Prospect will finally be opening its doors by month’s end, and Grub Street sat down this week with the team from Boulevard who is making it all happen — the triumvirate of Nancy Oakes, Pamela Mazzola (co-execs at Boulevard), and Kathy King (their longtime general manager), and Prospect’s executive chef Ravi Kapur. These four, who much like a family can and do finish each others’ sentences, discuss their history together, and how Prospect is going to give them all a chance to do something different, and a little more modern, than Boulevard.
Let’s start at the beginning. How did you all first start working together?
Nancy Oakes: Let’s see, it would have been 1988, and Pam and I were competing for the same employee [Gaines Dobbins, now at Eureka Restaurant], who I ultimately hired at L’Avenue. We met when Gaines later brought her by the restaurant to see what we were up to, and in the meantime, Pam had had her first child.
Pamela Mazzola: I had taken some time off [from Hayes Street Grill and Café Mozart] and read the review of L’Avenue, which had just opened, and went in and saw Gaines and Nancy, and I don’t remember what happened first.
NO: Well you hadn’t worked in about nine months at that point, and you said you might like to come on part time. And that lasted about five minutes, and then she was full time and five years went by. At that point my lease was up at L’Avenue, and the owner of the building was a boyfriend of mine and I won’t go into that, but that dissolved… And I heard a rumor that Pat Kuleto was opening a restaurant with me, even though I had never met him. He eventually made me an offer, and we closed L’Avenue in May of ‘93, and opened Boulevard in September of ‘93. Pamela’s been with me through it all, about 22 years.
And when did Kathy come into the picture?
NO: Thirteen years ago. Kathy was at Postrio and Pat almost hired her for Farallon but I got her. And Ravi came on board eight years ago [as chef de cuisine]. It’s been nice, you know… I never worked in someone else’s kitchen. I came from the front of the house, and then started cooking. So it’s been my good fortune to bring other people in who each bring their own set of experiences and talents for me to draw on. Pamela and Ravi each brought their own set of skills, and other than having to break Ravi of a chronic bacon fetish…
Ravi Kapur [mock -crying]: I thought it was what you wanted!
Where were you before, Ravi?
I was the opening chef at Redwood Park, and stayed through the closing, and prior to that I’d been in Santa Fe.
Who first floated the idea of Prospect? And how did the concept together?
PM: We had been talking about doing something else for a long time. Four years maybe. We decided to become partners in a something new, outside of Boulevard.
NO: When you’ve been working with someone for fifteen or twenty years, at some point ‘thank you’ is just not enough. What I initially wanted to do was to buy back more of a share in Boulevard and make both Pam and Kathy partners, but that wasn’t to be. So we started looking elsewhere.
RK: It made no sense to recreate Boulevard down the street, so we wanted to do something different.
Kathy King: We wanted to do something with a bigger bar, and the space really made it necessarily different.
NO: We wanted there to be a more social bar. Here, if the bar crowd gets too big, it interferes with the dining room.
PM: The concept that we came up with initially has evolved. We started with something much more stylized and designer-y. But that just wasn’t us.
NO: Ravi named it.
RK: We started to think about things that we really liked in restaurants, the look, the feel. Flexible dining areas. As for the food, there’s a whole thing going on in San Francisco, where farmers are celebrated and ingredients are sacred. But if we’re cooking something in a restaurant that’s so simple that you can do it at home, we’re not doing our job.
How does the menu at Prospect differ from or evolve out of Boulevard’s? Explain how you all collaborated on it.
NO: As we worked together we’d often come up with something that was like, “Well this is great, but it’s not for Boulevard.” So it became clear that we still had more to say, but it wouldn’t all work in this restaurant. Take this one dish on the Prospect menu, the pork cheeks with ancient grains and kumquat gremolata with radish salad — that’s something you’d never see on the menu at Boulevard. Maybe something sort of similar. But first of all, Ravi has this thing for kumquats and radish-y pickley things that I simply don’t have. [laughs] But also, as a dish, it’s a little leaner, a little more modern than what we’d serve at Boulevard. Or like pig trotters. Ravi makes these incredibly delicious pig trotter cakes with lobster. It’s edgy — it’s homey and edgy at the same time. But, as a dish, it doesn’t quite meet the expectation of the Boulevard diner. There’s a lot about Boulevard — the opulence, the over-the-top-ness, the tablecloths — that belongs to the last century. Not that that shouldn’t move forward. It still has a place. But we wanted to do something that was more forward-looking.
PM: The style of the food, and the spirit of the dining experience, are very much the product of years of us cooking together. Both Nancy and I have helped to edit and refine Ravi’s menu, but Ravi’s taken more of the hands-on position.
RK: The whole time, as I’ve been working to create dishes, it hasn’t necessarily been a hands-on collaboration, but as I’m working I always have Pam and Nancy’s voices in my head. They’re there, in many ways, in each dish.
NO: If you gave all three of us the same ingredients, and told us to create a dish, you’d get three different dishes, but they’d all have some…
RK: … connection.
Tell me about your kitchen relationship, the three of you.
NO: Pam and I have had a very unique relationship. We’ve been able to operate, for many years, as one, and that is very rare. Later, it became clear to both of us that Ravi was very talented and that he was ready to take on more responsibility, and needed to. Becoming three was hard. I’m not going to lie. It’s easy to work conspiratorially with two, but sometimes one person isn’t in the room… and it’s hard sometimes to have to hear a third opinion. But you realize that what you get from that, what’s ultimately squeezed out of a collaboration like that has that much more intelligence behind it.
RK: For the record, I never wanted to take anyone else job, or anything like that.
PM: But it was clear that for him to stay and grow he was going to need to grow in his position.
NO: It became clear to me that it was a choice to either hear the third opinion, or lose it. And I’ve lived in fear for 22 years of losing her [Pam].
PM: Prospect is a big, big restaurant, and it’s really taken all of us working together, and all of us being committed to the integrity of the experience, and the hospitality, and the food, to make it work.
RK: We all really love to cook and feed people, and that’s what holds us together.
PM: And Kathy really brought our level of service to a new level in the last decade. There was a time not too long ago when chefs really didn’t want to be too accommodating. She’s really molded us and made us come around to her ways.
NO: The customer’s advocate.
KK: It’s only taken thirteen years!
Have you hired a new chef de cuisine for Boulevard?
PM: Yes, we promoted one of our sous chefs, Dana Younkin. She’s been here six years, and she’s fabulous.
NO: And opening Prospect has allowed us to hire back people we always wished we could. Like Ravi’s sous chef, John Becker.
What’s the direction of the cocktail program?
NO: Keep it friendly. We want the bar to be really accessible and inclusive.
PM: We want the bar always to know what the kitchen’s doing and vice-versa. We’d be happy to have Brooke [Arthur] do cocktail and food pairings if she’s into that. And we want to do some dessert and cocktail pairings, which we think is really fun and something that we can tap into.
What would you say is the most unwelcome change in the food scene of the last few years?
RK: Amateur food photography. And criticism from the dining public in general. Yelp. People feel so entitled and they have no idea how much work goes in to each dish, and to the business.
PM: And they end up complaining about everything from the people sitting near them, the child who screamed once, or whatever — obsessing about some tiny thing that’s out of our control. It makes it really hard to be a restaurateur.
NO: My only unwelcome trend is the direction of fast food. They’re trying to make it look healthier and it’s not. It’s got a ton of inauthentic calories. What’s that ad, for the Olive Garden? The Quattro Formaggi whatever. It’s got every clichéd ingredient on the plate plus an extra helping of fat.
You’ve all been running a restaurant together for over a decade. How would you say the average diner has changed in the last decade or so?
KK: They’ve gotten younger.
PM: And we really want to tap into that demographic with Prospect. The kind of people who might think Boulevard is just too fancy for them.
KK: The diner is definitely a little younger, uncommitted. A lot more walk-ins and fewer reservations, and we like that. A lot of two to three apps and no main course. Or people sitting at the bar and having three courses and an expensive bottle of wine. That never used to happen before.
NO: The diner used to be a lot more picky. From the late 90s to about 2001 people just wanted to control everything on their plate. The menu was just a list of ingredients to mix and match. “I want the duck with the seafood risotto, and this vegetable over here…” you name it. They’ve gotten to trust chefs a lot more and leave the dishes alone.
KK: You ask people how they want something cooked and more of them now say, “However the chef thinks it’s best.”
NO: And nowadays people don’t want to stay in one place for too long. And they don’t want to make plans. And that’s okay. Neither do I.
Related: Exclusive: Sneak a Peek at Prospect, Opening June 29 [Grub Street]
Earlier: What You Missed at Last Night’s Star Chefs and Vintners Gala [Grub Street]