Philly native Joncarl Lachman left town almost 20 years ago to travel and rack up work experience in New York and Washington D.C. before landing in Chicago, where he owned HB Home Bistro and Vincent. Last year, he finally returned home and opened the doors to Noord, a Northern European bistro that immediately drew crowds (and three stars from Craig LaBan).
Next week, on May 8, Noord will mark its one-year anniversary. Eater Philly sat down with chef-owner Lachman to talk about how Philly's changed since he lived here last, being a part of the East Passyunk restaurant boom, and all the most memorable moments from Noord's first year. And that's not it: Lachman also told us he's gearing up to open a second restaurant.
To celebrate their anniversary, Noord is holding an open house next Tuesday, May 6. Details are here.
Eater Philly: Did you have a particularly memorable first service?
Joncarl Lachman: [laughs] Oh yes. Yeah, the city didn't actually pass us. Well, to back up: We came with a goal of a date, and Albert [Stumm] from the Passyunk Post bet us a bottle of champagne that we couldn't open before it. So as the date came up, the guys from Passyunk Avenue Revitalization Corporation (P.A.R.C.)—who are just great guys—were in here early in the morning, and we got it all done… and then we didn't pass our first inspection for something like, the lines connected to the flower boxes were behind where they're supposed to be. So I had to do all of the prep the day of the opening. We had a full house opening day, so, basically, prep started 7 a.m. that morning. It was Jonnathan,who does our bread and is my sous, and me, and Malik, who had just been picked at that time and is still here as well. But somehow we did it, and it was a blast. It was a great, great night.
And P.A.R.C. actually owns this building, right?
They do. So, we [Lachman and partner Bob Moysan] also live here, which is great. Just like Chris Kearse, he lives above Will. It's like a social experiment that's been really successful. P.A.R.C. encourages the people they bring in to live on the space so we become part of the neighborhood; which is really great.
Is that a big part of why you ended up here? Did you consider other neighborhoods?
It is, yeah. I was hoping for years, trying to get back to Philly. I looked at a whole bunch of spaces. The closest we got was the space that was last Zen-Nor, that Karina's is going into now. We almost took that space but ended up not; it was such a great deal. We were looking at Meme, we were looking at the spot where Laurel is now, the spot where Monsu is, but it never really came together. And then I hit a milestone age that I'd set my goal for, and I finally just said, "OK, we've gotta just do it." We came, we met with Sam Sherman, who runs P.A.R.C., and he showed us this building and the one next to Fond, and we just loved this one. It was just about two weeks later that he called us and we were on our way, it was really cool.
So I've talked to a lot of people so far for these one-year-in interviews who are first-time owners or first-time execs— whereas you've had places already, but you didn't have a place here. Could you talk a little bit about the differences between opening a business in Philadelphia and running a business in Chicago?
What surprised me, being a Philadelphia native—I left in '85 when everybody was leaving, though I kept coming back—was that dealing with the city was not nearly as difficult as I had expected. It was actually a pretty streamlined experience. I had been doing it in Chicago and it was a little rougher, so I was surprised how well the city got things done. I went into the official parts of the process with a lot of trepidation, but I came out smiling. Everything was efficient, everyone was very nice.
Because my heart's in the city, the experience of having this business—and getting to know the neighbors so well, because we live here as well—this has just been a much more emotionally fulfilling experience too. My first restaurant, HB, it was the restaurant I'd always wanted to own, and we kept it going and growing for a long time. But being back here—for instance, being in the Inquirer, because it's the paper I remember since I was a kid, it's a little different than the Chicago Tribune, just emotionally and personally. Or being on TV here, it's even cooler because it's Philly. I'm just so impressed by Philly. I can't believe what a great place it's become.
[Photos: Eater Philly]
A lot of people open BYOBs here just because the cost of doing otherwise can be so prohibitive. But when you and I've talked before, it sounded like you really wanted to open a BYOB specifically.
I did. What I used to do, I used to come back three, four times a year from Chicago, and I would do like a BYOB tour, so I got to know Josh Lawler pretty well—that's why he let me use his restaurant for my pop-up—and I got to know Lee [Styer] a little bit, and I love Little Fish, so I went there every time I came. So I was always paying attention to that special aspect that's a uniquely Philadelphia dining experience. Chicago does have BYOs, but it's not really a community of them, the way it is here. So just being a part of that history of that specific type of restaurant here, it's something that's been really, really great. But I'm interested now in doing, eventually, another place that isn't a BYO, so I can start making money. [laughs]
Has there been any struggle with making that transition, back to a BYO?
Actually, our first restaurant in Chicago was a BYO, though the second one was not. So we did have that experience. You really can make it work. It's like a merchant's life, you know? I'm inspired by those people too, the merchant who lives above the store, he's out sweeping in front, cleaning the windows. It's a life of dignity. You don't get rich, but who does, right?
Do you have plans for a second place right now?
Yes, well, I have a couple. What's happening is, you know, you're throwing things at the wall until something sticks. It's kind of like what happened here: I feel ready to move forward with another idea, but you know it emotionally more than anything else, when it's the right time and right place. As far as concept goes, I'll probably still change my mind. You know, I don't know if you remember, but I wanted this place to be called Winkel. But with Will down the street, everybody kept saying they sounded a little similar. Everybody made fun of that name. But yeah, this has been such a fun year, and I'm ready to continue, to express myself in this manner.
What have been some of your favorite special events that you've been able to take part in since you opened?
We've got some great regulars, a lot of them are in the neighborhood, so people have rented us out, which is great. We did a midnight rijsttafel with Foobooz and Hardena/Waroeng Surabaya, the Indonesian place right across the way here—that was fantastic, so romantic in here, with candlelight and really nice people and a whole lot of really good food.
But for me, honestly, it's about coming down, looking at OpenTable, and seeing that a couple of regulars are coming in later that night. I love the day-by-day part of the business, like when I'm out front—I'm not someone who stays behind there anymore. I like running around, pouring water, and all that. I used to play "restaurant" with a friend when I was in, maybe 4th grade, so it always was something on my mind. To this day, if you ask people that work for me, it still feels like we're playing "restaurant".
And you also did a joint dinner with Fond, where guests had part of the meal at one place, then switched restaurants. How did that come about?
Yes, we did a pig dinner with Fond. To be across the street from such a fantastic restaurant like that, it's pressure! You've got to live up to it. But we've become great friends. The first two weeks we were open, we borrowed something every day; at least one thing. We were borrowing chairs. One day, somebody came in for soft shell crabs, we thought we had them but we'd run out, it was just one of those things while we were settling in—so I went across the street, and they gave me soft shell crabs. So there's a real feeling of connection.
That pig dinner was great. Lee knew the farmers. He had gone to high school with the wife, it's a husband-and-wife farm team, and we went up to the farm that day. And I'm a city boy, so to be honest, I was a little reticent to meet the pig. But there were five of them, so I think that made it a little easier, not knowing which of them it would be. And people chose to either have appetizers one place, and then everybody switched and had dinner at the opposite place. A little East Passyunk love.
It does seem like an especially tight-knit neighborhood right now, as far as restaurants go.
It is. I think as long as the critical mass has not been met, I think everybody is so supportive of each other. It feels like honest support. There are a lot of nice people down here. I mean, Chris [Kearse] even let us live in his apartment, believe it or not. Our apartment here wasn't ready, and he was going to move into his but he still had his old apartment, so he let Bob and I live there for about a week while we were waiting for this apartment.
I've dragged Bob through three restaurant openings now, and he's not a restaurant person, though I think he's become one. And his stalwart support, too, has been all-important.
So the apartment upstairs ran a little behind—how did the build-out process for the restaurant itself go? How much of it was done by P.A.R.C. and at what point did you come in and actually have input?
The way P.A.R.C. does it is, they hook you up with an architect, a kitchen designer, and then there's a general contractor that handles everything else. So they work with you, you design the restaurant, you have a certain budget to work under for the kitchen. And the rest of the stuff that's not nailed down—for instance, the tables, the chairs, the lighting, all that stuff—we take care of. We worked with Dave Markowski, who was the architect, and we did this all together. There's that tile all along the back wall, where we thought we were going to do wood. But the general contractor showed up with the tile one day and was like, "Wouldn't this look good in here?" So it was a group effort. But they hand it over to you to do the design, which is really a whole lot of fun. I've never done that before. Both places that we went into in Chicago were restaurants already. This was an apartment, previously, so it was all built out from scratch.
So, as far as the menu goes, has the concept changed at all, from where it started out?
Right, so I'm of Dutch descent. But when I came, I was talking about doing something French, because I was a little nervous to do Northern European food here. And some good friends of mine said don't be stupid, go with your heart, people will love it, blah blah blah [laughs]. So I finally gave in—and the fact that people were paying attention to Northern European food cause of that whole Scandinavian craze kind of opened it up for us, a little bit, I think. Even though we're not doing anything New Nordic, you know: it's classic bistro cooking with a focus on Northern Europe.
But of course we change with the seasons, we've done a whole lot of braising and root vegetables and now finally—yeah, we forced it a little bit—we've had strawberries and rhubarb and ramps… well, ramps are in season now, at least. We even brought in asparagus, we finally just said it's time. It's not from here, but it's quality, I promise. [laughs] For our meats, I'm kind of living a dream of going up to the Italian Market, and we get most of our meats from the butchers up there. I love going up to the Italian Market. When I would come back to visit here, that was one place I'd always have to go. So to have it as part of my life now is so fulfilling. I can walk, carry the meat back. It's a merchant's life.
We don't have a lot of Northern European food here, so have people had to get used to it? Have you found that you've been able to expand the types of dishes that you make the longer you're here?
It's been the opposite thing, actually. We had a rotisserie in the beginning, to do rotisserie chicken, because I was afraid that people would think everything here was unapproachable. So we'd come in and we'd wonder how many chickens to put in, cause you don't want to waste them, so we'd put in four. And nobody would get the chicken. And instead, we'd be selling the konijn in het zuur, which is rabbit braised in vinegar. So that has actually proven that Philadelphians are open-minded when it comes to dining. Like, we have a goat stew now that sells very well. I haven't done eel yet; there's an eel in a green sauce, which is not very pretty, that's traditional in southern Holland, which we may do this summer. But that hasn't been the case at all, that people were leery at all of what we do. Everybody's been very open-minded right from the beginning. It's been very nice. To sell that rabbit dish, which I love so much, just makes me so happy that people like it. That and the mustard soup. People think "…mustard soup?", but then they try it and say it's so good. Which makes me really happy. It's like farmers food.
That's funny, because I'm mustard-crazy; I thought mustard soup sounded great right off the bat.
Thank you. Yeah, I had done our first mockup menu, I sent it to Anne Rosenzweig—who was the first woman to get three stars in the NY Times, and she was, and still is, my mentor—so I sent it to her, and she was like, "Oh my god, you have mustard in like eight items!" And I hadn't even thought about it. My love for mustard was obvious: mustard vinaigrette, mustard sauce, mustard cream. But we un-mustarded it a little bit.
You've obviously been through reviews before this; do you still get nervous about them?
I try not to get nervous. What I try to do is not hold back, just be myself with people. I think a certain bout of confidence comes with having done this for a long time. Before I cooked, I was a waiter. I went to school for linguistics and history and then I started traveling the world, and waiting tables, cause that's how you can make a lot of money easily. So, I was never nervous, I don't think. What should we call it? Anxious? Yeah, a little bit. I guess everybody is. Anybody who tells you that they don't care about reviews is probably not telling you the truth.
Next week, you're going to start doing brunch. Was that always in the plans?
We're starting brunch on the 11th. And we've already got 42 reservations. I was afraid nobody was going to come! But that's why we thought we'd start at Mother's Day. I used to do brunch in Chicago at HB. It was a very popular shift for us, but eventually, when we started there, it was just me doing everything hot. I just had a dishwasher, and I had a cold side guy. So after four years of dinner Tuesday through Sunday, with Saturday and Sunday brunch, we were building our dinner crowd up to the level that I didn't have to do brunch anymore, and it was getting too hard to wake up, and I didn't want to be a grump. So, we stopped doing it. We had planned to do brunch here from the very beginning and then I pushed it back a little bit. We said we'll wait 'til New Year's Day, and then Easter, and then Mother's Day was coming and our one-year anniversary came up, so we finally said: let's just do it. I had the menu anyway. I think it'll be fun.
Even without brunch, it's impressive what you've managed to do in here, as far as all the curing and breads and everything go, in that tiny kitchen.
Thanks. I come early, and get the components done, because that really is all we have—there's a tiny little backroom, but it's pretty much just storage for plates and things. And then I actually leave so that the guys can start doing what they have to do. Jonathan makes all the bread by hand still. I bought a mixer from Koo Zee Doo when they closed, and it's actually broken a little bit but we still haven't fixed it, because he's getting in shape! He's building muscles from doing the bread.
We've even added more breads over the year, and when we do the next place, his bread will be built into the concept there, too.
Looking back over the first year of the place, what are you most proud of?
You know what we have? Everybody that's started here—with the exception of the dishwasher and the bus girl we had in the beginning—everybody is still here, which is nice. I love to be able to feel like it's a family. I hope that doesn't sound sappy or stupid. But I think that's important. Before I started at HB, I was inspired by the restaurant Prune, Gabrielle Hamilton's place in New York City.
Every time I'm up there, I still go. What I remember is how I felt when I would call, and I would know the person answering the phone. Then you go in, and they know you. And it's not you're being treated any different or special, it's just like you're a friend coming over for dinner at somebody's house. So we've always looked at it this way: like you're coming over to our home for dinner, and you bring the wine, and you'll know Erin and Jen, they're the two servers who have been here since the beginning.
Erin even came with us from Chicago. She was ready for a life change and wanted to try out Philly. So she and Jen and both of my cooks—they're all still here and they're all a part of our neighborhood now. To build that and cultivate that feeling in the first year, getting to know the regulars, become part of the neighborhood. We're doing an open house, May 6th, to celebrate our year. Becoming a part that belongs in this neighborhood is probably the biggest thing.
P.A.R.C. introduced us to the neighborhood early on. So, our very first neighborhood meeting, we arrived with our plans and our champagne, ready for it to be a party, but people were suspicious of yet another restaurant coming in here. Three of our neighbors right here were very tough, but we just kept smiling, and eventually they cracked a smile. And at first one of them, Tony started bringing a plate over—we'd make him dinner and he'd take it back home across the street. And now he sits at the bar, sometimes talks to our other regulars. It's very, very nice. Because you know, for people that have lived down here, they don't care what their housing value is; this is just their home. They just know their taxes will go up, they won't have anywhere to park. So they came in very suspicious, worried it'd smell like fish cause we were doing fish, and I just told them, "I promise it'll be fresh!" And now, because we live here, and we're good neighbors—with all the snow, we always did the shoveling—well, OK, mostly Bob did the shoveling. So now they see us as good neighbors, which is very important to us.