When Michael Gulotta decided to open a second restaurant featuring his unique Southern meets Asian fusion cuisine, the award-winning chef and his business partners faced a major hurdle. Lack of money. Their budget represented, at best, a small fraction of the typical restaurant build out. And while the bare-bones, figure-it-out-as-you-go look may have sufficed at Gulotta’s laid-back Mid-City eatery MoPho, he and his team understood they’d need to up the design ante for this newer, more upscale culinary venture. Fortunately a combination of shrewd choices, a strong DIY ethic, and the resourceful creativity of designers Farouki Farouki more than compensated for Gulotta and company’s slim pocketbook.
From the very start, Gulotta and his partners — brother Jeff and high school friend Jeffrey Bybee — understood that building out a restaurant from scratch wasn’t an option. When the chance to take over the former digs of the short-lived Ursa Major surfaced, Maypop’s owners seized the opportunity. The space had much going for it: a solid CBD location, a sizeable dining room, an existing bar and reasonably-sized kitchen, high ceilings, modern concrete finishes, and plenty of natural light. But how to transform the decidedly cold, zodiac-themed space on a Pluto-sized budget?
Enter Sabri Taji Farouki and Caroline Landry Farouki of Farouki Farouki. Though the husband and wife architectural and design team had worked on numerous hi-end hospitality projects in California and New York, their recent relocation to New Orleans (Caroline is a Louisiana native) meant the firm was eager to forge more local clients. Until Maypop, the couple’s New Orleans restaurant redo experience had been limited to a whirlwind, five day overhaul of the Bourbon House. (Projects Farouki Farouki has taken up since Maypop include the sumptuous Saffron, Eater NOLA’s 2017 Restaurant of the Year.)
“Farouki Farouki got us,” says Gulotta. “They let us know how we could make the budget work and where to put our efforts. Using a lot of original features was key.”
Maypop’s tiny budget meant that any architectural changes would have to be kept to a minimum. All agreed, however, on one structural must-have: the creation of a long wall to screen the restrooms from the dining room. The new wall also allowed for the addition of an office; otherwise the original floorplan was left intact.
Gulotta and his partners next went to task recreating the seating. With the help of a pair of carpenters and design input from the Faroukis, team Maypop set about deconstructing banquettes inherited from Ursa Major to form a long bench against the new wall; they also used existing tables, sanding and restaining the wood to add much needed natural wood and warmth to the space. The bar was expanded upwards while an inexpensive screen constructed from cables and suspended metal planters created a desired demarcation between the bar area and the dining room — without blocking light from the windows.
But perhaps Maypop’s greatest design feat came in the form of the restaurant’s most prominent focal point: a one-of-a-kind angled mural that from the left reveals an old map of the Mississippi River basin and from the right, the Mekong Delta. After learning of the Gulottas’ fascination with old Louisiana maps, Caroline Farouki came up with the idea of using a pair of such maps to visually link the restaurants’ two points of culinary inspiration: Southeast Louisiana and Southeast Asia.
“We’re always trying to innovate, to do one thing that people haven’t seen,” she says. “I was thinking of holograms, how the images shift, and wondering how we could achieve a similar effect with the two maps. Fortunately, Sabri is brilliant at taking my crazy ideas and turning them into reality.”
Having travelled extensively in the region, the Faroukis reached out to contacts in Vietnam to photograph vintage maps. After “tweaking the colors,” the designers located a California company able to print the two chosen maps onto 4’ by 8’ sheets of birch plywood.
Once again, Maypop’s owners rolled up their sleeves and went to work. Over three nail-biting days, Gulotta and his crew used a table saw to make some 400 precision cuts before installing the printed slats to the new wall. With each pass of the blade, they were certain the plywood would slip and the pricey materials would be ruined. Miraculously, every cut turned out.
For Gulotta, the mural isn’t just an aesthetic statement but serves as a reminder of the myriad of topographical and culinary connections between the Mississippi and the Mekong, parallels that include a similar climate, brackish water, plentiful seafood, and as he says, “a love for the hog and all its parts.” He notes that in both areas, cooks like to play with mixing seafood with pork, thus playing off contrasting flavors. There’s also the fact that both Louisiana and Indochina were once French colonies.
“Sometimes the best things can come from the tightest perimeters,” says Caroline Farouki when asked about the design lessons of Maypop. “Those limitations force you to focus. If you have a large budget, you can choose from any number of high end finishes. But to make something with pennies, you have to get really creative.”