Interview: Huertas

Hey Nate. Tell us a little about your restaurant, Huertas, and how it came to be.

At its heart, Huertas is a story of creative collaboration.  In the fall of 2014, my business partner and our executive chef, Jonah Miller, had recently left his job as a Sous Chef at Danny Meyer's Roman Trattoria, Maialino, and returned from a second long trip to Spain, this time eating & drinking his way through Northern Spain.  At this point, he was convinced that Spanish was the cuisine he wanted to cook, and decided he was going to open a restaurant named Huertas, paying homage to the orchards and small gardens that paint the landscape of Northern Spain. Shortly after signing a lease in the East Village, Jonah and I got back in touch, when he attended a beer pairing dinner I through at Blue Smoke, Danny Meyer's Barbecue restaurant.

We were both New Yorkers, born and raised a few blocks from each other on the Upper West Side.  We were both Danny Meyer alum, learning the principals of enlightened hospitality first hand, Jonah having his experience in the kitchen, and me in the front of house with a service and beverage focus.  Jonah went to school for food studies at NYU, and cooked in NYC kitchens throughout college and I went to school for business, at Penn, opening my own take-out business on campus during my senior year.  We held unique skill sets, integral to opening a successful restaurant, and we both held the entrepreneurial spirit and hustle it takes to grind and deliver everyday.

The partnership began with the cuisine in mind, the name and location set, but it grew to so much more.

What was your first year like?

The first year was like a roller coaster.  There were the highest of highs and lowest of lows.  The hustle to get the restaurant open was like nothing I had ever done before.  We had to build something more than just the physical restaurant, we had to write menus that were true to Spain, but also true to us.  We had to develop an aesthetic, an environment that made the food & beverage sing, and get the word out about it.  Most importantly, we had to build a team, create a culture, and keep our employees, and therefore our guests happy day in and day out.

We got off to a great start, there was a lot of press surrounding the opening and the first few months were a whirlwind.  Tons of industry people & NYC 'foodies' driving business, but then as the summer months hit, business died down quite drastically.  We made it through the summer breathing, but with our heads barely above water.  After labor day, we made a change that got us back in the news.  We changed the format of our tasting menu, and shortly thereafter Pete Wells, the NY Times critic paid us a visit.  A month later, when the review hit the newsstands, the course of our restaurant was changed forever.  We have been profitable every month since the review, a tribute to the fact that print is not dead, at least when it comes to restaurant reviews in New York.

Towards the end of our first year, we made some major changes to build longevity.  The unanimous response from our guests and employees was that the experience we provided in the less formal, pintxo bar was more fun, than the sit down 5 course tasting menu.  We listened.  It was too difficult to run two restaurants in one, so we evolved.  We switched over to a full a la carte menu, giving it a complete redesign, but taking the best of both worlds we had created, and the guests have responded in kind, driving more regular business and support from the neighborhood.

In April this year, we turned one a huge accomplishment and a reason for celebration.  The known fact is that 4 out of 5 restaurants fail in their first year, and we were not one of them.

What are you most proud of?

I'm most proud of the culture we've created at Huertas.  Writing a recipe or a business plan, mixing a cocktail or cooking a dish, those things are straight forward, they are easy in some ways.  Developing and a team an driving its character on a daily basis through training and attitude, that is much more difficult.  Yes, it is awesome when our guests comment on the quality of our food and beverage, but it is so much more fulfilling when a guest goes out of their way to tell me how hospitable our staff is.  The hard work is not technical or physical, it is emotional.

Favorite city and two things people have got to see/do while there.

I really love Paris. There is something about the way it moves, the way it tastes, the way it smells.  Go for a run, have a picnic in the Jardin du Luxembourg and you'll see what I mean.  Walk around Montmarte, next to the Canal de Saint Martin and go to my favorite unassuming restaurant, bar du vins in the 10th called Le Verre Volé.  Pick a bottle of French wine off the shelves, my go to region these days is Languedoc Roussillon, eat some housemade sausage, and all will feel well and good.

Anything interesting happen so far while wearing your jacket?

I was doing a little photo shoot for this piece outside the restaurant, and one of our regular guests walked in.  Unsolicited he asked me where I got my Ketums coat, I smiled.  It's pretty amazing when your closest friends are spending their lives working and living passion projects, the answer was easy.  The next day, he went online and bought a Ketums.  I hope that's not the first time. 

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