On Monday, news broke that Kevin and Alex Pemoulie’s Thirty Acres — the Jersey City restaurant that’s been celebrated by New York Times critic Pete Wells, Eater’s Ryan Sutton, and Bon Appétit’s Andrew Knowlton — will close for good on November 28. Like Los Angeles’s Alma, which will also shutter in a few weeks, Thirty Acres primarily offered a tasting menu, but it struggled with being categorized as a fancy restaurant and never found a loyal local audience.
So, the Pemoulies plan to pack up and move to Alex’s hometown of Seattle, where they want to eventually open a restaurant that’s more accessible and casual. According to Kevin, there are a few driving factors behind the couple’s decision: He feels the perception of Thirty Acres’ success was warped by the press (a sentiment echoed by Alma chef-owner Ari Taymor); he doesn’t want to raise his daughter in the competitive, expensive New York area; and he wants to totally rethink his decision to cook creative dishes. “I don’t want a place where people are challenged to like it,” Kevin says. “It’s so fucking condescending and pretentious to tell people that this is different, and this is how they should eat.” Speaking with Grub, he explained his decision in full — and why it’s become more appealing than ever for New York chefs to leave:
Once we had our daughter, and she’s almost 16 months old now, we just started really thinking about what we want to do, how we want to do it, and where we see ourselves settling down. To be honest, she was really the catalyst for a lot of it, and it became a lot about where and how we want to raise our daughter.
After that, we started to reevaluate where Thirty Acres was at, how it was doing, and where we saw that it needed to be to keep it running. Ultimately, it wasn’t the place that was going to be a sustainable mom-and-pop shop for our family here in New Jersey, at this time right now. It was both a financial decision as much as a personal decision. Everything came together, and it seemed like we had an opportunity now to move on or let this thing run itself into the ground. We didn’t want to have to deal with it: We wanted to make a cohesive plan and make sure it was the best plan for our family.
Thirty Acres had a really good run. As a first restaurant for first-time owners, it provided us with so much, and it was the ultimate learning experience. We really feel like it was a place that was a product of the time that it existed in. This is what Thirty Acres was supposed to be: a restaurant that lasted four years, and we’re really, really cool with it. It’s hard because — people like to compare it to children, and it’s in no way like our child — but it is our firstborn, and we wanted it be healthy and running properly. Ultimately, there was a point, perhaps, where Thirty Acres and Jersey City maybe weren’t seeing eye to eye. That’s fine. That’s totally cool. It’s not a big deal. Maybe we weren’t in the right place at the right time, or maybe Jersey City wasn’t the right place, at this time, for us.
We’ve taken so much from this experience that we really feel like we’re suited to move on and to use our skills and information to do this for a living in another city. In the way that high school and college are four formative years in your life, that’s how it felt with Thirty Acres. With each year we felt a little bit more comfortable and familiar. And then, ultimately, felt like we’re ready to go.
We’ve done our best to provide Jersey City with a restaurant that’s unlike anything else. We tried to do something different. We saw it, originally, that we’d move out to Jersey and somehow escape the New York City press and escape the restaurant life. It was super naïve. But then it did get press, and that was sort of nice, and then we reveled in the accolades. At this point, now, we’re actually trying to get away from New York City. The environment here is so hypercompetitive and of-the-moment. It was great for me as a cook, but as an owner, and as someone who’s growing a family, it sucks.
You look at Manhattan, and you’re like, What an awesome place! I grew up in Jersey, close to here. It’s the kind of place that’s pretty much only cool if you’re fucking Jay Z. If you have millions and millions of dollars in your bank account, you can make New York City awesome, but it’s really tough otherwise. There are so many people around you, and it’s just so competitive, that when you start to think about it from a family perspective, is it the best place for me? Am I going to raise my daughter in a place where I can’t ever see her and that’s what it takes to be successful? That’s not for me. It works for a lot of people, but for us it just doesn’t.
We’re looking to change and to enter into a part of the country that isn’t so insanely cutthroat and hypercompetitive. We’re really ready for change. We have ideas, but we honestly just want to reset and recharge and feel that we’re ready to do something again that we want to do — not something that we feel like will be better than this or that guy. You can lose your way here, and we want to get back to what we like to do, which is run restaurants and cook.
… Are you aware of the curse of John Madden? Each year, EA Sports puts out a John Madden football game, and the guy who’s on the cover of the game almost inevitably gets hurt or costs his team a championship. I feel like that’s a hilariously accurate metaphor. I do feel like success doesn’t necessarily bring happiness … This perception of success is really warped by the press.
Alma is literally the John Madden problem: It was the No. 1 restaurant on Andrew Knowlton’s list — the same year we were in his top 50. What we tried to do at Thirty Acres is always, at base level, just make it different. And not different than the rest of the world, but different than what’s happening in New Jersey. Honestly, my wife and I talk about this all the time: I don’t want to push the envelope anymore. I don’t want to tell people they need to learn this or just have an open mind: That shit’s pretentious as fuck, and I don’t want to do it anymore. I don’t want to tell people how they should eat. The truth is, people go eat a slice of pizza or a burger and they’re happy as shit — and so am I when I do that. It’s so fucking condescending and pretentious to tell people that this is different and this is how they should eat.
And I’m not taking anything away from the mover-shakers, from René Redzepi all the way on down — that’s great. But for me, Kevin Pemoulie, I don’t want to do it anymore. I eventually want to have a place that’s providing people with exactly what they fucking expect is good, and it’s going to be good. I want to deliver on consistency and good taste, and not pushing weird boundaries or fucking taste profiles. I don’t think that’s what’s important anymore: It’s definitely not what’s going to make me have the family life I want, or the success, in that department, that I want. Alex and I don’t want to be in this same arena anymore. We want to try to do something that uses our skill and craft to make something that’s delicious, good for people, and good for my daughter. I don’t want to do this shit anymore. It’s just too much.
I’ve talked to Danny [Bowien] about his desire to say, “Fuck fighting it. Let’s just do something that people actually like.” That’s honestly taking a huge risk — more than it sounds like. Just to do something that people will like? Holy shit, what a novel idea! Shit, we’re going to make good food that people like? That’s crazy. Are we really going to do this? Just good food? He was feeling the same shit. I think changing Cantina to a fucking burrito bar is the best idea that ever came out of that company.
People have asked, “Why not try to do something in Jersey City?” We just feel that Thirty Acres has put us in a light — and we need to extinguish that light and move on. We need to really refresh. We don’t want to have any bad feelings toward the city; we don’t want anyone to have shitty feelings about us. We just want to recognize what happened and move on.
Alex and I, it’s only us here — no investors, all the money, or lack thereof, is ours — and I don’t want a fucking place anymore where people don’t like it. And I don’t want a place where people are challenged to like it. I don’t want to make people eat sea urchin if they don’t want it. I just want them to come in and be happy. If I can’t make food that does that thing, then I shouldn’t fucking do this anymore.