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.
[Kyle Wittels and Ryan Tate by Krieger]
Last spring, chef Ryan Tate quietly opened his small tasting menu-only restaurant, Le Restaurant, beneath Tribeca food market All Good Things. He and owner Kyle Wittels had always planned the basement-level restaurant as part of the market, but it opened about six months after the meat, produce, and coffee counters did upstairs. In the intervening time, the former Savoy chef manned the fish counter, and gradually turned the back of the market into a cafe with a menu of simple seafood dishes.
When Le Restaurant opened, it flew mostly under the radar for several months, serving a $100 tasting menu to 12 tables just three nights a week. Then the restaurant was awarded a Michelin star, and shortly after earned two-stars from the Times. Now, one year in, Tate and Wittels reflect on feeding people cod sperm, the crucial importance of bread, and the advantages of having a restaurant inside a market.
How did the idea come about to do a market upstairs and a restaurant downstairs?
Ryan Tate, chef: That was all Kyle's idea. He was very inspired by this market in Morocco that was sort of like a spiral jetty. You would go and buy things from vendors and then in the center of the market there were kitchen stalls. You would just give your product to somebody and they would make you lunch or dinner. The idea was to have a closed system. Waste is an issue in the restaurant business and in markets. So we're always moving product from one place to another to keep it moving through the chain.
Kyle Wittels, owner: The overarching philosophy of the place is a grocery store that acts as the kitchen's walk-in. Nothing we sell upstairs is something that wouldn't be used in the kitchen. So regardless of how much patronization we have, it keeps everything flowing through. It keeps things fresh and it also allows us to have a lot of things on hand. Being that we're a reservation only restaurant, sometimes it looks like we'll only have 10 people, and then all of a sudden we'll have 25 people by the time 6:00 p.m. rolls around. Having a grocery store helps with that. We have a lot of product on hand. We have a lot of stuff to choose from.
How did the opening go? Any surprises?
Ryan: I think the kitchen staff was well-conceived, I had people that I knew and trusted, so from that side we were fairly confident. My biggest nervousness was how to get people down the stairs. We didn't want customers just milling about. I mean to some extent you want them milling about in the market, because maybe they'll buy something, but you also want them to be able to find where they're going, and we have an unmarked door. And you always worry when you're serving one menu whether it's good or not. Are people gonna pony up the $100 for a menu they know nothing about? That's still with me every day. Are people gonna want to pay $100 for the menu tonight?
Kyle: We're a different restaurant than where we were when we first started. We just decided, early on, to change a few things about the way the menu was done and the food came out.
What have you changed?
Kyle: Simple things. Like we offer more courses now. They way we serve the bread within the sequence of the meal has changed.
Ryan: We basically added a section of canapes to the menu, so people could enjoy a cocktail but not be ravenous before food started coming. Then we inserted the bread service after the canapes, so you're getting a little more substance. Because it's 10 courses, but nothing is really more than three ounces on your plate. That was always my issue — how to satisfy people's hunger. To sit and wait for two hours for sustenance is never what I wanted to do. I wanted to get something into them, but I didn't want them to eat a ton of bread, so we give them some snacks with flavor and lots of interesting textures first, then we give them the bread to get a little something more in them before the first course comes out. I still don't even know if we get it right all the time. A lot of times you're just really hungry by the time you get to a piece of protein. I'm always so conscious of that because I get "hangry." I get really angry the hungrier I get. And if you have a room full of "hangry" people, then you're teetering on the brink of disaster all the time. So the bread serves a very important part for us. Not only is it tasty, but it gives you a shot of carbs and butter and fat. We start with a few little dainty bites and then you have this big rustic slab of bread that makes you feel comfortable again. A lot of times when I construct the menu I think of things as comfort and discomfort. I really try to be a little jarring at first with some of the flavor combinations, and then we reward the diners with a dish that they can look at and 100 percent identify. I think about that a lot, to test and reward people. We want to be an interesting restaurant, but we're not pushing boundaries. There are no safety words required to eat here.
Why did you want to open a tasting menu-only restaurant?
Ryan: I feel that it's the best way for the diner to get a snapshot of what's happening in the market and in the world of food. Like, the peas are growing now, and the marigolds. The snapper is beautiful now. All these great ingredients come together in one meal, as opposed to when you dine at an à la carte place, when you could be missing something really special. Maybe you don't like monkfish, but here we're giving you monkfish, it's really good monkfish, and people often will walk away saying "I never would have ordered that, but I'm glad I tasted it." I have customers that I fed cod milt to one time, and they were like, "What is it? It's so rich and creamy and delicious." And I was like, "It's cod milt," and then went on to explain even further that it's cod sperm. And they were just like, "We would have never considered ordering it, thank you for putting it in front of us and making us eat it." Those are the types of rewards we hope to have from this kind of experience, getting people to relax and teach themselves something new about themselves.
Are there any downsides to having only a tasting menu? Do you ever wish you did some à la carte service?
Ryan: There's definitely times when people with allergies and dietary restrictions all come on the same day, and their restrictions are widely varying, from lactose to gluten to garlic to buffalo horns or whatever. Those are the hardest days, because if you have 10 tables and all 10 of them have a different allergy, that makes constructing a single menu very difficult. That's usually when I wonder what we're doing here.
How do you navigate changing the menu so often? How do you maintain a certain consistency? Do you ever wish you changed it less often?
Ryan: No. It changes every week now, and that has been a sweet spot for us. The dishes sometimes show their bright flash at their early conception in the week, and sometimes it doesn't really materialize until the end of the week, when we're like "Oh, this is really how it should have been yesterday." Or sometimes it's like, "Wow, this is as good as it's gonna get," and then we try to do it the next day and I'm like, "Eh, maybe we should have gone a different direction." The bright points hit at different times for different dishes. And if I didn't like it, I'll just come up with something else the next day, and suffer it as a personal loss.
What's something you thought was going to work and didn't?
Ryan: Just recently we got a beautiful case of porcini mushrooms in. And we were able to slice the stems super paper thin — they were beautiful. But then the next day, just because of the natural process of mushrooms dehydrating, we weren't able to slice them the same way, so then we had to change how we served the mushroom.
When you started you were only serving dinner three nights a week. Why start out with so few days? And how did that make things different?
Ryan: It was basically us trying to figure out balancing the two businesses simultaneously at first. We were really dipping our toe into the water at first to see how people would respond. And we had a great response, even though it was really just locals. It was a very word-of-mouth business for three or four months easily. Then we were like, "Okay, how can we get more people in here?" So we started to reach out with PR a little bit more, and eventually had the [Times] review and opened another day. The review basically forced us to open another day. The New York Times has a huge impact immediately on your reservations, and it lasts a long time. Now we're doing Tuesdays through Saturdays.
Do you think you'll stick to those days?
Ryan: We've always done things very organically, so to say that we will stay at that is hard to say. We're responding to people's needs, even though we're an only-offer-one-thing kind of business. If people aren't coming on Tuesdays, then we're not going to be open on Tuesdays anymore. We've already worked ourselves to the bone, there's not a lot left to chip off. If we can take a day off here and there because people aren't booking, we will.
What was the review process like? Did the Times review surprise you at all?
You knew when Pete Wells was here.
Ryan: Well, one time no, one time I was pretty sure it was him, and then one time it was without a doubt. He came with someone I knew, which was weird. The time that I was pretty sure it was him, I was definitely not happy with some of the things we served. I was pissed. Then the third time I'm pretty sure it was a spot on meal. One time he sat at the bar and I brought most of the food out and conversed with him. I feel bad for the reviewers, I feel often they're dehumanized in some ways. In his mind it's like, "Here I am, judging these people and they're probably freaking out." It's not that I don't care, but I just want them to have a good time, just like any other customer.
Kyle: That's very hard, because after we realized who he was, you couldn't just say, "Hello, how are you?" And then especially the last time he came, for Ryan to know the person he came with so well. But I was actually super flattered that he did something like that because I think he realized that we're such a small restaurant, obviously we would know who he was. I think he simply wanted to divert the attention off of himself.
And then did the Michelin star surprise you?
Ryan: That was a complete surprise.
Kyle: Totally. The person came within the first couple of weeks of opening.
Ryan: I don't know how they even knew we were here. We had no press. How did this person even know that there's a restaurant operating here? They were tweeting [the stars], and Kyle was like "Somebody from the Michelin Guide was here," and I didn't even believe it. Obviously, who walks around thinking they're going to be good enough to be recognized by the Michelin Guide as a chef? Not one chef I know. I mean, we're egotistical people, chefs, but at the end of the day no one thinks what they're doing is good enough to be recognized by something as quantitative as the Michelin Guide. It's things that young boys dream about when they first start cooking.
Kyle: And girls.
It's still relatively uncommon for the cooks to serve the food. When and why did you decide to do that?
Ryan: When I stopped working at my last job. To be transparent, it was out of an utter disdain for waitstaff. I just don't understand them. I like them, they're good people, but they're freelancers, they're there for the money. I really wanted to create an environment where everyone had a common goal, and the common goal really wasn't the tip, it was the customer. The common goal wasn't to hustle for more money, it was for the customer's satisfaction. So we stripped it down, and the tips are all shared amongst the staff. That's how the cooks get a piece of the pie, by taking the food and interacting with the customers. And it does have a great effect. The staff that we have can focus on talking about wine, or the cocktails, and we can just handle the food and everyone's happy at the end of the day.
What do you want to do more of? Do you have any aspirations big or small for the coming years?
Kyle: For myself it's to run the business we're already running. Still inspiring people, still waking up wanting to come here because I really enjoy the people that patronize the place. That's what keeps me coming here every day. Other than things breaking.
Ryan: One of the greatest things for me that's happened is building the clientele. I started at a very base level and cultivated clients that we get to have conversations with. I taught one guy's kid how to shuck oysters. These types of things are exciting. There's definitely a social atmosphere to it. The cooks bring the food and have a conversation with the customer about what's on the plate. You really only want to be surrounded by people that like you, and that's what it feels like we're building here. They like us and we like them.
· All Coverage of Le Restaurant [~ENY~]