The Couple Behind Thirty Acres Discuss Their Pending Shift to a Tasting Menu Format, Operating a Restaurant in Jersey City, and Culinary Inspirations[Editor’s Note: I’m delighted to welcome guest poster Lauren Bloomberg to Toqueland. Not sure how much or how often she may drop in but her first piece for us is a timely visit with Kevin and Alex Pemoulie of Jersey City’s Thirty Acres, that Lauren serendipitously had booked before the this week’s testing-menu news broke. Enjoy! – A.F.]
There are many things to consider when deciding whether to leave the non-creature comforts of a Manhattan apartment to jump the river to Jersey City. The most important in my mind: the quality of local restaurants. Which is why, upon taking an apartment-search break to dine at Thirty Acres, my-bullish-on-Jersey City husband questioned, “Can we still move here or have you blown your load?”
Thirty Acres is the first love child of Kevin and Alex Pemoulie, Momofuku alums (he was chef de cuisine at Noodle Bar and she ran financial operations). The second is their new daughter Viv (“seven months old is still new”) who joined us for a sunny afternoon chat about the restaurant scene in Jersey City, their inspirations (Paris and cookbooks that aren’t “self-strokey”), and the tasting-menu-only format they will debut on February 5th.
Bloomberg: You’ve been open for almost three years…what’s different now from when you opened three years ago?
Alex: Well, for one, we got our liquor license. We opened BYOB, which was a new experience for us.
Kevin: The menu hasn’t gotten a ton larger but, it’s definitely gotten more focused. And now we’re moving into a very different menu. I think that the comfort level of operating a restaurant, it’s not easy now, but it’s more comfortable. Alex and I mark opening day as one of the top three worst days of our life. It got easier but opening day, week, month were really tough.
Alex: Staffing has always been difficult. You know, there’s always a lot of turnover in restaurants and with a restaurant this size, it requires that we have a small staff; it’s felt a lot more–when somebody leaves that’s a third of your staff. The staff that we have now we are really comfortable with and they’re all really skilled and know the way we do things and it’s a good team.
Bloomberg: Coming from Manhattan, are there different challenges to finding staff in Jersey City?
Kevin: I don’t think so. It’s very hard to find anyone, both front and back of the house, with the certain skill set that you’re looking for. Momofuku certainly got enough attention to draw resumes, good or bad. I think the difference is that we maybe get more people just responding to Craigslist, but quality-wise it’s pretty much the same.
Bloomberg: Did you live in Jersey City before opening in Jersey City?
Alex and Kevin: Yes.
Alex: But we moved here to open a restaurant. It just took us a while to open it.
Kevin: We moved in September 2010. So just under two years.
Alex: But we spent that whole two years trying to open the restaurant.
Bloomberg: Why did you decide on Jersey City versus — not Manhattan — but maybe Brooklyn or Long Island City?
Kevin: I think the uniqueness of Jersey City being in a growth pattern was interesting. Brooklyn was already hitting somewhat of a peak and then it exploded. Long Island City? We just never really had much connection to that neighborhood. Things that attracted us here were things that were similar to why we were living in Brooklyn and the neighborhood felt like it was in a renaissance period. We were looking for a change. Just to get outside of the city. We were naive in saying that we were going to go so far away and now we’re one mile west but we did think we could get away from always being lumped into the Brooklyn and Manhattan scene.
Alex: Yes. But then when we were reviewed by the New York Times, by Pete Wells, in the first eight months that we were open, we were like, “Oh, I guess that’s not gonna happen.” But we’re not complaining; it’s amazing.
Kevin: When we came here originally, we were looking for something different. And it is, most definitely, that.
Bloomberg: You’re not using outside public relations —
Kevin: We’ve never [sought] anything.
Alex: Just with this tasting menu, we sent an email to some friends: “Hey, we’re doing this thing.”
Kevin: Yeah, two days ago is the only time … just to try to spread the word fast.
Alex: Just as a tool. We really don’t want our customers to be surprised or confused. If we can get the word out to as many people as possible and just get the word spreading, that’s good.
Bloomberg: Almost every article about you two mentions that you came from Momofuku. How do you feel about carrying that moniker? Are you hoping to shake it at some point?
Kevin: No, it’s fine. It’s the truth. It’s like saying I came from Ilene and Jerry Pemoulie.
Alex: That’s his parents.
Kevin: I feel totally comfortable with it. It was an amazing time spent and an awesome experience. It really was an enormous influence in my career. We would have never done Thirty Acres without that part of my life.
Alex: Do we want people to order pork buns when they get here? No…
Kevin: That hasn’t happened since Day One.
Alex: Yeah, that did happen.
Bloomberg: There have been several articles about Jersey City’s food renaissance, and a lot of new restaurants are opening — you guys were one of the first. Do you feel that it’s fair to call it a renaissance?
Kevin: I don’t know. I think that it’s a little quick to make any kind of brash comments about any of it because it puts a lot of pressure on businesses and I’d like to see them all have the time to hash out problems. I would prefer people to ease up a little on it so that everyone can kind of get their sea legs.
Alex: I think what people are really capitalizing on when they talk about it is there’s such a good dining public here (who have been going into Manhattan, basically, to eat) and it’s not to say that there weren’t good restaurants here before, but there weren’t restaurants where people [felt] like they wanted to go out to them on a Friday or Saturday night. So they were going into Manhattan. I haven’t done a study, but this is my theory. I don’t think we should jump to “It’s the renaissance. It’s the new Brooklyn.” It’s, like, “Okay, guys. Calm down.” Brooklyn has a thousand restaurants and we have ten. But, it’s still really exciting.
Bloomberg: Is there any after-work chef hangout scene here?
Alex and Kevin: Not that we know of.
Alex: There’s an industry night …
Bloomberg: Your menu doesn’t make concessions to the non-NYC diner. Is that a decision that you purposefully made? For example: there’s no roasted chicken on the menu, or a green salad. Do you get any pushback? Do you feel that you have to educate the diner?
Alex: I honestly hate the idea of doing that. The idea of “educating the diner.” We try to answer any questions they have, but especially when we get write-ups in Jersey publications, we get a clientele that’s maybe expecting something else.
Kevin: We were actively keyed into Jersey–I grew up in Jersey–and we had ideas about what we wanted to cook. I definitely never had the idea to buy a restaurant menu template and put our menu on it. I never want to do that. “I have these five salads and these five appetizers and two burgers…” That was just not why I got into the business from the kitchen side.
Alex: We didn’t really do any market evaluation. We opened the exact same restaurant that we would have opened in Brooklyn, New York, Seattle, California.
Kevin: We weren’t doing it to be, like, “fuck that.” We’re doing it to be, like, “Here’s something else.” We’re not trying to be, like, “Let’s make a better mac and cheese than this restaurant.” We just don’t offer it. So that was the point. Not to be, “We’re so different.” It was always for the customer. So that they have some other alternative to what is typical in this area.
Bloomberg: With that in mind, what went into the process of moving into a tasting menu format?
Kevin: We didn’t originally want to do it when we opened and we were kind of over it. At that time, there were a lot of small counter tasting menus happening, but ultimately we felt like maybe our choices on the menu were possibly putting customers in an uncomfortable position, even asking about new things, things they haven’t seen, being such a small loaded menu, maybe we were not doing good by them. Or as good as we could have been doing in terms of introducing new stuff to them.
Alex: We got a lot of customers that [said], “I wish that you could order for me, that you would pick my meal for me,” and we got feedback that they were only coming in large groups. We don’t think this is a good restaurant for a huge group but they’d say they wanted to come so that they could order one of everything. And the truth is, that is what we wanted them to do. We really liked when tables would come and do that. So we thought, “Why are we making this so hard on our customers to get the experience they want? Why don’t we just make it for them?”
Kevin: We never felt like there was one item on the menu where were “eh.” Because it’s small. We wanted to make sure all the menu’s items were ones that we were into. It would be disheartening when they didn’t try the pig ears and we [thought], “How can we do this so that we’re offering something without there being the pressure of choosing?” That was really the reason. It’s not because…
Alex: …we want you to eat all this stuff.
Kevin: Or “fuck you; we cook what we want.” That idea. Whoever that chef is that I’m imitating, I’m not friends with him. I’ll never be friends with him. And he can go fuck himself. I don’t want to be associated with that kind of chef.
Alex: That’s our only concern.
Kevin: We just want to try to offer more. We still want it to be a value. It’s important to us that we continue to grow the restaurant and evolve. With all the new places that are popping up, we want to continue to change with the city, the culinary landscape. It’s important to our staff, our kitchen staff especially, to be doing new things. I think this is going to be a really good opportunity for us, the staff, the diners. It’s going to offer something unique in the neighborhood. We’re not reinventing the tasting-menu wheel. We’re kind of seeing it as we’re going to be throwing individual mini dinner parties for each group that comes in. That’s the idea. I think it will be fun. I’m really excited. I put more fun music on the playlist.
Bloomberg: Can you speak to what you have in mind for the new menu?
Kevin: I can tell you some things as far as the format goes. There’s a lot of places that our friends are chefs at, that they’re owners of, that are doing very long, single-bite tasting menus that go for fifteen to twenty-five-plus courses and those are really amazing places to eat at but we have a bit of a larger dining room and we want to make sure we can turn tables and offer more and not have such an elongated experience; sometimes three to three and a half hours does get tiresome. We want people to leave awake, and excited. And willing to come back more frequently.
We had the idea to focus the whole menu around five, actual, proper courses of food, not just singular bites. So we broke it down into: a veg (not to say that other things won’t be vegetarian also), a pasta, a fish, a meat, and a dessert and then we’ll have some canapés to start. Little bites that really are Thirty Acres highlights. We’re also going to do a little pre-dessert, palate cleanser stuff, and we’re messing around with a little bread course. We’re trying to make it all fun and make sense and be really Thirty Acresy; we want to stick to what people expect as Thirty Acres food but tweaks here and there. And we are going to keep our lemon bars. Just not in the same way. It’s not going to be like lemon bar consommé; it’s not going to be lemon bar gazpacho. It’s the only thing that’s been on the menu since Week One.
Bloomberg: What are the Thirty Acres-type classics that you want to bring to the tasting menu?
Kevin: Not any dishes, specifically, but we’ve always had an affinity for raw fish and it’s always been a tougher sell. I don’t know why. I guess just not everyone likes crudo dishes. If we don’t sell them in a night, we’re fucked. We could have one night where we sell twenty raw scallops and I buy them tomorrow and we sell none, what do I do? Those are the types of things that we feel we can incorporate and they don’t have to necessarily be a committed [to a] huge dish. That can be an amuse-bouche or a canapé. A bite of food that someone can be excited about without having to commit to a whole plate.
Bloomberg: With the jump, do you feel like this pushes you into the fine dining category?
Kevin: I don’t know. Our servers still won’t wear uniforms. I feel like that pushes you into the fine dining category. A vest and a tie.
Alex: According to my mom, definitely. But in the industry, no. I don’t think that we’re fine dining.
Kevin: I think we’re still casual. I think there’s a style, a dining room type that dictates fine dining. I know it’s different nowadays but, I feel like white tablecloths and votive candles and floral arrangements and servers wearing uniforms and check presenters with your name engraved in it, fancy pens … we’re very much not like that.
Bloomberg: If someone were going to write an article comparing your new format to other restaurants, who would you lump yourself in with?
Alex: Format-wise we’re definitely thinking about something like Chateaubriand in Paris.
Kevin: We modeled it after our meal there, in a lot of ways. We had two meals in Paris that we fuse together in terms of what we want to do in a restaurant: Septime and Chateaubriand … and I wouldn’t consider either of them fine dining because there was no tablecloths or fancy pens. In the city, I would never put us in the category with Momofuku Ko, Atera, Per Se, Blanca … for a lot of reasons.
Alex: Price-wise we’re not there. [Ed. Note: The Thirty Acre tasting menu will be $75, with an optional $55 beverage pairing.]
Kevin: And length of meal, we’re not there. Contra, which we have yet to dine at…
Alex: …because Viv was born right around then…
Kevin: …It’s all out daughter’s fault. We intend to go.
Kevin: Yeah. We’re friends with Daniel and his style is really great and about the same size and price and it’s a really great restaurant. Very cool beer pairings. It’s a really fun place. So, I would say in terms of price, value and style I’d say those two … even though we’ve only been to one of the two of them.
Bloomberg: Do you think that the success that you’ve had so far has given you the confidence to make this a destination restaurant?
Alex: We would love to be a destination restaurant. We honestly really want to be a destination restaurant and we also really want to be a neighborhood restaurant. I’d say a good half of our customers are neighbors on any given night. Especially on weeknights, it’s people who live right here in Jersey City. On weekends, we get people from Manhattan, or from further out in New Jersey, and that’s great, but they’re probably not going to be the ones who’re really our bread and butter.
Bloomberg: Where are you now and how do you see your development on the plate right now?
Kevin: I think it’s a lot easier to refine your look when you’re doing one menu that everyone is getting. It’s easier to make less food look nice. No question about it: I think we’re really trying to focus on fewer ingredients on the plate, sharper flavors (because they’re smaller courses within a menu we really want to make those bites shine).
Alex: We’re moving away from an Asian palate a little bit.
Kevin: A little bit. There’s some flavor profiles that I’ve relied on in the past that I have no beef with, I just think that I want to try to go down some other directions; I think that this will allow me to.
Bloomberg: What are some of your inspirations for where you’re going? Cookbooks? Chefs?
Kevin: I’m really into cookbooks lately. The best book I’ve read in the past year, that I have dogeared, is Sean Brock’s book. It’s fucking awesome. And it is so nice to read a book that’s so about his own love and respect for the region that he’s cooking in. It’s really regionally tied but in a way that’s not cheesy. Or self-strokey. But a cookbook can really be a total jerk-off, basically an autobiography about how sexy you are. Which can get really uncomfortable. But his book has been really informative, really interesting, totally American and very refreshing. And there’s no hesitation in putting things close to his heart in the book that aren’t just him showing off how he plates food in his restaurant. It’s really cool. I’ve been really really into it.