Food by VICE

How Being a Clueless New Restaurant Owner Paved My Way to Success

In my life as a cook, I’ve worked for great chefs, but transitioning into a restaurant owner, I had no clue what I was doing when we opened Rose's Luxury.

by Aaron Silverman
Mar 6 2016, 5:25pm

In my life as a cook, I've worked for great chefs, from David Chang to Sean Brock, Marco Canora, and George Mendes, but transitioning into a restaurant owner, I had no clue what I was doing. When we opened Rose's Luxury, none of us had any idea what we were doing.

I think a big part of the reason why we've been so successful is because of that. In fact, we were set up to fail. So many of us had experience cooking and opening restaurants, but none of us had ever owned one. Our staff acted like owners from the start. None of us knew what the fuck we were doing. And because of that, when problems arose, we didn't have the answers so we had to come up with creative thinking for everything.

Thankfully, everything we do is a collaborative effort.

When it came to the server uniforms, we didn't have a written policy, so we told the staff to dress in something they'd wear on a first date. We were planning on building some guidelines for our uniforms, but when everyone started showing up in their outfits mixed together in the group wearing their own things, I realized, Shit. Why don't we just roll with this?

And in the throws of opening, I'd tell the waitstaff, "This is what the dish is, but you can describe it however you want. Just make everyone happy. That's all I care about." We had this one dessert that was comprised of mint flowers, pea shoots, pistachios, and other things and one of our servers told her table, "It's like walking through an English meadow with your mouth open." Everybody has their own style here, so we let them decide so that it's on their terms.

When it came to the server uniforms, we didn't have a written policy, so we told the staff to dress in something they'd wear on a first date. When everyone showed up wearing their own things, I realized, Shit. Why don't we just roll with this?

It's also highly collaborative inside our kitchen. Instead of this menu being "my food," I'll bring a dish to my three sous chefs and my chef de cuisine and everyone will taste it. If it's just good—not great—it won't go on the menu. The chefs bring their dishes to the table, we all sit down, taste it together, and the person who created the initial dish will bring it 80 percent of the way. The last 20 percent involves tweaking it together. Five mouths are better than one. For me, having multiple people taste things has taught me more about my palate, which veers towards liking things sweeter than most. My cooks keep me in line about that.

I picked out every light fixture, table, glass, plate, fork, dish, and song on the playlist at both restaurants. I've tried to make Rose's like my home where I live, and PNP like the fancier home where I'd like to live. After going through opening a restaurant, if I hadn't become a cook, I think I would have gone into design. It's such an important part of a restaurant. I love the aesthetics; whether it's the plating and artwork or how many trashcans we bought for this place. There's so many fucking trash cans that we ordered from all over the world in our office right now—from Sweden, London, to Japan—to see which one was the prettiest, most efficient; whatever.

I told the waitstaff, "This is what the dish is, but you can describe it however you want." We had this one dessert that was comprised of mint flowers, pea shoots, pistachios, and other things and one of our servers told her table, "It's like walking through an English meadow with your mouth open."

More than anything, transitioning from a cook to a restaurant owner, I think a lot of what your job entails is being a therapist; at least for me, talking to people was an evolution as a restaurant owner.

Rose's was always meant to be a neighborhood place. I lived across the street two years before we opened. It's a beautiful, progressive neighborhood, and the goal was never to be anything bigger than a community place where people can have a really good meal. I've worked in a lot of high-end restaurants and thought, Why can't we have four-star quality in a casual environment?

Now that we've been open for a while, our clientele draws from all over the city, from politicians to the Wizards, Action Bronson to people from around the world, and even the President and the First Lady.

We opened in October, and we were kind've busy, and then spring and summer rolled around, and it got busier and busier. The word got out. By April, May, and June of 2014, we started getting lines outside. It first started on Saturdays. We'd have a line around the block on Saturdays, Mondays, and Tuesdays, and we'd flat seat the entire restaurant. But then August came around and Bon Appetit declared us the best new restaurant in America.

After that, it made every day of the week nuts. The lines were 100 and sometimes even 200 people deep on Saturdays, which was good and bad. It has had some negative consequences, having a line like that.

I still love one of our opening dishes because it represents our style: a smoked celery root mascarpone that's part of our cheese course. We make the mascarpone from scratch and steep it with burnt applewood chips so it's super smoky, and we make a Tecate and honey syrup with chamomile granita, brown butter, and a walnut crumble. It's a pre-dessert, but it's a cheese course. It's another creation from a mistake, as most of our dishes are. One out of 100 dishes is actually planned, but most things come out of mistakes. I love the failure, shooting for something, and being OK with not getting it and getting something else that's probably better instead. To me, that's true creativity—the space where you can really excel.

Aaron Silverman is the chef and owner of Rose's Luxury in Washington, DC, voted best restaurant in America by Bon Appetit magazine. Watch Action Bronson feast with his friends at Rose's Luxury on the first episode of Fuck, That's Delicious, only on VICELAND.