The second part of our One Year In conversation with Michael Doyle, Brad Smith and Chris Cuddihee of Maurepas Foods focuses on inventive mixology, the restaurant's burgeoning staff of creative thinkers, and the staggering number of goats that will need to be sacrificed to ensure that Maurepas' success carries over into its second year.[Photos: Josh Brasted]
Talk a little bit about sourcing locally. Was it really important to make sure you were doing that?
MD: ...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.
I kind of believe the next dish is going to be even better, besides the fact that everyone's saying, "Oh, it's so good!" You know, there's a lot of emotion tied up in the food from the opening menu, where I think all of us at that time were like, "Oh, thank God we're open, everyone's coming in, this is great! This is a whole restaurant, we're really doing it!" And there's a lot of emotion tied up in that, where some of those dishes, well, I don't think they'd hold up now. I'm going to have to find out at some point, probably.
CC: We can reexamine.
BS: Small plates...remember this one? We can do a greatest hits!
CC: Going back through the dishes, there are things that, if you were gone for two nights, you came back and were like, "What? I've never heard of that one." If the produce guy came by with something new and he [Mike Doyle] made a dish with it, there was no guarantee those same ingredients would be available the next week.
But that's okay because tomorrow there will be something new that someone will bring by that we'll create a new dish with. We've had a few things since the beginning The chicken...
MD: The tacos. And then the green onion sausage has been on for a while...
CC: And the goat has changed, since that first week. We thought initially, "Oh, a goat will get us through a week," and now...
MD: It's a goat and a half everyday.
MD: We get to customize the size of our goats now. We have a goat farmer we work closely with now, so we've figured out the sourcing, but we need a goat and a half everyday.
BS:That was a big, big challenge.
It sounds like a Greek sacrifice.
CC: I think the gods would be happy.
Is creating the cocktail menu the same sort of problem-solving process as creating the regular menu? Do you wait to see what you have before you start mixing?
BS: Drink-wise, we're trying to stay conceptually cohesive within the restaurant as a whole. So we're taking a lot of items that you would normally think of as food items and incorporating them into the cocktails, and then making sure that the one consistency is that there is no consistency in the menu, that it's constantly changing. Seeing all of this beautiful produce come in everyday is a shock to me, and Mike is very good about saving me a sample if he gets something really wild. And being from the upper midwest, there are a lot of things that are available in New Orleans that I have never tried. I'd never had a satsuma before I moved here. Six months out of the year in the midwest, everything's coming either out of a hotbox if you're lucky enough to hook up with somebody who has one, or it's coming out of South America.
That's kind of that idea that you can get whatever you want whenever you want it, but the quality is so much less than if you stay within the season and you're getting it from a citrus orchard that's mere miles away from your restaurant. So, incorporating those things into the cocktails is great, but it's about knowing your ingredients, which behind the bar is a very different sort of process. It takes a lot of time to figure out.
MD: Yeah, me and Chris know more about liquor now than we ever did.
CC: With the wine list, I can't have that kind of freedom. All I can do is open the bottle and hope that what's inside is going to work. At this point, I've known chef's cooking for a long time, so I can always taste towards that, but now I also know that if I find something from Croatia that tastes crazy weird, we'll have people who are willing to try it, and we certainly have the food to hold up to it. It's nice to be a restaurant like that?I'm really very proud of that.
MD: We have such a long day, too. The kitchen's active for 18 hours everyday, and front of the house is active for 16 hours everyday.
BS: For the bartenders, there is a shift spent prepping. There are juices...
MD: There's always someone around, so no one's ever sitting in the restaurant alone, tasting wine, or trying a drink, or cooking something?we're all always here. Whether it's the three of us actually here, there's always someone to go, "Here, try this," or "You know what I was thinking about?" and you at least have an employee to sort of bounce things off of. I think that's always sort of kept things going. There's always something going on. We rarely have an empty house.
What about those long hours has been challenging? You guys don't shut down between lunch and dinner, and you're open pretty late...
BS: I've never experienced anything other than that, personally.
MD: It's more common outside of New Orleans I think.
BS: For me, the restaurants I've been involved with open at 11 and stay open until 2 am. There may be a menu change at some point, but there is no shut down and start over period.
MD: For me, it was a huge change, and for all my cooks it was a huge change.
CC: For front of the house too. I hadn't worked lunch in a long time. I'd been working dinners forever, to the point where I forgot that people go out to eat at 11 in the morning. I think that what's great about what we're doing is that it is the same menu throughout the day, and what you can eat at 11 in the morning is the same as what you can eat at 11 at night. Sure, the vibe might not be the same, but not everybody works 9 to 5.
BS: The food stands up to the whole thing.
MD: It's an all day thing, and everything's quick. The menu was designed to always be an all-day menu, to always be sort of course-less. It's whatever order you want things in, or if you just want one thing, it can all get out. We don't have 35 minutes the way you would at a fine-dining place where I need you to have your salad, your amuse, and your bread so you have something to do while I get this ready. Everything can just go out fast. Fast, fast is always our thing back there.
But the hours did represent a huge change, especially for the kitchen. My pm guys, we're slammed in the afternoons. We do a lot of 2-5 business because it is rare in this town to find a place open that time of day. We have special Saturday, Sundays when 2-5 is just popping. My four o'clock people come in, get set, tag out, and they can be looking at seven hours of high-intensity line cooking. Then it just becomes your task as a manager to keep their brains intact because it is exhausting to go that hard for that long, remember everything that you're doing, and with the volume that we do, I mean, it's like brunch over here. Of course, it's much more fun than brunch.
With a year under your belt, what are your hopes for the next year?
MD: I want to take two days off every week.
CC: That would be nice.
MD: Yup, start eating square meals. These are my short-term, personal goals.
Outside of that, we're really looking to stabilize. We don't feel in any way that we're maxed out. I think that, earlier on, it was really easy to think, since we were doing tons of business, that this must be everything that's going to come at us. The goal in opening a restaurant 13 hours a day, six days a week, is to have a restaurant open for 13 hours a day, six days a week. The sort of abstract goal that we keep pushing towards is that this company is not done growing in any way. I think that we've attracted a lot of good people to work here.
BS: I think we're starting to see a lot more input from people on the line and behind the bar who maybe weren't as heavily involved in the creative side initially, when it was just the three of us. Now, we're getting all of this input, and it's starting to change things. The cooks, for example, have cooked enough of Mike's food that they're starting to get the idea of how he creates dishes.
MD: They ask themselves now, "Is this a dish we make, or isn't it?"
BS: Right, and they understand the concept and are able then to create a dish that falls within our very vague parameters. It's the same with cocktails behind the bar. The bartenders each have drinks on the list, some have two, thing they are able to make that sort of fall into the broad scope that is our cocktail list.
MD: We've had a lot of our servers since day one, or close to it. They're all regulars. I have servers coming to me saying things like, "Hey, I found someone with good citrus." There's sort of a lot of that going on. We welcome that. It's been a tiring year and we're happy to have any input.
CC: It's nice to know that people see what it is that we're doing and want to be part of it.
BS: To have more people contributing to the creative process offers up a sense of ownership, makes it much our space more interesting and exciting. As these people are here longer, they feel more comfortable offering up their own creations. I think we're going to see a lot more from the people working here in the year ahead. The next year is going to be amazing.