Jeremy Nolen will open Whetstone this summer in Queen Village, along with Doug and Kelly Hager (owners of Brauhaus and Wursthaus Schmitz, Nolen's two existing kitchens) and his wife, pastry chef Jessica Nolen.
The location was previously home to troubled Tapestry — and before that, Adsum, and going further back, Coquette — a progression which has earned the spot a reputation as "cursed." (Hexes aside, concrete internal struggles and mismanagement were pretty widely documented.) Either way, the space is set to undergo a major design overhaul to match the new concept, which will afford both Nolens a very welcome chance to break out of the German beerhall mold while still drawing on some of Brauhaus' major strengths (such as pickling and charcuterie).
Eater caught up with Jeremy Nolen (and grabbed a few minutes with Jessica) for some more details on what's to come with Whetstone.
1. The Menu
Though the Nolens are currently best known for their modern German cooking, the food at Whetstone will be American, with a regional focus but no hard-and-fast rules. Ingredients and influences will draw upon "the entire Mid-Atlantic, not just Pennsylvania;" sourcing will be largely local but not pedantic. The menu will take cues from Nolen's culinary background as well as his Berks County upbringing, meaning some takes on Pennsylvania Dutch food. (He threw out shoo fly pie as one example of a hometown dish he loves and is eager to take on)
But while there are some German influences at play there, and the new concept will similarly embrace in-house pickling and charcuterie, don't expect significant overlap with the Brauhaus menu. "I'm not just a German cook — in fact, before I started at Brauhaus, I hadn't cooked German food in ten years. I've worked in American restaurants, Italian, French. I've worked in hotels; I even worked in a British pub once."
It's clear that both Jeremy and Jessica are eager to work with some new ideas that the Schmitz concepts leave little room for. "There are several things here, like strudel, that I could never take off the menu or people would revolt," said Jessica during a brief break from prep at Brauhaus. "So it's exciting to have a new project, where I can look at something fun like, for example, funnel cake, and just ask myself 'ok, what can I do with this?'"
And while the focus at Brauhaus is, of course, on beer, Nolen is looking forward to the broader focus at the bar at Whetstone. There will be small-batch bourbons, craft cocktails, and "probably 25 to 30 bottles of wine, with a handful of red and a handful of whites available by the glass." (There are still plans for around 20 drafts, though, as well.)
2. The Concept
"I've had some trouble defining it, exactly, or at least reducing it down to one quick catchphrase of an answer for when people ask, 'so what kind of restaurant is it?'" admitted Nolen. "It's American for sure, and then there are all these other influences, and basically I don't want it to have any set boundaries."
But there is one guiding principal that seemed clear-cut. "We keep saying it's as rustic as it is chic. It'll be kind of homey, but also elegant. We want people from the neighborhood to wander over to grab a burger and a beer, but they can also come in and get three courses that are more elegant. It could be casual, but you could also consider it for special occasions."
Reading through the earliest materials on Whetstone, Eater picked up on what sounded like some common threads with Charleston's Husk, where chef Sean Brock has built a national reputation (and earned a turn on PBS series Mind of a Chef) for celebrating regional cuisine, local producers, and in-house preservation techniques that simultaneously innovate and embrace tradition.
"It's funny you say that," Nolen replied, "because Husk was one of the restaurants I referenced when initially trying to describe the concept, although I haven't been there yet. Of course, we're not doing Southern food, and we're not going to be as obsessive on the local aspect — I don't even think they used olive oil for years until eventually they found someone making it in Georgia — but that was one of the inspirations." (As it turns out, Husk references the similar idea of being "as casual as it is chic" on its own website.)
And while Nolen says he has an all-encompassing palate and doesn't want to set many limits, he seems very interested in exploring and promoting local foodways. "I don't know if our local cuisine and Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine are as exciting to people as Southern food, but there's so much that people don't know about, so much they don't realize. There are so many 'lost' and just really cool things I want to explore there."
3. The Design
Nolen is intimately familiar with the space, having run the kitchen at former occupant Coquette years ago, so while he reports that there's not much construction to be done, some changes to the kitchen are a priority. "It was really cramped in there," he says, so plans include modifying the basement to open up some room for the BOH staff to spread out.
Meanwhile, an area that had previously been used as additional prep space will now be used for additional seating. (While the new space is much smaller than Brauhaus, Nolen estimates that they may have as many as 80 seats in the warmer months, when sidewalk seating is an option.)
While the look of the space has long incorporated lots of black elements and dark wood, Whetstone will go for a completely new vibe, with "inspiration from an old farmhouse" and lots of white and light colors to capitalize on the ample light provided by the corner space. The design comes courtesy of Brian Leahy, who also worked on Brauhaus. A fireplace is also planned.
4. The Transition
Once Whetstone is ready, Nolen's time will be spent mostly in the new kitchen. Still, Nolen downplayed the impact he thinks it will have on Brauhaus. "When we started to plan Wursthaus [their sausage stand and market in Reading Terminal], we started to prepare our staff then for the idea that I wouldn't always be around. And we don't have a lot of turnover — even two of our dishwashers have been here for four years each, which is unheard of — so we have cooks that have been here for years."
While no staffing decisions are set in stone yet, it sounds like Nolen hopes to bring one of his Brauhaus line cooks with him to establish the new kitchen, while there will likely be some reorganizing on the way for the existing Brauhaus BOH staff. The new restaurant is right around the corner from Brauhaus (which Nolen also lives right above), so he says daily check-ins will be no problem. He'll also remain involved by cooking at major events that Brauhau is a part of.
· All Jeremy Nolen Coverage [-EPHI-]