First in an occasional series on the birth of Notion
It’s tough to pigeon-hole Dave Racicot, the self-taught chef who earned Nemacolin Woodlands Resort’s Lautrec restaurant its coveted AAA Five Diamond rating in 2007, when he was but 29 years old.
He’s extremely talented, of course. But also cocky. Outspoken. Kind of pig-headed. Almost too self-confident.
Oh, and sexy, too, what with that scruffy beard and network of tatts running up one arm and down the other.
Mostly, he’s determined.
On Dec. 31, if everything stays on schedule, the doors will swing open at Notion, his new restaurant in what used to be Boulevard Bistro in Oakmont. It’s the end result of a year-long journey fraught with angst, rejection, frustration and — after he finally signed the papers on the Allegheny River Boulevard building two months ago — buckets of sweat and elbow grease.
This past January, Mr. Racicot was let go from his job as Lautrec’s chef du cuisine for what he calls, in a voice tinged with irritation, “creative differences.” He tried hard to land another job that would keep his young family in the area, and to woo dollars, with business consultant Tom Dickson’s help, out of would-be restaurateurs’ pockets with fancy investor dinners. But nothing panned out.
He was baffled and humbled.
“My credentials are great, especially in this area, where there’s a lot of people who understand good restaurants,” Mr. Racicot said back in June over coffee at Bruegger’s in Market Square. Then the idea for Notion was exactly that: a notion of what could be if he could just get his hands on some dough. He laughed. “But restaurants are a popularity contest, where some chefs can’t cook. It’s more about being well known.”
Resigned to starting over somewhere else, the Indiana, Pa., native was seriously considering a job at Woodlands Inn in Charleston, S.C., when his cell phone rang in late September. It was his brother, Ryan, also a chef, telling him to check out an ad on craigslist:
Are you an executive chef ready to own your own business?
“Probably a bunch of BS,” Mr. Racicot remembers thinking as he shot off an e-mail. Or not. The very next day he was face-to-face with seller Meg Burkardt, an attorney who’s part-owner of the Oaks Theater next door to the restaurant space. And flash, boom, bam. The indecision and frustration marking the past eight months of his life was history.
When Ms. Burkardt opened Boulevard Bistro five years ago to give moviegoers a place to eat pre- or post-show, she never dreamed she’d be running it herself, and for so long; the plan always was to “pass it off.”
When her son, the bistro’s sous chef, took a job in Los Angeles, it prompted her finally to do just that, and within two days after posting on craigslist she received nearly 30 responses. What narrowed the field to Mr. Racicot was his passion and work ethic.
“I liked his dedication and sincerity,” she said. “He’s just so committed to the idea.”
He also has the goods: In addition to steering Lautrec to its five-star status, Mr. Racicot in 2009 was named a semi-finalist in the “Rising Star Chef of the Year Category” by the James Beard Foundation. The nomination earned him a chance to prepare a seven-course meal at the famed James Beard House in New York’s historic Greenwich Village.
“He’s competent, and has an ongoing interest in it staying successful,” Ms. Burkardt said.
For Mr. Racicot, the situation was a dream come true. Not only was it a nice space in a great neighborhood that needed little renovation, but Ms. Burkardt’s sweetheart turnkey deal included financing, eliminating the need for pesky investors or huge loans. Sweeter still: the first payment would be deferred for six months to allow cash flow while Notion got up and running. And a liquor license was included. He’d be crazy not to jump at the chance, even though to do it, he’d have to cash in every dime of his 401K savings.
Twelve hours after Boulevard Bistro closed on Oct. 9, its windows facing Allegheny River Boulevard were covered in brown paper and Chef Racicot was inside cleaning, a signed “gentlemen’s agreement” under his baseball cap.
“Looks like I will officially own my own restaurant later this week,” he crowed in an e-mail on Oct. 12.
Then, the real work began.
All new restaurants require a leap of faith, with about 60 percent closing or changing hands within three years of opening, according to a recent study by Ohio State University. Chef Racicot’s odds of success are arguably more tenuous, in that Notion won’t be a neighborhood joint like its predecessor but a high-end “destination” restaurant, pairing fine food with fine wine.
Pittsburgh’s dining scene has never been hotter, with more than two dozen food establishments opening in the past two years. But upscale restaurants such as Elements Contemporary Cuisine in Gateway Center and Habitat in the Fairmont Pittsburgh are the exception rather than the rule.
“High-end has seen its time of day in the Pittsburgh scene,” said Terri Sokoloff, president of Specialty Bar & Restaurant Brokers, which helps to arrange the sale of existing restaurant space and the transfer of liquor licenses. “People want a good meal, but they also want value.”
Also worrisome is that Notion is small, seating just 38. Ten years ago, chef-driven boutique restaurants were rare enough to be sought out; Pittsburgh’s food scene has progressed to where today, there’s “tons” of great little finds, says Ms. Sokoloff. Chef Racicot’s success, then, will require a dedicated following.
As she puts it, “You’re only as good as your last meal.”
On that end, Chef Racicot isn’t worried. Even though Notion’s menu still hasn’t been committed to paper — as of Monday, he’d only written 10 or so things down — he knows it will feature the same modern, high-quality food that earned him the James Beard nod, both a la carte and as a tasting dinner. Diners also will enjoy exquisite presentation and the “best service of any restaurant in the city.
“My expectation is that everything will be perfect, every single time,” he said. “No restaurant in Pittsburgh will do what we do.”
Translation: If you’re the type of diner who’s looking for a quick four courses for $18 before a show, or think dinner has to involve a T-bone, it’s probably not for you.
What does give the 32-year-old chef pause is that he’s starting in an existing restaurant. Nine months ago when he was first wooing investors (early contenders included Kevin McClatchy), the goal was to build his culinary mecca from scratch to avoid fighting diners’ memories.
Or as he put it on Nov. 4, in the midst of one of his marathon cleaning sessions with manager Jennifer Jin, “You don’t want somebody driving by in five years and saying, ‘Remember Boulevard Bistro?’ ”
One early possibility involved renovating Bondstreet Shoes on Ellsworth Avenue in Shadyside. When that proved too expensive, he turned his sights down the street to Enrico’s Ristorante.
“Well, that didn’t go as planned, which is a kick to the stomach,” he complained in an email on June 22, when Enrico’s building owner took an offer from another buyer. “But I’m going to stay positive and think that it didn’t happen for a good reason. . . . Right now I feel like I’m starting over.”
A few days later, he was working on yet another deal, Mark’s Grille on Penn Avenue in the Cultural District, buoyed by the possibility of a group of investors with “more money than Joe Hardy.” But that, too, eventually would go bust.
“Talking to a few other chefs, and this is about how long it took them to get things going,” he wrote on June 28, his frustration mounting. “So I don’t feel like I’m not accomplishing anything anymore. It’s just taking longer than expected.”
This fall, just as he was sure his dreams would have to come to an end, he stumbled upon The Deal.
“It all sounds way too good to be true, but I’m close to signing a deal,” he wrote on Sept. 27. Praise the Lord and pass the coffee.
Even before the loan documents were signed on Nov. 1, Chef Racicot was busy making lists. At the top was developing a budget, opening a checking account and applying for credit from vendors; he also had to design logos, set up a website, www.notionrestaurant.com, and start blogging and tweeting to get a buzz going.
Also looming were countless decisions on how to configure and decorate the space. Banquettes or chairs? Carpeting or hardwood? Eight-ounce cocktail glasses or 10? What to do with that huge pizza oven? That problem was solved just this week: Through Green Apple Network, he was able to barter it for a concrete countertop from Stone Passion Northeast in Harrison City.
Architect Jen Bee of Jen Bee Design in Allison Park has been helping design a floor plan and suggesting vendors and products. But Mr. Racicot, who’s commuting daily from Uniontown, admitted he’s not the best listener.
“I’m a little OCD and ADD,” he said.
While shopping with Ms. Bee on Nov. 13 at IKEA for furniture and wall garnishes, for instance, he didn’t want to hear pedestal tables will work best. He’d already settled on the BJURSTA dining table, which has four legs. Until he decided, a week later, that what he really wanted was to put custom maple tabletops on top of the existing pedestals.
What they did agree on is that the colors and design should be as minimalist as possible so the food and presentation shine.
At least he has his core team in place, all former co-workers at Lautrec. That includes Ms. Jin, 30, who was dining room manager during his tenure, and ran the Pittsburgh Marathon with him this past May; sous chef Andrew Stump; and pastry chef Joshua Lind, a fresh off a tour of duty with the Army National Guard in Afghanistan.
“Now I’m doing it for me and the people who worked hard for me and have been loyal friends,” he said.
On Monday, Chef Racicot was headed back to IKEA to buy several storage pieces for the dining room. He also was sketching out the wall art — he is going to paint the canvases in shades of red and gray and hang them on 79-inch curtain rods himself — and deciding on fabric for the banquettes.
With just three weeks to blast off, you’d think he’d be sweating bullets. But no, his only real concern is getting a fridge in the small storage room repaired.
“Nervous? I have no reason to be,” he said. “I’m organized and feel focused and in control of the situation.”
The restaurant biz is a tenuous one, but Ms. Burkardt, who enjoyed five successful years with Boulevard Bistro, is fairly confident this one will fly. Yet she wonders if both sides might have to “stretch” their expectations to reach a happy medium: diners up and the chef down.
“When you’re young, you feel you have to take a tougher line and do exactly what you want to do,” she said. It’s not until you go into business for yourself for the first time that you “learn the lessons you need to learn.”
Chef Racicot insists he’s going into the venture with his eyes wide open. Even though he’ll face 100-hour work weeks, he knows he won’t get rich; after covering payroll, buying food, paper supplies, flowers and uniforms and paying rent and credit-card fees — the list goes on and on– he’ll be lucky if he grosses 8 cents on the dollar.
But it’s really not about the money, he says.
“When people walk in the door, I want them to feel the energy and passion and love I put into every single dish.”
White Bean Puree
When Dave Racicot made this tasty appetizer for his Beard House dinner in August 2009, he gave it the five-star treatment with molasses and bay leaf gelees, roasted garlic, raw apple jam, chorizo chips and maple cream. For your holiday party, it’ll be just as delicious served with crusty bread, crackers or roasted vegetables.
Tip: To keep the veggies separate from the beans, you might want to wrap them in a piece of cheesecloth before cooking.
- 2 cups dried navy beans, soaked overnight
- 2 carrots, peeled and chopped
- 3 celery ribs, chopped
- 2 onions, chopped
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 1/3 cups heavy cream, warmed
- 1 stick unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch cubes
- Salt and white pepper, to taste
Drain the beans and rinse well. Pick through the beans for any debris. Place the beans, carrots, celery, onion, baking soda and bay leaf in a large pot. Cover with water and bring to a boil. Skim away any impurities that come to the surface. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook until the beans are tender, about 1 hour. Drain and remove the vegetables and bay leaf.
In small batches, place the beans in a food processor and process at a low speed, slowly adding the cream (only add enough cream to make a smooth puree). Add the butter a little at a time until incorporated. Season with salt and white pepper. Press the puree through a sieve before serving.
Makes 6 servings.
– Chef Dave Racicot