Ask the Expert: Advice on Opening a Restaurant from Boltwood’s Brian Huston

I’m very excited that the news has broken that Chef Serle will be opening his own restaurant in Sanditon in the near future. One of my favorite things is connecting people who can help one another, so I hooked up Chef Serle with my friend Brian Huston, who is currently getting ready to open Boltwood, his new restaurant in Evanston, IL. Prior to Boltwood, Brian was the chef de cuisine at The Publican, one of the hottest restaurants on the Chicago dining scene. Opening his own restaurant has been a life-long dream for Huston, and now with Boltwood partners  John Kim (Brothers K Coffeehouse), Seth Kaplan and  Brady Huston, it’s finally about to happen! 

Boltwood, which will emphasize farm fresh local ingredients paired with adventurous flavors, aims to reflect the diverse, welcoming community of Evanston, which is also home to Northwestern University. Huston has described the food as, “New American, with a locally sourced menu that constantly changes.” The restaurant is currently scheduled to open its doors in June 2014.

Given Chef Brian’s experiences, I thought he might have some useful insights to pass along to Chef Serle.  And in the spirit of paying it forward, Chef Serle graciously offered to share with us excerpts of his conversation with Brian and Boltwood partner Seth Kaplan, an attorney and lifelong friend of Huston’s. It’s a great peek behind-the-scenes at what it really takes to open a restaurant. If it’s something you’ve ever thought about, this is an opportunity to learn from some of the best in the business!

When transitioning from working in someone else’s restaurant – even if you are the head chef – to owning the restaurant, how has the way you think about work changed? Has it changed the way you formulate the menu? 

Brian: When you are working for someone else, you are always conscious of their presence. And when you are on your own, you want to be your own person and do your own thing, to represent your own style more. Another thing – there is no one there tell you ‘No.’ That’ s one of the hard things!

When we opened at Publican, I had a sous chef, I had the owner, the front of house managers and staff. With Boltwood, we are going from a giant restaurant to a smaller restaurant. There just are not as many bodies involved. There’s no manager, no assistant manager, no sous chef, no team of 15 cooks. That means there’s a lot less delegating going on. At Publican, you could pass tasks along to people and feel good about it. Here, as the owner, you are responsible for everything.

Seth: One of the things that’s so interesting is that the benefit he’s talking about of not having someone else to veto your ideas is also one of the challenges. You are the last line of defense.

John Kim Brian Huston_Boltwood

From dream to reality! Brian Huston and John Kim. Image courtesy of Boltwood.

What do you think are the 3-4 elements that are the most important factors in the success of a new restaurant? 

Brian: Being organized. Communication. Delegation (if you can).

Seth: Another important item on this list is the ability to be swift in decision making. The issue comes up, you talk to the people you need to talk to, make the decision and move on to the next thing. When you get caught up pondering a decision for 2-3 days, it just makes the to-do list even longer.

And I assume the last item on that list for success would be good food? 

Seth: Of course. But that’s actually included in there. Being organized gives you the time to cook and plan menus, beverages, and desserts.

Having your own name on the door is not all it’s cracked up to be – it’s pressure you can revel in when successful, but it requires so much extra responsibility. And the staff is the face of Brian. Every time they turn around with the food, they are walking out with Brian’s face, so to speak. All the work we’ve done, everything that goes into making that plate, starting with the meetings two years ago, to the day when people deliver the fish, to what happens in the kitchen – it all comes down to the moment the food gets set in front of that customer. So it really goes full circle back to being organized and having a plan.

Beer Tasting_Boltwood

One of the perks of the job! “Beer tasting with the good folks at Sketchbook Brewery. One of a growing number of amazing breweries in Evanston we hope to partner with.” Image courtesy of Boltwood.

We see lots of chefs with big personalities on reality television shows. But when you are dealing with the daily realities of running an eatery, what is most important about how the chef and/or owner(s) deals with his or her staff? 

Brian: One thing I’ve learned is that some of the best cooks that I’ve hired were the worst interviews and vice versa.  [Owner and front of house manager] John and I really want to do this the right way, treating our employees the right way. Hopefully it will show.

What training or experiences have you found most important in getting your restaurant off the ground? Any suggestions on course of study or steps in a career path for others who may be interested in following in your footsteps? 

Seth: If you want to have your own restaurant one day, I recommend getting experience working at all different types of restaurants, from fast food to fine dining to a hot dog stand. It’s critical. And get experience in all different areas: front of house and back of house. Server, runner, bussing. All those jobs are key. Even retail experience is useful. Because when you have your own restaurant, it all comes together. The marketing, the PR. Making the restaurant work fuses all those experiences together.

Having good mentors is also important. Brian has had some incredible mentors, from Jimmy Bannos, the owner of the first restaurant Brian worked at, which incidentally also happens to be the first restaurant I ever worked at. It was called Heaven on Seven, and it was originally a coffee shop on the 7th floor of an office building in downtown Chicago. It started as a place where you ordered matzoh ball soup and a tuna sandwich, and Jimmy transformed it into an incredible Louisiana-style restaurant based on his passion for Creole and Cajun food. Another great mentor of Brian’s is reknowned Chicago Executive Chef/Owner Paul Kahan, whose restaurants include BlackbirdNico Osteriaavec and The Publican, where Brian was the chef de cuisine.

Brian: You really have to love it. I go back to my original conversation with Chef Jimmy Bannos, who told me “It’s a lot different cooking for 400 people than for 4 people.”

It’s one of those things where people come up to me and are like, ‘At least you love what you do’, meaning that I love to cook. But there is so much more to being in the restaurant business than just cooking. When I was just a line cook, cooking was pretty much all it was about. You walked in, got your station, set it up and cooked your food. Sure, you had to be disciplined and do things the right way. But the farther along you get, the less it’s about that. Dealing with the dishwasher when it breaks,  or the actual dish washer who never showed up! Or the plates that come in that aren’t the right plates. Or the grease trap is breaking up. That’s the majority of the day when it comes to working in a restaurant. I wish it was sitting down, creating and making new menu ideas, and making the perfect roast chicken. But that’s 5% of the day. The rest of it is dealing with everything else. So it’s not only loving to cook, but realizing it’s a lot of other elements.

What’s been the most surprising thing about putting together Boltwood so far? Anything you know now you wish you’d know when you first started this enterprise? 

Brian: (joking) Everything is $1000. Seriously, we did a spreadsheet and thought we overestimated everything. The toilet paper is obvious – we thought of that! But it’s these weird, weird things that come up. It’s dealing with those realities – turns out that doing things the right way is very expensive.

Other than that, I am surprised at how excited I am to embrace this community [of Evanston] that I’ve been a part of for a long time. That’s been a fun part – getting involved in different things, having people come up and show their enthusiasm.

Seth: There are always going to be surprises. A key element of success is having a critical path, which I think is the number one thing you can do if you’re going to start any project of your own. When we first met almost two years ago to talk about Boltwood, we talked about having a critical path: come up with our concept, get investors, find a space, find our people, etc. Then as you move forward, you try sticking with that plan the best you can,  and then you bob and weave when surprises come up. I have my own law firm, and it’s the same thing – make a plan, then adjust as you go.

Prepping the wine list_Boltwood

Prepping the wine list. Image courtesy of Boltwood.

Let’s talk about social media for a sec. Are there experiences from Publican or otherwise you’re going to put into play for Boltwood? What have you found to be the most effective platform (Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, etc) for raising awareness of and getting people into the restaurant? Any specific tips to pass along? 

Brian: We are definitely conscious of social media. We became conscious of the power of local media when word got out that Boltwood was happening before we were ready for word to get out. Things go viral fast, and it was an eye opening experience for us.

Seth: The social media thing is interesting. We have Facebook and Twitter and Instagram. We’ll be using them for publicity. So far we’ve been using it in almost a reporting kind of way, taking pictures of meetings, wine tastings, food tastings – almost like a “whet your palate” kind of thing. That will probably switch when the restaurant opens and social media becomes more of a vehicle for announcements, showcasing the restaurant and letting people know what’s going on.

Brian: My brother [partner Brady Huston] was emphasizing the importance of having someone to respond to critical comments and have a back and forth dialogue with customers. Personally, I don’t read Yelp – if I sat there and read the criticism, I don’t think I could do what I do. There was a piece on Eater about this, where chefs were interviewed and they talked about how they delegated this task to someone else.

Seth: You want a chance to fix what someone thought was broken. And if someone waits until they leave the restaurant to go home an complain about the chicken on Yelp or Twitter, there’s not much we can do. We want to create an atmosphere where someone feels comfortable saying something while they are at Boltwood. We are going to try to foster that atmosphere, where they can tell their server if they have an issue.  Brian always describes it as “We want to feel like you are eating in your house.” And if your mom puts down the sweet potatoes and they are too salty, you are probably going to tell her.

Boltwood is currently scheduled to open in June 2014. For more information: