Celeb Chefs & Their ‘Cheaper’ Restaurants
Half The Price
High-profile, celebrity chefs have perfected their trademark cuisine styles to a point that they can afford to do pretty much whatever they want, whether it’s another high-concept restaurant or more approachable fare. Here’s what every operator needs to know about this approach.
Wolfgang Puck simultaneously serves the glitterati at his flagship Spago Beverly Hills restaurant and the masses at Wolfgang Puck Express, located at almost every major airport in the country. David Burke’s Primehouse attracts well-heeled business types, while his Burke in a Box concept targets weary travelers and shoppers. And while Paul Kahan boasts a Michelin star and several James Beard awards for avec, Blackbird and Publican, you can still get a $3 taco and $2 whiskey shot at Big Star.
These high-profile chefs have perfected their trademark cuisine styles to a point that they can afford to do pretty much whatever they want, whether it’s another high-concept restaurant or more approachable fare. In 2012, Bravo’s “Top Chef” season four winner Stephanie Izard jumped in on the trend with the opening of Little Goat Diner in Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood.
It’s located directly across the street from Girl and the Goat, her award-winning, contemporary American restaurant that opened two years prior with Boka Restaurant Group. Rob Katz, one of the original partners with Boka Restaurant Group, believes that it was a natural progression to open a sequel to GATG.
“We wanted to do a follow-up restaurant to Girl and the Goat because we were maxed out on space at the restaurant,” says Katz, who also owns Boka restaurant, GT Fish & Oyster and Momotaro. “We were at 100 percent capacity. There was no way to open for lunch, but we wanted to do it.”
He says that in preparation for the new concept, he, Izard and partner Kevin Boehm traveled extensively through the South visiting old-school diners. “Everyone has some childhood memories of diners, and we wanted to do an updated concept of the American favorite,” he adds.
While the price points of Little Goat are significantly lower than its predecessor, the quality, service, etc. remain the same, according to Katz. As with any successful establishment, there has to be a zoned in focus on the customer. Katz also credits Izard’s strong presence and input at both establishments an important component.
“She can be found cooking in both restaurants,” he says. “She will literally get on the line on a regular basis at Little Goat and she does it all the time because she is very particular with what comes off the line. She is really immersed over there. (Because they are) directly across the street from one another, she is back and forth between the restaurants. She is obsessed with the quality of both restaurants.”
Part of that quality includes the use of local farmers and producers, which help put out the best quality products, he says. Katz adds that with 80-plus menu items at Little Goat and 30-plus items at GATG, she is even more challenged with running two successful businesses. But she’s clearly up to the challenge; so much that she’s aiming to open yet a third venue with Boka Restaurant Group in the West Loop later this summer.
Similar to Stephanie Izard, Jared Van Camp has his hands full with restaurant projects. He’s what you’d call a chef’s chef as his profile is high in Chicago’s thriving dining community and beyond. With his first restaurant, Old Town Social, he created the city’s first-ever house-made charcuterie program, and at the Italian-focused Nellcôte, he was the first in the country to mill flour in-house for pasta, breads and more.
In 2014, Van Camp and his partners at Element Collective opened a few additional concepts: Kinmont, the city’s first-ever sustainable seafood restaurant; Owen + Alchemy, a chef-driven juice bar; and Leghorn, a chicken sandwich shop.
While Owen + Alchemy and Leghorn are the most inexpensive venues in the group, Van Camp says he set out to offer quality he felt was missing from other juice bars and chicken-focused eateries. Another lesson for operators: Fill in the gaps.
“We love fried chicken sandwiches, and the places where we were going did not source ethically,” he says. “(By opening Leghorn), it became a way for us to get what we wanted in this great fried chicken sandwich, but from locally sourced chickens that we butchered in-house.”
He had a similar mission and focus as he set out to open Owen + Alchemy. His diagnosis of Type 1 diabetes made him look at what he consumed in a healthier manner, and that included the products at typical juice bars. He felt that most offered products with too much fruit juice, and he wanted to feature a host of savory juices with produce from local farms.
“We love putting our own spin on everything,” he says. “The same farms where we source from for our other restaurants we use for our juice bar at Owen + Alchemy. It was an epiphany for us to use our existing relationships with the farmers.”
Like many chefs, Jason McLeod refuses to sacrifice quality just because he’s operating a lower-priced venue. He garnered two Michelin stars at Chicago’s now-shuttered RIA before making his way to the West Coast to open two successful restaurants in San Diego: the seafood-focused Ironside Fish & Oyster and casual eatery Soda & Swine (a second one opens this spring). The latter cranks out signature meatballs, and classic apple pie paired with craft sodas, and McLeod boasts that some staffers work at both restaurants, ensuring great service.
“The overall feel in terms of guest experience of what they get with our staff is the most consistent,” McLeod says. “It’s still friendly, familiar service, and our aim is to make customers feel well taken care of — no matter how much they’re spending.”