How does a restaurant come to be? I am fascinated by this topic. I’ve read enough of Anthony Bourdain’s musings to realize that it is ridiculously difficult to open (and keep open) a new restaurant. Any romantic fantasies I had of opening my own little place were quickly squashed when I realized the hours, dedication, expense, and pure cajones needed to make it work. While I’ve always wanted to cook or bake for a living, I have come to the simple conclusion that it takes a certain kind of personality to do that (mainly a maniacal one without any need for sleep). Therefore, I have the utmost respect for people who embark on such a journey. Which is why the prospect of sitting down with Chef Bill Seleno to write about his journey of opening a new restaurant from the ground up was more intriguing than I could explain. Chef Bill has graciously invited me in for an all-access, behind-the-scenes look at all that goes into opening a restaurant.
We first sat down on a Thursday evening at a place that can only be described as a “joint,” Milady’s Restaurant. 2 hours and nearly 30 (30!) pages of notes later, Bill had grown hoarse and my hand had developed a serious ache… I couldn’t help but feel like we were on the edge of something insanely exciting. Bill’s energy and enthusiasm for the project basically radiated from him. He talked with such excitement and passion about this project that I was exhausted by the time we were done talking. Exhausted in the best way possible.
Here is the scoop on the new restaurant:
What’s it called?
The Keys. It’s all about being in key. In key with the food… with the theme… with the pairings… and of course, with the piano.
What’s the theme?
Welcome to the 1920’s. Do you just love the aesthetic in Boardwalk Empire? Are you unable to contain your excitement for the new version of The Great Gatsby movie being released this year? Does the new 20’s inspired Gucci Collection tickle your fancy? Do you find yourself craving jazz music, art deco, and flappers? There is no arguing that the 20’s are back. Even the economic, war-time, and political spheres render memories of the 20’s. Chef Bill is embracing everything about the era, including the music.
The main dining room is inspired by Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. It will be a simple, cafe style with a bar that seats 12 and about 30 tables along the wall. Chef Bill has plans to blast open the kitchen (can’t wait for those pictures!)
Outside there is a wood deck that seats 30 and is inspired by the poolside party aesthetic of The Great Gatsby. There will be a retractable roof in the upscale, white-and-wood decorated space.
The downstairs is an ode to the prohibition era Cotton Club and the Roaring Twenties. It will be the core of the restaurant and Bill’s goal is to make it feel as though you are walking into an authentic 1920’s place (he mentioned some less-than-stellar knock-offs of late that have determined that acidic drinks, locker room smells, and bad service equates to authenticity… but we’re not naming names here). Think dark, rich tones, lots of wood, and an art deco glass ceiling illuminated from above. All place settings will be antique 20’s and all the cocktail waitresses will have flapper dresses as designed by Aaron, a high-end clothing retailer opening up next door. And of course the wood burning oven at the end of the bar (where Bill plans to roast some of his famous suckling pigs).
Here it will be more wine-heavy with mostly domestic varieties to match the 20’s prohibition vibe (whereas upstairs will be more imports to tie into the European 20’s vibe). Bill is also bringing in a master mixologist and a Level 2 Sommelier to get the job done right.
There will be a stage complete with Cotton Club style risers. The plan is to bring in musicians with a jazz influence and background for live sessions. His goal is to bring in Martin Sexton for opening night and to keep the music playing throughout. He wants the music piped throughout the entire restaurant, with monitors upstairs, so even if you didn’t pay to be in the concert area you can still experience the great music while you eat.
The goal is to wallpaper the bathroom walls with headlines from real 20’s newspapers.
And what 20’s era stomping ground would be complete without a private, secret room?
Where will it be?
The location is still hush hush until everything is signed, but it’s in the Mulberry area and is positioned to be close to neighborhoods that inspired its inception.
What about the food?
Chef Bill is pulling inspiration from the area and the 20’s… A huge influx of Italian and Irish immigrants entered the US in the 20’s, bringing with them more depth of flavors, interesting ingredients, and (thankfully) refrigeration. Tons of new foods came into the American household in the 20’s (corn flakes, Worcestershire sauce, jell-o molds, and Domino sugar to name a few). Bill mentioned the “holy shit” moment of throwing meat into sauce and suddenly you have a bolognese. It doesn’t have to be complicated to taste great. And it doesn’t have to be expensive to be fun and creative.
Bill talked a lot about how food television has had a huge influence on the way we look at food. People now have a much deeper understanding of food (and where it comes from) and sustainable, organic, and humane food is a big part of Bill’s goal. He wants to see a restaurant where every server knows the name of the guy who milked the goat to make that cheese on your plate. He wants to invest in environmentally friendly energy alternatives and share this with his suppliers. That’s not to say he won’t serve foie gras, but he is going to take the time to find the most humane foie gras producers he can find. And he wants it to be more on the healthy side… no saturated fats and he plans to choose the fats that get mixed with lean proteins to customize the blend, fresh micro-greens on every dish.
Food TV also has influenced the menu inspiration by providing people with visibility into the fun and creative methods of food preparation (think molecular gastronomy, spherification, sous vide). But these methods have been mostly unattainable by the masses, unless theywant to spend $180 for a 3 course meal that belongs in an art gallery (and probably tastes damn good too). Chef Bill doesn’t think there is anything wrong with that, but he wants to bring these fun and delicious food styles to the masses. He wants to use the methods where they make sense with the goal of impressing and delighting his patrons. He thinks people deserve to expect more from what they’re eating and to give them the opportunity to eat the type of foods that have mystified them.
Chef Bill wants to have fun in the kitchen. To share his passion and his enjoyment for food with all of us. He wants his open kitchen to have jamming music (when the live musicians aren’t playing) and he wants to cultivate an atmosphere where people want to be (if his stint at Albert Hall Tavern is any indication, we are all in for a treat)! He wants people to walk out and say, “What the fuck just happened?”
The more we talked about the food and the menu, the more excited I got. Especially as Bill explained the individual dishes on the menu. Stay tuned tomorrow for a preview of the menu!
When do I get to sink my teeth into duck confit with a brie and avocado brick, cucumber/mango flute, and apricot/curry sauce?
The opening is on target for May 1st. Chef Bill plans to have his waitstaff do a 1 week intensive training to live and breathe the menu and the pairings. He wants the front of house to work in the kitchen and the back of house to serve food. He wants everyone to understand each other’s roles and to act as a family where everyone has pride and respect for what everyone else does. He will start with dinner, then lunch a month later, and then jazz brunch a month after that.
On Tuesday, Chef Bill is leaving for an adventure in California to visit breweries and wineries, to learn how to brew beer and to see where the wine comes from. He will also being visiting some farms, cooperatives, and fisheries to explore how the food gets from them, to us. He will be chronicling his journey on Facebook and Twitter, and I’ll be sharing his postings here.
Next up: A preview of the menu! (get ready to drool)