Erin Norris had arguably one of the hardest New York restaurant openings in the past decade. She was a month from the first dinner service at her Red Hook restaurant Grindhaus when Hurricane Sandy struck and decimated the neighborhood. Grindhaus's basement flooded and the water line in the restaurant rose to around four feet. Her major funders were her parents, who sold their house to help her open, so there was no backup plan. As Norris explained recently, she didn't want one either. "I just want this."
When the restaurant did finally open its doors, it wasn't what Norris had planned. The relaxed neighborhood-friendly concept had been swapped out by her chef Aaron Taber for a high-minded restaurant complete with "tweezer food" that garnered two stars from Pete Wells. Despite the glowing reviews, Norris wasn't happy. She and Taber fought often: "I had stopped wanting to come in here and I live upstairs. I would just quickly sneak out and hide. I just did not want to be anywhere near him because I couldn't stand this person," she recalls. She and Taber ultimately parted on bad terms.
Now, at the one year mark, she is looking for new partners, has a new chef, and is finally running the neighborhood restaurant she had wanted in the first place. She talks with Eater about how being a dominatrix is similar to running a restaurant, why her bar sports a giant white horse head, and what's hidden inside of it.
How close were you to opening when Hurricane Sandy hit?
I was planning on opening in December of 2012. Everything was in its place and then it happened. So, it took another year. During that year I had to learn to produce money. I had to beg, borrow — never steal. I did a Kickstarter campaign, which was successful. I was in a particularly terrible position because I wasn't open, so I didn't have access to the funds and relief aid that were given to other businesses. I literally had to rely on the kindness of strangers.
I'm not particularly maternal, but I still want to be able to turn somebody on to an experience that they'll like.
Did you ever think about cutting and running?
I did. I remember being on the phone with my mom one day....First, let me say, my parents sold the house that I grew up in, they liquidated it in order to let me do something. And, I did this. Then, once it was basically wiped out, I was in total shock. There was no money left. I was talking to my mom and she said: "It was only money." My mom and dad grew up poor and when she said, "Don't worry we don't want you to knock yourself out trying to do this, you can walk away from it," I was like: "Nooooooooo. I'm not going to do that."
Someone the other day mentioned the house that stubbornness, guts, and tenacity built. The fact remains that I don't have a back-up plan and I don't want to have one. I just want this. I want this to be my home. I live upstairs. I've been in the neighborhood for 12 years and I've spent half that time working on this place, and I'm determined to literally make it work you know.
How did you end up building a restaurant? You worked in music publicity and as a dominatrix. How did you go from that to this?
Well, they're all in the entertainment/service industry, that's the common denominator. I'm not trying to sell anything to somebody that I don't believe in myself.... It's about conveying your passion to a broader audience and that happens whether it's in the sex industry — where I was very tactilely engaging people in things they wanted to be exposed to in the dungeons — or in the music world. It's the same as telling a writer, "You need to listen to this record." It's just about making people feel something and making people walk away with a good experience
I'm not particularly maternal, in the sense that I don't want children, but I still want to be able to turn somebody on to an experience that I think they'll like, and I think that comes across in the food industry.
So, originally the idea was a sausage-focused restaurant, I mean, Grindhaus, right?
Correct, correct, correct. When you start building a place, the place starts to dictate what it can and cannot do for you. We wanted to have a whole section be a walk-in cooler, but I had to adhere to a strict building codes.
How do you go from that idea to the restaurant that Pete Wells reviewed?
I don't want to name actual names because I don't want anybody to be sued for libel, but everybody knows who my last chef was. So I come across this other chef. I mentioned that it was a really challenging kitchen, it's really tiny, it's all electric, I had basically two induction burners and a glorified toaster.
We met each other at the dog park, and he had worked somewhere locally and he was really sure he was up to task. It was like a month and a half leading up to the actual opening and I'm swamped with paperwork. And it was like "Here, take the card, here are the account numbers." Then I come to find out that some of these funds haven't been allocated properly. There's no receipt but he's like: "Yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever, whatever, whatever, it'll all work out."
And then the place finally opens and we had a really nice December and a really wonderful New Year's...until all the invoices started coming in. I was like okay, we're now in the middle of winter, we have to kind of ease up on the spending and said person just never did that.
And, then you find out that you're on Pete Wells's radar and then you kind of want to see what happens, you don't want to make any drastic changes....And then all of the sudden our reservation book looks like Stephen Hawking's brain at rest, you know, and it's like "ahhhhhhh!" And in this craziness you forget about all those other things and you kind of ride that way for a while. Then you realize all of that spending catches up with you.
I really only ever wanted a place that spoke to the neighborhood.
And the idea of raising prices was never appealing?
No, I already felt we were expensive...It just brought me back to: "Holy fuck this menu has nothing to do with what I originally set out to do." Nothing stayed true to the original concept. I lost sight. I mean, our whole year can be summed up in a way that I lost sight of what my original intention was. I brought in a person who was young and new to the neighborhood, but didn't really understand the neighborhood. He couldn't really take direction, wanted to prove something. Yes, you can exact a recipe, yes you can coagulate and turn olive juice into a fucking [sphere]. Yes, you too can do that, but you’re doing it on my dime, but that’s not what I want. I really only ever wanted a place that spoke to the neighborhood, that the neighborhood could feel that they could come to on a regular basis.
In the past couple weeks I've had so many people come in and just say "Oh, this isn't some weird special occasion place. I can come in and have spaghetti and meatballs or a steak. I don't have to wait for somebody to get engaged or get married and not understand 90 percent of your fucking menu."
Red Hook still needs to honor and bow to the locals that are here all year round. I think that's really important and it was an interesting experiment over the past year. At the end of the day, I still said "yes" or allowed every decision to happen, but it wasn't true to what I had originally set out to do.
I think the thing that I’ve learned is really to know the people that you’re getting involved with and since his departure there’s been some really nasty [stuff]... I come to find out that all this shit does check out. Oh, no wonder he was so mean and kind of misogynist and called me a "fucking idiot" to my face and expected me to still pay his check.
Wow. Your new chef is Carole Greenwood. How did you two end up working together and settling on the idea that you're going with?
Carole and I have some mutual friends...I put an ad on Craigslist and my inbox got tons of things. So I start looking at my emails and the second one is from Carole and I'm just like "Holy fuck." She had no idea that it was me.
She comes over and the first thing she says is: "You need to have a steak in this joint." It was just one of those things where everything kind of just fell into place. I loved her energy and I loved her suggestions. Pretty much the menu that she rattled off was almost identical to the one I had written six years ago — minus the sausage part. We'll get to the sausage part....
She doesn't have a sense of entitlement even though she is probably one of the few people that could or should have it, given her history. She very famously told Donald Rumsfeld she wouldn't serve him, and I like her policies. [She told her server:] "I don't feed war criminals and when you send him out, just take his chair and break it outside."
Can we go off topic for a minute? What's up with this giant horse head?
Pedigrees have really long names. I gave her the name Sarah Jessica Celine Anne Parker Coulter. I couldn't fit Julia Roberts and Hilary Swank in there, so, that's her name. She was not hunted. I had to wait for three years for her carcass to arrive. It took me many, many phone calls to find a taxidermist.
[I wanted it] built with a throat that opened up where you could hide your dirty habits in plain site.
Well, now I want to know what's inside!
A picture of me and my brother and the book A Girl and Five Brave Horses, which is a story about Sonora Carver who used to jump horses and became blind because of it. It is one of my most prized possessions. I spent a lot of money on records, but I spent even more on this book.
The horse's head has been on the Colbert Christmas DVD and it's been on Anthony Bourdain. He and the bug guy, Zimmern they sat under it while feasting on corn dogs that I made.
My dream would actually be to have mounted her over in that alcove [points] and have like a little sensor so when you walk by it goes [neighs]. That's just my sick, cruel prank fantasy thing.
So, what's next for you guys? You said you're interested in more bar seating, what else?
I would love to upgrade to full liquor....We'll also going to go back to doing lunch once the weather gets warmer, we did it in the fall up until it got too cold because everyone likes to sit outside. We did that on Saturdays and Sundays. There's a huge market in Red Hook with people walking around. Every Saturday at like four o'clock we'll get people walking in and ask: "Are you open?"
I think one of the big mistakes over the past year, one of the things that I learned is that consistency is really key. At the end of the day, it's going to be fucking fantastic with everything. It's just getting through the season once again, but next summer I think we're really going to fucking kill it. Especially because I've now learned what needs to get tightened up, there's no arrogance, there's no unnecessary expenditures, there's no unnecessary this, that, or the other thing. Everything is what it needs to be.