This is The Gatekeepers, in which Eater roams the world meeting the fine ladies and gentlemen that stand between you and some of the restaurant world's hottest tables.
Seiobo's Kylie Ashton and Richard Hargreave [Photos: Momofuku]
Chef David Chang's first venture outside of the United States, Sydney's Momofuku Seiobo, was an ambitious one: a thirty-seat kitchen counter doing tasting menus only, in the manner of Ko in New York City. But it ended up being a hit, and pretty much straight off the bat. It was named the best new restaurant of the year by Gourmet Traveller, and The Australian declared it the hottest opening of the year. As with Chang's two other tasting counter restaurants, Seiobo only takes reservations by online booking. Once you achieve that tough feat, sommelier Richard Hargreave and manager Kylie Javier Ashton are in charge of making sure you feel at home and happy. Here, in the following interview, they talk about their job, dealing with guests who make fake reservation confirmation e-mails, strange requests, and where they eat when not at work.
How'd you come to work at Seiobo?
RH: I met [Momofuku Seiobo's head chef] Ben Greeno when he first came out to Sydney. He jokingly offered me a job, and a few months later I called him up to see if the offer still stood.
KA: And I met the Seiobo team whilst feeding them at Duke Bistro. When I left Duke, Seiobo had an opening in the front of house team.
What's it like running front of house at a restaurant configured around a kitchen counter? How do you have to adjust your approach?
KA: It was definitely difficult to get my head around the different style of service at first, but it's great that the guests get to see what goes on in the kitchen. The more I've adjusted to the style of service, the more natural it feels. It's just about finding those moments to check in with the guests, and making sure that the meal is seamless.
Do you have people try to come in without reservations? If so, how do you handle those situations? Has it ever worked out for the people that try?
RH: Last week we had someone who created their own confirmation e-mail and even sent the confirmation to their friends. They all turned up during service and were furious we didn't have a table for them.
What did you do?
RH: I admired their creativity. They still didn't get a reservation.
Does anyone get lucky, though?
KA: We'll take walk-ins on a case-by-case basis. Occasionally we'll have a last minute cancellation and some lucky guests.
[Photo: Nick Scott]
Do you have regulars, seeing as it's difficult to nab a spot?
KA: Believe it or not, we do. There are some guests that have been in eight or nine times since we opened a year ago. So, I don't believe it when people say it's impossible to get a reservation.
R: The regulars just try for reservations whenever they can get one — they aren't worried about a specific date. The bar has started to create a following for its food, too
What are some of the strangest requests you've had to accommodate?
RH: We've been pretty lucky on that front so far, since it's really just dietary requirements in Sydney. Which any chef will tell you seem to be out of control here.
KA: Yes, and I have to say I've never worked in a restaurant where people were so obsessed with taking photos? or maybe that's just a sign of the times.
Are there any requests you haven't been able to accommodate?
KA: There are plenty. Due to the size and style of the restaurant, the maximum number we accept for a table is four. People can't seem to get their heads around that. We try to structure the reservation system and service to make it manageable for the kitchen, which allows for an efficient and smooth service.
I think people in Sydney are still getting used to the fact they can't just call up, make a booking, and show up whenever they feel like it.
So it's mostly just crazy dietary restrictions?
RH: When we first opened there was a guest who booked and could only eat food cooked in a certain oil and couldn't eat a huge list of items. And at the time we were so new so we couldn't accommodate. Now the guys are a year in, so they are up for challenges like that.
People often speak about the nerves that set in before dinner at a special restaurant like Seiobo. How do you make newcomers feel at ease?
RH: Try to be as friendly as we can and get them a drink as soon as possible!
Where do you eat when not at Seiobo?
RH: I usually crave cheap Asian food – Chinese, Thai, etc is awesome here. Quay is my favorite fine diner, and Fratelli Paradiso my favourite spot for casual food and awesome wine.
KA: Anywhere. Everywhere. I'm obsessed with eating. I'm constantly thinking of my next meal. A couple of my favorites are Fratelli Paradiso and Yachiyo. I just went to Hartsyard, which I really enjoyed.