The path to success in the restaurant industry used to be relatively straight and clear. Culinary school. Stages and apprenticeships. Working your way up through one or two kitchens. And then maybe, just maybe, opening up your very own establishment. But the game has most assuredly changed in the last 10 years or so, led by a younger generation of chefs who’ve found marked success by joyfully flouting the rules. And that includes Sam McDermott of Buttermilk Bento, a highly coveted, Asian-inspired packaged lunch delivery service, where potential participants are selected through a series of online questions such as “Why Should We Start This Relationship?” and “Tell Me a Secret.” So in anticipation of his panel during Taste Talks Chicago, called Renegade: Reinventing the Underground Dining Experience, we chatted with McDermott about the ups and downs of cooking “off the grid,” how a white guy ended up going Japanese, and what he sees as the future of non-traditional restaurant formats, like supper clubs and pop-ups.
You’ve spent over a decade in traditional restaurant kitchens. What made you decide to go the underground route?
Here’s the thing: I’ve been in the food industry for ten years, but my first six years of that were in management with the Chicago luxury chocolate titan, Vosges. Years after that were spent at Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor. My very first experience in a restaurant kitchen was a two-week stage at Michelin two-starred Atelier Crenn in San Francisco. I had no business being there. I got crushed, so hard, and rightfully so. But I learned an incredible amount in my time there, and I’m extremely thankful for that. I continued to stage around after that, finally ending up at Elizabeth for just shy of a year.
All along the way, I had been teaching myself every fundamental aspect of cooking, just so that I could break the rules. And I realized that to grow into my own, I needed to be on my own. End of story, I actually spent less than a year cooking for someone else, so the decision to go underground was an easy one. I want to make my own food, I want to develop my ideas, I want to offer everything that I have, but how do I do that? I didn’t yet have a name, a following, and, most importantly, a bankroll. I had approximately $351 for my start-up capitol, so this is the route I chose.
You’re (for lack of a better term) a white guy. How’d the bento idea come about?
An astute observation! I’m real white. My wife turned me on to Japan. And, I’m endlessly thankful for it. Early in our relationship, she would talk about different foods from Japan, talk about the culture, and described experiences that I hadn’t imagined. I had a bunch of ‘holy shit’ moments as I learned more about the food they’ve been doing for what, thousands of years? Perfecting it? Ridiculous. So, I left Elizabeth and went to Japan. I ate everything.
I couldn’t believe what I found there. As in, the basic level of food in Japan trumps some of our best in America. I was excited to wake up every morning to eat first breakfast at 7-11am and to start walking the streets to towards my next meal. They take food extremely seriously (they take everything extremely seriously, but that’s another story), and it shows. It’s refined and elegant at even the noisiest train station noodle stall. I didn’t want to leave, but my wife wouldn’t let me stay. So, I brought the food back with me. I knew that my next move would be informed by my trip to Japan, but the bento idea only came after rounds and rounds of pining for and remembering the food there. It was a perfect solution to not having money, not having space, wanting to play in a Japanese style, but wanting to develop my own style.
I didn’t tell anyone I was doing it. I started an Instagram account the week before my first delivery, and just started posting each bento. I couldn’t believe how quickly it blew up. I hadn’t done anything to tell anyone about it, and within three weeks I had far more attention than I knew how to deal with. I couldn’t keep up with orders and e-mails and website maintenance and shopping and cooking and delivery. I didn’t sleep for weeks at a time. It was fun. It is fun. I’m so thankful for every single person that shared their excitement with me and those that ordered and those that still order every single day. It’s been an incredibly rewarding experience and it could never have happened like this above ground.
How do you incorporate your years of fine-dining expertise into what you do now?
I’m playing in the style of Japanese simplicity while utilizing Japanese techniques and flavors. That said, I’m not making Japanese food. I’m making food that reminds me of what it was like to walk down the street in Tokyo or to explore a shrine in Kyoto. It was fucking exciting. It was funny, it was happy, it was serious, it was shocking, it was nuanced. When I can make my dining room laugh when they see their next course, only to drop into puzzled curiosity, and finish with their own ‘holy shit’ moment, I know I’ve hit my mark.
Besides keeping two steps ahead of the police, what are some the hardest aspects of running an ‘underground’ business?
Doing everything. Doing all of the things. Getting every single thing done every single day regardless of anything else. If you don’t do it, you’ll fail.
What do you see as the future of underground dining…i.e. pop-ups, supper clubs, secret delivery services and the like? And how might the growing popularity of non-traditional dining experiences affect the fate of brick-and-mortar businesses?
I think that our subset of dining will continue on the path of exponential growth, until it doesn’t. I see a bubble bursting at the end, but for now, the excitement and buzz about even the word “underground” is growing. I think we’ll continue to see new interesting concepts on both ends of the spectrum. For example, Dinner Lab on the end of broad scale accessibility and on the other (I didn’t want to use myself as an example but I’m going to), my own tiny, overly conceptual and over-thought single meals. I strongly believe that underground restaurants will be long lasting. There will always be cooks that want to make their own food, cooks that will never make a lot of money. And everyone benefits because it separates the cream from the milk. If you cannot be successful as an underground restaurant, you won’t be successful above ground. And you know what? You end up getting to taste some surprisingly delicious cream.
A lot of my clients and guests have folded me into their fine dining agenda. Which means, yes, I certainly did take business from other (good or great) restaurants, but we’re all working towards a more informed and appreciative audience. We want the base level palate to be raised. The more engaged and interested a diner is in what we, all of us, collectively, are doing, the more we’re able to focus on pushing our own boundaries. And increasingly engaged guests will help decide what happens next.
Taste Talks Food & Drink hits Chicago October 3-5, 2014. See the full schedule and buy tickets here.