This time last year, Aimee Olexy was handling the early crush of guests at her hotly-anticipated new eatery, Talula's Garden (she also owns the critically-acclaimed Talula's Table in Kennett Square), which she opened alongside Philly restaurant kingpin, Stephen Starr. It's been a dramatic 365 days for the Washington Square restaurant, from chef changes to polarizing critical reviews, but Olexy and Co. really hit their stride by the end of 2011. Eater chatted up Olexy about those early troubles, finding the right chef for a project, and her future with Stephen Starr.
How did you end up opening a restaurant with Stephen Starr? I was a big part of Stephen's early projects in Philly, and was his opening GM at Blue Angel. After I left Philly to open Talula's Table in Kennett Square, I came up to the Headhouse Market every week with our products, and I saw Stephen there often. We kept in touch, and he approached me about doing another restaurant together.
Talula's Garden is completely unique in terms of design compared to most of Starr's places. Was that your doing? Yeah, I have a lot of friends who are artists and artisans, and always wanted to create an environment that had those kinds of elements. I like organic, undesigned spaces. When I told Stephen I wanted to paint the big front room red, he almost had a heart attack. But, when we did a big swath of color on the wall, he understood it, and really liked it. I like that warm feeling, and the color helped make the room cozier. The funny part of that story is that we were designing the space in winter, and there was so much snow on the ground that year. Because of the overwhelming feeling of cold, we made extra attempts to add warmth to the space.
When working on a project of that scale, there are usually delays. Did you come across any? Surprisingly, no. Because Stephen has a good track record and knows a thing or two about opening restaurants, it got done on time. He gave me my deadlines, and that was that. Even with bad weather, we had a great construction crew that got everything done on time. Our only delay was waiting a week or so to open because we didn't want the frost to affect our outside planters, since the patio was important to the space.
What was the space before? It was Washington Square, another Stephen Starr restaurant that closed in 2007. But, he held onto the space and finally found a concept that made sense, which was Talula's Garden. We looked around at other spots, including the former Blue Angel on Chestnut Street.
Your opening chef, Mike Santoro, came from Blue Duck Tavern in D.C., and it was a big deal. How did that end up happening? Stephen often brings chefs in for a tasting, and I immediately clicked with Mike in terms of philosophy and his food. He wasn't even there originally for Talula's. But, when he did show up, I told him about what I was working on, and it seemed like a good fit.
Philadelphia Inquirer critic Craig LaBan has always been a fan of yours, and everyone expected Talula's to be a big homerun. It ended up getting two bells and he raked your opening chef, Michael Santoro, over the coals for overly-precious food. What was the reaction at the restaurant? You know, it was so long ago, it's hard to remember the exact details. But of course, no one was happy. Mike's a great guy and an even better chef. Stephen, Mike, and I all met up and talked soon after, and we all agreed it was time for a change. I think it was mostly about the number of seats and what that would mean to the kitchen, and the culture in the kitchen. There are a lot of moving parts for doing a menu that intense technically for the size we have there. Especially once summer would hit and the outside would be booming as well.
Your next chef, Matt Moon, came up from Talula's Table and only lasted a few days, too. What happened? For me, I'm as much an HR person as I am involved on the restaurant. And Matt was with us for a long time at Table, and I thought it would work out. But, again, he realized almost immediately that the size of this space as opposed to what he was doing down in Kennett Square was much different. Every aspect of the size of a restaurant like that matters, all the way down to having 8 or 9 dishwashers.
Chef Sean McPaul has been there awhile now, and has done a great job, and even squeezed out a third bell from Craig LaBan. Why has he worked out where the others didn't? Sean has been there since day one actually, working as sous under Mike and Matt. He was at Parc for awhile and knew how to deal with a restaurant of that size, and spent a lot of time on the West Coast (at Jardiniere), so I knew he understood the food philosophy. He has done an excellent job for us, and originally reached out to me while he was at Parc, because he loved the idea of the restaurant. It's worked out well for everyone.
Has there been a lot of other turnover besides the kitchen? Funny you ask, but no. Of the almost 90 people we had on the roster at the beginning, we have about 65 still there, which is almost unheard of in our business. And in positions that end up being a revolving door.
Is the distance between the restaurants a problem? Everyone that works with me says I rush to work every morning. I love being there, and that is true for both places. I have children, and I consider the restaurants to be another child, because they're important to me, too. I get excited about them. Talula is the name of my daughter, too.
What's the must-have dish on the menu right now? Oh, well I absolutely love the sweet pea ravioli. It's a perfect mix of creativity, technique, and Spring. Which is what we're all about. I'm going to say the cheese is great, too, but of course you expected that from me.
We interviewed Stephen Starr awhile ago, and he said that you were doing a reboot of Blue Angel with him again. Is that true, or is there anything else you're working on with him? Well, I am sure we will do Blue Angel again soon, but I am working on something else with Stephen right now that has to do with Talula's and will probably be opening in the next six months, so I can say that for sure. It's small, but there is definitely something coming. I'll let you know more details soon.