I came to New York over three years ago, when I was hired to be the executive chef of an award-winning restaurant. The restaurant was originally located in Brooklyn, and I was brought on to open their new Manhattan outpost.
Before I moved to New York, I had never actually been to the city and had no desire in moving. Maybe it's because I'm from a small town in Iowa, but in my head, I thought it would be too big and that I wouldn't like it. Even when I was first presented with this job opportunity, the fact that it was in New York didn't mean much. But after deliberating, my conclusion to take it on came mainly from that fact that I knew I would have that "what if" question for the rest of my life if I didn't.
To prepare for the opening, I was eating out at least once a week at restaurants that I thought were on the same playing field with what I wanted to execute. Doing that research and development was a lot of fun. It also gave me a lot of confidence because I knew I could do what all these other chefs were doing. This was how I was getting to know New York, and I relished in dining out here. So immediately, I was hooked. The energy kind of grabbed me and I loved walking the city to go to all the different restaurants. That's what made me really fall in love with New York and want to stay.
Unfortunately, the restaurant I was hired to open didn't come to fruition. But at that point, I had been in New York long enough to know I couldn't just leave. Shortly after, I was approached by a different restaurateur to open one of their own upcoming spots. I started down that whole process again, but that deal ended up fizzling out as well. That's when I realized that after 15 years of working for some of the best chefs and restaurants in the country, my training days were over. And now I need to be running my own place.
I had come to New York for one reason only: to open one of the best restaurants in the city. And I was determined to still accomplish that goal, but now it would be for myself.
I decided my restaurant would be named Italienne, which is the French word for Italian. Long before I started working on it, I knew I wanted to serve the cuisine and drinks of Northern Italy, Southern France, and the regions of their border. I envisioned two distinct sections with four-star service and a tasting menu on one side, with a rustic taverna serving à la carte dishes on the other. Going big was the only thing I knew, and I wouldn't have it any other way.
When it comes to the process of opening a restaurant in New York, "delayed and over budget" is the most apt way to describe it. The issues that arose had nothing to do with my team or me making mistakes or dropping the ball on things. Instead, it was more due to a long list of things that we had no control over.
The first challenge was finding a space in a neighborhood I wanted. After looking for a year without discovering anything, I started to get a little worried and anxious. Thankfully, I eventually found a place I fell in love with and was exactly what I was looking for. The next hurdle after that was finalizing our lease. The negotiations between my lawyers and the landlord took more than three months before we all came to an agreement we were happy with. The subsequent building and construction was another big part. The space had never been a restaurant, so it had to be completely gutted and redone from scratch.
Since it was my first time opening a restaurant—and especially in New York City—I learned to deal with things as it happened. Working with contractors, architects, engineers, designers, and my project management team to go over every detail, permit, and the endless stream of unforeseen problems was quite the learning lesson.
In the beginning, everything they presented were the best-case scenarios of projections and quotes. When people said, "Oh, we can have it done by this time," for some reason I thought it was going to happen. And you want to believe what you hear and go for it and say, "Yes, let's do this!" But when I was told a projection of a year for something to be built out, did that mean it would actually get completed in that time frame? Or when I was given a reasonable quote on something that didn't seem like it would ever get more expensive, did that mean the cost wouldn't go exorbitantly higher? Speaking from what I now know, probably not. Because, like I said, what they were all telling me wasn't how things would be, but how they hoped it to be.
That's why there should always be an added time contingency on every aspect of opening a restaurant. I've had the honor of being able to speak to a lot of industry professionals who've been doing this for 20 to 30 years with much success, and every restaurateur told me not a one has opened on schedule. It's common for three-, six-, or nine-month delays after projected opening dates. It's just how things work. And the minute you're delayed, that's when you go over budget and it creates this butterfly effect that impacts everything. If your original budget was for a year but now it's been extended to a year-and-a-half, everything gets strung out and the money just gets thinner and thinner. We've had to re-work our budget probably three or four times. So many unexpected costs also pop up. There's been lots of little things like that that have happened and it's like, "Oh crap, we didn't think about that," or we knew about it but it cost a lot more than they said it was going to be. For example, our fire alarms are now going to cost $20,000. Or there's a holiday this Friday and no one is working, so I accept that we lose a day there. And with New York City being the amazing city that it is, with so many different moving parts, it's even more likely to happen here.
It's not just the physical build out of the restaurant I've had to think about, but there's also the everyday logistics, food costs, hiring staff, and style of service among many other things to consider as well. That's the reality about being the restaurant's proprietor on top of its chef. You have to be on top of everything. I'm not just a talented chef who can cook, but I can also make the business side work. There are all types of chefs, such as ones who are just the numbers person and make things run like a machine. Then there are the uber-talented and creative genius chefs who can't hit their numbers. It goes full spectrum. Working for the caliber of chefs I've worked for, I've gotten a good sense of all that so it's made me confident in all that I do.
Once the restaurant opens, that's the easy part. That's when I go back to doing what I know in the kitchen. During the more than two years it's taken to build Italienne, there are things that slowed me down and I got a good taste of, but it certainly wasn't the worst case and certainly wasn't the best.
Thankfully, though, Italienne is slated to open in early July. I'm finally in the home stretch.
As told to Tae Yoon.