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One Year In at Root, a Changing of the Restaurant Guard

 Root's Max Ortiz
Root's Max Ortiz
Photo: Nikki Mayeux

It's late in October and Max Ortiz has traded in his immaculate seersucker suit for its immaculate charcoal counterpart, reminding summer-weary visitors to Root that the Warehouse District restaurant is fast-approaching its one-year anniversary. With most of the city's foodies and restaurant critics smitten with Root's sudden appearance on the dining scene (and everyone waiting on tenterhooks for the early 2013 opening of its more intimate, Lower Garden District sequel, Square Root), one might think that Ortiz and his exceptionally handsome partner Chef Phillip Lopez might be tempted to sit back and let the people come, but Root has only just begun sending its cosmopolitan vibes through the city. With the post-Katrina influx of new residents (and palates) from all over the country, Root may herald a true changing of the guard in the New Orleans restaurant world.

At one year in, how's business?

Business has been great. We didn't really slow down during the summer, which obviously was a relief. September, which we had forecasted as our slowest month of the year, ended up being probably our best month. And then, once October 1 hit, it was like flipping a switch. I talk to Adolfo [Garcia] several times about the summer and how it was compared to rest of the year, and he said, "You'll notice a big increase in business on October 1. It's going to be like flipping a switch," and he was spot on. October 1 was a Monday and I walked in I'd say around 12:30 and lunch was packed. I mean, the bar was just full of people. That was pretty much our welcome to the busy season. We kind of missed it last year because we opened up in November and, you know, we missed that October rush of conventions.

What causes such a dramatic uptick in business?

The Convention Center won't insure conventions until October 1, so October 1 is literally like flipping a switch. The convention schedule is sporadic at best in the summer, but it all of a sudden gets packed in the fall. It's a huge difference. Lunch has been very consistent the last three weeks, so we're obviously happy about that. Any fears that people may have about booking a convention in the city because of hurricanes kind of dissipate once October gets here. Hurricane season is over with and you rarely get storms that late, knock on wood.

What were your expectations before opening? Have you met them over the year or has this experience been beyond anything you might have imagined?

You know, it's funny because when we were setting up, the only real expectation we had was to open, to get open on time. You have your self-imposed deadlines, and we set a very ambitious schedule for ourselves. We got everything done in less that six weeks, from going to get the liquor license, to doing all the construction ourselves. We built the bar, we painted the floor, we built this wall?we basically had to do everything ourselves because we just didn't have the budget to call in some construction company and do everything for us. So, for us, the initial expectation was just to get open, sometime close to when we were shooting for. Once we opened, obviously we set some different goals for ourselves. We decided that we were going to be the best restaurant that we could be. We wanted to get the Times-Picayune in here to get a good review?that was goal number one. After that, it was go out and get noticed in local publications, because our focus has always been first and foremost on the locals. Without the locals, you don't have anything. You need them to sustain you. Obviously we love tourists as much as anyone, but the locals are our bread and butter.

What are the challenges of being pretty much in the middle of the city like this?

The challenge is that you always have to be on because there's always someone watching. You can't take a day off, especially when it comes to the little details because there's always going to be a new set of eyes on you. Especially with the convention crowd, there's always a new crop of people coming in every week, and we get repeat guests from these conventions. They'll come in two or three times during the week for lunch, and try us out at dinner. It's always a challenge meeting their previous expectations and blowing them away again each new time.

I love being at the epicenter of it. I can't stand when you're in a restaurant and it's slow? hate the slow time of the year. I love it to be packed, when there's always something going on generating new energy with everyone having a good time, table after table. We're open 'till two in the morning Fridays and Saturdays, so we obviously love it when we get that late business. That's something we focus on that not a lot of other restaurants focus on.

It's definitely not typical New Orleans place. It seems like it could be picked up and put in the center of Miami or New York. Was that sort of the vibe you guys were going for from the get-go?

It was by design. We didn't want to in line with what everyone else was doing. If you don't have variety, what do you have? You have the same thing over and over again. Our idea with this concept was to make it as unique as possible while at the same time pay homage to our local guys. Chef [Lopez] and I were both born here and felt very strongly like we did need to represent the city of New Orleans. We have such a rich culinary history, you know, and it's a lot to live up to. I grew up going to all these "New Orleans restaurants"?Commander's, Brennan's. That was a very big part of my childhood. My parents were not as, let's say, experimental. They don't have as much of an open mind as I do, but they did introduce me to all these great restaurants that people come to from all over the world.

We're just trying to put our mark on the city. The best way we thought we could do it was by doing something different. We wanted to be different and not do exactly what everyone else was doing. Our food is progressive. Chef uses a lot of unique techniques to create the food. This city is so steeped in tradition, you don't often see as much of the new styles of cooking.

A new new guard is starting to break through, though...

Now is our opening. Ten years ago, I don't think this restaurant would have had a chance to succeed, but now, like you said with the storm, there are so many transplants. So many people have come to help rebuild the city. You get a lot of people from all over the U.S., all over the world, even, who are used to a different style of food than what the city generally offers, and they've been more accepting of what we're trying to do. I think it's people our age, late twenties, early thirties. I don't want to say we're starting to take over the city, but we're starting to leave our mark.

Chef Lopez mentioned earlier this year that the movie industry was a big part of this progressive attitude. Have you had a lot of support from them?

Definitely. You know, we've tapped into the movie industry a little bit. We've had Sylvester Stallone in here. Josh Brolin was in here a couple weeks ago. Russell Brand and Seth Rogan have also dropped by. These guys pop over here and they come back, which is a good thing. We had Josh Brolin in a couple weeks ago and he called up again on Saturday to order a bunch of food to go. We take that as a compliment because there are a thousand restaurants in this city, and he could have picked any one of them to call and get to-go food from, but he picked us. We had a lot of the guys who worked on Django Unchained. We would get them in three, four, six times each, and they were always bringing in new people.

Does it present an extra challenge when you have people from Hollywood coming here with such high expectations?

That's the thing?you have to appeal to so many different kinds of people. The convention people want a different style of dining. They're looking for lunch, and lunch for them is in and out. Sometimes they only have 45 minutes, and we realize that. Lunch is tailored more to get these guys in and out, get them something that's nice, quick, and easy like a burger or a chicken salad sandwich, something like that. Whereas with dinner, we're really trying to show people things they haven't seen before. We have to appeal to so many different kinds of people that it's a challenge, but it's a fun challenge. We don't want to have to cook the same exact thing over and over again. It's a challenge that we openly embrace.

Talk a little bit about Square Root.

Chef likes to say that it's going to be the "grown up" version of Root. It's a very unique concept, something that's very big in New York and Chicago?a tasting-menu-only style of dining. We're looking at about 15 seats (that's not a final number yet). You're going to be sitting around an open kitchen where you'll watch Chef cook all the food. He's going to serve it to you, do all the prep in front of you. It's going to be very unique, just like this place. Ten years ago? I don't know if it would have worked. Even now, it's a big risk because it's something that's so different. You just don't see it in this city. We're so used to the white table cloth, traditional style of dining, whereas, when we try something this unique and different, it's going to be fun. We're always looking forward to a challenge.

With this trailblazing, do you ever experience any resistance or difficulty in getting the public interested?

It's not that there's resistance, but it's not what people are used to. I hate to pick on my parents, but they're a prime example. They support us more than we could ever ask for. They always come in, try the food out, give it a chance, but the reality is, this place wouldn't be their cup of tea. If I wasn't involved in this, they would probably never come in here. I don't think it's a conscience resistance, but when people are so used to the way things have been, inevitably when you try to show something new, initially there's going to be some resistance.

The reaction we've gotten so far has been great. The review in the Times-Picayune was huge for us. I think that Brett Anderson saying what he said about the place, that it was unique and unlike anywhere else in the city, was exactly what we were going for. We could not have hoped for a better statement from a review. We're not trying to be like everybody else, and he, I don't want to say "validated" us, but so many people hold his opinion in such high regard, that it really opened the public's eyes.

How do you temper that excitement and keep a level head about the work that you guys still need to do?

It's always a challenge because we never want to be satisfied. Everyday I walk in here, I manage to find something that needs to be tweaked. There are always ways to do better. I can look around the dining room right now and find something that we could do better. Our dishes get tweaked from day to day, hour to hour, because Chef is never quite satisfied with the way things are. It's like that with the front of the house, too. We keep tweaking and making different changes. We've found a way to make the bar a little more user-friendly. It's just a matter of always getting better, but we never want to be satisfied with press clippings or things like that. The day we're satisfied is the day we're done. That's the underlying philosophy of this place? we'll have time to sleep when we're dead.


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