Ever since Gabriel Stulman and his wife, Gina, opened Joseph Leonard in 2009 on a West Village corner, he’s been, as the restaurateur put it, “in fifth gear.” Five restaurants, four years, and one addition to the family later (a son, Simon), we sat down with the bearded success story to talk about how they’ve pulled that off. Over iced coffee in the garden at Montmartre, Stulman’s latest project and the couple’s first place outside of the same few blocks in the West Village, we chatted about Wisconsin hospitality, Asian flavors, and where Stulman dines out when he gets the chance.
GrandLife: We hear you just got back from vacation?
Gabriel Stulman: Yes, we were in the Bahamas. Every year since Gina was a little girl, her father would take the family to a different island in the Bahamas. This is like the fourth year that I’ve gone.
GL: Sounds fun. I’ve wanted to ask you why you call the restaurant group Little Wisco. Are there Wisconsin aspects?
GS: I wouldn’t say so overtly. The reason our restaurant group is called Little Wisco is because of a journalist. It was a profile that the writer Alex Williams did for the New York Times, right when we were opening Fedora. So many of the people that work at the restaurants, they’re all people I went to college with at the University of Wisconsin. It’s this idea that we were almost creating an enclave within the West Village.
GL: People always write in reviews that your servers are friendly.
GS: I love hearing that. We try really hard to make that so. I do think there’s this thing–Midwestern hospitality. Really warm, genuine, sincere. I believe in all that. If we treat people that way, they’re more likely to want to come back.
GL: The restaurants are all pretty geographically close to each other. Is that on purpose?
GS: Not at all. Joseph Leonard was the first, and Jeffrey’s was the second. Jeffrey’s really came to happen because every day I’d be bartending at Joseph Leonard, looking out the window, and there was this corner location across the street with a sign that said “Store for Rent.” And we had two-hour waits. It was like, “Hey, what are we doing every day with our wait list?” We were telling people to go to other restaurants, other bars. We thought, Why don’t we create another place for people to go? And then with Fedora, the landlord came to us. At the time, before Fedora, Gina and I lived above Joseph Leonard. They got wind that there was this couple that lived upstairs from their restaurant named after their two grandfathers. And Fedora–the actual woman Fedora, who the bar was named after–she used to live on the top floor, which is now my apartment. She passed away. Before it was called Fedora, it was called Charlie’s Garden, which was her father-in-law’s name. So that place has been in their family for two, three generations. It was always this family-named place and the family lived above it. And ours was a family-named place and the family lived above. They came and knocked on our door and said, Fedora’s 90, she’s ready to retire. We decided we wanted to keep the name and the history. Same stories for Perla and Chez Sardine–the landlords came to us. Ever since Jeffrey’s, the stories are the landlords come knocking on our door.
GL: Any knocks recently?
GS: Oh yeah, we get knocks all the time. But right now I’m not even responding to them. We’ve got our hands full. I feel like we’ve grown relatively quickly and aggressively. In three-and-a-half years we went from one restaurant with 22 people working there, and I was the only manager. Today, we now have five restaurants, 240 employees. So we’re ignoring current knocks. I feel like the growth has been strong and fast-paced. And right now I just want to spend more time with Gina and Simon.
GL: Was it crazy opening two restaurants within a few months of each other with a new baby?
GS: It would’ve been crazy if we didn’t live above one of them. Chez Sardine is next to Fedora, so while we were at Chez Sardine, Gina and Simon were able to come see me every day. It was very natural and comfortable opening because every one that is involved in the management worked with us before. Mehdi [Brunet-Benkritly], who’s the chef, is still the chef at Fedora. In the front of the house, the general manager is my sister. She was a manager at Fedora before. The other manager was a manager at Jeffrey’s. And we downsized: we went from Perla being the largest restaurant to the next one being our smallest.
GL: Chez Sardine is a cool concept–a little kooky. How would you describe it?
GS: The same as I did on day one: an inauthentic izakaya. It’s very kooky. I had nothing to do with the food. That was all Mehdi–he’s a partner now. I loved everything he was doing at Fedora and I said to him, whatever you want to do next, I want to do it with you. The food is completely his brain, his soul, and his creativity.
GL: I understand you made some changes to Montmartre’s menu after the opening. You’ve taken it in more of an Asian direction?
GS: Yes, it’s kind of gone more Southeast Asian. There are a few reasons. One is the chef: Tien [Ho] was born in Vietnam. Before working here, he was the chef-de-cuisine at Ssam Bar, and then he was the executive chef at Má Pêche. The third connection is Vietnam is a country that has been colonized by France. We liked this notion of thinking about “what if there was a French chef in Vietnam who wanted to make a French dish, but had to go to the markets in Vietnam? All of a sudden you’re making moules frites, but you have a different set of ingredients. The one we do here is with coconut, cilantro, chili, and lime. In our first menu, I would say 25 percent of the menu had those connections. When we opened and people were not enthralled by our menu, the ones they weren’t into didn’t have those Southeast Asian touches.
GL: You’re doing a pot au pho?
GS: Right. Pho is raw meat and a broth that has star anise and cinnamon and nutmeg, with noodles and hoisin and bean sprouts. A pot-au-feu, the French dish, is meat in a big pot of broth. We do all these pork products, but some are cooked some are raw. The broth is Vietnamese. We don’t do noodles, which would be in pho. We do have hoisin and bean sprouts. It’s this French stew with Vietnamese broth.
GL: What are the most popular dishes here?
GS: The moules frites. And number two is an entree of trout and beluga lentils. It’s also served with trout roe, so you have these orange pearls, and then it’s served with a ginger beurre blanc, which is where you’re getting the Southeast Asian inflection.
GL: You’ve opened two restaurants in the last six months that are Asian-leaning. Is that a coincidence?
GS: Yeah. We didn’t try. This one started off with not as many of those inflections. What was the plan? I thought people would totally embrace all of the french food. People wanted more of that other element.
GL: Have diners tastes changed? Do they crave more Southeast Asian flavor?
GS: I wouldn’t say so. I think French cooking is seeing a resurgence in the city, without Asian accents. I would say that diners’ palates are always changing. People are way into brisket right now. Barbecue is insanely popular. I don’t think people’s palates are more in that direction than they have been for the last 20 years.
GL: When you have a chance to eat out, where do you like to go?
GS: I’ll give you two answers. Standbys? I have loved and continue to love sitting at the bar at Gramercy Tavern. I think their wine list is one of the best in the city. Fucking fantastic. I think the menu they offer at the bar and in the tavern–it actually befuddles me at the value. I don’t understand how it’s so inexpensive. They put a portion of fish this big for $22. I do understand how: in the other part of the restaurant, they’re charging $150 a head. I understand the economics of it. But the end result is if you go eat at the bar, you’re getting food from an amazing chef that’s of unparalleled value.
Recently, it was Gina’s birthday, and we went and ate in the lounge at Le Bernardin. That’s emotional, charging, exciting, exhilarating… damn, that restaurant’s good. The croque saumon fume with caviar… God bless you, Eric Ripert. And for newer restaurants, I’ve eaten at Lafayette probably three times. I’ve had great meals there. I think that team’s putting out really fucking solid food.
GL: You don’t consider Lafayette competition since they’re the other new French spot?
GS: I think every restaurant’s the competition. We’re all competing for diners. To say they’re competition because they’re French? Then is Balthazar my competition? There are a finite amount of diners.
And it’s not so recent, but I’ve had some awesome meals at Reynard. I like that room, I like that menu. Those guys deserve more props at Reynard when they get. I think most people, when they talk about Andrew Tarlow’s collection of restaurants, talk about Marlow & Sons and Diner. I ended up spending a week there at the Wythe Hotel during Hurricane Sandy. All my restaurants were out of power, and we had no power in our home, and we had a four-month-old kid. So we went to the Wythe and they were great. They got us a crib and they took good care of us. And we ended up eating a lot of meals there: breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
GL: Anything coming up you want to mention?
GS: There’s nothing on the radar. Just slow down for a second. I feel like I’ve been in fifth gear for four straight years. I’d like to downshift, just for a little bit. But we want to build again. I hope we’re lucky enough to build another restaurant, or a bar–I’d love to build a bar. But nothing’s on the radar. Just catch our breath.