Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one year anniversary.
Cheu Noodle Bar, which opened a year ago this week, has been drawing crowds and praise from the very start — but that hardly meant things went off without a hitch behind the scenes. Co-owners (and lifelong friends) Shawn Darragh and chef Ben Puchowitz readily admit that things were "a mess" there for months, though they're clearly doing a lot right: With one hit on their hands, they've just started work on a second restaurant on East Passyunk.
Eater Philly sat down with Darragh and Puchowitz for a look back over their first year as first-time restaurateurs. They shared what they've learned, what they had to learn to let go of, why they'll never serve another ramen burger ever again, and why you might have to make alternative arrangements to pee when you visit their new place. (Plus: the first word on an upcoming series of ramen battles they've got planned.)
Eater Philly: So, let's go right back to a year ago: do you remember your first service?
Shawn Darragh: Honestly the first few weeks, or months even, are kind of a blur. Neither of us ever opened a place before, and there was so much to figure out — somehow, we pulled it off, but it was a mess for a while behind the scenes. Ben and I have been friends for a long time, but I don't think we spoke to each other much for at least the first several weeks, beyond what was absolutely necessary to keep the business running.
So the pop-ups you did beforehand didn't help much as far as figuring out operations?
Ben Puchowitz: Not really. With the pop-ups it was really different each time. Everything changed completely from one time to the next. So it didn't really prepare us.
As you eventually figured things out over the first year, did you have to make any major changes? Were there any things that you had planned going in but just didn't end up working out here?
Ben: Making our own noodles, that was a big one. But there was a lot of stuff we thought we were going to do that didn't work out. When we first wrote the business plan, we thought we were going to be open all day long, and all night. Like, we were going to be open from 11 a.m. to 1 a.m., every day. That soon changed.
Shawn: On the noodles, he was very set: he did not want to budge on that. Ben wanted us to make every single noodle here. And so we were paying another guy to come in just to do noodles, and that tiny room up there was the only room we had, and eventually we had to realize it might not be worth it. Like, we went up to New York and talked to a chef doing a similar style of food, and we asked him if he was making his own noodles, and he said no. And we told him we were making ours, and he didn't even blink an eye. Like it was nothing. And in our reviews, no one talked about us making our own noodles; no one even really asked us if we made our own noodles. And finally, after we talked to this dude, and he said where he got his noodles from, we started looking around. And no Asian noodle place — besides the hand-drawn ones — no one makes their noodles. They all get them from the same place that we now get them from. And the amount of money and space and effort we were taking up to make these noodles that no one really cared about…
Ben: Sometimes ours were good, but they were never as good as the ones we have now.
Shawn: Even now, no one's saying, "oh, that noodle is so good." They talk about the broth, the meat, anything else that's in the soup. It was just sort of pointless for us to do that, and we don't have the space, and it's been a million times better since we decided not to do it anymore. We do still make the hand-torn noodles, and our dumpling skins and all that, so we are still putting effort into the noodle world, just not trying to do every single thing.
Are they custom-made for you?
Ben: We have one custom noodle, and then we have one of theirs that they call a "rustic noodle," that we use for the brisket.
Shawn: In the beginning, we mailed them our noodles, and then they kind of toyed around with them, and brought us noodles back. They can even come taste your broth, taste every single dish, and know exactly what you need for each one. It was a whole process in the beginning, and I think, Ben — even just a couple of months ago you were still switching it up a little bit, trying to figure out the best one.
Ben: We're about to get some new noodles. I'm going to do a ramen with a thinner broth, so we'll need thinner noodles. And I already know exactly which of their noodles I want to use.
On the flip side, has anything worked out better than you expected?
Ben: I think just how busy it's been. That's crazy, to me. Obviously I thought our place would be good and I thought people would come, but for us to have been this busy the whole time — it was busy from the start, and now we sometimes have 150 covers a night. I mean, we only have 28 seats.
The interior, shot just prior to Cheu's opening day.
So let's talk about your reviews. The professional reviews were mostly positive, but not unreservedly so.
Shawn: It just seemed like everyone came so early. Usually, new places get three to four months to get settled and get in their groove, and our stuff was coming out in like 2 and a half months—but they were here earlier than that. So it may have looked like it was coming out almost at three months, but they were here in April and May, which wasn't totally fair.
Ben: I mean, ideally when you open up a restaurant, you should be ready on day one. But this was the first restaurant we ever opened, and we weren't ready until like… day 960. I still don't think we're ready. [laughs] It's not their fault that they came in early—we were a very hyped-up restaurant opening. But we should've been ready, and we weren't ready. No one's really been back — like Craig LaBan didn't come back to do a year-end review, which I wanted him to. But at this point, it's all over with, and we're busy. I don't think any of the reviews were very negative — some of them were better than others, but none of them were bad. So I'm very content with how it went, especially taking into consideration how prepared we were for them.
And that was still in the time period where, as you've said many times, a lot of people didn't totally get what you were doing here, concept-wise.
Shawn: Really, it wasn't just reviews, it was everything that happened between April and July — it was just a mess here. It seemed like toward the end of the summer we finally got into that groove and everything just fell into place. So it was reviews, it was food, it was service, it was bar, drinks, everything — just the "figuring it out" period took way too long. But we also just rushed to open. This next time, we'll try to give ourselves some time to get settled and figure things out before we open the doors. It was our first time, so we had no idea. I've never worked in a restaurant, and Ben's never opened a restaurant—he took over at Matyson and kept it running and made it good, but obviously opening up your own place is different.
Ben: Honestly, our type of restaurant is not the type where a bad review will necessarily make or break it, anyway. Higher-end restaurants get more affected by those things. For us it's more about word of mouth reviews than professional reviews.
Shawn: Yeah, and that's never been a problem. Our peers, and like, "foodie" people—we've always done really well with them, even in the beginning, when we don't necessarily think this place was at a hundred percent. Somehow those people still really enjoyed it, and those people still come in. And you can actually tell that the food's gotten better and more consistent, because they come in even more frequently. We have neighborhood people that are here 3 or 4 times a week.
Well, you've got your core menu, but you also change some things up just often enough, like new dumplings and whatnot, that it makes sense for people to keep coming back.
Ben: Yeah, you know, I never wanted it to be a changing menu. I was actually going to have a set menu where nothing was really ever going to change, ever. But I think there were some major flaws in some of the dishes in the beginning, so we changed those. We get really good feedback on all of the dishes on our current menu, so I've kept this menu around for a long time. Now it's going to be spring, so I would like to lighten up the menu a bit, so that coming here doesn't mean all hot broth and noodles. So I'm going to change some of the dishes. But nothing major—if I took off the dishes we sell the most of, I think those people wouldn't come back. And that's fine with me, to keep them around. It's easier for me not to change something.
At Matyson, there was so much more pressure on me to change the menu. It was seasonal food — if you're using tomatoes in December it's blasphemous at Matyson. For Cheu, it'd be like, "oh cool, they got tomatoes in their ramen!" [laughs] I mean, I don't do that, but it could be said. It's not that serious. Just come in and eat and have a beer.
When you opened, Ben, it sounded like you'd try to continue on in some role at Matyson. Do you still do anything for them at this point?
Ben: Not much. I mean, my dad owns it, so when we told him we were planning on opening a new place, he was like, "Well, what do you expect to do here?" Ultimately though, they're running pretty smoothly over there, and I've found that it's almost always better for me not to insert myself back into it. It just doesn't really work, when I'm not there every day like they are, to come in and dictate anything. At most, I'm like a consultant, and maybe not even that.
Have you been able to keep a pretty consistent staff here since you've opened, or has there been a lot of turnover?
Shawn: My people have been mostly the same—I have a couple of people that started within the past half a year, but for the most part people have been with us for at least 8 out of our 12 months. For Ben it was a little different.
Ben: I still have one cook from the beginning; she's great. The cooks that I have as leaders now came in the summer time, like 3 or 4 months in, and they're still here.
Shawn: Which is right when we really started to hit our groove.
Ben: Well, they were really what helped me get this place on track. Before that, it was all up on my shoulders and I was trying to do so much, and I was all stressed out and mad all the time. And once they came in here, they could give input based on how things were done other places they'd worked—not food-wise, but organization-wise and ordering-wise and stuff like that. That's when it started getting so much easier for me, and we were able to get it to the way it works now, which is really smooth.
Shawn: I mean, no one worked noodles but him, for months.
Ben: Every shift!
Shawn: But now he has Lisa [Howell], the sous chef, who can noodle when he's not noodling, and then Chadwick [Smith], who does all the fermenting and gets everything together in the morning.
Ben: Oh, Chad is the person who gets everything going. He does broths, and he's the first person here, so when orders come in, he starts processing them—he's sort of the backbone to this place. And then Lisa and I kind of do the same thing, which is like: order food, work the noodle station, and manage everybody at the same time. But all of my cooks are really good. I just got a really good new guy who's a great cook—and that was really hard for me at Matyson—finding good cooks was very hard, but it seems like here it's a little easier; I don't know why.
You've said that at the beginning, you didn't even have actual recipes for anything, which I guess would explain a big part of why you had to do everything yourself at first.
Ben: At the same time that we got our new cooks who are now my people, that's when I was starting to write the recipe book. And once I wrote that book, I was so relieved. I didn't understand that that would be the critical thing that would make me feel good, but it definitely was one of the biggest pieces to making me feel relaxed. It's just written down: here's how you do it. Yeah, I still have to show them how to do it, and it takes a couple of times for someone else to fully learn exactly how to do it, but then I never have to worry about it again. I can tell people to go do something and they know how to do it and it's such a great feeling. It's consistent, and everybody knows how to do everything. Everybody learns every step of the process, and that way anybody in the kitchen can get something done for another person.
In your first year, you've done a few really popular collabs and pop-up events. Is there one that stands out as the most memorable?
Ben: The ramen burgers. I hated that. I mean, it fit our concept and everything, but actually executing it was like slave labor. We are about noodles, so it made sense. But the ramen burger thing is, like, somebody else's thing and we were kind of catching onto the wave of PR about it. But it worked, for that.
Shawn: He hates doing those mainstream type things. But it really was a lot of work for him — making those buns was ridiculous. What was the process?
Ben: Well, you've gotta cook all the noodles — I didn't buy cooked noodles, which is what I should've done. I probably went through the equivalent of about 250 orders of noodles, but like, after one batch you have to change out the water, because it gets so starchy. So it's a long time just cooking the noodles, and then you still have to mix them with eggs (and I think I used some cornstarch maybe), portion them and flatten them into a ring mold on a pan to cook… after all that you've got half a bun. And I think we did about 275 burgers that night. I had to make 550 of those things.
Shawn: And then it didn't even eat very well. After one bite it was just like… a plate of noodles.
Ben: Oh yeah, they fell right apart! And it's not like you can 86 it, fuck, it's the whole event.
Shawn: Well, I thought it was cool. I like doing those kinds of things. And sometimes I talk him into them, and sometimes I don't.
So did you have to figure out the ramen burger process on your own, or was that information readily available?
Shawn: We were originally going to put it on our menu here. So before we even opened, when we were doing the pop-ups, he was already testing the buns.
Ben: I tried, first, looking online at how other people do it, but when I actually did it I realized that it wasn't good. And then I think I added the cornstarch, made some changes. The key is, it's not about how you do it, it's about the noodles and how cooked they are. So if you guess wrong with that, you're fucked, and that's what happened with me. I guessed wrong because I thought you should overcook them. I think, if anyone wants to try it for some reason, the noodles have to be cooked from dry, and that you should undercook them a little.
Shawn: It was fun for a one-time thing.
Ben: I'm glad it's over with. And we're never, ever doing it again.
But do you hope to do more special events and collaborations of other kinds?
Shawn: Definitely. Soon we're going to start doing ramen battles, where we'll put up some chefs against each other, and do it right in our kitchen so you can watch them battle. And then you'll get two mini ramens and a beer and a voter's card. We'll probably be announcing in the next week or so who those first two people will be, and it should be an ongoing competition.
Ben: They do it in Chicago, at Yusho.
Shawn: So that'll be the next thing that we do. We want to do a lot of those things, but it's harder now that we're open seven days a week. When we were closed on Tuesdays, it was easy just to open up and do those extra things. Now we have to close the restaurant to do those things, and it doesn't hurt the restaurant, but like — people do come in and get upset that they can't just eat.
Is that what happened on New Year's Eve, when you tried to do something different and ended up sort of canceling it because people just wanted their usual noodles?
Shawn: Well, we did take reservations for once, and we were full, and it was awesome. It was probably the easiest night we've ever had, because we're not used to knowing how many people are going to come in, and like setting them up evenly so that everything is smooth. I mean, I think we were actually a little bored because it was so easily timed—usually people are coming in and out and you're just constantly picking up plates and dropping plates and it's crazy.
Ben: But yeah, we were going to do a whole fancy dinner… In the end we just didn't think anyone would really want to come here for that.
Shawn: It's not really our thing. Like after a while, we were looking at the menu thinking, do we really even want to do this? Why don't we just do what we want? And a couple of our regular people were like, "Soo… we can't just get noodles?"
Ben: And I was like, "Well that's a lot easier for me." So we just had a regular night, but with reservations.
Shawn: I don't really like being a part of that kind of food, anyway. Let's just stick to our roots.
And then you also just had George and Jen Sabatino here, to preview the new place they're working on opening, Aldine. Was that menu a collab, or was he just previewing his food?
Ben: It was mostly his food, but it was definitely a collab, too. A lot of the dishes started in his brain, and then I'd add an idea, and then he'd come back with something. So there was one of the dishes that was fully mine, and then the rest of them were basically his dishes.
Shawn: It takes months and months to open a restaurant, so if we can reach out to people and say, "Hey, do you wanna use our restaurant, do a semi-collab, but mainly preview your menu?" That's one thing I really want to add more of into the mix.
Ben: It's a good space for it, because people can actually talk to the chef. It's almost like COOK in that way.
Shawn: Yeah, people can see the chef, see whoever his partners are, people can mingle. We didn't overdo it, so people could be really relaxed and cool, and no one's getting worked up over it, because it's supposed to be something fun.
The site of Puchowitz and Darragh's upcoming second restaurant, photographed a few weeks ago. The signs and awnings have since been removed
When you were putting this space together, you had a lot of help from your families and friends, right? Who did what, and have you been able to talk them into doing it all over again for the new place?
Ben: A lot of it was my brother and his wife, who's from Hong Kong. And my whole family, really — they're all very creative-minded, so everybody kind of gave me their two cents. My friend Sean Brown helped, too, with the art. And then Shawn's family is much more handy with electrical and everything.
Shawn: Yeah, my brother did all the electrical for this place; my dad comes in and does some projects here and there, behind-the-scenes stuff.
This place was a ton of work. Just for that wall up there, it took probably a week. Six or seven hours each day, and lots of beers, 'cause that wall's just layers and layers and layers. At first, we printed out probably 8 pictures that we thought were pretty big, and we put those up the first night, had a couple of beers, came back and it was like "holy shit, there's so much white space still on that wall." And then we had to get really creative — we went to the bookstore down the street, and I bought all of their Asian cookbooks — Ben brought in all of his Lucky Peach magazines, Philly magazines, we went to Chinatown and bought newspapers. We had to buy so much shit to fill that wall, along with markers and paint and all the rest of it. It was just a very long process. Same with the noodle wall. I had to buy out at least ten stores of all of their ramen noodles. Each one had to be dipped, glued, put on there, dried… that whole wall was ridiculous. And now we're going to have to do it all over again for the new place.
Ben: My brother is a glassblower. He did the lamps here — he does the sketches himself, that he turns into, like, stickers—and he sticks them on and then puts them back in the furnace and they melt on. He's actually going to be making our toilets for the new spot. He just sold a toilet that he drew on for $2500! And we're going to have them for free. We're gonna have some really nice toilets.
Shawn: So nice no one's going to be able to sit on them. You'll have to go next door to pee.
Ben: I don't know how we're going to clean them, without the art coming off.
Well, I have to hope he thought of that.
Ben: [laughs] I think he's figuring it out.
Some of the old signage has come down over at the new location and the windows are papered up now. Has anything started there yet?
Shawn: We're just starting to clean it up, really, so that we even know what's there. There's a lot of clutter, so we're just in the phase of getting it cleared out to see exactly what we're working with.
How did you settle on the new location?
Ben: It was the only place we looked at. When we were trying to open Cheu, we looked for a location forever before we found this place, which we still didn't love. This time around we got really lucky.
We've talked before about the vibe here, and how you modeled it more after what you like, which is eating at bars and places like that. Is that also going to be what you're shooting for with your next place?
Ben: It'll always be like that. Our goal here was to make a restaurant that feels more like a bar that has really good food.
Shawn: When we go out to eat we always sit at the bar or counter if we can — otherwise, Ben always picks the good seat with a view of the place and I get stuck looking at his ugly face or the wall behind him the whole time. But there aren't that many places you can go that have that good vibe and really good food.
Ben: Like, I was just at Zahav, and they've got it too — they've got good loud music and everybody's happy, it's a really fun place to be. Not many restaurants are like that. They're often very sterile environments.
Shawn: That's definitely going to be our thing: Keeping it with this vibe, this cheap, and this good.