Laura Stanley - September 2006
Size counts, especially in the kitchen at Buddakan, Stephen Starr's Casino Royale of a Chinese/Asian restaurant in Manhattan.
It is 5:22 p.m. on a summer Thursday, eight minutes until opening at Buddakan, the new Asian mega-restaurant in Manhattan's swinging meatpacking district (see "Intimate Immensity," page 44). A gym-toned brunette in chunky Fendi sunglasses and a foxy black wrap dress paces before the locked doors in a paroxysm of pique. "Closed"! she fumes. "Hel-lo? Don't they know it's cocktail hour?" She is quickly joined by a knot of equally fit and nattily dressed young people, who mill about in a light rain, connecting with drinking partners on their cell phones.
Outside any other restaurant in this neighborhood, waiting for opening in broad daylight would be decidedly uncool. But not here. After six months, many jaded downtowners are still wowed silly by the slick look and high energy of this enormous, extravagantly turned-out place, from the unfashionable starting time of 5:30 until well past the witching hour, every night. Tonight, for instance, Buddakan is expecting some 900 guests in its six distinct dining environments, including the usual assortment of VIPs--a major-league baseball team owner, a film star, and a supermodel, among others. Customers will order from an upscale Asian menu of some 60 items. And the staff, like Imagineers at a Disney theme park, are ready to execute the complex behind-the-scenes stagecraft that will make the magic happen as seamlessly as possible.
Whatever you call it--flashy, classy, real, or surreal--there's no denying that it took just months for Buddakan to make its mark in New York City. This year, revenues are projected to reach $20 million. Clearly some things--maybe everything--about this place are working.
Buddakan and its sister restaurant, Morimoto (after television cooking star Masaharu Morimoto), are the latest additions to Stephen Starr's collection of destination restaurants and his first in New York City, brought here from their home base in Philadelphia at the cost of $26 million. They're both in the vast Chelsea Market complex, which sprawls across an entire city block with a million square feet devoted to food retail, publishing, and television studios (Oxygen, New York One News, and the Food Network). It's a fitting debut for Starr. After 11 years in Philadelphia, where he built a reputation as one of the most adventurous dining impresarios of our time, the crossover of both these restaurants to the Big Apple was much anticipated, like two out-of-town blockbuster productions finally going for broke on Broadway. And stay tuned, because Starr is not finished yet.
Plans are already under way for a third Buddakan, in Atlantic City.
Not surprisingly, there is nothing subtle about the interior of Buddakan, created by jet-set designer Christian Liaigre. By day, when the dramatic lighting is switched off and the beautiful people are absent, it's almost garish--16,000 square feet of cool and edgy styling that boldly riffs on traditional Asian motifs. The street-level bar area, by itself larger than most Manhattan dining rooms, is mostly black, accented with saturated aqua and stainless steel. It flows into a dining area decorated with curiosity cabinets made of glass and wood, which display exotic taxidermy birds. Grand center staircases are separated by Chinese-style fretwork windows in eye-popping shades of red, turquoise, orange, canary yellow, and mint green.
The stairways take visitors on the most thrilling plunge in all Manhattan dining, into a 35-foot-high main dining room bedecked with four exuberant chandeliers that hang from the ceiling. A long, heavy table flanked by 30 Louis XVI chairs runs down the middle of the room, a Hollywood touch that leaves you expecting the arrival, any minute, of Norma Shearer dressed as Marie Antoinette.
There's more. Off the banquet room (named, inexplicably, the Chinoiserie), past the Brasserie (its walls paved with Buddha portraits), is the Library, a subterranean lair lined with fake golden books lit by xenon strip lighting in coves. This room glows like a Thai wat at high noon, and it is wildly popular with the late-night bar crowd. There is a second secluded lounge upstairs, a smaller, severe room that derives its weird allure from two seven-and-a-half-foot Chinese vases of shiny, fire-engine red fiberglass.
But it's not until one enters the 3,000-square-foot kitchen, off the Brasserie, that things really get interesting. To hold its own in a place like this, the food has to be more than good. It, too, has to dazzle and amplify.
Unlike the set it appears on, the fare at Buddakan is less theatrical and a whole lot closer to authentic, prepared in a classical Western kitchen with studious adherence to the flavors of China and France. Creative exploration has produced some exciting results, with an emphasis on explosive heat and tang. Scallion pancakes are topped with short ribs braised in soybean paste, ginger, garlic, scallions, and pineapple juice and garnished with shaved green apple. Classic cha siu bao is deconstructed and offered in the form of crispy pork belly over pickled shallots and cabbage, fluffy bao buns on the side. Buttery glazed black cod is accented by a puckery, bright green relish of pickled cucumber, jicama, and fermented black beans.
"It's Chinese food done the French way," says executive chef Michael Schulson, whose 12 years in restaurant kitchens include both Le Bec-Fin and Susanna Foo in Philadelphia. His methods are painstaking. The scallion pancake, for instance, is held in the freezer for an hour before it's cooked, to firm it up and thus bypass the need for the greasy traditional deep fry. Ducks are blown dry twice with an air compressor (before they're marinated and again before they're poached), in a process that inflates their skins as if they were beach balls. Then they're air-dried for 24 hours before roasting on hooks in a sturdy duck cooker that looks like a small-town bank safe.
The kitchen, designed by Schulson in collaboration with Jimi Hui, is segmented into the usual stations--meat, fish, hot and cold appetizers, pastry, butchery, and prep--with the addition of a five-port wok line and a dim sum area. The main work area, built in a U around a receiving floor for waitstaff, has the two Asian stations running along either side, to the left and the right of meat and fish. They're manned by Chinese, recruited through classified ads in a leading local Chinese-language daily. The head dumpling chef, Ben Zhou, was wooed away from a glitzy dim sum palace in Asian-rich Flushing, Queens; he speaks halting English and translates for his 15 member crew (out of a total kitchen staff of 85). At the woks, only sous chef Yang Huang can communicate with the rest of the kitchen.
And yet the operation runs like a well-oiled machine, with or without Zhou and Huang. Schulson maintains a commanding presence behind a wide table at the base of the U, tasting dishes before they go out and loudly disciplining his cooks above the fray, in mangled Chinese if necessary: "Xi lai yu lai gai hai"! ("You're in the weeds"!) The curses he heaps on the wok line, he insists, are affectionate. "Really, their attitude is just amazing. To find these guys, we had to go through a lot of bodies." The wok workers have to be Chinese, he says. "Would you hire a tennis player to play basketball? They've got the motion down; anyone else would burn the food at this intense heat." Training these men wasn't easy, however. "They want to put sesame oil on everything," says the chef, "but we don't use sesame oil. They want to fry everything, but we don't do that either." When it comes to Schulson's trendy foams, shot out of compressed-air siphon canisters (one of black bean over stir-fried asparagus; another a coconut curry over vegetable fried rice), "they think I'm nuts."
Zhou supervises a group of men and women in the preparation of nine dim sum offerings, including familiar shrimp dumplings and vegetable spring rolls along with taro puff lollipops stuffed with gingered pork and a luxurious king crab sui mei. Virtually every table requests at least one dim sum--edamame dumpling orders alone come to between 80 and 100 (that's 400 to 500 hand-formed dumplings) per night. Orders preassembled earlier in the day in bamboo steamer baskets are refrigerated opposite a dim sum "table," a stove-size steamer topped with a water-filled trough fitted with holes for the baskets.
It's not only dim sum that goes out in mass quantities. At a restaurant this size, all the numbers are huge. Every day, the kitchen plows through an entire case of lamb and some 120 pounds of chow fun noodles, 30 pounds of eggplant, 40 pounds of scallions, and 40 pounds of garlic (all hand-chopped; a blender, says the chef, would make the food "too garlicky"). And those ducks? Forty a day, roasted just six at a time, to keep the heat high in the cooker. Shrimp moves at a rate of 250 pounds a week; short ribs, 350 pounds. The total food purchases come to $60,000 weekly--not so remarkable for a hotel kitchen but unusual for a Manhattan restaurant with a menu as labor-intensive as Buddakan's.
Keeping it all together requires the right equipment and a stable chain of command, with a fair amount of management and purchasing responsibility in the hands of five sous chefs. "We definitely have a lot of bells and whistles in this kitchen," says sous chef Daniel Esses. He arrives early to check on orders received, handle employee paperwork, review invoices, and calculate food sales. He makes family meal in a Swiss braiser, which later is pressed into service for steeping chickens in Oolong tea, 40 at a time. As the day chef, he also supervises the cooking of the edamame dumpling filling in a 15-gallon stockpot over a floor-level candy burner and the processing of the beans in a heavy Robot Coupe Blixer (four times as powerful as a processor, he says, "so we can get them really smooth"). Esses is equally eager to show off the kitchen's three-foot, French-made "giraffes" (immersion blenders), used for making mayonnaise in 22-quart batches.
The menu demands a colorful array of ingredients, many more than one sees in a typical Western kitchen, and a potential inventory nightmare when it comes to feeding hundreds. Schulson samples ingredients from every counter-top container (more than 140 every night) and every squeeze bottle before service, everything from chile tapioca pearls and egg yolk in scallion puree to freshwater chestnuts, lily bulbs, mint, and micro celery. There are two kinds of butter-toasted panko, one with crystallized ginger and juniper berries, the other with fresh ginger, scallions, and cilantro. For the chile rock shrimp appetizer, there are candied walnuts and a mayonnaise made with condensed milk and pineapple juice; for the crab/cucumber salad, pomello segments and crispy noodles. It's this kind of excess--and this kind of tight, smart control--that defines Buddakan and explains its success. "There's a point person for every aspect of this operation," says Schulson. "And everyone here knows how to do everything."
Blixer Robot Coupe
Box steamers Jade, Town
Candy burners Jade
Convection ovens Blodgett, Jade
Deep fryers Jade
Dim sum table Town
Duck cooker, wok line Town
Gelato maker Carpigiani
Immersion blenders Vita-Mix
Planchas, ranges Jade
POS Systems Aloha, Avero
Rice cookers Korin
Sanitation system Ecolab
Swiss braisers Cleveland, Jade
Warewashing machine Meiko
The rookie waitress is nervous. After two weeks of trailing and tasting, it's time for her test with the chef, Michael Schulson. He's handsome, sure, but scary. She shifts uneasily in her chair. "OK, how do you approach the table"? he says. "What do you say first"?
"Welcome to Buddakan," says the young woman, her voice quivering. "The menu here is served family-style." She wets her lips.
"Make sure you explain," admonishes Schulson. "Food comes out of the kitchen as it's prepared." She nods. "Let me hear you say it," he presses.
The chef is as officious and fastidious with waitstaff as he is with kitchen workers. When the server describes XO sauce as "like a barbecue sauce," he cuts her short. "Like or is"? he demands. When she lucks out with one answer, he calls her bluff: "Good guess." The woman, who has studied hard, finally confesses to having forgotten everything under Schulson's unforgiving gaze. He sends her back for more. "Memorize the menu"! he commands.
Dining room management at Buddakan is tight and efficient. Rigorous training like this helps, as does a heavy reliance on walkie-talkies. Even the chef used to wear an earpiece; he had to forgo that when it became too distracting. But the front of the house is fully wired. General manager Michael Principe, individual dining room managers, and floating managers all sport "walkies." The radio system is linked to the receptionists, a line of young women in black evening dress seated under a 20-foot Rubens reproduction (nudes dining on oysters) in the restaurant's spotlit foyer. And when a manager needs the help of beverage manager Edward Allen, they can talk with him or summon him via headset.
"The trick with the radio is to not let it be too invasive," says Principe. "You have to pull it out of your ear when you're talking to a guest so he can get your full attention." Still, the headsets are obvious, contributing to the sensation (for better and for worse) that you're dining in a theme park. Here, as in Disneyland, nothing is left to chance.
Allen's 150-label wine list reflects this approach. Like the family-style foodservice, it's designed to keep things moving smoothly and quickly in the dining rooms. The presentation, broken out into categories--"refreshing," "rich," and "exotic" for whites; "muscular," "classically styled," and "silky smooth" for reds--makes it relatively easy for guests to choose, no matter how limited their wine background. The selection is loaded with juicy midprice favorites that pair well with Asian food--California Viognier, Italian Dolcetto, Australian Shiraz, and plenty of West Coast Pinot Noir ("the Sideways effect," says Allen). There's also much here to interest more ambitious wine drinkers, including two Premier Cru Burgundies, two Grüner Veltliners, and, for free spenders, an $800 1983 St. Émilion and a top-shelf Ribera del Duero from Vega Sicilia for $690. There are six sakes by the glass and by the bottle, including a playful off-dry sparkler and, for the cognoscenti, a milky unfiltered nigori and Masaharu Morimoto's five year old junmai. "By mixing the familiar and the unfamiliar," says Allen, "I keep everybody happy."
Daniel Skurnick has a fantasy. "An outdoor ice cream cart," says Buddakan's pastry chef. He names some of the flavors he'd offer: black sesame, Thai ice tea, avocado, pandan. OK, so he hasn't asked his boss, Stephen Starr, about this scheme, and he's doubtful that Starr would agree to it. But an artist can dream, yes?
Skurnick, 32, has a thing for the sweets of Asia. His infatuation dates to the year he spent studying in northern Thailand, where he lived in the jungle among the Mlabri, a hunter-gatherer people, trekking out periodically to Chiang Mai to check in with his academic advisers--"so they'd know I wasn't dead." In town, he took up cooking at an open-air night market, attracting a fair amount of attention--he's fair and boyish, with light red hair--and launching, unwittingly, his culinary career.
"There's not a lot of money in anthropology", he explains. Besides, he's having way more fun as a pastry chef.
At Buddakan--where he has arrived by way of Gramercy Tavern, Jean Georges, and The River Café, all in New York City--Skurnick's approach is inventive, using flavors plucked from across Asia, from dishes sweet and savory, to create something entirely new. His best-selling dessert, called Crying Chocolate, is an "homage", he says, to the sweet drinks of Vietnam--white chocolate ganache flavored with Horlicks, a popular malt powder, oozes out of a chocolate soufflé, with a quenelle of coffee ice cream made, as in Vietnam, with chicory infused Café du Monde. And because the Vietnamese love their coffee with sweetened condensed milk, the plate is lightly brushed with dulce de leche.
A chocolate mille-feuille--ganache between chocolate wafers over brûléed banana--comes with milk chocolate ice cream inspired by traditional beef pho, spiked with star anise, cinnamon, and chiles. Blood orange and ginger/lemongrass sorbets are bathed in Thai basil gelée and Philippine kalamanzi seltzer; strawberry tart is dressed with Chinese black vinegar gelée. Cardamom, yuzu, ginger, and coconut turn up in Skurnick's creations, naturally, as does Sichuan pepper (over roasted pineapple) and bergamot scented Earl Grey, a favorite in contemporary Chinese bubble teas.
Skurnick likes to prowl the streets of Sunset Park in Brooklyn for fresh ideas on his days off. The avocado anglaise that appears on the plate with his mille-feuille was inspired by an avocado milk shake he found in a tiny Vietnamese sandwich shop. "People are put off by this until they taste it", he says. "But then they discover that it's really good."