|Published April 2004
Fiore: You started off in Cape Cod, working in restaurants,
how did you end up in Washington?
Bob Kinkead: I was partner at a restaurant
called Twenty-One Federal on Nantucket. One of the deals I made
to stay as a chef there was that we do another restaurant in a major
city because I wasnt really interested in staying on Nantucket,
as much as I liked it in the summer. Two of the main partners (at
Twenty-One Federal) were based out of Washington, so we found a
space in Washington that we liked. I was from Boston originally,
but at the time Boston was clearly going through a big depression
and didnt look like it would be coming out of it anytime soon.
So, it seemed like a good idea to do it here.
TF: Youre a self-taught chef
what do you think the advantages and disadvantages are of being
a self-taught chef?
BK: I think the culinary schools give
you a good base
I think that there are some things I could
have learned earlier had I gone to culinary school. But Im
a big believer that you can teach yourself an awful lot of things
if you apply yourself, and I did. I worked in some good and some
not so good places, and I assimilated what needed to be assimilated
from all of them. I spent a lot of time reading, and as I got further
along in my career, I traveled and ate in many different places.
Really, what you need to learn is the difference between great and
mediocre and a lot of people dont ever learn that.
TF: Many of StarChefs users debate
attending only culinary school or both college and culinary school
What would your advice be to an aspiring chef?
BK: It depends on what their ultimate
goal is if your ultimate goal is to have your own restaurant,
youre probably better off with a regular degree from a 4 year
university because the thing thats going to be most important
to you later on is your management and financial control abilities,
not necessarily your cooking skills its nice to have
them both. I went to a 4-year school, not a culinary school, and
because of what I majored in it didnt particularly help in
the restaurant business. I majored in psychology I guess
it does help at a certain level.
TF: I was going to say I think
it definitely helps in that youre managing a team
BK: But thats not really what
you learn in psychology
you learn about wackos. (Laughs).
But if I knew then what I know now, I would have paid more attention
to business and got a business degree because that would have served
me a lot.
TF: Did you ever want to pursue psychology
BK: No, never did. I was just interested
in the subject. Originally, I thought I was going to go into sales
work for Proctor and Gamble or something like that. But I
always worked summer jobs in restaurants and always gravitated towards
that. Then I finally decided that this was what I really liked
so I wanted to get good at it and changed my focus.
TF: What do you look for in a candidate
when youre hiring?
BK: For this particular restaurant,
a fair amount of experience in like-type restaurants is very valuable.
Mostly, a mental attitude and approach to why theyre in the
business in the first place. If theyre very focused
if theyre doing it because they love doing it and they want
to get better at it working for me. To me, that says a lot about
who youre going to work with. On the other hand, you get a
lot of people who can spout that stuff, and its just b.s..
You have to be able to distinguish between the genuine and a sales
pitch. Im pretty good at it, but I still get fooled. (Laughs).
TF: While you were working at Twenty-One
Federal, was the idea of Kinkeads something that was always
in the back of your mind?
BK: Not so much
I think you have
to be flexible in terms of the way you approach what your next restaurant
is going to be. Twenty-One Federal was going to go down at some
point. I knew it a good year before we closed. It was inevitable
I didnt know when, but I knew at some uncertain point in the
future, the restaurant was going down.
TF: It must have been scary
BK: It was without question the worst
year of my life. Everyday you go to work and somebodys screaming
at you, impolitely I might add, "Wheres my money?"
It was a really bad situation. All the other partners bailed. I
was there in the ocean on a boat that was taking on water and one
of the oars was broken. It was tough. I said to myself, Im
going to have to work in this business again, so Im going
to take care of who I have to take care of and the people I dont
have to take care of can go pound on it. And I did. Basically all
the vendors that we owed money to that I knew I was going to need
in the future got paid. That was strictly through tenacity of management.
I said Im doing this and I did it.
TF: How did you decide on the concept
BK: When we opened this restaurant
(Kinkeads), we found the space and that had a lot to do with
it because I had looked at this space and I liked it. A lot of people
I talked to said it was too big. Its an 11,000 square foot
restaurant. These days thats not all that uncommon, but when
I took it in 1992 in the midst of the recession, everybody said
that I was out of my mind, that Id never fill the restaurant.
Now, if I had another 4,000 square feet, Id grab it in a heartbeat.
So anyway, I had to have a concept that would appeal to a reasonably
broad-based clientele. I couldnt do an Afghanistan grill,
something that only appeals to a certain group. So I tried to figure
out what I do well
what kind of cuisine would appeal to a
broad-based clientele, what things do they like and not like, and
where is there a market niche that hasnt been addressed successfully.
Basically, the two options were a good Mexican restaurant, which
doesnt have a very broad-based appeal, or a place like Twenty-One
Federal. Twenty-One Federal had a 50-50 mix of meat to fish, but
we sold probably 75% seafood. So, for me, it was a no-brainer, I
thought that this is just what this city needs a really fine-dining
seafood restaurant. New York was starting to get them with Le Bernardin
and Oceana and a few other places. Aqua hadnt quite opened
but I knew they were doing that project. I knew that this was something
that would work for this town
and as it turns out, it did.
But, thats the critical issue
you have to find a concept
that addresses a market niche that is not being served. The other
thing was to set pricing so that we were a little under the market
to build up a clientele. People were charging $26-$27 for
entrées, while I was charging $20-$21 for comparable food.
On a certain level, we werent making the profits we could
and I knew that, but my intent was for the first 3 years,
we wouldnt raise our prices significantly well
build up a bulletproof clientele that wont matter what kind
of economy comes our way, we would weather the storm. And as it
turned out, the economy got better and thus, Ive been able
to raise prices with impunity because all of my competitors have
raised their prices. Our product costs have gone up in the meantime
nothing stays stagnant.
TF: Are most of your products local?
BK: For seafood, which is what we spend
the most money on, in an average month we spend about $100,000 on
wholesale fish. We have about 15 different seafood suppliers. The
vast majority of seafood, however, we get from 2 people in Jessup,
Maryland, which is the big wholesaler area for the Baltimore/Washington
market. They know what we want.
TF: Which purveyors specifically do
BK: Congressional Seafood is one local
purveyor, but we use purveyors from all over the United States depending
on what we need and what we want. The name of the game for us is
finding good sources and getting good product. We buy virtually
all whole fish we have a cutting room in the walk-in. The
fish comes in on ice, is staged in the walk-in and gets cut, portioned
and filleted it never leaves refrigeration until it gets
walked down to the service line and then goes into another refrigerator,
so for only 30 seconds its not in the refrigerator. It works
out very well. And the other thing is that you can really only have
a great seafood restaurant if you have a busy seafood restaurant
because the whole name of the game is the turnover. Generally, fish
in this restaurant doesnt stay here for more than 18 hours.
If I can keep it moving like that, I never have to worry about the
quality of the fish its impeccable all the time. Theres
no such thing as a great seafood restaurant that isnt a busy
TF: I noticed that you serve some fish
BK: Yeah, we serve a lot of whole fish.
Fish on the bone is definitely a big advantage. When we first started
doing it, I was a little leery, and we still get a lot of people
who say, "Take the head off!" But by and large everybodys
pretty cool with it. We almost always have one whole deep fried
fish and usually we have a whole grilled fish. The problem is its
hard to get individual serving size fish consistently throughout
the year. A lot of times you have to go to farm-raised, which is
clearly inferior. But sometimes its the only option.
TF: Ive read that menu planning
is done with great precision at Kinkeads
What type of
balance are you looking for these days when you plan your menu?
BK: Were always trying to do
new things. One of the things Ive stopped doing to a large
extent is changing the menu. I backed off from that unless product
seasonality dictates that it has to come off the menu or I have
a better idea. Dont bother changing a good dish just for the
sake of change. If you have to change because an integral part of
the dish is no longer in season, then you have to change it. Inevitably,
you change dishes that dont work on all cylinders. It would
be unlikely that we would put a complete failure on the menu, not
that it hasnt happened. If its something I would eat
in a restaurant, its something I would put on the menu. If
its something I wouldnt order, its probably not
going to get there. Over the years, Ive given my executive
sous chef and night sous chef a lot of leeway in terms of coming
up with dishes, I know its going to be good. Theyve
been working for me for 7 and 10 years respectively, so they have
a very good idea of what I want.
TF: Tracy OGrady is your sous
BK: Yes, shes my night sous chef.
Jeff Gajen he really runs the kitchen. If they come up with
something, sometimes I need to tweak it, but basically it springs
from their head full-form. Over the years, Ive said show me
the dish, lets do it and then tweak it and see what happens.
Now, I know its going to be good.
TF: Tracy OGrady competed at
the Bocuse dOr
BK: Yes, shes very creative.
Shes an exceptionally good cook. She does a great job.
TF: You also had another sous chef
who was with you a long time, Ris Lacoste, who went on to 1789 Restaurant
BK: Ris was with me for 13 years. I
keep them a while. (Laughs.) There are a lot of people in Washington
that worked here and are now chefs or chef/owners of their own restaurants.
Damian Salvatore is at a place called Persimmon he worked
here for a while.
TF: Youve become a mentor to
so many people
BK: Yeah, you get a lot of people who
used to work for you and they want to move on and thats good.
A lot of the times people leave you under strange terms, but all
of those people left under good terms. We see each other.
TF: Kinkeads is an American Brasserie
your dishes are adapted from all around the world to American ingredients.
Have you traveled a lot or, if not, where has your inspiration come
BK: I have traveled a lot and have
extracted from certain cuisines heavily. The other ones that we
experiment with I just make sure that theyre very accurate.
One of the things we do well is if were going to do a dish
thats essentially Vietnamese, which frankly we do very little
Asian-influenced food, but every once in a while you have your soy-ginger
mix on the menu. For example, we do a soft-shell crab with a green
we make sure that the flavors of the salad and
the dipping sauce are drop dead - what you would get in a really
fine Vietnamese restaurant. A big problem is a lot of American chefs
do fusion food, and they dont get the essence of what the
real flavor should be. I think thats what were really
accurate about. If we use Mexican ingredients, it tastes like it
would taste in Mexico. It doesnt taste like a hybrid. They
taste like the countries of their origin.
TF: You recently traveled to France...
BK: Yes, I was just in France a couple
of weeks ago with friends. I was with Michel Richard and Mark Firstirberg,
and we ate at a lot of restaurants. We ate at Ducasse and Chef dOr.
The thing that we all came away with is that it wasnt all
that great. We are all big Francophiles. Basically our idea of good
cooking has always been France. We all spent considerable amounts
of time in France. It was disappointing. Theyre doing better
stuff in the United States and London now. It could have been that
we just got some restaurants on a bad day. Chef dOr was excellent
I must say that was fabulous. But Ducasse was very disappointing.
TF: Maybe hes concentrating on
his new restaurant in New York (at the Essex Hotel)
BK: He opened one in Tokyo the week
after, which nobody seems to know about. The guys ego has
definitely flipped out. One of the restaurants we went to when we
were there was a place called Bar and Boeuf. Its his restaurant.
One side of the menu is all seafood dishes and the other side is
all beef dishes all different cuts, all different ways. Fish
or meat. Its a neat concept. Some of the stuff was good and
some of it wasnt. But he (Ducasse) was there and Michel used
to work with him and he was saying that one week he opened in New
York and then the week after that he opened in Tokyo. How do you
open 2 restaurants of that quality in one month and have it all
work. He took it on the chin in New York. From the start the reviewers
beat him senseless.
TF: Youre President of CIRA (Council
of Independent Restaurateurs of America), would you say Ducasses
operation is like a chain at this point?
BK: Ducasse still wouldnt be
considered a chain yet, but at the rate hes going he could.
I dont think its at all good for cuisine. Opening this
restaurant in New York
this is not about cuisine; this is
about ego and money, which is half of the equation as to why chains
are in existence at all. So, I have a big problem with it. I do
not think he is doing any favors for anybody. And in the long run
I dont think hes really going to put any money in his
at least not in New York. There was one good observation
that Michel made
he said, "Do you realize that not one
single chef that came from France, that kept his restaurant in France,
ever succeeded in the United States." You cant name one.
There are a number of them that came that sold their restaurant
in France, and came to the United States and did fine Le
Bernardin being a prime example. But for those who kept their restaurant
in France no ones ever done it, and Ducasse isnt
going to be the first.
TF: Where do you think the future of
independent restaurateurs is going? Do you feel optimistic that
chain restaurants arent going to take over the world?
BK: I think that fine dining independents
are always going to do OK. I think theyre going to get a big
challenge from a lot of people who think they can cookie cut fine
dining restaurants. But true fine dining is not in much jeopardy
because it requires too much personal attention. It wont stop
a lot of people from trying, like Roy Yamaguchi, but you can argue
if thats really fine dining. But hes bent on putting
one in every city in America. But hes making money for himself
I dont begrudge that. But chains are about cash; independents
are about food, and as the President of the Independent Restaurant
Association, were about food - were about the soul of
cooking and running businesses and providing customers with, hopefully,
the best. Chains are about expansion. Chains own all of fast food;
they own basically the entire family market. Everything from the
mid range down, there are virtually no independents of any significance
in that marketplace anymore. And they are moving up the totem pole
and theyre going to keep doing it. But that was the impetus
behind starting CIRA
we should have an organization saying
you should be eating at independent restaurants because these are
the good restaurants not a chain you can get at every single
town in America. And to the extent we do that, itll be a success.
TF: How do you go about promoting independent
BK: Its a complicated issue because
a lot of the reasons people join CIRA or dont join CIRA is
because of what we offer, and offer doesnt mean were
going to get people to write about independents it means
what programs are you going to give me that are going to let me
run my business better and be more profitable. These are people
that have already succeeded. But guys who are working 80 hours a
week dont have time to spend 20 helping the cause. Its
tough from that standpoint. On the other hand, anyone you talk to
thinks it is a great idea. Weve got about 200 members now
and my goal was to have 1000 by next January that seems unlikely,
but well plug along.
TF: I actually heard a rumor that your
new restaurant will open in summer 2001
BK: I am. Its not a rumor. (Laughs.)
Im going to be opening up a restaurant near Tysons Corner
in Northern Virginia. It wont be Kinkeads it
wont be exclusively seafood. In fact, itll be quite
a bit more like Twenty-One Federal was some meat, some fish.
Its not going to be as formal as Twenty-One Federal, a little
more formal than Kinkeads. Kinkeads is a pretty casual
restaurant. I hope to address a market that hasnt been addressed
at all in that area. There are tons and tons of steakhouses but
not much in a real modern American fine dining setting, so were
hoping that it fits that niche. It would be nice to cook things
that dont swim, (laughs) which Ive been away from for
a while, so I wanted to get back into that.
The other thing I bought from a friend of mine is two carving gueridons.
Theyre almost historic and they have to be refinished, but
were going to be doing some tableside things like carving,
where we have different types of roast rack of veal or something
and well come along tableside and serve it there. I like the
whole concept of having things a little more showy, which has sort
of gone by the wayside and a lot of it with good reason, but we
kind of threw the baby out with the bath water. You want to do a
little more of the theatre of dining.
Editors Note: Bob Kinkeads new restaurant, Colvin
Run Tavern, opened in November 2001.
TF: Your sommelier, Michael
Flynn, was featured as our Sommelier of the Month in October.
Do you also play a role in building your wine list at the restaurant?
BK: When I was at Twenty-One Federal,
I did the wine list exclusively, but when we came here I had way
too much to do. It was a bigger restaurant there was more
going on. I needed to find someone whose palette and mine were in
sync and Michael and I tasted 6 to 700 bottles of wine before we
opened the restaurant. I dont know how we tasted everything.
(Laughs.) We probably violently disagreed on less than 10. If he
likes it, I like it and vice versa. So, it works very well. Michael
has done a phenomenal job with that and his role, once the new restaurant
opens up, will be more of what hed probably like to do in
the first place, and thats exclusively dealing with the wine.
Now, he has to be a manager and deal with the wine. It will give
him the opportunity to do what he does best and avoid the things
hed rather not do.
TF: Does wine ever inspire you to create
BK: Not so much. I do create dishes
sometimes to do whole classes of wine, but not a whole wine per
se. For example, the tuna dish thats kind of one of our signature
dishes, the pepper-seared tuna with Pinot Noir sauce, was specifically
designed to go with Pinot Noir its a perfect match.
There are other dishes that go with a very specific group of wine.
TF: Ive seen you use headsets
on the line. Is this one of your management trademarks?
BK: We were probably one of the first
ones to use headsets, and I dont know if Ill do that
in the next restaurant. Ill use some modification of it
they break them really fast. (Laughs.) We plow through money. If
I can get some sort of thing thats a speaker, a protected
speaker, so they can hear what needs to be done at each station.
Part of the reason we used the headsets is it keeps the noise down
and that would be the reason I would do it in another kitchen, but
this kitchen (in the new restaurant) is not going to be as open
as Kinkeads. Im literally in the dining room in Kinkeads.
Its good because you see a lot of customers directly; its
bad because if they dont see you they think youre not
there and then they get all worked up. Like right now, Im
not on the line, Im in the office doing other things. But
TF: Are you using any types of software
or restaurant technology in your restaurant? For example, reservation
BK: Yeah, we use OpenTable. Theyve
done a good job selling and they have a good product. A lot of people
are using it around here and everybody seems to be pretty happy
TF: Do you think the Internet is going
to change the restaurant business in the future?
BK: I think there will be certain changes
in terms of how people make reservations and that sort of thing,
but basically its still cooking food and putting it on the
plate and serving it to people by intelligent servers who know what
they are talking about and are efficient. When push comes to shove,
the restaurant business is essentially unchanged for hundreds of
years. In the end, its how does the food taste, how is the
service, and how do I like the décor. For a restaurant there
are going to be other changes in terms of how you get your meal,
but the classic dining in a restaurant experience is not going to
change radically and it hasnt changed radically.
TF: How much thought are you putting
into the design of your new restaurant?
BK: With Kinkeads we took over
a space and changed it somewhat but not a great deal and we did
it on a reasonable budget. This next space is essentially the same
sort of deal, but will surely cost twice as much for the same space.
Its 7 years later but the importance of your décor,
as more people are in the market and you have more competition,
is more critical. If you look at the finest restaurants, the guys
that get all the acclaim Le Bernardins a stunningly
beautiful restaurant, but French Laundry is not. Its attractive,
but it doesnt knock you out the food does. And on a
certain level you dont want the décor to overshadow
what youre trying to do with the food. A lot of restaurants
do because that is their gimmick because they dont deliver
great food, so they deliver the wow. So, I want the
new restaurant to be really attractive and comfortable and hopefully
somewhat unique. One of the things we are going to try to do is
have it set up so that there are different rooms, and each room
will have different décor. Well try to do it so that
the food will be influenced by different areas of America. Like
one room may have a Nantucket look to it, another might look like
Charleston, another Key West - this may change of course! Were
just talking about this right now. But it would be all tied in,
so that it doesnt look like a theme park its
more subtle than that. Im not interested in Disney here. (Laughs.)
TF: Any ideas for names for the new
BK: Yeah, everyone wants to have a
say people that work for you, partners, other people in the
when you really think about it, a name tells you
something about the food and the décor. And a lot of the
good names have been taken. And Grill and Café
have been beaten to death
they definitely cant be a
part of the name. (Laughs.) [In the end, the restaurant was named
after an historic Northern Virginia stream, Colvin Run. It will
be called Colvin Run Tavern.]
TF: On a more personal note, your daughter
and your grandkids are in Italy
Do you visit them often?
BK: We usually go over once a year
and usually bring them over here once a year.
TF: How old are your grandkids?
BK: The ones that live in Italy are
6, 5 and 2. Theyre great - I improve my Italian and they improve
their English. I have another grandchild that lives in Cape Cod
thats one and a half.
TF: Do you speak Italian?
BK: Badly. But I can understand it.
And the more I hang out with my grandkids, the more I learn.
TF: Do you try to cook with them, get
them acquainted with the kitchen?
BK: They are pretty accustomed to the
kitchen as is they eat a lot of meals at home. Their dad
is pretty liberal when it comes to a lot of things, but when it
comes to meals, hes very old school you sit at the
table with the family, you have dinner at a certain time and no
one leaves the table until everyone is done. There are a lot of
things they lose in America that they havent lost in Italy
at all. Like Kelly (Bob Kinkeads daughter) said to my wife,
"You know mom, its OK to be a mom in Italy." Its
sort of not in the United States. You gotta be something
can be a mom but you have to be something else. In Italy, moms are
revered. My daughter likes that
and they raise sheep, thats
what they do. They make and sell cheese. A very Jerry Garcia
sort of lifestyle over there. They dont even sell the cheese
in a store
everybody in the whole area knows who they are.
They drive to their house and buy it directly.
TF: Would they ever think about opening
a restaurant there?
BK: No, they just do what they do.
They work in restaurants from time to time
dont make tons of money. We go to restaurants in their area
on Sundays and theyre sort of full, but thats the only
meal they serve, and its not too expensive. I dont know
how they survive. Restaurants there are not like restaurants in
TF: What are your plans for the future?
Would you ever think of doing a cookbook or a TV show?
BK: I have no real desire to do TV
unlike the rest of the planet. Thats not something
I enjoy. I can do them but I dont enjoy doing cooking
demonstrations. I enjoy doing lectures for a couple of culinary
schools here on different aspects of the industry that interest
me. But I hate doing cooking demonstrations its a real
chore for me.
Im sure sometime Ill end up writing a book. I tried
to get a seafood cookbook sold a little while ago, but I was interested
in other projects, like the new restaurant. And its not something
Ill get rich from, so I put it on the back burner. But Im
sure at some juncture Ill do that.
I dont foresee myself doing another restaurant besides this
one, but you never know. But this is all I want to involve myself
in. I want to get this new one open, and then make sure that both
restaurants are running at a level of quality that Im happy
with and generating a little cash to let me do projects like CIRA.
I really love doing that.
Top of Page