Nemo Bolin moved to Providence, R.I., in 2008 with a plan to work for a couple of years, save money and open his own restaurant.
Then the economy bottomed out, and despite his résumé that boasted stints at top restaurants, including Locke-Ober and Craigie St. Bistro in Boston, and Rubicon and Chez Papa in San Francisco, he couldn’t find a job. So he decided instead to open his own restaurant right away.
It took him about a year to find a space and raise funds, but in early 2010 he opened Cook & Brown Public House, a 50-seat restaurant named after his grandparents’ last names, with a menu that changes daily.
He recently spoke with Nation’s Restaurant News about the concept.
How did you raise money to open a restaurant at such a difficult economic time?
I begged everybody I knew and pieced it together. I looked for the right deal that would make sense. I got financing from the previous owner of the restaurant that I purchased. I didn’t buy any new equipment and just kind of took it over — a lot of elbow grease and stuff. I basically burned through all of the money that I had — all my savings, some credit cards. A typical small business owner story, I think.
Describe the menu.
The food that we do is really, really seasonal, kind of country-style New England stuff, but we basically change the menu daily. Through developing our relationships with farms, we tell them, “You tell us what’s the best,” and we figure out what to do with it. For this particular restaurant it’s the best way to do it. It’s not really a scalable model.
How do you develop the menu?
It’s a collaboration with the people in the kitchen. It’s not like at 5 o’clock we’re coming up with new dishes. There’s a little bit more of a method to it. But when I have a good team that’s been there for a while, we can talk about what the feeling of the dish is supposed to be and the ultimate goal of the dish. We’ll talk about why in the summertime we’ll lightly braise fennel, and why in the winter we’ll roast it.
We don’t have any real signature dishes, but we do have a couple of things that we keep on and tweak a little bit.
We make a gnocchi with ricotta from a local cheese maker. It’s a super-fresh, light ricotta, and a little egg and flour. We’ll have that on the menu a lot as a vegetarian pasta dish, but if we want to make it richer and darker we’ll braise greens and do a squash purée underneath in the winter. In the summer we might use a little bit of arugula and radishes, maybe a light pesto with the radish tops.
When I first opened I was a little bit more idealistic and said, “We’re never going to have the same thing on the menu.” But I realized that from a hospitality standpoint it makes sense to give people somewhat what they like or are familiar with.
But we also want to challenge ourselves and not get in a rut. I’ve worked in a lot of places where you cook the same dish for four months. That’s a long time to cook the same dishes over and over again. And in a small restaurant like mine there’s not a lot of upward mobility for people in the kitchen. The way I get to kind of pay them back is by showing them that in a year they can show 500 dishes that they’ve done.
It sounds like good training if they want to be on Top.
And this time of year we get deliveries from farms like five days a week, and it’s great to see everyone’s different varieties of eggplant and tomatoes.
How do you keep things interesting in the winter?
That’s when you challenge yourself more on technique. You ask, “What else can we do with a sunchoke?” We end up using more spice and venture a little bit farther away, toward North Africa, the Middle East, India. We also do more classical stuff like long braises, or we go the other way and try to brighten things up with citrus fruit or other acidity.
How strict are you about using local ingredients?
We’re still a contemporary restaurant in North America. We use olive oil and coffee. We don’t have a 50-mile rule or anything like that. But all the fish we get is from New England waters, with the exception of soft-shell crab, which we get from Maryland, because it’s the best thing.
But the produce we all get locally. It can get a little tough in the springtime when you see asparagus and fava beans popping up on everyone else’s menu and our farmers are telling us it’s not going to be ready for a couple of weeks. But that’s something we said we were going to do from the outset. And for us it just is a better thing. We know that when it’s asparagus season we’re going to crush our menu with asparagus and basically force-feed it to people, and then it’s gone and we’re like, “Oh, that three weeks went quickly.” There’s a certain energy and excitement that comes from that.
How do you like owning your own restaurant?
Half of my job now is dealing with personalities and making sure everyone’s getting along. If somebody says something in the wrong way and someone else is offended, I have to be the sociologist.
Do you like that part of the job?
It’s not my favorite thing, but it’s part of the job and I’m more used to it now. And actually a lot of times you’re talking about younger people that are really working hard and it’s kind of a mentorship. They need a little bit of guidance and reassurance that they’re doing the right thing. When you have those one-on-one talks with people and you ask them to prove they can do something and they turn around and do it really well, it’s great. It’s definitely fulfilling.
When guests come in and they really enjoy themselves, it’s uplifting and nice for everybody, and having people that are working really hard and you see how they’ve developed, it’s a similar feeling.