Find your cullinary voice

Interview with Colin and Renée Alevras

Chefs Colin and Renee Alevras shares their culinary perspective with the Institute of Culinary Education.July 2007

Colin and Renée Alevras have enjoyed a cult-like following since they opened their restaurant, the Tasting Room, in 1999. Focusing on local and seasonal foods, the Tasting Room has been named one of New York's Best by Food & Wine and New York City's Zagat Survey and one of the city's Trendsetting Restaurants by Wine Spectator, with matching acclaims for Colin's culinary skills and Renée's managing talents. After seven years with only 24 seats, they expanded to Elizabeth Street (and now have 70 seats) in 2006, keeping the original 1st Street location as a wine bar and café. They met in the ICE® work-study program, washing dishes. After graduating from the culinary program, they worked at Michelin three-star Arpège in Paris, before returning to New York and working for a variety of restaurants, seeking to gain as much culinary, management, and wine experience to open their own place. The Main Course met them at the Tasting Room recently.

What prompted you to take the plunge and finally expand?
Renée Alevras: It was lovely on the small scale. But there is no area for growth either in financial terms of or in terms of staff. You can only support so many people. We had been looking at spaces for years; we just never found the right space. This location, although it's called a different neighborhood, is only four blocks away. Having the ability to go back and forth between the two places with a shopping cart full of fresh-baked goods is very easy for us. It's also where we live, where our children go to school. It's all very close. It allows us to just still live our lives, and be at work every day and make it reasonable.

How have your roles changed, with the expansion?
RA: As the owner and the face and whoever I am, my key roles have come down to mostly parties and public relations, although I still do the business end of things. I have somebody else doing the day-to-day operations and managing the staff and the floor. Colin is still the chef, and still cooking every night and putting together his kitchen crew. But again, whereas he used to do all the buying of all the food, and take care of all of the operations, he also has halted that as well. We have a wine director. Now that we're overseeing two locations, we went from having a staff of 14 to having a staff of 45, basically. So we have a much greater payroll, and a greater support system.

What major changes have you had to make, other than, obviously, the staff?
RA: We're working with the farmers also, on purchasing at a larger scale, finding the need for that many more fresh items from the farmers' market, from our cheesemonger, from all of that. I think they've been able to scale up with us, and it's been quite good. But you also have to be a little bit more creative with ordering just in terms of filling the walk-in here. We still do shop daily for ingredients, but at a scale like this you have to buy in a larger scale. But that is definitely a challenge. We can't just do it on a shopping basket's worth of food for our next service.

Colin Alevras: Just in quantity terms. It's always a little tricky. But not incredibly. It actually makes it a little easier to buy in larger quantities. Since we have good relationships with a lot of farmers, trying to give them more money isn't really going to upset anybody. It's always a challenge because as different restaurants grow, and guys leave, there is always a fair amount of competition for certain people's products.

RA: If you don't get there early enough in the day, that case of whatever it is is gone by somebody else.

CA: And there is definitely a pecking order.

RA: In who saves what for who?

CA: With different farmers, yes.

RA: And who has a good relationship?

CA: Who gets first choice and who doesn't. You'll see prolonged arguments starting over...

RA: Those are my ramps...

CA: Where did you get those from? Really?

RA: ...He said he didn't have any.

Have the changes affected the type of diners who eat here?
RA: We have always been really lucky with having regular guests coming back. On any given night, half of our guests have been here before. I know at this scale we get a lot more first-time guests because you don't necessarily have to plan a month in advance because there are more seats to be had. And so people aren't afraid about making a last-minute reservation a few days in advance instead of a few weeks in advance. It gives us a lot more flexibility in terms of people that don't like to plan or don't have, you know, don't have specific events that they are trying to plan for. So that's nice, too.

How did you prepare for such an expansion?
RA: You don't. You just do it. I don't know. Every time I fit one more thing into my 24 hours, I don't know where I'm going to get any more time to do it. You think you've maxed out everything you can do, and then all of the sudden you have to put something else in. What gives most is sleep. I'm down to about three to six hours a night of sleep. So, that's it.

For anyone who is considering opening a restaurant, how do you know that a space is the right one for you?
RA: There are certain rules that you should definitely follow. And then the rest is just gut reaction. You want to make sure you have a good lease, and a landlord that you can stand having a relationship with, that the building is in good condition, and that you like the neighborhood and your neighbors. Having a good relationship with the people on your block is very important. Set that up from the beginning. For example, when we found the space, it was outfitted like a Tex-Mex cantina, which was not our style. There were a ton of cactus plants here, so Colin gave them to our neighbors who collected cactus. You make sure you're not leaving your garbage, or that you're not making noise, or that your construction people are polite and don't block the sidewalk, and just making a good spirit.

Let the community board know who you are. We were very lucky, because the First Street café is in Community Board 3, which is the toughest community board in the city as far as we can tell. And we've always had a healthy and great relationship with them. They wrote us a very glowing letter to Community Board 2, where this is, to support our application for the liquor license, which in this city is very important right now.

So the lease and landlord, community board. And then with the space, making sure that it has the elements you need. Do you want to have a full liquor license? Do you have room for a bar area? Do you have some room for the wine cellars there? Or is the structure in place? Can you get a space that already has the ventilation system built? Because unless you realize that it costs $1,000 a foot to put in a new stack, you don't realize how big an expense you are saving yourself by buying it as part of the key money package in the beginning instead of waiting for it to be built, or waiting for permits. People find spaces and then they realize they can't run gas, and then they have to do electric. That's what happened with us at the First Street location. Luckily Colin is creative enough to have dealt with that space. But that could be hard for somebody.

CA: How much does it cost, is really all it comes down to. Can you put enough people in here to pay the rent? And how much money is it going to cost you to make it a restaurant?

How do you find investors?
CA: Beg.

RA: Our investors had come from the beginning, people that were interested in wine, that we met through wine and food events. At this point we've gotten a larger group of investors that have come from regular guests, people that were already in the investment pool that put in more money, and friends and family. I don't necessarily recommend it for everybody, because it's a very intense thing to have your family invest in your restaurant. But that's where it comes from.

We know how corporations deal with investors. But how do small business owners do it? Do you report to them? Do you have a meeting of all your investors?
CA: We try to issue quarterly reports of what's going on. A lot of our people are sort of spread out around the world. So it's not necessarily practical to get them all together in one place at one time.

RA: E-mail correspondence is very easy, and people are used to that now. Quarterly reports, and keeping them posted on how things are going and what you're looking at doing next, etc.

As a chef, you obviously have now a lot more people to train and have them execute your philosophy. How do you do it?
CA: As a matter of fact, it's hard. Every once in a while, you find somebody that gets it, gets it right away and are able to do stuff, and you feel confident that they are able to. And then there are people you have to work with for a long time to get them to the point where you trust that they're actually going to do it right. You have to look at people and go "Did you taste that? Did you taste it? You didn't taste it. Taste it. Taste it again. Did you taste that one? Did you taste that one? Did you taste that?" Just getting people to do that, and knowing they will, takes a while. While other people just automatically do it.

We have a sort of larger repertoire of techniques and things that happen because we have such a changing menu that people need to be able to make certain judgment calls sort of spontaneously throughout a service. That's the hardest thing to get people to do. It's easy to make somebody make something, the same thing, over and over and over again. But we don't do that. So that is where the challenge is.

So do you look for a different type of cook than you would in another type of restaurant?
CA: Yes. I need people who are quieter and smarter rather than real aggressive. It's not about volume. People still have to be able to work fast. But the hardest thing is just getting people who have the skills, who can actually get the work done. Because, no matter what, even if it's thoughtful work, it's still mind-bogglingly boring repetition, and constant pressure. Sometimes people come here and they think it's going to be easier because it's sort of calm in the kitchen. But it's calm because you need to focus on work. You get good at this. When you are good at this, you can do something else. To me, it's all the same thing whether you're picking herbs or gutting fish. It's all cooking. So either you get that it's all cooking, and it all requires the same attention to detail, or you're not a particularly good cook.

What made you go to cooking school?
CA: I went because I ran out of money for regular school, or university. I had no money, and I had been working as a carpenter and a contractor for a long time, and didn't want to do that anymore. It appealed to me as a trade.

RA: And something that you could do as you grew older. You said that.

CA: Yes. You could imagine getting old and doing it still, you could theoretically do it anywhere in the world. By the time I got to school, I had never actually been in a restaurant kitchen. I had no idea. I was like, heck, this is cool.

RA: But by the middle of the academic year we were both externing in a restaurant, and then we were offered jobs.

You met in culinary school, correct?
RA: Yes. We were both work study students, and we were washing dishes in the pantry up at 92nd Street [ICE®'s original location]. That's where we were. And I loved cooking, and I cooked for four years and then went to the front of the house because I really enjoy the dining room aspect of it. And also it was being in a relationship with Colin and wanting to do a place of our own, it was better to have the balance where we both had separate jobs, not both of us in the kitchen. So in order to put together the experience to open the restaurant, we both filled in our bits of knowledge that we needed, whether it was management or wine or running the dining room or running the kitchen, and we both sort of fleshed it out.

Had you mapped from early on that this was your end goal?
RA: In '96 we went to Paris to stage at Arpège. That summer, we wrote a business plan for our restaurant. And then the next year we got married, and really started putting things sort of rolling. But we didn't find this space and the investors until '99. It was quite a few years of work, and writing the business plan and learning about wine and eating and trying and exposing ourselves, and taking business classes.

CA: The idea behind it was just that we're already working as many hours as we could work for other people, so we may as well try. Because it's not going to get any easier.

Have you ever thought of having your own farm?
CA: Yes. But it's not appropriate. It would be nice to have a farm. For a restaurant this size, you'd need a fairly sizeable farm. It would probably be a couple hundred acres. If we buy from 20 farmers that have about 40 acres each, that's 800, 1000 acres a week that we're culling from. If you eliminated all the choice, then again instead of being a regional restaurant you're a one-farm restaurant. So if you've got a particular crop failure, or your soil isn't good for a particular thing, it's not that it wouldn't be interesting, and there would be a lot of neat stuff you could do. But I'd rather spend my time developing those relationships with other farmers.

What do you serve in the winter?
CA: Oh, no, no, no. This [late March] is the worst time. In winter, you still have all the storage crops. Now there is nothing.

So what's on the menu tonight?
CA: You buy whatever you can. And this week, I actually had to order some stuff from produce companies, because there is nothing. There is absolutely nothing there.

How do you deal with those types of compromises?
CA: Well, my thought is, it's modern air travel and farming practices in other places. It's not that there isn't good produce out there. I just don't think it's as good as, essentially, local fresh food. I'm probably more likely to go a little more exotic and just get things that are a little more interesting, like white asparagus and meyer lemons if I'm going to have to buy something. I'm not going to buy crappy carrots from Canada, or parsnips that are six months old, but from somewhere else. I'll buy nicer things.

How do you remain relevant, as a chef, as a restaurant that people still think is doing interesting things?
CA: For us, it's just that we're always changing. And we try to maintain a certain standard. We have a reputation for doing, you know, better purchasing and using better ingredients. And so, that is how we are able to maintain our relevance in that way.

How has the New York dining scene changed, since you first opened?
CA: I think there is more younger people interested in food, certainly, and in fine dining. The demographic has shifted to a lower age. You can have a fairly expensive restaurant that's not marketed to the over-40 crowd. People are definitely a little more adventurous, a little more aware of things like the farmers' market, and the idea of what are luxury foods? I think it's changed because luxury foods are not necessarily all truffles. There are other things that have perceived value in their rarity or their sheer quality.

-- Anne E. McBride