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September 4th, 2013

Sprouting Seeds, Growing Restaurants

BY Yarrow Bucans

An invitation pops up in an inbox:

“Boom Boom Dynasty” AKA “Chinese Super Happy Fun Place ”

One Night Only

Please expect:
– Earth shaking hip-hop and vintage tunes
– Large tiki drinks and obnoxious boozy flaming fruit concoctions.
– A 60ft illuminated silk dragon
– 1 drag queen geisha host
– 1 magician (pending confirmation)
– Spicy Szechuan Chinese
– 2 fire extinguishers and lots of sparklers.

This grin-inducing recipe for disaster sprouted from a seed planted almost two years ago. “Boom Boom Dynasty” is one step closer.  And it is one example of how restaurants are born.

Researching a prospective new restaurant means eating.  So a Restaurateur and a Chef spent a week in New York City eating their way through some of NYC’s greatest diners. One diner they didn’t make it to was M Wells, a place they both felt they needed to see, smell, and taste. So they came back for, in the words of the Chef, “a one night stand with the city that I have come to love.”

On their fated night with M Wells, the Chef and the Restauranteur add themselves to the line outside of this American Diner operated by French Canadians in Queens. The restaurant doesn’t open for another hour and they are already behind fifty people. Thirty minutes before opening, a host (who possesses the calm of someone who has dealt with this situation many times before) walks down the line.  He asks, “How many are you?”

A succession of numbers sounds:  four, four, two, four, four, two, two, one, two…

“Okay,” he says, “you twos and ones better get to know each other.  If we’re gonna make this work, you need to be friends.”  But he never says this to our twosome.  The Chef:  “He stopped about ten people in front of us and said, ‘Anyone from here back?  You’re not getting in tonight, so might as well move along.’”

The Chef and the Restauranteur decide to wait. After all, one night stands are built on chance and sometimes that requires faith and patience.

The host shakes his head and says, “That’s not a good idea. Slim chance you’re getting in.” All they hear is, “chance you’re getting in.”

As they wait, their conversation drifts: concepts, what’s next, what’s possible, how amazing it is that they are able to fly to NYC so that they can eat at a diner in Queens. The line dwindles. Periodically, the host makes an appearance to tell them to go somewhere else. They continue to wait.

His last attempt is, “We will be out of food and you might not even get in. We don’t want you to be pissed off before you even come inside. There are plenty of good restaurants around here.”

The Chef:  “I was starting to love this guy. He knew how to tell us to go away and make us want to be inside even more.”

They continue to wait. “Somehow people kept going in and nobody came out. It was like a giant silver clown car. We waited and rambled on…”

The waiting becomes meditative. They submit to this being their evening — the line, the chatting, the brisk night outside a warm restaurant serving even warmer food — and then the door opens for them.

As they walk through the restaurant they eye the details, filing them away for later use, forgetting nothing. The portions are gargantuan, every table is cluttered with multiple bottles of wine. The place reeks of foie gras.  If heaven exists, they have found it. They can see why no one was leaving. They never want to either.

The staff’s ability to cram in people is amazing. What looks like a diner on the outside morphs into a trailer park on the inside. There are eight people in a booth for four. A two-top is nearly inside the bathroom, but its diners are contentedly eating and drinking away. Tables are puzzle-pieced everywhere and people stand in what little space is left.

Once seated, the Chef and the Restauranteur do what they do on these trips — they eat, and eat, and eat some more… mussels with seared foie gras, pork porter house with foie gras and pineapple  (the wafting perfume of foie gras is explained through each bite), Sang Gallette (blood pancake), and General Tso’s sweetbreads.  They don’t know it, but this last dish is the one. The seed.  The one that will lie silent and unknown until months later, when it will germinate into “Boom Boom Dynasty.”

After dinner, they drink. A quick cab ride from Queens and they walk into one of their favorite bars, the lower east side’s PKNY.  The place is absurd: neon lights, animals made out of pipe cleaners, a piña colada served in a whole pineapple, flaming bowls of booze. There is a whole section of the menu that limits people to one drink per person.  All they can think is, “We want one.”  They don’t mean the drink.  They mean the bar.

The Chef asks, “Can we open one?”

The Restauranteur answers, “Sure, where?”

“The answer is always yes,” says the Chef, thinking back. “Of course we can. We just need the space.” It is rare for a restaurant group to be so free thinking, but the Chef and the Restauranteur find themselves saying, “Why not? Why can’t we have our own? We like it. We want it. Let’s build it. Let’s build it. But, let’s do it our way!”

Anything can plant a seed — from a meal to a drink to a walk or a bike ride or a desire. It is the whims that often become the most deeply embedded seeds. No idea is too far-fetched and every idea, no matter how ludicrous, has the potential to turn into a restaurant or a dish or America’s best burger.

The ideas never die. They remain embedded, waiting until the right connection is made. For example, a dish called General Jane’s Fried Chicken. Everyone is always asking, “Who’s Jane?”

Jane is a friend of a friend who was hired as a cook at another diner. The staff had been working on a fried chicken dish for some time. They couldn’t get the sauce right until Jane walks in and shows them a sauce passed down from her mother.  It’s made with Korean chili paste, tons of ginger, and a couple of cans of coke. Now, at the American diner they serve Korean fried chicken, but somehow it makes sense. The connection was made and it fit, perfectly, with the vision. The chicken couldn’t have been right without Jane.

Everyday, with every idea, they get closer without even realizing.

Like when the Chef and the Restaurateur are unexpectedly called to London to open a diner on Portobello Road. The plan is for the team to be there for two weeks.  It turns into eight, which turns into being stuck in London on Christmas Day.  What do a bunch of atheist cooks do on Christmas Day in a foreign city without any real friends or family to cook for? They band together, drink whiskey, and eat with their Jewish friends at a Chinese restaurant whose name has been forgotten. They escape the loneliness by circling the dinner table over food that comforts them all. And, in their loneliness the sprout of  “Boom Boom Dynasty” breaks through into the sun.

They are getting closer. “Boom Boom Dynasty,” the one-night, Chinese-themed party, is like practice for the real thing — the restaurant that will follow in some indeterminate amount of time. When it does open, it will be the result of many visions planted and ideas sprouted all coming together to make one beautiful place where friends will sit down to drink and eat.  It will be the manifestation of years of musings, ideas, inspirations, and work. And, after much care and growth, it will be seen and tasted, felt and shared. The restaurant will be a place where memories are created and seeds are planted, creating the new all while it preserves the old.

 

Pix:
M Wells Waitress by Chris Goldberg
M Wells Exterior by Joe Shlabotnik
M Wells Sandwich by Naftels
Pensive Chef by Kari Skaflen
Jamaican Divorce by Michael Monello
Umbrellas by Kari Skaflen
Hula Girl by Chris Goldberg
Dragon by Kari Skaflen
Column of Breasts by Chelsea Nesvig
Geisha? by Kari Skaflen
Daydreamer by Kari Skaflen
Fallen Fortune by Kari Skaflen