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.
For their third restaurant in three years, Robert Newton and Kerry Diamond opened Nightingale 9, a sunny Vietnamese cafe on Smith Street in Carroll Gardens. Rob and Kerry have been going to Vietnamese restaurants together since they first starting dating, and to prepare for this project, they spent a lot of time in Vietnam sampling the cuisine. Eater recently sat down with the duo to talk about how Nightingale 9 evolved over the last year, and how their lives have changed since they opened their first restaurant, Seersucker, almost four years ago.
Where did the idea for Nightingale 9 come from?
Robert Newton, chef and co-owner: It took place a long time ago, when I got into Vietnamese food in culinary school. I'd never had coconut milk and ginger in Arkansas. I came to New York and I was working for a Cambodian chef and there were other cooks in the kitchen that were also curious about food. Through that process, I delved deeper into Vietnamese food, Thai food, and a little bit of Burmese food. It became apparent to me that Vietnamese was the one that I liked the most.
Fast forward 15 years. We saw an opportunity in the space, and I wanted to explore something that I had felt passionately about for a long time. We needed to spend some time in Vietnam. So over the last two years, I probably spent six weeks there. Kerry was with me both times.
What was the difference between the Vietnamese food you were eating in New York versus the stuff you were trying in Vietnam?
Kerry Diamond, co-owner: It's completely different. You can find pho, you can find bún bò Huế, and the general dishes are the same, but there's just this flair that doesn't exist here. It's interesting because most New Yorkers, and we were among them, they know what they know based on Vietnamese restaurants in Chinatown.
Some critics and Asian cuisine experts thinks that the Vietnamese food in New York is just okay. Was that your perception of the food scene?
Kerry: That's all I knew for years. I mean, I very happily ate New York City Vietnamese food for a good two decades before we opened the restaurant and I was super happy and it was my favorite kind of cuisine. And now that I know a little bit better, I still love to go to Chinatown and go to our favorite Vietnamese restaurants. That's what we bonded over when we first met — he had his favorite place and I had my favorite place.
Robert: I think the answer to your question is that, for me, the food in Vietnam is somehow simultaneously more simple and more complex. The herbs are certainly more prevalent. They're fresher, they're in better shape, and there's more variety. That's one of the things that we are very committed to, and that we struggle with depending on the season, is to get the kind of herbs that we want to use. Rice patty herbs are very hard to come by. Really good sawtooth coriander is very hard to come by. Banana blossoms are a big challenge, too.
Kerry: It is a little painful knowing what we can't get here, ingredient-wise, and going over there and going to these vibrant, beautiful markets. But I think we're doing a good job with what we have available to us. One of the times when we were over there, it was mangosteen season, and a ripe mangosteen in season will break your heart. You can't really get that here.
Did you take any style cues from Vietnam, in terms of how you created the look of the space?
Kerry: Absolutely. The restaurant culture over there is so fascinating and so different from what we know here. It's so much about street food — one person on a corner with their plastic stools set-up and they make one thing and they make it over and over. When they run out, they run out, so you better get there in time. The restaurants that they do have are much simpler affairs. The look and feel of the décor is completely simple and stripped down.
Rob, when you were approaching this restaurant, were you consciously trying to blend Southern American food with Vietnamese food?
Robert: No, I don't think you can do that. I think it has to happen organically. I certainly didn't set out to have a Vietnamese/Southern fusion place, which I think is very dangerous. But if you grew up where I grew up and have a Southern restaurant and grew up eating the kind of food I grew up with — and not to mention that I'm not Vietnamese — I think it's only natural that some of those elements are going to come out.
Interestingly enough, one of the things that's happened to me on a pretty deep level is that I've gotten turned on to all these Southern crossovers that are between Southern food and Vietnamese food. Because when you really put fish sauce and lemongrass to the side and start talking about frog legs, quail, crabs, mustard greens, pickles, shrimp, and a rice-driven culture, we're talking about both, simultaneously. They're definitely different cuisines, but there's more overlapping than meets the eye. So those things for me, at least, happened organically. But there's definitely never a focus point to be like, "Oh, I want to mix collard greens and cha ca la vong to make cha ca collard greens." I'm not into that.
Kerry: The similarities are amazing. On our first trip there, I think that shocked us the most, just to see how many crossovers there were. The more dishes we ate and the more markets we toured, it was exciting to see all the crossovers and just all the potential represented for what Rob could do in the kitchen.
Did the Seersucker fans make a connection with this restaurant right away?
Robert: Definitely. I think it was really well received.
Kerry: We had no intention of opening a third place. It was the same as with the coffee shop — we had no intention of doing a coffee shop so quickly — but that space opened up and it was available for several months and I think that once a day someone stopped us and said, "Are you going to take over that space?"
Robert: And it went from "Hell no," to "Well, I don't know."
Was it a challenge to keep the price point low?
Robert: Depends on who you ask.
Kerry: Price point is so individual depending on where you are in life and what kind of salary you make. At the end of the day, we're trying to do a very nice product and use the right ingredients. All of our regulars and neighbors know that there's a farmer's market across the street and we use as much of that produce as we possibly can.
$13 is not a lot to pay for an entree made with good ingredients. But you think that some customers felt otherwise?
Kerry: I think there's definitely an issue with Asian food. I know some of the comments we've gotten, and I've definitely seen some of the things online, that people think Asian food should be less expensive. Well, there's two things: Asian food should be less expensive, and they don't understand why there's no take-out and delivery. We did not experience either of those issues at Seersucker. People weren't harassing us for take-out and delivery and they weren't complaining as much about the price point and I wonder if that's because people are used to being able to go to Chinatown where you can get five dumplings for a dollar. Chinatown is still the greatest bargain in New York City, so I think people apply that thinking outside Chinatown as well, and that's just reality. I think anyone that's trying to do something different and special will face this issue at some point.
We don't have investors and we don't have backers. We have each other.
Did you have to make any tweaks after the first month? Did you throw anything out the window?
Robert: Yeah, I can yell you what was thrown out the window. One of the greatest challenges that we faced in the first 10 weeks is that we operated with no gas. That was a massive, massive challenge. We were on the other side of Sandy, when we were building the restaurant. We were doing a full build-out, which I'd never done before. I mean, I have been very involved with building all three restaurants, but Seersucker already had gas and it had a hood, and Smith Canteen is primarily a bakery. So, I was excited about the challenge and I love building restaurants and I love the creative process, but building an entire restaurant and putting gas in there when it used to be a frame shop is something I'll think long and hard about before doing again. It was incredibly, incredibly challenging.
The good thing for Kerry and I is that we own all the restaurants. We don't have investors and we don't have backers. We have each other. Kerry invested heavily in these projects and I cashed in my entire life for these projects — for this one. And we just parlayed them into the next thing, betting on ourselves and betting on the community and betting on the right thing. Therefore, we had to open. I couldn't wait 10 weeks. There was no more money. We had to open. And it didn't mean that we served shitty food for 10 weeks, it meant that we had to modify the menu and do what chefs do and make it work. It was really hard.
So, the things we threw out the window were all the induction burners that we cooked on. We did everything on toaster ovens and induction burners for 10 weeks.
How was the review process?
Kerry: We're not the new kids on the block anymore, so we understand how that works. It's always hard. Rob tries not to read anything because it's too personal and he's just in it too much. You don't want to be swayed, and he definitely had a vision of what he wanted this place to be. It's a cuisine he just absolutely loves and a people and a place that he has a passion for. He's not pretending to be the world's biggest expert on Vietnamese food; he's just trying to do right by that culture and that cuisine and expose more people to it. So, I'm the one who gets to read everything.
I think we got a fair shake. We definitely got a few nice reviews. Jordana Rothman gave us a very nice review in Time Out New York. Her big beef was with the aesthetics. But it's a choice — it's the look we were going for. We made a few year-end best of lists, which was nice. Garden and Gun put one of our dishes on its list, which was really interesting. Funnily enough, that dish has not sold at all. I don't think it's on the menu anymore.
Robert: That's a great example of Southern food finding its way into Vietnamese food, and me interpreting it in a Vietnamese way. So I took the idea of Louisiana-style boudin, which has rice in it. But then I put Vietnamese herbs and shrimp and pork in it. We made a boudin, hung it in the walk-in, took it off the shelves, and then we made a beautiful sauce for it with lemongrass and stuff. But it was just D.O.A.
Kerry: Your critical darlings aren't always the ones that sell. We got a nice review from Hungry City in the Times, but their least favorite dish is our best-seller: the caramel pork. So you do kind of take everything with a grain of salt and you just try to stay true to what you want to do because restaurants are an evolution. What you open as on day one is not what you are 12 months later.
You have three restaurants together, and Kerry you now have a magazine, Cherry Bombe. You're both very involved in the food scene and the community. Three years ago, did you have this in mind as the grand plan? Are these all things that you wanted to achieve?
Robert: I wouldn't recommend that anybody opens three restaurants in less than three years, I will say that. We're successful, we're good, we're still together, we're alive, we're paying all the bills, and we're trying to make things more profitable. But it's hard. I didn't set out to do three restaurants in three years. I think that one thing that I've uncovered in this process is that I have a lot more entrepreneurial spirit than I thought. I really enjoy the challenge, I really enjoy the process, I really enjoy creating jobs, I really enjoy developing and creating a concept, something I believe in. I love the process and I love the entrepreneurial side of it and I love the food side of it, so it's just natural.
Kerry: It's interesting now, because a lot of people are approaching us about opportunities, and it's kind of funny because when we started out, we just wanted to open this place in the neighborhood. One of my biggest goals was just that we didn't torpedo our relationship. And now almost four years later, we have three places, which is funny. But yeah, we have a lot of people approaching us now to do these restaurants in other cities, on other coasts, down in Nashville, and in Manhattan. We feel really lucky and it's an interesting place to be. We're really just trying to see the big picture and kind of take it one day at a time —
Robert: — because it's all ours, and to do something with a partner is going to be a very different thing. Kerry has her magazine and we're partners in this. We really like the creative process, but we really like to have control of it. It's a very specific thing that we do in each place, and our thumbprints are deep into each one. So when you're going into something with partners, you have to really have the language very clear about how you're going to operate, especially if you have a very strong point of view. Chefs are often not the easiest people to deal with.
Are you open to doing a fourth restaurants, let's say, just the two of you?
Kerry: I'd never say never. I mean, you know, when we sat together here a few years ago, I had no idea I'd have a magazine. I was very happy working for the man. I only left my day job last May. I don't come from a family of entrepreneurs, and I didn't think I had that coursing through my veins, but I guess we do. I've done four small businesses in less than four years now, and Rob's got three. There was no masterplan.
Robert: Definitely not. I was just trying to keep my head above water. I was so, so, so naive.
Kerry: We were very naive in the beginning.
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