The second installment of this epic One Year In will run tomorrow
[Photos: Nikki Mayeux/Paul Broussard]
Unless you're some sort of weird, dangly-fingernailed recluse (in which case, gross), you've probably heard that the Bywater's fine-dining flagship Maurepas Foods is thriving along a stretch of Burgundy suddenly crowded with new restaurants and art galleries. After leaving the confines of Uptown, Dante's Kitchen vets Michael Doyle and Chris Cuddihee found their Athos in Minneapolis transplant Brad Smith and opened Maurepas last January. The restaurant has been packed ever since. Their relentless insistence on sourcing locally (not always so easy) coupled with Smith's bold cocktail stylings have attracted the admiring eyes of food scribes waaay north of the Lake, and inspired a whole lot of neighborhood goodwill among the Bywater's odd-hour diners (Maurepas is open everyday, except Wednesday, from 11 am to midnight).
With 1,500-plus guests coming through Maurepas' doors every week, describing the restaurant as "busy" would be as prosaic as describing Odysseus as "lost." It'd be far more revealing to hear the three partners' describe their noirish insomnia, drastic weight loss, and their overriding sense that, as restaurant owners, they suddenly found themselves responsible for the people who'd bolted their old gigs to climb aboard the good ship Maurepas. Perhaps the most illustrative proof of how busy Maurepas has been, however, is that now, in order to satisfy all those patrons clamoring for the restaurant's semi-famous goat tacos, Doyle, Smith and Cuddihee, like solemn Greek warriors sacrificing for good luck in battle, require about a goat and a half everyday.
At one year in, how's business going?
Michael Doyle: Business is good, it's very good. We've remained busy throughout. Nights are still crazy and daytimes are always pretty decent.
Brad Smith: It's consistent. We see a steady mix of regulars and people who've been with us since day one, as well as a steady influx of people who are coming for the first time, coming out to the Bywater for the first time and realizing that this part of New Orleans exists and discovering what it has to offer. It's a great mix of people.
What are some of the differences you've noticed between being here and working Uptown restaurants?
MD: I'm not in the front, so I think I always have this skewed perspective because I get to project whatever I think onto what's actually going on out front. I can read a ticket and think, "These people are awesome!" They could be terrible, but I'm reading the ticket and I'm enjoying them in that moment. But I don't actually know anything other than, business-wise, we have a very different kitchen from some of the places I've worked in. It's all about speed?we're looking to turn tables here.
Where Chris and Brad come in is to make sure you don't notice how hard we're trying to turn the table. I'm trying to turn the table?they're making sure the guest is comfortable. But we're moving much faster. Of course, breaks are not this 10-minute, clearing of the place ordeal. The pace of this place started as just frantic, but then we noticed that a lot of people were starting to come in here. We weren't selling the food for very much money, so maybe, we thought, we should try to go faster. Now I think people have come to expect it. In a sense, the business of it and the pacing of it has sort of become the personality of the restaurant. We didn't really design it to be busy every night, but when it is, it sort of becomes part of our personality.
Do you feel like you're a big part of the Bywater's emergence as a trendy place to be?
Chris Cuddihee: It's nice because, you know, a year ago, there was no Prime, there was nothing where Booty's is, there was no Sui Generis. Those places didn't exist yet, and that we got to see it grow like that has been very nice?both to see the Bywater change like that, and for it to seem like less of a destination and more of a neighborhood.
MD: It feels very vital, with people walking around at night and going places. It feels much less like an outlying neighborhood and more like you're in the city, because you are. You're in the city and there's people walking by, going from place to place. On Saturdays, they're going from gallery to gallery, and there's something about having a busy restaurant at 11 on a Thursday that makes you feel like you're in a big city.
BS: There's kind of a sense of adventure that exists in the Bywater right now. I think, going back to that other question about the difference between the Bywater and Uptown, at least for me personally is that, because this area is very new to so many New Orleanians, there's a sense of going somewhere for the first time and not really knowing what to expect. I think there's a huge difference in architecture and just the municipal structure of this neighborhood that seems slightly skewed and unfamiliar to people who live Uptown, and that difference frames their perspective so that when they walk through the door, they're open to possibility. Anyone who walks through that door gets the same treatment?fine dining service with a casual attitude, I guess you would say. Our goal is to turn them into a regular right away. To see that sense of adventure on people's faces when they walk in is pretty cool. Whereas in Uptown, I think you find a lot of people who are very comfortable with their favorite restaurant or haunt. I suppose eventually that sense of novelty will fade away once we get every butt in New Orleans in here, but for right now, the newness of it all is pretty exciting.
Was it important for you guys to help shape this neighborhood, since it doesn't necessarily have a set identity yet?
CC: I certainly love to be part of it. I hadn't thought it when we were opening. I didn't think that we were going to change Bywater, but it's certainly nice that we are part of the change. The New York Times talking about us was...that kind of acknowledgement was very nice.
What about all that critical attention? Does all this positive press ramp up the pressure, or is it simply validating what you're trying to do here?
MD: On my end, it increases the pressure. One of the things I always tell people is that the food has gotten so much better here. It's one of those things I can say. I don't think I'd like it necessarily if people said that to me all the time, but I can say it because I believe it: the food's gotten better, and we have a better idea of what we're going. But the pressure increases because you can't be a new restaurant for forever. We try to act like we're a new restaurant all the time, to have that energy and excitement. We want people to feel like they're in a new, exciting place. Everyone's got a spring in their step, they're excited about what's coming out, but, at the same time, you can't be a new restaurant forever.
With all the press and everything, I don't know [laughs], I've kind of gotten used to seeing my name in print. I kind of like it.
BS: It's thrilling, for sure.
CC: Of course it is.
BS: Initially, I think, the big one was the first piece in the Times. We had no idea that it was coming out, and didn't know what the context of the article was going to be. Then to see it, and to see your [looking at Mike Doyle] name in the New York Times was a very...it's not something we anticipated. We thought we'd come in, and that we'd be a neighborhood restaurant that people in the Bywater would come to, stop in have a snack, have a drink. We were trying to create a hub for the Bywater, and now your name's in the New York Times.
MD: I think right around that time, in the summertime, right when we'd been open for about six months, the notice and attention stopped feeling like such a conspiracy to keep me from ever sleeping again, and more like, "This is great! It drives traffic, it doesn't cost anything, it's wonderful!" Our first Friday open, there was a sidebar in the Lagniape that said we were open. And, sure enough, a customer came in with it. It was very nice?she was a friend of mine's great aunt, and she handed the clipping to me. I went to the kitchen, I held it up, and I don't think one cook was like, "That is so great." Everyone was like, "Oh my God, no! Why?" Horrible things were uttered, and it was like, "Dude, we're going to war right now. I can't believe they told everyone we were open already, we didn't tell a soul."
I mean, we first opened this restaurant 96 hours after getting gas.
BS: It was a really tight timeline.
MD: Yeah, it was pretty stupid.
BS: It was kind of a shift in pressure. There were some very interesting hurdles that this place encountered in trying to get open, so that when we did, there was almost this sigh of relief like, "Ah, we're open."
CC: A restaurant, we know how to do that?that part's easy.
What were some of those early challenges you encountered before you opened?
MD: When we all decided to do this, we didn't even have a floor. But we were optimistic that there would be one soon. Then, you hit delays. At one point we had to do a re-work, and then it's like, "Okay, we've got inspection today," and you think of inspection, as like a health inspection, right? They might not like a couple of things, but life goes on. No, it's not like that at all?you have to jackhammer the sidewalk and make it wider. You have to do all these unforeseen things and it gets tight. You're worried about the money, which you're always worried about. We'd hired people already, so they'd left their jobs, which is a really quick introduction into the burdens of management because you've now got their lives and yours entwined. Then it was one thing after another.
The process of opening a business is sort of like feeling that everyday is the most important day of your life so far, but to most of the other people you deal with, it's just another day. If a guy comes down and you say a pipe isn't long enough, it needs to reach over here if we're going to pass inspection, and he says, "Okay, I can get you in for next Wednesday," your reaction is, "Noooo! By next Wednesday this thing is done, it's not happening anymore. I'm pawning personal possessions."
It led to us being like, "Let's just get this thing open. We'll have some money coming in, it'll be fine." So we rushed and got open as fast as we could.
BS: Then when you're open, there's a mindset change that has to happen, especially when we experienced the volume that we did. Now, creating a consistency of experience is the most important thing?the ability to deliver, do it well, and do it over and over again, day after day. When you open, you have people who have never worked together, you have new equipment, new ingredients, new cooks, etc., but there's a gelling process that has to happen. Invariably there are going to be hiccups. To minimize those hiccups, get over them as fast as possible and get to making sure we provide a consistent experience?that was the next challenge.
When you open gradually and you sort of slowly build into this restaurant, that's one thing, but when you hit the ground at 100 mph, you need to think, okay, the new restaurant's full, and it's going to be full every night, now figure it out. That pressure is daunting. We didn't sleep, didn't see our families, lost weight...
MD: Everyone either lost weight or gained weight. We lost weight, gained weight, and relationships suffered. It was a rough. Well, I don't really remember it.
BS: The body has no memory for pain.
MD: Yeah, I honestly don't remember most of it. That whole first two months is really hazy.
CC: And right after that it was Carnival season, then Jazz Fest. Our Times-Picayune review, when there was still a daily Times-Picayune, was the week of Jazz Fest, or the week right before Jazz Fest...
MD: Right before Jazz Fest.
CC: It was amazing. We couldn't have had better timing on that, the way it worked. It made sure that didn't have any room to breathe.
BS: It all seems like it was simultaneously yesterday and a hundred years ago.
Talk a little bit about sourcing locally. Was it really important for you to make sure you were doing that?
MD: Yeah, 100 percent. The food gets a lot of mentions for being creative, but I don't think of it as wildly creative. I mean, I don't really sit around, have my cup of coffee, and think about what's going to inspire me and what I'm going to cook that day. I know people who do that and do a great job of it, but it's just not me. I'm a problem solver. I have a really big pile of produce that's the problem. I'm sitting on all this and it's not making any money right now. How do we make this produce make money in a way that's true to ourselves?
BS: See, I think that's the most unique thing about you. When he [Mike Doyle] brought me on for this place, it was my fourth opening in a year and a half. It had kind of become my thing to go and open new restaurants. But every chef I've worked has been, "This is my menu, these are the products I need. I must go find them." Whereas, with Mike Doyle, these farmers show up on his doorstep and go, "Hey, I've got this stuff." And he goes, "Yeah, I'll take it." And then he figures out something to put on the menu. It's this completely different process, where he is given his muse, almost, and takes it and turns it into our food.
MD: And that's where the local sourcing comes in, absolutely. That's pretty much how I'm going to figure out what's available. Just in the period where we felt like we were within sort of eight weeks of opening, I must have changed the menu like seven or eight times, because I'd talk to a produce guy and figure out that something wasn't going to get here on time, or that there was too much rain this week.
We did quasi-tasting for the servers over the course of several days, but we didn't have many of the dishes ready, and the building wasn't even occupied. I'd say, "Here's this component, here's this thing, oh we did finish one thing, here's a dish," etc. The line I said to them, and it's sort of of stuck since then is, for better or for worse, everyone says they're going to be really seasonal and source locally because that's what you're supposed to do, but we're actually going to do it. And actually doing it is not really fun. It's really hard. There's a ton of moving parts, and we have a really wide variety of distributors. It's become this great skill that the front of our house has to really sell everything.
BS: With that initial tasting, you're trying to explain concept. It's not, "Taste this, know it, and you're going to sell it." Instead it's, "This dish represents potential, this dish represents a concept." You're trying to communicate to a server to look at this dish as an idea and not as an item.
MD: I'd say something like, "Here's the kimchi. You're not serving it on anything right now, but you're gonna see it pop up in some stuff." I like to build sort of a larder and work from there so I can have all my stuff. We sort of did that. It was probably about two to three weeks in, and we made these sweet potato croquets. [Laughs]
MD: In the end, I mean, I look back now and say, "That was kind of convoluted." It was me and Danny, my sous chef, sitting in the apartment upstairs, which was a construction zone at that time. It was one of those really cold days that you get where it's, like, 35 degrees, but we're in a completely open apartment with the wind blowing through it, and we're freezing and we come up with this dish. And I'm not gonna say it was bad, but... We had sweet potatoes, we had the pickled peanuts that I had done and put up during the time that we were getting ready to open. Pickling peanuts is a horribly arduous process, and I had done it because all I was trying to do was open the restaurant and I was so stir crazy from doing white collar work that I did things like pickling peanuts.
I put them together, and I made this glaze with Amaro and we were thickening it with pig's feet and we had little shiitake jam... It's not even something I would bother making now because now I know I have this restaurant and I know that 1,500 bodies are going to come in and out of here every week. With complicated dishes like what I was making, it's like, well, what happens if we run out of everything? How long until you can get it back on the menu? It's going to be a while. Besides that, I ran out of peanuts. It's the first week of February, there are no peanuts to be found, besides the fact that I only run a kitchen staff with five people, which is stupid, I mean, just insane. There was no way, even if we could get the raw peanuts, that we were going to be pickling peanuts. So we took it off the menu. It was the first thing that I took off the menu out of sheer seasonality. Not because it wasn't good or anything like that, just because it's gone. It was good, everyone liked it, I mean, we certainly didn't see having 150 orders a week. We thought those peanuts would last us forever.
That was the first dish where I had to sit everyone down and say, "Look, this is kind of gonna be what your life is like, and you're gonna have to get used to it. People are going to come in here and they're going to ask what happened to the thing that was here last time, and it's just not happening anymore." And now it's just become a matter of course. I take things off because I don't like them, and I take things off because I'm tired of them (I get tired of things very easily because I have a short attention span).
You can get anything. You can call the produce house and get most anything, but what's the point? There's always something better coming along. I live in this sort of future world where everything on the horizon is better. I always think, "This day is going to be the best day, this dish is going to be the best dish." We've been having a little crisis lately where we're back in the season of when we first opened and people ask a lot, whether it's guests or staff, "Are you going to put that item from last January back on? Is that coming back?" Generally the answer is no. I have this stubborn refusal to believe that the best food I'm ever going to produce happened when I was the most stressed I've ever been in my life, wasn't sleeping, was working 100 hours a week, and was just kind of flying blind. I'm not actually the kind of person who produces that great under that sort of stress.