The Sample Room's Kyle Gage and Francis Taylor O'Brien: "Take the time to do it right"
Sean McPherson The co-head chefs of the Sample Room Kyle Gage (L) and Francis Taylor O'Brien (R)
The Sample Room has been a fixture of the Northeast food scene since opening its doors 12 years ago (practically 30 in restaurant years). How do head chefs Kyle Gage and Francis Taylor O'Brien keep the menu interesting while staying true to their concept? We sat down with Gage, O'Brien, and managing partner Darren Ennis to find out.
The Sample Room now serving pig's head
Hot Dish: How do you keep your menu interesting while making sure your loyal customers are happy?
Kyle Gage: A lot of it comes from the specials we offer. We work closely with a number of farms including Dragsmith Farms and they basically let us know what we can work with each week. We change a couple of items at a time and then get the feedback from our customers. If they like where we are going we continue down that road. If the feedback isn't there, we go in a different direction.
Darren Ennis: We tried to establish a great concept. We weren't trying to be trendy but we went the small plate route before small plates started rocking. We've stayed within what we do so we're not confusing people. And with our new chefs, these guys have the ability to work in a kitchen with everything made from scratch and keep it innovative. So we turn it over to them and let them run with it.
Francis Taylor O'Brien: I like eating with my eyes before eating with my mouth. So I want something that works visually as much as it works taste-wise. That drives me to bring new ideas into the kitchen. I hope that connects with our diners and keeps it interesting.
How long have you been in a co-chef position?
(Everyone looks at their watches and laughs.) Gage: I guess about three weeks! But we've worked together at three restaurants. I started as the sous chef here and Francis Taylor O'Brien came on. When I left I said, "This is your guy for sous chef!" When I came back it worked to just run this thing together. Francis brings a little bit of a crazy flair and I have more of the classic French training. We collaborate well with that. He has some strong points I don't and I have things he's lacking.
Do you ever long for the days when you were the only restaurant serving this style of food in Northeast?
Ennis: We just celebrated 12 years being open, that marks about 15 years of my life doing this. I love that we were on the front end in this neighborhood. I am so happy with Northeast's evolution. To me it's the more the merrier. This area is now like an Eat Street.
O'Brien: I see it as a challenge. We have to be better because of all the restaurants. When we're busy, I know we're doing something right.
Gage: This pushes the whole industry to do something better.
Ennis: We aimed to be a neighborhood place and a destination location. We've succeeded at both. Now we have people coming up strictly for the food and that's great.
From Sample Room Marquis Au Chocolate from the Sample Room
You are frequently praised for your cheese plates. Who does those pairings and how do you choose?
Gage: We've recently handed a lot of that off to one of our cooks. He does research online about what pairs with what cheese. Google has changed all cooks' lives. What goes with San Andreas cheese? We check it out. He just had me ordering quinces, because they go with a cheese. You couldn't do that research online 15 years ago.
How much of your menu is made from scratch?
Ennis: These guys do it all from scratch besides our bread from New French. That means all the way down to the sauces, everything is coming in raw that we order. They have to work like mad to make it work. These guys are knocking it out. The prep demands are intense.
Gage: We make everything here from the ketchup to the corn beef. We are not a heat and serve restaurant.
How does that level of preparation inside the kitchen affect the way your kitchen runs?
Gage: It is a huge part of the industry to work with the farmers. We've learned a lot from our farmers. The farmer himself from Dragsmith Farms drops off the produce. So if we fuck something up, we're assholes to that guy. He says, "Thanks, you just wasted seven months of my life." His wife cuts the greens for our salads with a scissors and sends them off to us. We're not going to mess that produce up. It's not right. It's not how we do things. We like to work with those small farms. It takes respect to a whole new level. What was once a piece of meat means more to us because it's something that took two and a half years to raise, and someone cut it up to butcher it. We are talking a lot of time, and a lot of money. We don't want to mess that up. That's where that pride comes from me. I'll take the time to cook it right, since they took the time to raise it right. That's what we pound into our staff: Take the time to do it right. In the last three weeks there's been a whole new vibe over here.