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.
[ Jennifer Vitagliano, Matt Lambert, and Barbara Lambert by Krieger]
Most of the critics ignored The Musket Room when it opened last summer, but the Michelin inspector was paying attention. After just four months in business, the New Zealand-inspired restaurant from chef Matt Lambert, his wife Barbara Lambert, and partner Jennifer Vitagliano received a coveted star. Following this major accolade, the Lamberts and Ms. Vitagliano continued to refine The Musket Room into the winter, fall, and spring. Eater recently chatted with the team about how their first restaurant together became the sleeper hit of Elizabeth Street.
How did this project come together?
Matt Lambert, chef and partner: I'd been planning on doing something for a really long time, originally in Auckland. I had a couple of ideas bouncing around, but they seemed a bit more limited. Then I kind of figured that my best approach and point of difference to other people is that I'm not from here, so we went down the whole New Zealand alley. I always loved the space, even when it was Elizabeth. We tried a couple of times but some other people also thought that. So a couple of other people were in here, but then it came up again and we were lucky enough to make it happen.
Barbara Lambert, managing partner: It was a pretty raw ugly space that we received, and there were quite a few problems going up with the construction. It was a big undertaking to get this space where we needed it to be.
Jennifer Vitagliano, developing partner: I think we always saw the opportunity in this neighborhood and this space. We saw that the backyard garden could be a really nice thing, even if we couldn't use it. We liked the amount of natural light, and it seemed like a really light space that we could do a lot with.
How was the build-out?
Jennifer: It was pretty challenging. Our first delays started with Hurricane Sandy. We went through the New Business Development Bureau, and they got a little bit backlogged with trying to rebuild everyone. Permitting took a long time, and the actual construction took a long time. There were a lot of challenges.
Were you nervous about opening a semi-fine dining restaurant in Nolita?
Matt: I wasn't. I'd been in this area for six years before this place opened. I think I've got a pretty good idea of what people like. It's kind of weird because we did try a few things on the menu that I thought we would sell a lot of, and then we didn't. But then we put octopus on the menu, and now we can't keep enough octopus in the kitchen. I think that it was going to do well, because basically everyone was working their hardest to do the best that they could. And when you do that, how can you go wrong, you know? And we kept it casual enough, I feel, where it was approachable. I like to go to dinner in Motorhead t-shirts. I'd like to think that you could come in here and do the same thing and just happen to get a really nice meal.
Barbara: I think there was a huge opportunity to do something different in this neighborhood as far as trying to give fine dining service, which doesn't necessarily mean stuffy or uncomfortable. It means the servers need to have a certain level of knowledge, and the food has to have a certain level of finesse. I run the front of the house, and we want it to be really friendly. We want people to be very comfortable and feel like you're walking into our living room.
Jennifer: There was a lot of pressure to get open either right before summer or just at the start of the summer to see what a summer looked like. We were fortunate because we were very busy last summer.
What was successful, and what did you have to revise?
Matt: I wouldn't say that I had to revise much, because everything was pretty well received. But the only thing that got a little bit of feedback was the watercress soup. Some people said that it was a little bitter, but it tasted a lot like watercress. So I took that off, and then we replaced that with some other things. Otherwise, everything was quite successful.
Jennifer: At the start, some people have a love/hate relationship with the smoked scallops. But it's always been a best selling dish for us. It's still on the menu.
Did you have to explain the cuisine to guests?
Barbara: I think people have no idea what New Zealand cuisine is. And my husband likes to have some fun with the wording, like, for instance, with the "steak and cheese pie," or the "chicken and the egg." So, I think people don't know anything about New Zealand in general, and then when you play with the words, there's a lot of explaining. A lot of the servers' time is going over the menu line by line, w hich is a good thing and a bad thing. When it's busy, you don't want to spend 15 minutes going over each dish. But at the same time, it's also a great way to make people feel a lot more comfortable. Some of the dishes read a little more adventurous than they really are, but once people taste it, they're like, "Wow this is just really amazing food and there's nothing scary about it."
Matt: I think the food's pretty simple, so I try to keep the explanations as simple as possible.
A lot of downtown restaurateurs complain about foodies hitting up new restaurants in the first few months, then moving on to the next big thing. Did you have that problem?
Matt: I think we kind of missed that. I've been working in the city for six years and I have like zero profile. I went on Chopped one time, but other than that I don't have like a huge profile. We didn't really so much get a lot of the people going for like the trendy kind of crowd or anything. It was just something that kind of grew slowly and more organically, because this is essentially me building a profile now, not just coming with one. So, not really.
Jennifer: Some people are just finding out about us now, and some people are just finding out about Nolita as a food area. There's been a lot of press about that. So we still have people finding out about us, and we still have a lot of regular clients that like to bring people here and turn them on to different things.
Barbara: We have a huge regular following. I give my email out to anyone who really loves us, or who I've met two times. And because of that, sometimes my email is bombarded with reservation requests. I'd say that our clientele is really wonderful, and I'd say that the last word to describe our guests is "trendy," and I hope we never become a trendy restaurant, ever. Those people don't come back.
[ Jennifer Vitagliano, Matt Lambert, and Barbara Lambert by Krieger]
Were you expecting to get a Michelin star?
Matt: It was my goal. That's why I moved to New York. I moved here to work with the Michelin Guide because we don't have that in New Zealand. For me, it's one of the more important, most-respected accolades you can get as a chef. It means that all those years and all those hours you've been putting in are worth however many stars you can get. So my goal was to have one here in three years. So, four months was a bit of a "hoo-fucking-ray" moment. We kind of went crazy.
Were you aware that the wheels were in motion?
Jennifer: We put it out there to a lot of people that this has always been a goal of Matt's. But we were told that it's probably not going to happen in the first year. It was a shock.
Matt: We were told by many people that it was impossible. But it's good, because that just means that you've got to have bigger goals.
Barbara: That's the second time I've ever seen my husband cry. The first was the birth of our child, and the second was the first Michelin star.
Matt: Yeah, at line-up, I cried like a baby girl. It's a big deal to me.
After the Michelin star, did you think that you had to change things? Or did you think that you had to keep things the same?
Matt: I just stayed really scared to be honest. You want to change everything and you want to progress and be the best that you can. But at the same time, you're like, "I want to make sure that I maintain what I have." This year, I'm not going to lie, has been the scariest year of cooking in my life. I'm pretty adamant that we've maintained the standards, and in the end, we'll go from there.
Were you surprised or upset about the fact that most of the critics ignored The Musket Room?
Barbara: The Daily News gave us an excellent review, and in New York, we were a paired review with Estela, and Estela got the forefront of the review, and we got a two-paragraph review.
Matt: And a lot of that goes with credibility, you know what I mean? Nobody knows who I am or what we are, so it's tough. It's a big city. I try to look at those things a little bit differently now, because you think about how some people get reviewed twice in the New York Times in a couple of years, but those are people that are quite special in the industry and everyone knows them. And then people say, "Oh, you haven't been reviewed yet, I can't believe it." And honestly, there's a part of my ego that's like, "Yeah, I want to get reviewed by the New York Times." But at the same time, Gavin Kaysen at Cafe Boulud has been there for six and a half years and he's just leaving and he never got reviewed. And he's one of the best chefs in the country, so it's kind of okay.
Did you get new types of customers because of the Michelin Guide?
Barbara: Not a new clientele, but our reservations increased quite a bit. Dramatically.
Matt: Especially with people from other countries booking like three months ahead of time.
Jennifer: I've noticed a lot of younger guests. We've gotten a significant amount of requests from parents calling and they're like, "My daughter wants to come in here for their birthday on Friday night, but we need to get in early." That's really exciting for me, when a young person saves up their money or researches and really wants to come here.
Matt: I also get contacted quite frequently by chefs that want to come and stage. And I'm like, "Yes! Please, do come."
Did you stage a lot as a young chef?
Matt: Yeah, I did a lot of stages in the city and stuff. They're not on my resume or anything, I just did them on my days off. I feel like when you stage at a restaurant, it's not like a job, it's a hobby. But yeah, I worked at a lot of good restaurants in the city with a lot of good chefs.
Are you thinking about making this one better, or do you want another one?
Barbara: I've already bowed out. I will not be involved in any other restaurants.
Matt: I certainly want to do other things. But are we making this better? Yeah, on a daily basis. We're painting the door right now, and we're rebuilding the garden next week. Last week, we just re-did the pastry section, and we're not even a year old. We added another manager because before that. Barbara was basically working seven days a week. We're constantly thinking about how to make it better, and it's a big thing. I really want to do other restaurants and I think about it a lot and I have other ideas, but at the end of the day, I don't want to do go and do that really quickly. I don't want to go and do another restaurant, and then this suffers. This has to maintain the course before we're able to do that.
Jennifer: It just feels so preliminary. We are weighing a lot of different opportunities. We've had so many opportunities come our way since the Michelin star, but it's just hard to jump into something right now. We did this wanting to get Matt's name out there and get some accolades and really put us on the map as a group, and more so Matt as a chef. But I never thought we'd get so many offers and opportunities so early on. It's just really about developing this business and figuring out what the next move should be.
Does it seem like it's been a year?
Matt: It seems like one long day.
Barbara: I think it's only gotten better. I think we're finally getting in our groove and we all know how to work with each other and we all understand our personalities to a tee. I think we're only getting better. I think there's a lot of growth in our future.
· All Coverage of The Musket Room [~ENY~]