Interview with Chef Bob Kinkead of Kinkead’s – Washington, D.C.

April 2004

Tina 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 wasn’t 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 didn’t look like it would be coming out of it anytime soon. So, it seemed like a good idea to do it here.

TF: You’re 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 I’m 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 don’t 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, you’re probably better off with a regular degree from a 4 year university because the thing that’s going to be most important to you later on is your management and financial control abilities, not necessarily your cooking skills – it’s nice to have them both. I went to a 4-year school, not a culinary school, and because of what I majored in it didn’t 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 you’re managing a team…

BK: But that’s 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 full-time?

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 you’re 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 they’re in the business in the first place. If they’re very focused… if they’re 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 you’re going to work with. On the other hand, you get a lot of people who can spout that stuff, and it’s just b.s.. You have to be able to distinguish between the genuine and a sales pitch. I’m pretty good at it, but I still get fooled. (Laughs). Everybody does.

TF: While you were working at Twenty-One Federal, was the idea of Kinkead’s 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 didn’t 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 somebody’s screaming at you, impolitely I might add, "Where’s 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, I’m going to have to work in this business again, so I’m going to take care of who I have to take care of and the people I don’t 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 I’m doing this and I did it.

TF: How did you decide on the concept for Kinkead’s?

BK: When we opened this restaurant (Kinkead’s), 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. It’s an 11,000 square foot restaurant. These days that’s 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 I’d never fill the restaurant. Now, if I had another 4,000 square feet, I’d grab it in a heartbeat.

So anyway, I had to have a concept that would appeal to a reasonably broad-based clientele. I couldn’t 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 hasn’t been addressed successfully. Basically, the two options were a good Mexican restaurant, which doesn’t 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 hadn’t 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, that’s 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 weren’t making the profits we could have… and I knew that, but my intent was for the first 3 years, we wouldn’t raise our prices significantly – we’ll build up a bulletproof clientele that won’t matter what kind of economy comes our way, we would weather the storm. And as it turned out, the economy got better and thus, I’ve 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 you use?

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 it’s 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 doesn’t 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 – it’s impeccable all the time. There’s no such thing as a great seafood restaurant that isn’t a busy restaurant.

TF: I noticed that you serve some fish whole…

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 everybody’s pretty cool with it. We almost always have one whole deep fried fish and usually we have a whole grilled fish. The problem is it’s 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 it’s the only option.

TF: I’ve read that menu planning is done with great precision at Kinkead’s… What type of balance are you looking for these days when you plan your menu?

BK: We’re always trying to do new things. One of the things I’ve 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. Don’t 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 don’t work on all cylinders. It would be unlikely that we would put a complete failure on the menu, not that it hasn’t happened. If it’s something I would eat in a restaurant, it’s something I would put on the menu. If it’s something I wouldn’t order, it’s probably not going to get there. Over the years, I’ve given my executive sous chef and night sous chef a lot of leeway in terms of coming up with dishes, I know it’s going to be good. They’ve been working for me for 7 and 10 years respectively, so they have a very good idea of what I want.

TF: Tracy O’Grady is your sous chef, right?

BK: Yes, she’s 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, I’ve said show me the dish, let’s do it and then tweak it and see what happens. Now, I know it’s going to be good.

TF: Tracy O’Grady competed at the Bocuse d’Or…

BK: Yes, she’s very creative. She’s 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: You’ve 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 that’s 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: Kinkead’s 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 from?

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 they’re very accurate. One of the things we do well is if we’re going to do a dish that’s 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 papaya salad… 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 don’t get the essence of what the real flavor should be. I think that’s what we’re really accurate about. If we use Mexican ingredients, it tastes like it would taste in Mexico. It doesn’t 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 d’Or. The thing that we all came away with is that it wasn’t 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. They’re 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 d’Or was excellent I must say – that was fabulous. But Ducasse was very disappointing.

TF: Maybe he’s 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 guy’s ego has definitely flipped out. One of the restaurants we went to when we were there was a place called Bar and Boeuf. It’s 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. It’s a neat concept. Some of the stuff was good and some of it wasn’t. 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: You’re President of CIRA (Council of Independent Restaurateurs of America), would you say Ducasse’s operation is like a chain at this point?

BK: Ducasse still wouldn’t be considered a chain yet, but at the rate he’s going he could. I don’t think it’s 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 don’t think he’s really going to put any money in his pocket… 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 can’t 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 one’s ever done it, and Ducasse isn’t going to be the first.

TF: Where do you think the future of independent restaurateurs is going? Do you feel optimistic that chain restaurants aren’t going to take over the world?

BK: I think that fine dining independents are always going to do OK. I think they’re 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 won’t stop a lot of people from trying, like Roy Yamaguchi, but you can argue if that’s really fine dining. But he’s bent on putting one in every city in America. But he’s making money for himself… I don’t begrudge that. But chains are about cash; independents are about food, and as the President of the Independent Restaurant Association, we’re about food - we’re 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 they’re 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, it’ll be a success.

TF: How do you go about promoting independent restaurateurs?

BK: It’s a complicated issue because a lot of the reasons people join CIRA or don’t join CIRA is because of what we offer, and offer doesn’t mean we’re 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 don’t have time to spend 20 helping the cause. It’s tough from that standpoint. On the other hand, anyone you talk to thinks it is a great idea. We’ve got about 200 members now and my goal was to have 1000 by next January – that seems unlikely, but we’ll plug along.

TF: I actually heard a rumor that your new restaurant will open in summer 2001…

BK: I am. It’s not a rumor. (Laughs.) I’m going to be opening up a restaurant near Tyson’s Corner in Northern Virginia. It won’t be Kinkead’s – it won’t be exclusively seafood. In fact, it’ll be quite a bit more like Twenty-One Federal was – some meat, some fish. It’s not going to be as formal as Twenty-One Federal, a little more formal than Kinkead’s. Kinkead’s is a pretty casual restaurant. I hope to address a market that hasn’t 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 we’re hoping that it fits that niche. It would be nice to cook things that don’t swim, (laughs) which I’ve 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. They’re almost historic and they have to be refinished, but we’re going to be doing some tableside things – like carving, where we have different types of roast rack of veal or something and we’ll 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.
Editor’s Note: Bob Kinkead’s 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 don’t 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 he’d probably like to do in the first place, and that’s 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 he’d rather not do.

TF: Does wine ever inspire you to create a dish?

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 that’s kind of one of our signature dishes, the pepper-seared tuna with Pinot Noir sauce, was specifically designed to go with Pinot Noir – it’s a perfect match. There are other dishes that go with a very specific group of wine.

TF: I’ve 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 don’t know if I’ll do that in the next restaurant. I’ll use some modification of it – they break them really fast. (Laughs.) We plow through money. If I can get some sort of thing that’s 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 Kinkead’s. I’m literally in the dining room in Kinkead’s. It’s good because you see a lot of customers directly; it’s bad because if they don’t see you they think you’re not there and then they get all worked up. Like right now, I’m not on the line, I’m in the office doing other things. But I’m here.

TF: Are you using any types of software or restaurant technology in your restaurant? For example, reservation software?

BK: Yeah, we use OpenTable. They’ve 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 with it.

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 it’s 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, it’s 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 hasn’t changed radically.

TF: How much thought are you putting into the design of your new restaurant?

BK: With Kinkead’s 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. It’s 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 Bernardin’s a stunningly beautiful restaurant, but French Laundry is not. It’s attractive, but it doesn’t knock you out – the food does. And on a certain level you don’t want the décor to overshadow what you’re trying to do with the food. A lot of restaurants do because that is their gimmick because they don’t 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. We’ll 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! We’re just talking about this right now. But it would be all tied in, so that it doesn’t look like a theme park – it’s more subtle than that. I’m not interested in Disney here. (Laughs.)

TF: Any ideas for names for the new restaurant?

BK: Yeah, everyone wants to have a say – people that work for you, partners, other people in the industry… 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 can’t 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. They’re great - I improve my Italian and they improve their English. I have another grandchild that lives in Cape Cod that’s 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, he’s 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 haven’t lost in Italy at all. Like Kelly (Bob Kinkead’s daughter) said to my wife, "You know mom, it’s OK to be a mom in Italy." It’s sort of not in the United States. You gotta be something… you can be a mom but you have to be something else. In Italy, moms are revered. My daughter likes that… and they raise sheep, that’s what they do. They make and sell cheese. A very ‘Jerry Garcia’ sort of lifestyle over there. They don’t 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… restaurants there don’t make tons of money. We go to restaurants in their area on Sundays and they’re sort of full, but that’s the only meal they serve, and it’s not too expensive. I don’t know how they survive. Restaurants there are not like restaurants in America.

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. That’s not something I enjoy. I can do them – but I don’t 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 – it’s a real chore for me.

I’m sure sometime I’ll 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 it’s not something I’ll get rich from, so I put it on the back burner. But I’m sure at some juncture I’ll do that.
I don’t 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 I’m happy with and generating a little cash to let me do projects like CIRA. I really love doing that.