The Sample Room has been a fixture of the Northeast food scene since opening its doors 12 years ago (practically 30 in restaurant years). How do head chefs Kyle Gage and Francis Taylor O'Brien keep the menu interesting while staying true to their concept? We sat down with Gage, O'Brien, and managing partner Darren Ennis to find out.
See also: The Sample Room now serving pig's head[jump]
Hot Dish: How do you keep your menu interesting while making sure your loyal customers are happy?
Kyle Gage: A lot of it comes from the specials we offer. We work closely with a number of farms including Dragsmith Farms and they basically let us know what we can work with each week. We change a couple of items at a time and then get the feedback from our customers. If they like where we are going we continue down that road. If the feedback isn't there, we go in a different direction.
Darren Ennis: We tried to establish a great concept. We weren't trying to be trendy but we went the small plate route before small plates started rocking. We've stayed within what we do so we're not confusing people. And with our new chefs, these guys have the ability to work in a kitchen with everything made from scratch and keep it innovative. So we turn it over to them and let them run with it.
Francis Taylor O'Brien: I like eating with my eyes before eating with my mouth. So I want something that works visually as much as it works taste-wise. That drives me to bring new ideas into the kitchen. I hope that connects with our diners and keeps it interesting.
How long have you been in a co-chef position?
(Everyone looks at their watches and laughs.) Gage: I guess about three weeks! But we've worked together at three restaurants. I started as the sous chef here and Francis Taylor O'Brien came on. When I left I said, "This is your guy for sous chef!" When I came back it worked to just run this thing together. Francis brings a little bit of a crazy flair and I have more of the classic French training. We collaborate well with that. He has some strong points I don't and I have things he's lacking.
Do you ever long for the days when you were the only restaurant serving this style of food in Northeast?
Ennis: We just celebrated 12 years being open, that marks about 15 years of my life doing this. I love that we were on the front end in this neighborhood. I am so happy with Northeast's evolution. To me it's the more the merrier. This area is now like an Eat Street.
O'Brien: I see it as a challenge. We have to be better because of all the restaurants. When we're busy, I know we're doing something right.
Gage: This pushes the whole industry to do something better.
Ennis: We aimed to be a neighborhood place and a destination location. We've succeeded at both. Now we have people coming up strictly for the food and that's great.
You are frequently praised for your cheese plates. Who does those pairings and how do you choose?
Gage: We've recently handed a lot of that off to one of our cooks. He does research online about what pairs with what cheese. Google has changed all cooks' lives. What goes with San Andreas cheese? We check it out. He just had me ordering quinces, because they go with a cheese. You couldn't do that research online 15 years ago.
How much of your menu is made from scratch?
Ennis: These guys do it all from scratch besides our bread from New French. That means all the way down to the sauces, everything is coming in raw that we order. They have to work like mad to make it work. These guys are knocking it out. The prep demands are intense.
Gage: We make everything here from the ketchup to the corn beef. We are not a heat and serve restaurant.
How does that level of preparation inside the kitchen affect the way your kitchen runs?
Gage: It is a huge part of the industry to work with the farmers. We've learned a lot from our farmers. The farmer himself from Dragsmith Farms drops off the produce. So if we fuck something up, we're assholes to that guy. He says, "Thanks, you just wasted seven months of my life." His wife cuts the greens for our salads with a scissors and sends them off to us. We're not going to mess that produce up. It's not right. It's not how we do things. We like to work with those small farms. It takes respect to a whole new level. What was once a piece of meat means more to us because it's something that took two and a half years to raise, and someone cut it up to butcher it. We are talking a lot of time, and a lot of money. We don't want to mess that up. That's where that pride comes from me. I'll take the time to cook it right, since they took the time to raise it right. That's what we pound into our staff: Take the time to do it right. In the last three weeks there's been a whole new vibe over here. [page] What are you reading to stay up on current trends in the culinary world?
O'Brien: I don't do a ton of reading of blogs in this world. I've been so deep in the kitchen lately.
Gage: I don't read a bunch of blogs but there are cookbooks I look at every single day. The French Laundry, that's a 15-year-old book, but I'm still looking at that every day. It has some shit in there that people are still struggling at doing. The Flavor Bible, that's an everyday book. I wake up, I'm going to the bathroom and I'm looking at something. And I know what tastes good together, but it's still just seeing it. Over and over again. You see little things that you would've never thought. I've looked at what goes with salmon a thousand times, but I notice something else this time.
Ennis: I have a lot of industry stuff that comes in from Epicurious on down and I send them down to managers and chefs. Right now, they've got their hands full with the transition, but I like to send information on over when there's more time.
Gage: I also love eating in town. Talking to chefs, seeing what other folks are doing. Getting ideas from them. You put enough weirdos in the room and some quacky ideas come up for sure.
Do you have a favorite restaurant or food truck in the area?
O'Brien: I eat at a variety of taco trucks on Lake Street all the time. They're right by my house and it is some of the best eating I've had in the Cities.
Gage: The Anchor Bar. Their food truck is just perfect. They are doing the right thing the right way over and over again. I appreciate their discipline.
Ennis: The Anchor Bar is an example of people who just work so hard to do the right thing and stay dedicated.
What did you have for breakfast today?
Gage: For breakfast pretty much every day I have a bagel, a smoothie, and orange juice.
O'Brien: This morning I had blueberry shredded mini-wheats with blueberry pop-tarts broken up inside.
What is your favorite city for eating?
Gage: When I was in Bangkok I ate like crazy. Any street vendor I saw, I ate it all. I ate spiders, I ate everything. Just, give me, give me, give me. I was there for two weeks and I got sick for a day about halfway through. But it was just for a day and a half and I still ate. I got steamed rice and beans in bamboo and waited to get healthy enough for the more adventurous stuff. There were things where I didn't know what I was eating, but I learned so much.
Ennis: Visiting Italy was amazing. A number of the cities had the finest food I've ever had. We attended a pasta cooking class. That's where I learned how simple the cooking can be and still be so good.
O'Brien: Seattle for me. I've been to Canada and Mexico as well, but there is nothing like Seattle, with the fresh fish market and what they offer. I learned so much from how they do fish and seafood.
Aside from the new specials on the menu, is there anything else we can expect from the Sample Room in the coming season?
Ennis: We are going to be a bigger presence on our social media with more photos and features.
Gage: We are also doing a lot more with our happy hours, so our late-night diners can look forward to some surprises in the coming weeks!
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