Fry Me A River
Jim Poris - September 2007
With empire-building stars in his eyes, Josh DeChellis unveils the test model of his tempura-themed BarFry in New York City's Greenwich Village.
To paraphrase reluctantly aging Baby Boomers, downscale is the new upscale in the restaurant business. More and more chefs with fine dining chops are either delaying or casting aside luxe aspirations for one-trick ponies (with sides) thematically devoted to genres such as American and/or worldwide barbecue; Asian-style noodles and hawker foods; Spanish tapas and its creative derivatives; charcuterie; British gastropub grub and suds; sushi every which way; bistros du jour; wine by the sip or tankard; tacos and Mex/Latino finger fare; and countless other plebian foods that can be redesigned and outfitted with a good-for-you fresh, seasonal, and local wardrobe.
Now along comes one so obvious that it should induce "why didn't I think of that" head slapping from coast to coast, which is where chef/owner Josh DeChellis envisions a string of BarFry tempura restaurants once the temperature rises to bursting at the prototype he opened last month in New York City's Greenwich Village.
"This is my first deviation from fine dining," says DeChellis, 34, who gained attention for gilt-edged simplicity at the Japanese/French restaurant Sumile Sushi, also in the Village. "The business model for this—55 seats, takeout, bike delivery of special containers to ‘hold' the tempura—is crazy great. I'm not trying to reach gastronomic heights with this. But I do see it as having global potential."
Perhaps the earsplitting whir of power tools sawing in unison to complete the buildout of the space that held the Italian restaurant 50 Carmine had so energized DeChellis that he was jumping ahead of himself by a few years. But he can be forgiven, since he hit on this idea four years ago on the way home from his first trip to Tokyo, where he worked for five weeks before opening Sumile for Japanese rock star Miwa Yoshida. "On the plane I jotted down notes for two business plans--one for ramen and one for tempura. I thought it would be great to give them my own spin, especially since I noticed that there was a void in the U.S. market for them. Tempura is a no-brainer: fried food for a modern-thinking population conscious of health, what they eat, and where food comes from. Just because something is fried doesn't mean it's not healthy."
Given all the variables frying commands--the type of cooking oil, the constancy of its temperature, its moisture content, the breading or batter coating the food, and a host of others--it's no wonder that attention hasn't been paid to a technique associated with fast food. Too often, more orders lead to more missteps in the kitchen, resulting in a rap sheet of nutritional sins against fried foods. DeChellis knows this, which is why he'll have four Pitco deep fryers in action--one for fish, one for meat, one for vegetables, and one on standby when one of the others needs to be drained of spent canola oil and reloaded. DeChellis plans for the old oil to be filtered and collected for use as a biofuel. "Pitco has a thermostat that's spot-on, maintaining the oil's heat in an exact manner," he says. "I can drop 12 soft shell crabs into one, the temperature will drop eight degrees but will be up to where it should be way before the crabs come out. The recovery time is remarkable."
DeChellis developed a hush-hush ready-for-rollout tempura batter to coat a seasonally revolving list of ingredients: large gulf shrimp, cherrystone clams, cod, potatoes, baby carrots, pork cutlets, beef stuffed beignets, and pork dumplings, for example. Specials are written on a chalkboard. An array of hopped-up sauces—burnt jalapeño, green yuzu pepper, red yuzu pepper, and miso/wasabi gribiche—and the traditional—dashi/soy, mirin/grated daikon—provide the acidity and heat to cut the richness of the fried foods. Or, as another option, the tempura can be dipped in the soft, moist grains of Okinawan sea salt. There are also side dishes to round out the meal: Nipponese accented salads, fresh "wasabi peas," sautéed pea leaves with XO sauce, shishito peppers/pumpkin seeds/soy, pickled watermelon/avocado salad, rice, and wasabi pickles. The tempura are also stuffed into BarFry po' boy sandwiches—New Orleans via Japan in New York—such as shrimp/spicy slaw/XO dressing, pork cutlet/kimchi/chili dressing, and vegetables/ginger pickled shallots/tofu dressing. Various combinations of tempura, po' boys, and sides can be ordered as "bar boxes." A nod at dessert—green tea pound cake, ice creams, and sorbets—the house beer, J.D's Gaijin ("round-eye" in Japanese) Pale Ale, developed with Rogue Ales of Newport, Oregon, three sakes, and some sparkling, nonalcoholic infused drinks—and that's the menu. With sides priced $4 to 8, tempura $5 to $8 for two or three pieces, po' boys $11 to $15, and boxes around $20, plus full bar, DeChellis is expecting a $40 check average, two and a half turns, and lots of takeout.
In order to maximize BarFry's potential as franchise, DeChellis has kept cooking equipment requirements to a minimum—the deep fryers, a six-burner Garland range, a Pacojet, a KitchenAid mixer, and, most notably, Winston Industries' CVap®—a half-size undercounter cook-and-hold roaster/steamer. Because its temperature doesn't exceed 500°F, DeChellis says, the CVap doesn't require the additional cost of hooded ventilation. "It's similar to what Subway does for its bread, although with a different piece of equipment," he says. "It makes roll outs a lot less expensive. For instance, I can program it to cook six pounds of veal head for a terrine bound with egg protein that I'd slice and deep fry tonkatsu-style [breaded], and it wouldn't cost me $60,000 in labor expenses [for cooks] to do it." DeChellis estimates he spent about $38,000 on equipment—including refrigeration, beer delivery systems, and other odds and ends for the 15 seat bar—and no more than $60,000 for reconstructing the kitchen. "Again, the idea is not much equipment overhead for high production yield," he reiterates.
Kitchen staffing will be just as streamlined—three cooks working the Pitcos, one manning garde-manger for sides, sandwiches, and garnishes, and a butcher breaking down sides of meat and whole fish and shellfish in a subterranean prep area.
DeChellis thinks he'll need two and a half shifts to cover a full day that will include lunch prep and service, the same for dinner, and a late, late show that will keep the fryers hot until 2 a.m. Best of all, as DeChellis practically sees it, is that the cooks won't need to show up with impressive résumés since he will be able to train them for their by-the-numbers tasks. No need for high salary men (and/or women) in the kitchen, so money saved again.
"We're going to be very aggressive with our marketing," says DeChellis, who practically hums with the enthusiasm of a catchy commercial jingle. He's like a kid caught in the flash of neon BarFry signs illuminating highways and byways. His plans for conquest, though, leave one city BarFry free. "We'll build a domestic presence first, and then who knows. But it won't be Tokyo. That'd be like Olive Garden opening up in Bologna, Italy."
Roaster/steamer Winston Industries
Refrigerated counter Delfield
Refrigerated undercounter Beverage Air
Coffee grinder Grindmaster
Frozen drink machine Saniserve
Espresso equipment Rancilio
Ice cream/sorbet maker Pacojet