With resumes that read like kitchen merit badges of the most accomplished culinary Eagle Scouts, Chefs John Folse and Rick Tramonto don't have anything to prove, which is exactly why their newest venture, Restaurant R'evolution, is a passion project of the highest order. R'evolution opened on June 4, almost two years after Folse and Tramonto forged a partnership and embarked on a journey that would culminate in the creation in a living, breathing food diorama of South Louisiana cuisine. Though Tramonto, a New York native by way of Europe and Chicago, is the Louisiana alien, R'evolution marks each chef's first venture in New Orleans itself, and it seems appropriate that on that first spin through the city, the partners should pitch camp right in the heart of the French Quarter. In a pair of phone interviews edited for clarity and for length, Eater spoke to both Folse and Tramonto about the first two weeks at R'evolution.
At two weeks in, how's it going? Are you settling into a groove already or are there still more surprises than routines?
Rick Tramonto: For me, it's all about preparation. When you've learned from a well-oiled company, you learn that it's all about the training. We were pretty blessed to have worked into our agreement with Sonesta that our training was central, and we had sixty days prior to opening to hire our staff, train our staff, let our staff taste all the food, and walk through the steps of service. We were very well prepared going into our first night. We always said that we didn't want our first night to feel like our first night to a customer, and I think that's always the key to a good opening?whether [the customers] feel you were open for a year or a month. It certainly shouldn't feel like the first day.
You're a seasoned veteran when it comes to restaurant openings. Still, since this is your first foray into Southern cuisine and your first venture in New Orleans, was there anything about this particular project that you weren't quite ready for?
RT: This was my tenth opening. I've opened up six restaurants with Lettuce [Entertain You], and four others without Lettuce, so opening the restaurant part was pretty standard for me. There were no surprises there other than the normal construction delays and working in a historical building. It was certainly challenging, but not out of the ordinary. Working in a place like the French Quarter is just like working in Times Square or Piccadilly Circus or Chicago's Michigan Avenue?it certainly has its challenges. I was pretty comfortable with all those challenges, so I think that part of it was good. As far as the Southern cuisine, I had John [Folse] with me to help me navigate. Being educated and being partners with somebody like John, who's from the swamps of Louisiana, that kind of cut through a lot of the red tape for me. He's a well-established, intelligent chef, and he catches on quickly. I had that one-on-one tutorial for two years, traveling with John across the state of Louisiana and going through all the hunting camps and boudin trails, going out on the Gulf many, many times, and going in the swamp many, many times so I could understand the roots of the food. And we were able to develop for over a year at Bittersweet Plantation up in Donaldsonville when I lived in Gonzales that made it very easy for me to cook through the menu, test them, throw them out, and try again if I had to.
So this collaboration was essential to the ultimate vision for R'evolution?
John Folse: I think Restaurant R'evolution, for me as a Louisiana chef, basically crosses three very interesting and almost unique boundaries. [First,] the collaboration of two chefs from two different backgrounds, which is in itself revolutionary. I think Rick coming from New York and then traveling the globe, building his tremendous expertise, his quality, the way he thinks about food in general, makes him very creative and worldly. And then me, from the swamplands of Louisiana, born and reared in a place where people have a fierce pride in their culture and cuisine, obviously helps me better understand things like the gumbos and the étouffées and the jambalaya, the braising of meat and the cochon de laits and these types of dishes. To collaborate, for two chefs to come together with respect for each other's backgrounds is really a very special thing.
Then, secondly, the ability to find a location at the Times Square of New Orleans, Bourbon and Bienville, was very important. Everyone knows exactly where Bourbon Street is, or they've at least heard about it, and here we are right at that cross mark of the French Quarter where all these early travelers created a unique culture in the New World and brought all their ingredients into the marketplace just two blocks away from where we are.
And third, to be able to do something that I feel is what I kind of wrote the book on, and Rick certainly embraced in a big way, and that is the concept of the seven nations that came and settled here after 1689, beginning with the French, finding the Native Americans here . ... and then the cultures that were coming in for the city after the founding in 1720. In our little cathedral of food here called R'evolution, we're able to showcase to our public who are these nations, what did they bring and when did they come, why did they come, how were they assimilated into this wonderful, wonderful patchwork quilt we call creole, and to lay it on the plate in a way that is entertaining, it's beautiful, it's tasty, it's regional, it's seasonal. I would say the collaboration of the chefs, the location of the restaurant, and the homage to the nations that created our food and gave so much of themselves to come here and reestablish themselves is what revolution is all about.
What's it like being right in the middle of the French Quarter?
RT: I think it's huge. It's a huge advantage because I think that you get the best of both worlds. I lived in London for four years, I lived in New York for eight years, and I lived in Chicago for 22 years, so I see a huge advantage in being in some of those iconic city centers or the "center of the universe" in certain areas of the world. This is the French Quarter, so you're getting the tourists obviously, but you're also getting the locals. You're drawing from those pockets of neighborhoods, versus if we were maybe farther out, I think it would be more challenging to get people that are coming in from Chicago or New York or L.A. or wherever. We're in a tourist area, but we're not a tourist trap?we're certainly the real deal and the locals have recognized that already. I think the biggest surprise when you asked me what our surprise was is how fast the locals have embraced us. I've had a guy who's been in every single night we've been open so far.
JF: It's an inspirational place to cook, and it's a place that is very well recognized for high quality foods and hospitality. For both of us it's our first venture into New Orleans even though we've both been cooking for so many years. Coming here, we had to understand the huge respect that we needed give out, not only to the city, but to the families who've been cooking here for so long?the Brennan family, the Beshes, the Emerils, the Paul Prudhommes, and Leah Chase. I mean, my God, these people are what New Orleans is all about.
Do you see R'evoltuon becoming an institution like some of the other old, established restaurants in the Quarter?
RT: I don't think that's up to me to decide?I think that's above my pay grade. It's up to the world. If we keep doing our job and we keep doing what we're supposed to do, staying true to this cuisine and evolving ourselves and not resting on our laurels, we'll see. We talk about the future all the time in that restaurant. It's one of the things we talk about internally. If we do our job every night and we do it year after year, who knows? We're in an extraordinarily busy hotel and we do what we're supposed to be doing, so we could be around for 35 years or 100 years if we keep working hard. The life of a restaurant is what, five years? So let's have this conversation again in five years. I think two weeks in, we're going pretty darn good.
Did the soft opening at the beginning of summer help you guys iron at any last-minute details?
RT: It wasn't planned that way, only the construction delays that we had pushed us into summer. We were set to open up in January at one point, and there were a couple of openings that were right smack dab in the center of it, but I think it was a blessing that we ended up opening up when we opened up. We get a couple of months after seeing New Orleans two years in a row now, with the seasons and the festivals and the scaling up and down of business. I think the positive thing now is that we're going to capture the locals right off the bat, because over the next two months we'll really be able to establish our local clientele and our suburban clientele, folks that are coming down from Baton Rouge and Lafayette who are already huge fans of John's.
JF: I thought that was important at times when I knew that either one of us or both of us were getting a little flustered or frustrated, I'd sit down and say, "But you know what, Rick? This is also an opportunity for us, even though it may have meant that I had to take a couple of swallows and say "I'm so damn mad right now." But it was opportunity and we needed it, we really needed it. The construction delays were there, in my opinion, to actually serve a purpose for us. They allowed us to rethink some menu items that we wanted and allowed us to just talk about things more. We were able to formalize the conversation about our restaurant and what it really meant now that it was coming together. As the mural artist came from Atlanta to paint the murals of the Seven Nations in our Storyville dining room, it allowed us to sit on the floor and look at four blank walls and say, "You know, here's an opportunity?we gonna write the story of Louisiana for guests from all over the world. What do we want on that wall? I think I know, what do you think?" So I think that there's advantages at all times and opportunities at all times regardless of the adversity and frustration. If you look at it for what it is and then tell yourself there's a reason for everything, I think we all come out the other end much better and I think that R'evolution certainly came out much better because of the delays.
Anything special on the immediate horizon?
RT: A few things. We're going to open for lunch in about four weeks, we're gonna start plugging in some of our multi-course tasting menus. We'll start to open up our kitchen table too?we have a beautiful kitchen table, chef's table, chef's office, whatever you want to call it. It overlooks the kitchen. They will do special menus in there in about four weeks. We have a wine table that will do some really extraordinary dinners. I think we'll do some really extraordinary vintner dinners and James Beard chef dinners, stuff like that. We have a 10,000 bottle list and an extraordinary cellar, so we'll be able to really do some fun stuff with that. Every month, I think you continue to add a layer, whether it's changing the menu because of the seasons, or whether it's crawfish season. We'll start doing some special menus around those seasonally-driven ingredients. I think opening up for brunch will be exciting, so there's a lot over the next year. It'll take a whole year to kind of unfold the things that we want to do step by step by step and just keep everybody motivated and excited about it as we push forward.
· Restaurant R'evolution [Official Site]
[Photo: Ron Manville for Restaurant R'evolution]