Interview with Coastal New England Rising Star Chefs Chad Hoffer and Tyler Burnley of Thames Street Kitchen and Mission – Newport, RI

by Sean Kenniff
April 2014

Sean Kenniff: Where were you born and where did you grow up?
Chad Hoffer: Minot, North Dokota.

Tyler Burnley: I was born in Atlanta, Georgia, but grew up in Florida, Virginia, Alabama, and Rhode Island—military family.

SK: Did your family have a particularly strong food culture?
CH: Not really, my heritage is Norwegian and German, but most of the food we ate was all-American.

TB: Not really, but my mom managed a small gourmet food shop when I was younger, so I was exposed to some different things.

SK: When did you first get into cooking and what was your first industry job?
CH: My parents owned a diner-style restaurant. I started washing dishes when I was 12, and cooked throughout high school. There was no fine-dining in Minot, mostly chains. I learned how to be in a kitchen and eventually worked the line as a short order cook for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I went to local community college for music education, but wasn't much of a musician, just ok. New York was the way I knew how to start; I went to the French Culinary Institute. My first job after culinary school was at BLT Prime.

TB: I started washing dishes when I was 15 and I was cooking for the same guy within a year, but I didn't get very serious until I moved to California.

SK: What were your formative work experiences? Biggest challenge?
CH: Working for Marc Forgione at BLT was probably the most formative experience. It was at a point in my career when I had learned most of the basics and was able to focus on learning and refinement.

TB: Working for Marc Forgione at BLT Prime had the most influence. And then Steven Rojas at el Bizcocho also made a big impression.

Seasonality [is a big challenge]. We kill it in the summer time, 65 to 80 covers a night and 100 on weekends. Off-season, it’s 40 to 50 cover on weekdays and sometimes 90 on the weekend. BYOB attracts a good crowd. Also, as a 25 year old thinking I was ready to be the chef of classic Italian restaurant that had been functioning well for 22 years before me…Fail. Haha!

SK: Do you have any mentors?
CH: Marc Forgione and David Malbequi (from Daniel, BLT, and BLT Market).

SK: Why Newport?
CH: We moved here because our wives and their families are from the area, and to get out of New York. I was shootin’ the shit with Tyler one day, and we decided to open a restaurant. 

SK: Why did you decide to refocus the menu? 
CH: We decided to refocus the menu to small plates because that’s the way we like to eat, and to add more of a challenge for ourselves and our employees. We wanted to encourage our guests to try more dishes rather than the typical app/entrée option (we don't really have the appropriate style for a tasting menu).

In January 2014, we shut down for a month and a half in January and came up with the new small plate concept—pick two ingredients and tweak it and make it work. The concept before was just four apps, four entrées. It limited us creatively, and limits guests, too. We can do more off-the-wall options, and not have to worry about things like putting a starch on every plate.  We can really highlight ingredients, with more room to work.

Sometimes a dish will come together in 10 minutes. Sometimes it takes days. We don’t over think it, but we know when we like it.  

TB: I think Chad put it perfectly.

SK: Why did you decide to open Mission, not too long after Thames Street Kitchen?
CH & TB: 
We opened Mission as a place to help support ourselves and our employees throughout the winter season. Also, we really love a good burger and hotdogs.

SK:Why did you decide to re-focus the menu and open Mission?
TD: “We decided to refocus the menu to small plates because that’s the way we like to eat, and to add more of a challenge for ourselves and our employees. We wanted to encourage our guests to try more dishes rather than the typical app/entrée option (we don't really have the appropriate style for a tasting menu).

We opened Mission as a place to help support ourselves and our employees throughout the winter season. Also, we really love a good burger and hotdogs.”

SK: What's your five year plan?
CH: Getting Mission on track. In five years, have Mission take off locally and add a couple locations. All the puzzle pieces have to fit—liquor license or BYOB, location, etc. People have low expectations for a BYOB, we like to surprise ‘em.