Chefs Kim Floresca and Daniel Ryan have been traveling the world together for the past 10 years since they met and started dating at the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs. Their combined resumes include the likes of Alinea, Per Se, the French Laundry, Mugaritz, and elBulli, where the pair were among the stagiaires immortalized in Lisa Abend's book The Sorcerer's Apprentices. Most recently, Floresca and Ryan served as executive sous chef and sous chef, respectively, at Napa Valley's three-Michelin-starred Restaurant at Meadowood where Ryan says they "loved contributing to what Meadowood is becoming."
Now, though, Ryan and Floresca have moved across the country to serve as co-executive chefs at Chapel Hill's [ONE] restaurant. It's their first time headlining a restaurant kitchen — and their first time living in North Carolina. In the following interview, the chefs talk about leaving Meadowood, their intertwined career arcs, and how they're using experiences working at world-class restaurants to form [ONE]. The North Carolina newcomers also discuss the agricultural abundance of the region and why places like the Research Triangle and other smaller food areas deserve more attention.
So when exactly did you leave Meadowood? I saw Bonjwing [Lee] tweeted the news all the way back in May.
Daniel Ryan: Kim and I had different obligations. She held the position of executive sous chef and I was just the sous chef. So our timing was coordinated in a different way. I didn't leave until probably June and then started here a couple days later, which gave me some time to move out and get settled. And then Kim followed suit about a month afterward. I think her first official start date here was July 8 or 11 because I know she missed the Fourth.
How did you get hooked up with [ONE]? Why was it the right time for you to leave?
DR: The industry is actually really smart. It's kind of a little bit of word-of-mouth. A friend of a friend who knew the investor introduced us. We ended up talking for quite a few months until the decision came to fruition. Which is sort of an exciting opportunity. Kim and I had been at Meadowood for a little bit. We love Christopher. We really love what he was trying to do over there. But eventually it came time to go out on our own. Everything starts from somewhere. Even Meadowood in itself has a story of where it started from and then what it grew into and what it's still growing into. So even though we loved contributing to what Meadowood is becoming, we were excited to go start something else.
What was the timeline like on taking over the reins of the kitchen? The new menu was launched about a month ago, right?
DR: When both Kim and I moved into the position, the restaurant was still fully functional and operational. This particular town, Chapel Hill — even the Triangle itself between Durham and Raleigh — for lack of a better word, it's kind of seasonal. It's very heavily influenced by the students and even more than that the flux of people that are here during the school year. So when I showed up it was kind of at an ideal time because it allowed me to get my feet wet without putting too many tidal waves in the pool. So my first month was really hitting the ground running.
But there was a bit of a transition with the chef who was here. He continued things going in the direction that he had already put in motion. I spent time at some farms and kind of getting to know the people, taking a look at the markets, really getting into the nitty gritty. And then when Kim showed up, even though we didn't really publicize the menu to the masses, we changed it rather quickly. I think, honestly, Kim was here maybe a week at most until we started doing the food that we wanted to do. And the reason for me being here earlier was to coordinate that transition.
You've obviously been working together for a long time, so did you already have an idea in mind of what you wanted your first restaurant to be?
DR: There's always the ideal vision. Kim and I do speak the same language very fluently, but it also was heavily influenced by what's available here. What's expected, what's familiar, what's exciting. That month that I was out here kind of gave that little extra perspective. And then there was very many late nights of conversation between myself and Kim over the telephone while she was in California and I was here. So when she got here there was kind of a crash course as to the way things operate. A lot of long conversations regarding the direction that we want to push it, and then the execution of it. I think all those things fell into place rather well.
Since this was a previously existing restaurant, what kind of independence do you guys have as executive chefs there?
DR: The owner is really excited about anything that we bring to the table. He's really passionate about wine and that was one of the main draws for Kim and I. He shares that same excitement for creativity and for artisanship and for an individual passion. He's been really open to anything and everything. Obviously, there's a little bit of expectation from both him and the guests that dine here. It's not that we're trying to jar or shock anybody, but I think all the changes that we made have been for the better and have been necessary changes to move it in the direction that we wanted to go.
Can you tell me more about your experiences menu-planning and researching the North Carolina agriculture? Do either of you guys have a background in North Carolina?
DR: No, actually. I'm from the East Coast. I have family in Maryland, which is quite a ways away. But neither Kim nor myself had actually been to North Carolina before. So there was a very strong dialogue between us and the owner. But then once we got a chance to come out here and take a look at what it has to offer, [North Carolina] seemed like a logical decision.
There seems to be a pattern of chefs who [develop their skills] in very large, very reputable restaurants with Michelin stars and critical acclaim, but then have an opportunity to go and find their own voice. It's an exciting thing when they branch out to not only the second-tier cities, but even the third-tier cities. It's not necessarily Chicago and New York and San Francisco. And even the second tiers like Atlanta or Boston or Miami. You're starting to see a pattern where young chefs are really appreciating places like Nashville or Austin or Portland. There's so much excitement to have in cities like that. The Triangle — Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill — almost seems like an untapped resource.
And that's where the agriculture came into play. Farming and animal husbandry and that whole aspect of food is very, very strong here.There are like eight growing seasons. Right now we're starting to see the introduction of grapes, even though you really wouldn't expect that until September or October. So it gives us the opportunity to integrate something like that with very summer ingredients like corn or tomatoes. But they'll still be around in October to bring those very familiar pairings of parsnips or of squashes. You get those overlaps of ingredients that are on the way out and then a little early. That's just a very strong conversation with the farms and what's available.
So agriculture, it's very big here. Kim and I had some experience with the micro-managing of it. Meadowood has a farm, French Laundry has a farm. Both of us spent time at Mugaritz, which is very heavily influenced by locality in the Basque country. So none of that was foreign to us. But the bounty that Carolina has to offer is pretty exciting. Even more so than Carolina, Tennessee, South Carolina, Georgia, even Virginia. Even as high up as Pennsylvania. It's a very rich food culture in this part of the country. To be able to showcase that is a unique opportunity. Locality is strong in the Triangle, but that doesn't necessarily mean that if we're buying amazing trout from the mountains in North Carolina that we won't highlight a land farm that we found in Pennsylvania through the friend of one of the farmers in North Carolina. It's all somewhat interconnected.
I know obviously your menu will change a lot with the seasons, but to get an idea of the food is there a dish that you think really represents what you're doing at [ONE]?
DR: Yeah, there's quite a few. They change almost daily. One thing we're working on is rice. Carolina has rice fields that I haven't seen anywhere else. Maybe Sacramento. Something that came to our attention was a type of gold rice. It's not exactly gold by color, but it's the distinction that it gets when it's a certain size. It develops this very creamy almost risotto-like texture where the grain is a little bit bigger. So that became something we would be interested in highlighting.
I mean, how often do you see risotto on a menu anywhere, but to be able to approach it in a very Carolinian frame of mind is exciting. So we mount it with a puree of kale, an ingredient that is almost symbolic of this part of the country. It gives it a very nice earthiness, a very nice freshness. Then lamb's tongue was something that we thought would go very well with that. And that tied us into the farm again. There's a farm around here called Coon Rock, which we deal with for some of our lamb products, so why not do something special with the tongue? It creates a nice salad between the warm creamy rice and then with the kale and the lamb tongue. And going further with that idea, we'll utilize some of the other parts of the lamb as well, in this case the heart. The heart is dried out, smoked, and grated over the dish. Even though it's a first course, presented in a way of a salad, it still has that connection to the land, to the people that we deal with.
That does sound good. So like you mentioned, you guys have worked together at some of the best restaurants in the world. Was that kind of your career plan, to stick together and hit all the most respected places you could until you got your own place?
Kim Floresca: We met 10 years ago last month, which is kind of funny. We met in Colorado Springs at the Broadmoor Hotel. We were very young, very eager, wanting to know what was the next thing that we could do to make ourselves and our careers take off. So every move we made was calculated: what was the best restaurant in the region that we'd move to? We chose restaurants that are very well known and have a great reputation and they've been built from cooks like us. We've always wanted to see what was the best restaurant at that time.
It definitely was a great experience for our relationship as far as growth, as far as moving different places. It is a lot easier to move with somebody who has the same intentions you did. And then also with Daniel doing some of the pastry and I'm doing some of the savory, it actually came to our benefit. For example, in elBulli, as a savory commis you don't get to see anything that's happening in pastry. But at the end of every night we would always write notes and talk about food. It was always like, "Here's a new technique that I've learned. Here's another new technique that I've learned." And we would just become a team in that sense of getting what we could out of the restaurant as a whole. So when we left, we had more experience than probably a lot of other people because coming from both ends of the spectrum kind of bound us together.
So it's always been, what's the best restaurant that we can do? And for different reasons. Meadowood was crazy because we got to help start it up. French Laundry was amazing because it's an institution and they breed a really great chef. ElBulli was different because there was no other restaurant like that. We wanted to see what ingredients we can get from there and techniques to learn from. Mugaritz was different because it has more of the connection to nature and they do the whole foraging thing very well. Every single place we went to, we learned so much. And Daniel got to be part of the opening team at Alinea. To see a restaurant of that caliber [move] into something so beautiful as what he's doing right now, it's amazing to know we were a part of something like that.
[ONE] restaurant [Photo: Facebook]
No kidding. So what have you taken away from those experiences that you applied to [ONE]?
DR: Basically the approach. We never want to take something we learned at another restaurant and mimic it at another or rip it off. That's not what we're about. It's mostly the approach. The consideration for product, the respect of where you are, the expert technique that you would apply to it. The story behind it. And really it makes it that much more exciting. It's not like, oh, we used this particular ingredient at elBulli and then we break our backs trying to find it in North Carolina. It might not exist here. It might not be familiar here. It might not be appropriate here. So I think what we most got out from every place is the approach to how we accomplish that.
And how have things been going so far?
DR: Things are going great. As I said before, this town is heavily influenced by the students or at least the force that brings with it. So they just came back last week. Kim and I had a chance to get our feet wet and really get organized. But over the past couple weeks it has been a little bit of a roller coaster. It's good. The energy is very high and the excitement is good.
KF: The support from the community is just very amazing. We've had a lot of repeat guests and it's great to know that they can come back and get a different experience every time they come in.
What have you been hearing from the regulars from before? Have they been excited by the changes?
DR: I would consider all the feedback to be very good. People are excited about that appreciation for food. One of the draws to come here is that people are really wanting that passion for that kind of food. Everyone has been really welcoming of it, really excited about it.
KF: It's a great culinary culture down here. A lot of the restaurants are really doing a great job. It wasn't until now that our eyes are wide open to seeing what kind of food culture there actually is here in North Carolina, but it is incredibly amazing.
DR: There's very few other places in this country that have the resources that the Carolinas do. Two hours to the east and we're on the coast. Two hours to the west and we're in the mountains of Asheville. So I think the Triangle is amazing. Very few other places in this country have that opportunity.
Do you think North Carolina gets as much attention as it deserves?
DR: No. I mean, there are some very exciting aspects of it. For example, Katie Button is a good friend of ours and she's doing very well in Asheville. She's gotten some attention. Ashley Christensen has been in the Triangle for years and she does a great job.
KF: Colin Bedford at Fearrington Village, Scott Crawford at Herons, Andrea [Reusing] at the Lantern. There are so many chefs out here that I don't think get enough recognition of what they do to represent the Carolinas as they should.
DR: And having the opportunity to play a part in that voice is exciting. I mean, anything we could ever do to make it part of a destination... In European culture, you can find great food anywhere. It's not just in the big cities. It doesn't have to always be in New York City, San Francisco or Chicago. I think American culture is a little bit behind on that aspect, but they're very much growing into it.
Fortunately. Finally, I know it's pretty early, but what would you say are your goals for the restaurant? Is there anything else you're rolling out in the near future?
DR: We're actually just getting started. So I think all the excitement for us is the things to come [and] the upcoming seasons. Kim and I know very little about what Winter is going to bring, so that's going to be a little bit of an excitement. The future goals of the restaurant are just to make it as good and as successful as it can be, both in our eyes and the eyes of our coworkers and our guests. We're never going to stop trying to make it better. And then if anything comes about as a result of those efforts, that's just icing on the cake.
Is there anything else you want to discuss?
DR: I think we're really blessed with an opportunity here that we're not going to squander. We're going to make the best of it. The people here are just really great, really welcoming, really exceptional people.
KF: Southern hospitality is actually true.
DR: (laughs) Yeah.
KF: They weren't lying about that. It's been very great knowing there's people out there who support us like this. The regulars that come in, it's amazing support. We couldn't ask for anything better.
DR: Even the people that we worked for in the past. Kim just got an email from Christopher [Kostow] the other day, and it's nothing but encouragement and excitement. So I think there's almost a responsibility on our shoulders to make the best of it, which is good.