Everything looks perfect on opening night. The sweeping space echoes a gorgeous Paris train station writ modern, with a soaring ceiling, walls of windows, cool black steel and white marble. Black-clad servers whisk by with large white dishes carrying artfully plated mounds of seafood and another bottle of wine for the table in the corner. Great-looking couples in breezy summer resort wear sip jewel-colored sparkly cocktails at the bar before being seated.
Kingfish Oyster Bar, Chef Tom Schaudel’s newest restaurant is located in The Vanderbilt, a recently opened luxury residence rental and hotel suites development in Westbury. It is top-to-bottom a wonderful dining experience. It is everything you would expect from Schaudel, a Long Island native and celebrity chef, who has been opening restaurants here since 1983, and whose current stable includes Alure Chowder House and “Oyster-ia” in Southold, Amano Osteria and Wine Bar in Mattituck, and Be-Ju Sashimi and Sake Bar and Jewel by Tom Schaudel in Melville.
Kingfish brings together his love of seafood, especially the fresh and local varieties, his fine-dining chops, appreciation for and understanding of restaurant kitchen design and passion for good wine and spirits. He is such a proponent of local that he blends his own signature wine on the North Fork.
But as much as his riff on Galician style grilled octopus, his billi bi smoked mussel soup, and his fresh greens topped with fried oysters were so good they brought me to tears on a recent visit (and paired deliciously with the TS white), this is not actually restaurant review.
This is about just some of what actually has to happen to make a fine restaurant open and function. Over the last few months, I visited with Tom and his daughter and colleague, Courtney Schaudel, as they put together the plans for this new place. What I learned gave me a new-found respect for all the moving parts that go into opening a new restaurant, and a feeling that you’d have to be a little crazy—good crazy, but crazy just the same—to do it.
“It starts with an idea I want to develop or a location that falls into my lap,” Tom, with his chef’s coat and signature bandanna, tells me as we sit in one of the elegant dining areas at Jewel in Melville last January. “If the idea comes first you gotta find the location. If the location comes first, you gotta find the idea.”
In the case of Kingfish, the location came first so he needed an idea. “I looked around at the other restaurants in that area, West End Café, Spuntino, and said alright, what can I do that isn’t already here? I thought ‘fish’; it’s what I like to do. I was interested in small plates; I think it’s the way people eat now. Who wants to be weighed down with mashed potatoes and all the starches?
“The next step is the development,” he continues, not breaking his flow, even as the hostess arrives with questions about a party, the bartender asks for help finding a particular bottle of wine for a client, another customer wants to say hello, a server has a question. “Everything stems from the kitchen, everything is built around that.”
While Tom is a practiced hand at opening restaurants, experience tells him to bring in experts to execute his vision: designers, specialized construction contractors, plus his partners. Kingfish, was just empty space with no past, a tabula rasa for his ideas.
“Until Jewel I did my own interiors, but I have now recognized my limitations.” So he works with Sharon Dallago of Dallago Associates, longtime hospitality designers. He says the designer has to understand the flow of restaurant personnel from back of the house to the front. “That’s why I chose Sharon,” Tom tells me. “I look at choke points for staff, at how we bring fish to the table and how it needs space. She gets that. And she could translate my ravings into wall art.”In the meantime he decides on menu items, developing sauces, trying to innovate without going too far afield, keeping it interesting while respecting the food product, trying to source locally in a climate zone that has a limited growing season. This has become more complicated in recent years with heightened focus on allergies and food sensitivities that gave us things like gluten-free diets, he says.
We speak on the phone a few times over the next few months for progress reports. Then in June I get to visit the restaurant—or what will become the restaurant in a matter of weeks. I meet Tom’s daughter and partner, Courtney, in what is essentially a construction site: there is a scissor lift (like a cherry-picker the PSEG guys might use, except with a platform instead of a bucket) to get the work done for the 23 foot ceilings. The raw bar is wrapped in protective cardboard and covered in graceful blueprints. The floor is also covered in cardboard, mostly, but you can see the gorgeous basket-weave marble floors exclusive to the restaurant. I duck under and step over cables, and work my way around different teams of contractors with their heads stuck in holes in the wall or carrying equipment to and fro. A long metal cage is on the floor; waiting to be the suspended over the bar for the entrance focal point that is like a stylized lobster trap. Sawdust covers most everything.
And Kingfish is scheduled to open in July? This is mid-June!
Courtney is cautiously optimistic. “It’s at the mercy of a lot of different people,” she says. “But it does look exceedingly different from last week.”
She shows me around the different parts of the soon-to-be restaurant in a break between interviewing potential staff. “We’ve interviewed 45-50 people just today,” she says, cheerfully.
This is not her first rodeo. Courtney has been helping out her dad’s business in some form or another since he opened his first restaurant in 1983. Now she is part of the core team which can include interviewing, like today, working on the line, in the pantry, bookkeeping, accounting, serving, “whatever anyone needs at the time.”
I get a real-life and very fun example; as we are chatting, some wine representatives appear toting wines they’d like to see at the restaurant. Tom, Courtney and I are joined by other team members for an impromptu tasting of dry rosés and cool whites and much discussion of each wine ensues. Then each one is off to another task.
While I would feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of things going on all at once—we haven’t even discussed the health inspections and safety standards—the Schaudels seem to groove on the juggling and the teamwork. But the stakes are high. This is no small investment and the livelihood of many people will depend on the outcomes. It is also an unforgiving business and that is something both Schaudels repeat again and again.
“No other industry is so scrutinized, especially with social media today,” Courtney says. “Everybody is a food critic these days. Instead of eating dinner, they are taking pictures. It’s the new culture. So you always have to have your A game. If you have a bad night you will lose people.”
So in addition to hiring good personnel, there is constant training and practice. Servers and bartenders can’t just dish out meals and drinks, they have to know the menu inside out and be comfortable with encountering all sorts of personalities.
So my delightful dinner at the bar? That was a “soft opening” for friends and family. It is kind of like a dress rehearsal for the later grand opening for the general public. It is when the staff get a chance to run through the show with a real audience, identify glitches and get comfortable with their roles. It can be a very expensive party to throw, but the rehearsal is invaluable to prevent major issues on game day. And by the looks of it, things were on track.
“In summation, it’s a lot like pushing a 100-pound rock up a 3-mile hill,” says Tom Schaudel. “It is one of the most detailed undertakings you could punish yourself with. Only a hardware store has more nuts and bolts and screws. But our products die. There is so much to keep track of.”
So why do it?
“I turned two bad habits into a career,” Tom says. “Eating and drinking. And I am still having a blast.”
Kingfish Oyster Bar did indeed open as projected in July. For reservations, call 516-640-5777.