As the point man on Marty Walsh’s staff, Dan Koh is part of a dynamic…
The Well Done Man – Louis DiBiccari
The Well Done Man is a biographical interview with a Bostonian who is doing exceptional things. It is meant to give insight and knowledge regarding each interviewee’s vision of success and how, beyond their obvious talents, they have reached this point in their lives and careers.
Louis DiBiccari is Chef and Owner of Tavern Road, serving a menu of globally inspired and locally sourced plates in Boston’s Fort Point. He has lived a life of culinary and cultural exploration starting with his Italian upbringing in Lynnfield, continuing with his travels west and finally now at Tavern Road. I recently sat down with Louis to talk about the ever-present challenges and rewards of running a restaurant and the importance of reconnecting Boston with it’s artistic past.
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
To be perfectly honest with you and get everything out on the table, this is a huge fucking mistake. I was never supposed to do this. I was supposed to play two guard for the Celtics. That was the plan. I don’t know how I ended up here…
Seriously, I went to Fitchburg State for a while, more to just blow off steam that anything. I think that’s the best place to do it, right out of high school. I didn’t have a lot of focus. Who knows what they want to do at 18. I thought I wanted to be a writer actually and I tried to find opportunities for that but it never clicked. I was living off campus with a bunch jocks, awesome dudes and we partied all the time but we also had to eat and I found the food in the cafeteria to be below my standards. Really below my standards. I came from a big Italian family and dinner was a big thing. Lots of home cooking. So when I got sick of the food there I started calling home and asking “how do you make the meatballs…how do you make the sauce…and I’d just get recipes from my mom, my cousins, my aunts, my grandmother. I suddenly had this little rolodex of things that I could make. My roommates would have their parents buy the ingredients and send it in a care package up to Fitchburg State. I would literally cook every night, I was the like the mom. That was my role and I loved it. I really fell for it right away. I dropped out of school and went to culinary school.
When I got back to Boston I landed at The Bostonian which was an epic restaurant to work at because Lydia Shire had just come through there, Todd English, Jasper White, Gordon Hamersley, so I was like “holy shit, I better go work there.” By the time I got there the Boston food scene was much more dynamic, they had all left and opened up their own restaurants but I was still grateful to have worked there. After that I begged L’Espalier for a job and spent the next 12 years between there and Sel de le Terre to help grow their organizations. Finally I got to the point where I felt like OK enough of working for someone else, it’s time to do my own thing and that’s how Tavern Road came about.
When and how did you know that you were ready to open your own restaurant?
Well when I left the comforts of L’Espalier I made a move to be a Sous Chef for the first time in my career at a restaurant called Metro in Cambridge. It was a pretty terrible restaurant experience. I learned very quickly that even though I was a pretty good line cook, I was not a good manager of people. I came from L’Espalier and I thought because of that I knew more than everybody else in the room. How could I not? We were the number one restaurant in Boston for like 30 years and I was at the top of their food chain. Wrong. I went in there and I realized that I had a lot to learn and that I was immature and if I was going to be a leader in a kitchen it had to be about more than cooking. I had to lead by example. I left there and went back to line cooking at Sel De La Terre which was pretty humbling but I started working on teamwork, like being back on that field in high school. It didn’t take long. I started writing the wine dinner menus and delegating responsibility, organizing the walk-in everyday, coming in on my days off to help with the pastry program. I really just wanted to learn all these things and that was the best way to do it. I got promoted after Barry Maiden left and even though I was still kind of a hot head, the rest of the skills had developed and I was able to better work with people. That’s when that kitchen really kicked off. We got best French two years in a row because we had built a great culture and that’s when I realized that the culture has to come first and if that falls into place then the cooking will too. If people believe what you believe then they will do what you ask them to do. That was the beginning of me saying “ok, I can be a chef and I can accomplish my goals.” It took some gut checks and looking into the mirror and saying “no, you’re not good enough right now, you can get better.” I’m still learning but that’s when I knew it was time.
You grew up in a big Italian family in Lynnfield, MA. What influences from your upbringing are present in your cooking today?
That’s a great question but the right answer has nothing to do with food. The right answer has to do with community. I think one of the things that I excel at in the kitchen is creating a culture and an environment where people feel like they are part of a team. That all stems from Lynnfield and playing sports at Lynnfield High. Even to this day I am incredibly close with every dude that I was friends with in high school and they come in and they support the restaurant. Lynnfield has that type of community where people really bond to each other and they don’t let go of that. That’s a permanent thing and I carry those relationships into working with restaurants. Any restaurant I’ve worked in I still have all of my contacts and friends and people who made those experiences special for me. When you see those jobs as life experiences then that will make you want to create an environment that develops life experiences for other people and cooking just becomes a part of that. That’s the most beautiful part of a restaurant.
I think I speak for most guys when I say that cooking is a mystery to me and that I would be pretty lost without being able to look at the back of a box. What is the key to being a good chef?
You gotta put your time in. You have to earn it. I don’t know that anyone is ever really born with the ability to cook. Like baseball, you can practice all you want but if you can’t throw the ball 100 mph, you can’t throw the ball 100 mph. Once you realize you can throw the ball 100 mph then its up to you to make yourself into a professional baseball player. With cooking those natural tools come from how you’re brought up and how you’re raised. I came from a strong food background and it was a natural process for me to continue that. It you’re asking at what point you no longer need the back of the box, well most chefs have a pretty big set of balls to begin with so probably way before you’re actually ready to do it. Chefs are very motivated people but definitely not the most patient people and they are adamant that their way is the right way. In that way they are a lot like artists and in a lot of ways it is what makes their brand their brand. Just like an artist it’s important for chefs to claim their own identity. So there really is no point at which you’re like now I’m ready, it’s more like being on that plane with the parachute on and feeling like “ok I’m ready to jump.” It’s different for everybody.
I started cooking for my friends back in college but a lot has changed since then. Media and things like The Food Network have really pushed forward this industry and have expanded cooking to be more than just what happens in the kitchen. These days there is a heightened public interest in chefs and restaurants, with things like pop-ups and reality television. Today chefs are more like public figures but within that there is also something that is in jeopardy and that’s a life experience. When you work from the ground up at a restaurant and you get your ass kicked every day, you build this brotherhood with your coworkers. Then afterwards you all go out for beers and those ended up being your guys. For the rest of your career you all kind of have tabs on each other and you have this brotherhood. If your choice is to go straight from a pop-up or from cooking for your friends to opening a small brick and mortar, then you’re probably missing out on some important life experiences and opportunities to meet some of the best people you are ever going to meet.
What do you feel is the toughest part of running a restaurant?
The most challenging part for us and for restaurants right now is continuing a level of success year in and year out. You can’t just say “ok, we’re good now.” Every single day you come in, you have to reattack it because everyday there’s one thousand ways to screw it up. You really have to play on up on toes, you can’t ever get back on your heels, or you’re fucked.
Did you have a mentor or someone you learned a lot from when you were just getting started?
I had a lot of people who helped me out when I was younger and really pushed me like Frank McClelland and Jeff Gardner. Those really also aren’t guys that you can sit down with and talk to like buddies who are going to give you career advice. They were really concerned with their restaurants, as it should be, and it’s too hard to find good help in this industry. Some of the biggest influences in my career have been from my friends. I’ve learned as much from traveling around the country with Jamie Bissonnette than I have from working under any chef or mentor. He’s a mentor but he’s also one of my best friends. Also a guy like Will Gilson. We opened restaurants around the same time and we’ve had similar struggles. Because we are close friends, I can talk to him and we don’t hide anything from each other. When you trust somebody completely it almost becomes more important than having a mentor to teach you how to make a sauce or write a prep list. What’s going to help you reach your full potential are the people that you surround yourself with.
What is your vision for the customer experience Tavern Road?
We went through a pretty interesting time last year. We came out of winter and it was really bad. I still don’t think we’ve recovered from it. When you have to close your restaurant 8 times in February, how do you recover from that? A friend of mine put it perfectly, when Starbucks closes for a day people don’t come in the next day and buy two cups of coffee. So when we came out of that, I thought we had to do something really drastic. We have the annex next store called TR Street Food, that was like fast casual, mostly sandwiches. My vision for it was always going to be street food, like walking around in Rome where you just grab a bag of these or one of those and just kind of eat as you go. It became very clear to me after about 45 mins into our first lunch that people just want sandwiches and salads, so we changed that and made it more of deli counter.
I was still interested in the street food idea so last April I said “why don’t we take that idea and pump it through the dining room?” Let’s do a TR Street Food takeover of Tavern Road, get rid of the existing menu and let’s do small plates–globally inspired, locally sourced street food. So we did it and we waited a month to see what people were going to say. The response was so overwhelmingly positive. People who had been to our restaurant before were like “if you keep this going, I’ll come back a lot more.” The flavors were all there, the food was more exciting and they liked that they could come with a few people and get little tastes of Mexico, Italy or France. So we’ve been doing that ever since. It was a pretty bold decision to change our concept two years in but people were telling us this is what they want. The whole restaurant really got behind it and we all rallied towards making it a full time thing. So far it’s working really well.
We also started a dinner series, we call them Chef Studios. They’re kind of a unique spin on the traditional guest chef where instead of just having a chef come in and offer an insert to the menu, ours is a collaboration. So it’s price fix menu that you buy tickets for and I will alternate courses with the guest chef. I try to seek out friends of mine who have maybe closed their restaurant or they left their job to try something new. Boston is a place that keeps tabs on what its chefs are doing so when a guy like Gabriel Bremer closes Salts and people are wondering how they can get his food, we open our doors and create a menu together. It’s nice for me because I get to work with my friends and it’s also great for our cooks because they get to learn from them and see what they’re doing.
What is Tavern Road?
My uncles Adio and Angelo owned a studio on Tavern Road over by the MFA. They were sculptors and they were actually pretty influential in Boston during the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. Their studio was a place where other Boston artists would come up through and learn as an apprenticeship. The most famous monuments my uncles have in Boston are in the Common. They did the Industry, Religion and Education monuments that are over by Park Street. That was a compelling angle because we were going into Fort Point which is New England’s oldest and largest artist community so it made sense to bridge that gap between my family and the artist community in Fort Point. It really came down to what went on at that studio because my family would go there and celebrate Christmas, Halloween and Easter. There was this big huge dining room table and like 40 of them would get together and brings their kids. That was the meeting place and where they had all of these parties and that’s exactly what we want this to be. We want this to be a place where people come and celebrate life. So Tavern Road seemed like a good name.
How are things in Fort Point?
Fort Point is not a neighborhood and I’m not sure when that’s going to happen. To be honest with you that’s really disappointing. I live in the South End and when I walk out my front door I have a choice of three places to get my haircut. I have all these different markets, clothing stores and artisanal shops. In Fort Point, where do you even go to get a roll of toilet paper? There are no dog parks or anything that really reminds me of what a neighborhood is. The only thing that is really driving the Fort Point economy are the restaurants. When you hear that these new residential buildings are 80 or 100% occupancy that’s because they are being bought up by people who live overseas. So it’s pretty misleading.
What inspires you about Boston?
I went to School in Arizona at Scottsdale Culinary and when I was out there I wanted to keep going west. I spent some time in San Francisco but that was also the dot com era and real estate was incredibly expensive in SF, so I didn’t do it. When I came back to Boston I remember the next day I was walking into Government Center and there was that guy that used to stand there and sell papers who used to say “Good Morning Boston!” That’s when it just clicked and I thought “wow, I fucking love this city.” Boston has this unique power over me. People here are very real and that’s what I really appreciate about this city.
What is Front Burner Social?
It’s a social media consulting company that I started that works exclusively with restaurants. Right now we have about 15 clients in Boston. There is a big hole in the marketplace in how restaurants are using social media. A lot of restaurants still see it as that shiny new toy but the reality is that it’s your first impression with a restaurant, it’s your ongoing relationship with it and likely your lasting impression. There is an inherent danger in handing that voice off to a hostess, an events manager or a middle manager. You want the voice of your brand to be consistent for the lifetime of your brand and I don’t know another way of doing that without hiring somebody to do it as their job. We don’t work at your restaurant we handle your social media. The majority of other industries get this and that is why they pay for it. Restaurants are very reluctant to dive into anything completely, and I get better than anyone the costs associated with running a restaurant, but social media isn’t going anywhere. It’s only becoming more prevalent and more powerful and if you’re not showing up in anyone’s news feed then you’re irrelevant.
You have an arts festival called CREATE. What’s that about?
I love it and it’s just such a huge part of my personality. I’m not quitting my day job but CREATE pays the soul. Fort Point actually inspired it. When I was 30 I had a girlfriend who was really into the arts scene in Boston and I was just starting to understand how difficult it was to establish yourself as an artist in Boston. I appreciated that struggle because I really felt it was becoming easier and easier to establish yourself as a chef and it just isn’t fair. It’s fucked up because this city doesn’t do enough to embrace the arts and create opportunities for artists. At that time they were taking over all of the artist buildings in Fort Point and developing them into condos so CREATE was an idea I had to foster the artists back into this community. What I did was take 6 artist and 6 chefs and said “ok you’re going to create food based on the medium of the artist.” I didn’t know what to expect but the first year we sold $3,500 dollars and the artist were like “that’s very good.” The next year we sold $4,500 and we moved to a bigger venue. Last year we did it at Battery Wharf with 6 chef’s, 6 artists and 6 bartenders with sponsors and live music. 500 people came and because of the music it felt more like a festival.
So we’re going into year 5 and this year we’re going to do it at the Boston Design Center with a stage and food trucks. We’re really creating this very unique style of festival that focuses on art and takes all of the different mediums and collects them on one level playing field. Everything is based on the art and then it’s food, music, beverage with the synergy built between all of them. There’s nothing else like it.
Do you have any advice for current or aspiring chefs or restaurateurs?
A big part of the battle is won before you open your doors. You gotta get the right lease and you have to get the right location. You really need to be smart about everything that takes place before that first customer walks through that door. Have everything on lock down and come out swinging. You have to be as close to great on day one as you can be because people start writing your story the second they walk in and it’s unforgiving. They’re not going to come back in 6 months and say “let’s try it again.” There’s 15 new restaurants that are open and they’re going to try them. You have to be in a position where you can be successful financially from day one which means you need to have your shit together on your lease and you need to stay within budget and open as close to on time as you can. If any of those thing goes wrong you might not make it to year 5. Don’t forget that there are also some incredibly successful chefs in Boston and around the country who have swung and missed once or twice. This industry is all about getting up and dusting yourself off.