Pulling back the curtain on the mess and the magic of opening a restaurant.
Edited by: Leona Burlew
I first met Kevin Tien when I interviewed him in November of 2018 about his plans to open a new restaurant called Emilie’s. The ‘Iron Chef Gauntlet’ competitor was mopping the floor at his first restaurant, Himitsu, singing along to Taylor Swift. “They don’t teach you this in culinary school,” he joked, gesturing to his mop. He had an easy, childlike demeanor and our connection was instant. As Emilie’s progressed from an idea to a reality, our friendship grew close. One morning, over an especially large cup of coffee, Tien said, “I’m taking my team to California on an R&D trip. Do you want to come document it?” I didn’t have to be asked twice. But, what was a no-brainer opportunity turned out to be more complicated than I expected.
I’m accustomed to having an easy rapport with restaurant teams when conducting an interview or dining in their space. I often go “behind the scenes” to learn about the realities of what it takes to run a restaurant smoothly. I presumed this would be no different, only more exciting. Well, it certainly was more exciting but, as for the rest of it, I was woefully unprepared.
“You have to understand what a precious process this is for us,” my roommate for the trip gently explains after a particularly hard day.
This trip was their party and I was definitely crashing it. My presence crossed an unusual line. We weren’t in their restaurant. This wasn’t a structured interview that had a beginning and an end. They didn’t have a chance to buff out the scratches and put their most polished presence forward. Here, I was a peeping Tom in their private planning process. I was the third wheel during the intimacy of decision-making. Every scratch of my pen and note on my phone was the equivalent of footsteps on the thin ice of acceptance. But, each day, we all carved out our space in this deep cavern of vulnerability in the name of pride and passion. Together, with full bellies and tangled plans, we navigated these unusual waters. The result was an unfettered look into the high-stakes, high-spirits undertaking of planning the opening of a restaurant.
Eating at Restaurants with People Who Work in Restaurants Is the Worst.
When dining with restaurant people, be prepared to watch them acutely examine every water glass, wine glass, beer glass, and Fernet glass. Every small plate, large plate, and serving plate. The matzo ball soup bowls. The copper, silver, and animal-shaped salt and pepper shakers. Every pleat and tuck of each napkin, monogrammed or plain. Every single detail matters. To them, it’s not about mimicking what works and avoiding what doesn’t. It’s testing whether each element of a restaurant works in perfect harmony to create an unforgettable experience.
Speaking of experiences, beware a busy restaurant. When the kitchens and dining rooms were swamped, the tension at our table was palpable enough to fuel chest pains of my own. My eyes mimicked the nervous darting motion of my dining companions’. We alternated between watching the kitchen “wade through the weeds” and hawkeyeing servers and customers alike. I often caught the sommelier taking deep, calming breaths as she tried to accept having no control over whether the right pairings would come out with the right dishes.
The front of house managers, however, always remained an embodiment of their character—they smiled through it all, exuding a “we’ll get through this together” vibe.
Eating at Restaurants with People Who Work in Restaurants Is the Best.
Amidst the chaos, we also found clarity. That’s when my comrades became the very best type of diners—filled with raw emotion (awe, wonder, glee) and an incomparable level of appreciation. I laughed my way through many a meal as I watched eyes light up vividly over:
Warm and fluffy Parker House rolls brushed with boar fat and served with a “ballsy” serving of cultured butter that was whipped into submission and then reshaped to resemble a single, large stick of butter, similar to something you might find on Grandma’s table come Sunday morning.
Carrot and beet-top kimchi that stung with fermented pungency and had everyone marveling in its simplicity and devotion to eliminating food waste.
A whole pineapple roasted so perfectly it actually overshadowed the immense serving of pork it came with.
Crispy shrimp tacos that somehow blew away every other taco memory I’ve ever cherished.
Omelets, nestled between simple white bread, layered with such precision they still leave me reeling with feelings of inadequacy.
And, my personal favorite, the prawn toast.
The tensions that we began our journey with melted as we eleven strangers fell in love together, over and over again, paying homage to the ties that bind us—the art of cooking and the magic of hospitality.
“Stressful” Is an Understatement When It Comes to Opening a Restaurant. Just Expect the Worst, Okay?
Tien’s projected costs for opening the restaurant had doubled by the time construction had started. We all listened with baited breath as he fielded dozens of calls a day, debating with construction workers, investors, and health inspectors. Meanwhile, the team fretted over menus that had yet to be written. The basic service details had yet to be established and hiring decisions hadn’t even begun. I could barely keep up with what seemed like a million more minuscule details, including what dehydrator they should buy, what colors the aprons should be, and what temperature the water should be when served.
“It’s scary as shit,” Tien admits to us all as we breathe between bites. “We haven’t talked about how scary this is. I know everyone’s stressed. I’m sitting here crushing shrimp tacos when I need to be there overseeing the final days of construction.”
“Maybe it’s a good thing,” I thought to myself about all the delays. Until I realized that no profits were being made and yet everyone was on payroll. The team’s compensation was a rare and wonderful thing given the industry’s tendency to underpay and understaff until the opening. But how many more delays could this process take before it buckled?
You Need to Have Good Times to Look Back on When You’re in the Weeds. And, If You Don’t Have Them, Make Them.
After a particularly heated phone call about yet another construction delay, I asked Tien why he planned this trip during such a crucial, chaotic part of the process.
“Originally this research trip was part of our budget,” he explains. “But because things got pushed back and other things came up, I’m funding this LA trip on my own. For me, I see the importance of this trip. For us to be a team before we get in [to the restaurant] and things get crazy. For us to build that relationship and have that bond. So that, when the times do get tough, it’s much easier for us to go through everything and communicate. Otherwise, it will end up being a shit show where we’re at each other’s throats and that’s not what we need. We need to be close as a unit so that we’re able to lead our new staff properly.”
Sharing (Everything) Is Restaurant People’s Love Language.
I was amazed to see how quickly camaraderie built. People who had literally never met prior to shaking hands at 4 a.m. in Baltimore-Washington International Airport could have convinced me that they had known each other since childhood. It happens fast, they tell me, when the work environment forces intimacy. Turns out, when you spend over 12 hours a day on your feet in a hot kitchen, you get well acquainted with people’s favorite karaoke songs, eccentricities and farts.
My persnickety struggle in all this was that we often ate off of each other’s utensils and sipped from the same straws or glasses. I did shove aside my cooties fears and (wo)manned up at the table … for the most part. I bit into an already ravaged fish taco. I drank from the circulating chalice of a mezcal cocktail topped with black garlic oil. But I couldn’t stomach the moment when everyone licked the same ice cream. I shudder at the mere memory. I got my own—sticky rice and Alphonso mango. I have zero regrets. (I also still firmly maintain that black olive brittle and goat cheese make for a delightful ice cream flavor, no matter how much the pastry chefs judge me for it.)
It wasn’t just food and drink we shared. We went to the gym together in the mornings, we shared rooms, we shared stomach troubles and, ultimately, we shared in the deep sense of exhilaration and exhaustion that comes with being on the go together for over 15 hours each day.
One night, at a speakeasy nestled within a 111-year-old French Dip restaurant, I noticed Tien standing in a corner and observing us all. I wandered over to him and he put an arm around me. Despite the stressors of the day, we stood serenely and I knew, in that moment, he was thinking, “This is the dream team.” The live jazz band crescendoed as if on cue.
The Restaurant Is Life. Nothing Else Matters.
After five intense days of eating and planning, we flew back home. While I drowned my fatigue with Netflix, Team Emilie’s used the flight to talk schedules and reference their extensive notes from our edible adventures to draft rough menus. As I mentally counted the hours until I reunited with my husband, my dog and—most crucially—my bed, I overheard the team discussing an immediate visit to the restaurant upon landing. A 2 a.m. visit may have surprised me before this trip but I know better now. The restaurant is life. Nothing else matters.
Since our return, I have watched Team Emilie’s build furniture, scrub floors, install equipment, cram into their home kitchens for recipe testing, and exist on minimal sleep. Together, they have poured every ounce of cumulative experience and energy to create their new home in the hopes that it will be haven to all who visit.
For me, the trip of a lifetime is over. For Team Emilie’s, a life-defining journey has just begun. And, today, I can finally say, “Congratulations, Emilie’s, you’re officially open!”
A Note of Thanks: It would not have been possible for me to join Team Emilie’s on this trip without help from Pared—an on-demand staffing service for restaurants in New York, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C. They work with many restaurant groups such as Crenn Dining Group, Altamarea, and Jean-Georges Restaurants. Pared has been Un-Plated’s official sponsor for this trip and I am eternally grateful to them!
Disclosure: One of the reasons that I am able to write so intimately about chefs and restaurants is because I happen to work in the industry. I am the co-owner of a digital marketing company that focuses on restaurants. I am proud to call Emilie’s a client and grateful that they let me be such a big part of their process. Our client relationship in no way affects or influences the above piece of writing.