More tales from the restaurant industry
In keeping with my overall philosophy of building lean and scrappy, we've kept a tight grip on costs for restaurant decor. Instead of going to Crate & Barrel, I spend an ungodly amount of time scouring Craigslist. Hey, anxiety-induced insomnia gives you a lot of time to bargain hunt.
Life was fantastic during the pop-up series I ran last summer. We took over a warehouse and a construction lot, threw down enough plastic folding tables to seat 125 people, set up the band and six free-flowing beer taps, and then cooked some hog. The absolutely wonderful part of pop-ups is that no one expects you to have "decor." The ethos of a traditional Carolina pig-picking is family and community. Our meeting grounds were humble but filled with the richness that only human gathering can bring. Our Greenpoint space, an open-air landscaping warehouse, actually provided its own decor. My guests adored being surrounded by greenery. The plants might not have all matched, but their abundance was well loved.
Now that I have a permanent space, I'm facing the challenge of how to make it into a place where people want to gather—not just once, but all the time.
A Philosophy Written in Concrete
There are some truly beautiful restaurant spaces out there. I almost apprenticed in one, the then-three-Michelin-starred L'Espérance in Burgundy, until visa issues prevented me from going. (The day my acceptance letter from the restaurant arrived, I framed it. After I got my third rejection letter from the French consulate, I set it on fire.) But to this day, I can still recall pictures of the space. You know you're a badass when the rich and powerful, those who bathe daily in the light of luxury, use your restaurant as a beautiful getaway.
But a joint called the "Arrogant Swine," nestled in the edge of industrial Bushwick, Brooklyn, isn't going to attract any Fortune 500 CEOs anytime soon. The philosophy of the Carolina pig-picking is the opposite of L'Espérance: it's a laid back, let-down-your-hair, and hang out for a long long time kind of place.
Now, I've had some amazing meals in my travels: foie gras in palatial Budapest (Hungary is one of the world's leading producers of foie). Burmese curry out in Northern Thailand. Fish cooked right on the boat on the waters off Indonesia. But my best meals are ones took place in a buddy's backyard filled with overgrown weeds, friends and family at my side as I munched on an overcooked burger. That's the atmosphere I want the Swine to convey (minus the overcooking).
When in Rome
The most annoying part of designing a barbecue restaurant is how everyone tries to pigeonhole you into looking like a Cracker Barrel or Paula Deen's hillbilly playland. "Let's put sawdust on the ground!" says one person. "I got these great old license plates we can hang on the wall," says another. Every day I get offers for old wagons, rusty farm equipment, and fake vintage gas station signs.
I'm sure I'm not the only one who has to deal with this. Every person working with a specific regional cuisine will attract his or her share of stereotypical suggestions. Opening a pizzeria? It's de rigueur that the big plastic chef stands in front and Tony Soprano adorns your walls. What's a legit sushi shop without bamboo siding, geishas, and homoerotic murals of sumo wrestlers?
No no, folks—with the Swine we're trying to build a Munich-style beer hall (not that we're going for a German theme either). While the hog is classic, the decor is most decidedly not traditional Carolina. The vast majority of Carolina whole hog spots are also the local fry shop—think Long John Silver's but with pork. Amazing food, ugly decor.
Every New York neighborhood has its own personality, and my restaurant's—Bushwick, which still has some industrial grit to go with its growing food scene—is especially distinctive. The artistic and underground party scene is visible even to my aesthetically blind eyes. So no theme-park shtick here—this is going to be a Bushwick restaurant to serve the Bushwick community.
So that's why, before you step inside, you'll see the building's wall painted with street art murals organized by the Bushwick Collective, a group of internationally renowned street artists. There's a rotating gallery hosting international superstars like SOLUS and Adam COST, original gangstas like VERS, and new local stars like Icy & Sot, Sonni, Zimer, RUSE, Jerkface, and Li_Hill. Even though we're not open yet, the Swine is already a tourist attraction. People from all over the world stop by to take photos of the art.
The Collective puts up murals for an average of six months, then replaces them. I don't have any say in what they put on the wall (barring pornography and the incredibly offensive). Rather than coming to a neighborhood and impose a view on how it should look, I let them inform how my restaurant can fit into its surroundings.
And watching the artists work strengthens my resolve. When you watch something so large being created in real time, you can see all the flaws—over-sprays, jagged lines, uneven dimensions—but it all comes together into something beautiful. That's a lesson I try to take to heart for every part of my build-out.
This is Why We Can't Have Nice Things
Walk into Ramona's, a new cocktail lounge in nearby Greenpoint, and prepare to be blown away. The immaculate space was put together Oliver and Evan Haslegrave's hOme design firm. There are glittering copper pipe chandeliers, bespoke patterned tables, and a long elegant marble bar. Uncle Ho covets it very, very much.
Unfortunately for me at this point, talented services like a design firm are way beyond my budget. But the answer isn't solved by hiring a cheaper interior designer. I've seen restaurants where the designer and decor cost over $100,000, but they looked only marginally better than the bar at John Brown's Smokehouse, which hired no designer at all. Plenty of bar owners have shown me their $12,000 bar tops which, while nice, basically look like every other bar top in New York City.
No, on my shoestring budget, I have to do all this on the cheap. I've been posting all my build-out progress on Instagram. Suddenly everybody has an eye for design. A whole generation of Martha Stewarts dwell among us and have shit to say about your floor. Not two minutes after I post my new bathroom tiles, I got this charming comment: "Not to be critical but i hope ya got that on close out."
Mirror, Mirror on the Wall
But it's okay. I like finding cheap and/or free decor to add to my space. In fact, most of the restaurant's most distinctive items have been dirt-cheap or free. Two massive five-foot-wide industrial ceiling fans were salvaged from a demolition site. An intimidating two-foot-long boar's head took just a little cash and a trip to Staten Island.
Then my architect requested that I get an eye-catching six-foot mirror to place by the bar. Now the last time I bought a mirror was back in college on a trip to Walmart. Where do you even look for a mirror that large? A quick look online suggested that I could get a used mirror for $400 to $600, which was way beyond my budget. No, it was time for Uncle Ho to get cheap again.
I finally found a guy who was giving a mirror away for free. The monstrosity was five and a half feet high and five feet wide. So like a genius, I packed two thick blankets into my flatbed truck and drove upstate to pick up this mirror. I'm sure you, my dear readers, will never need to learn this life lesson, but trying to pick up a mirror taller than you are and twice as wide all by your lonesome is not the smartest idea in the world. Thank goodness the guy, after watching me struggle with my blankets, offered some extra packing material.
The big-ass mirror made it back to the Swine safe and sound. I immediately took a picture and texted it to my architect. "You happy now?"
Better Living Through Pyromania
Architect: Ty! I got a great idea for you for the bar area. Let's do some shou sugi ban! Me: Shou what? Architect: Shou sugi ban. It's an ancient Japanese technique that preserves wood by charring it. It'll look dope! Plus you're a barbecue joint! Burned wood, get it? Me: I don't know man, I don't want to buy a bunch of fancy wood. Architect: You'll get to do the burning. Me: I'm on my way.
A while ago, my architect discovered that while I hate hammering nails or painting anything, I sure love to set things on fire. In my perfect world, all of life's problems could be solved by lighting a match.
Shou sugi ban was practiced in rural Japan as a way to keep pests and rot away from the cedar sidings of buildings. Ironically, by burning the hell out of wood, you actually make it more resistant to fire. You see, really dry wood is flammable, and a wandering ember could set your house ablaze. At a time when all interior lighting came from candles and torches, that was a dangerous thing. But when you carbonize wood through deep charring, you make the surface of the wood less likely to catch fire. It's more like charcoal—if you toss a lit match into a pile of charcoal, it won't spontaneously combust.
In traditional shou sugi ban, wooden planks are charred so deeply that the wood's natural grain disappears and you get these stunning ebony scales like black alligator skin. The original plan was to use those charred planks as the back of the bar, against which the brown spirits would glow.
It sounded great in theory, but once you stepped away from the bar you couldn't see the scales, so it just looked like we painted the walls black. We scrapped our test boards and tried a more modern approach with a lighter char that preserved more of the grain and knots in the wood. And hey, it looked amazing!
We drove to Home Depot and picked out the cheapest wood we could find. Premium wood planks are knot-free—handy for building furniture, but not as interesting a canvas for shou sugi ban. On the other hand, the cheap stuff is full of beautiful knots, whorls, and waves. We picked out the most imperfect wood, because wood planks are like human beings—the most flawed are the most interesting.
Cheap wood like pine (a soft wood like cedar, the original shou sugi ban wood) also fared better under the torch than harder, more expensive wood. The pine not only looked better post-shou sugi ban; it also had a yellow hue that glowed once we brushed on some polyurethane.
We've been struggling to figure out what to do with the bar top. Some ideas have been cool and complicated (a poured concrete bar!) while others are prohibitively expensive (let's get a solid piece of mahogany!). A plain oak bar would be cost-effective but also look generic. And reclaimed wood is so overdone I'm confident you'll see at your next Starbucks. But the bar top dominates the visuals of a bar space. It has to look good.
I thought back to the deep, black char of classic shou sugi ban. Those ebony scales looked great up close—and if you're at the bar, you'll actually see them. So why not make a shou sugi ban bar top?
At least from what I could find on Google, this is a pretty unique idea. I haven't seen another bar using shou sugi ban this way.
Charring the wood involves a roofing torch (basically a small flamethrower) and a hose. You burn and burn the wood until it stops looking like wood, then you burn it some more. When the scale patterns start to show through, you turn off the flame and turn on the hose while scraping off the soot with a stiff broom. Once the wood's cooled down you hose it off again, let it dry, and then apply some polyurethane to seal it (and keep charcoal off your elbows).
It took some testing to find the right wood and thickness, but I think we've nailed it. The final bar top won't be done until the end of construction so it stays neat, but when we're done, you've heard it here first: we'll have New York's first classic shou sugi ban bar top, conceived by Uncle Ho. Traditional Japanese architecture for redneck living.
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