his partners in the restaurant.

We said yes, and then Patrick [Cappiello] came in afterwards, and [Alessandro] saw what kind of level of commitment he was willing to put in, and we all sat down and decided that it made great sense if he came on and worked with us as well. He came on, and now we're all partners.

So you're here to stay?
This is like my firstborn child. I think that it's always going to hold a special place, as a firstborn does, but at the same time I wanna have more kids. None of them will be any favorites, and they'll all be a little different, but I wanna have more children, for sure. I like creating, I like making things, I like opening. So I wanna be here, but I also wanna be doing other things. I wanna put myself in a position where I can be creating other things, but also be working in all of them at the same time. Of course it's not super realistic to think that you can be super involved with so many things, but I'd like to be able to make myself as involved as possible in as many operations as possible, as long as I can still stay on the ground with everything. So, I dunno, two or three restaurants, until the infrastructure grows and we can start to actually do something a little bit bigger. But that's years down the road.

I think the next 18 to 24 months for us may have an opening in it, and it might not. It just depends on what happens, but we're not rushing anything. We're taking our time and we're trying to make very smart choices and make sure that we nurture our firstborn and pay very close attention...We don't want to bleed out, or we don't want to jeopardize what we've got. We have something that we think is really awesome. The people who come here seem to have a very good time, and we enjoy doing it, so I would never want to jeopardize that. But if we can figure out a way to make it work so we can have more than one, so we can host two parties a night instead of one, I would love to do it.

Do you have any ideas for new restaurants in motion right now?
I have ideas, and I have two things that I think are really interesting, that I think would be really fun and would play very well into the current market, would be a natural progression for us to do...And if we did them, people would say, "Well, that makes sense, they should be doing that." And also they would say, "What a cool idea. That's something a little bit different." So I think people expect from us now something that's a little bit different.

But you're not giving away any specifics yet?
I mean, I think it's more fun to wait. Because then when we roll it out, it's more fun....I mean, for this restaurant, for example, we didn't say anything about it until the day we opened. Then we started talking about it, and that really worked out well, because we didn't have a six-month build-up time when we were saying that we were coming, and this is what we were doing...We just opened and started doing it, and that worked. So I think that might be our thing. A quiet whisper.

In terms of actual service, are there things that you are particularly focused on? Are there things you think are particularly important, or that you look for when you're hiring people?
Number one is that people are nice. Above all else, that's the number one aim. Number two is that they are passionate about whatever it is they're doing. It doesn't necessarily have to be about restaurants. Because we have a lot of people working here who are passionate about many things on equivalent levels. Like some are passionate about restaurants and something else that they do—like maybe they're a woodworker, maybe they're an actor...But as long as they're a passionate individual, and they can channel the passion they have for whatever it is they do outside of work to their job when they're here, that's number two. And then number three would be that they're hard-working. Because everybody who's in this environment puts forth a lot of effort. It's challenging because we're busy, and we ask a lot of our people. It doesn't sound like it's a lot to be nice, and to work hard, and be passionate, but if you ask for it from somebody 100 percent of the time, it's actually a task in itself...Beyond that, you just recognize guests, and nice people want to recognize guests. So it's like a natural, easy transition, and it just happens automatically. And then the technical aspects of it we just teach as we go. We teach people about food and we teach people about wine, and we teach people the technical aspects of service, and they want to know it because they want to do a good job. They care about what they do, and it all just falls into place.

Is there anything that really irks you about service at other places?
Yeah, it's the exact opposite of those things. I don't look for whether water glasses are empty. I don't look at like food taking too long, or dishes not being seasoned properly. I look for: Do the people who work there look happy? Are they nice people? Do they want to be there? Are they working hard? Are they working passionately? And if the answer is yes and something happens wrong, then that doesn't bother me. But if you see people who are not happy to be there, and you can see that there's not effort being put forward, and there's not passion there, then it doesn't irk me, but it just makes me sad.

Final question: What are your favorite places to go out to eat and drink?
Where do I like to go? That's a good question. I like Momofuku Ssam Bar. I like to go to The NoMad. I like to go to Thomas and Ignacio's new restaurant, Estela. That's a fun place. I like to go to Mission Chinese. I like to go to Koreatown in the middle of the night—Patrick showed me this place called Mad For Chicken. It's on the second floor of this beauty parlor in this condo building. Unbelievable.

And what about favorite bars?
I like Maison Premiere. I really like Pouring Ribbons. I really like Attaboy, Sam [Ross]'s new place in the old Milk and Honey space, I think it's awesome. Sean Muldoon is absolutely a phenomenal talent, and now he's opened up his new bar, The Dead Rabbit. Talk about guys who are passionate and work hard. He's been trying to get that place open for like three years, and he's done nothing but pour everything into it. And that passion comes through, people can tell. Then he was just voted the best new bar in the world [at Tales of the Cocktail]. That's what happens. If you care about something, and you put so much time and effort into it because you just want it to be good, and you just want it to be right, and you do it for the right reasons, people sense it. They feel it, and they will always go to that first. That's always something that's going to attract people, that kind of passion and that connection.
· All Coverage of Pearl & Ash [~ENY~]

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