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Chef Jesse Perez on One Year at Arcade Midtown Kitchen

Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater talks with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one year anniversary.

[Photo: Jenn Whitney]

After collecting kitchen experience in Atlanta, Los Angeles, and Long Beach, CA, chef Jesse Perez returned to his hometown of San Antonio to gamble on a major restaurant project in the newly redone Pearl Brewery development. Arcade Midtown Kitchen was considered one of 2013's most anticipated openings, and when doors opened in February of last year, accolades quickly came for the restaurant's craft cocktail program and Perez's Latin-inflected take on "modern Americana" cuisine.

On the eve of Arcade's first anniversary, Perez took a moment to reflect on his place in San Antonio's emerging culinary scene. "The chefs here have become pretty communal," he says of the community's ongoing conversations. "And it's all because we want to make sure that we're pushing each other. We have a community here where we're still emerging, but we're also pushing the envelope amongst ourselves." In the following interview, Perez discusses his aspirations for new San Antonio projects, how Atlanta provided major inspiration for him, the benefits of debuting on Valentine's Day, and why you simply can't trust photos you see on the Internet.

Your resume has taken you all over the country. What brought you back to San Antonio?

"We can definitely give Austin a run for its money when it comes to the restaurants here."

What brought me back to San Antonio was definitely family. Family is first and foremost for me, and this is where I was born and raised. I came back and kind of laid underground a little bit, did some consulting work, all the while building the business model to hopefully put myself into a position here at Pearl. And the stars aligned for me to be able to do that.

I was able to do my pitch, put my business model in front of the property management here, and it worked out. I saw San Antonio as an up-and-coming food mecca over the next five to 10 years. I felt, along with a few other chefs here in San Antonio, that we can definitely give Austin a run for its money when it comes to the restaurants here. I wanted to be part of that mix.

Would you have done the restaurant elsewhere? Or was Pearl central to the concept?
It was the center of the concept here because of the experience I was able to gain when I was in Atlanta and Los Angeles and Long Beach. Everybody thinks about the Tex-Mex that San Antonio is known for — which is great — and I missed that when I was in Atlanta, in California. I felt like it was time, now, for San Antonio to be exposed to some of the things I experienced both in Atlanta and California, which was the farm-to-table approach, the fresh approach along with this Americana cuisine. I thought it was going to be the prime time to do that, and I think we hit it right on the mark.

[Photo: Jenn Whitney]

You mentioned the "pitch." How did the concept for Arcade come about, and did it change over time?
The inception of the concept was because I fell in love with the midtown, urban industrial feel in Atlanta. Atlanta had this midtown feel, and I felt like Atlanta was this turn-and-burn style community that I was really attracted to. San Antonio has that at times, at different times of the year, but I really like that hustle and bustle feel of Atlanta. When I started talking about the concept, I was thinking, "I really want to bring something to San Antonio that they haven't seen before, something that they might not be ready for, when it comes to this urban and industrial approach." But also bringing a different vibe and approach: No one had brought a restaurant with a solid, crafted cocktail program. And I thought it was the perfect time to do that. Now, you're starting to see other restaurants go, "Wow, that really worked, now we've gotta do this."

So how did you land in that specific space?
This was actually the second space that was offered. The initial space was right around the corner, and that was the one that we already had drawings for, we had already done the mechanical and everything. But it came down to them going, "Well, why don't you take a look at this space, because the master plan... when it's all developed is that you're going to be right in the heart of everything." The other space was going to put us in a spot where we were going to be off-centered. And I wanted to be the center of attention — it's all about location, location, location, right? It was very strategic.

Was the idea of 3,000 square feet daunting at all, though?
Initially it was, because I always told myself that I wanted a restaurant that was only 50 to 80 seats. When you think about that, you [do the math with square footage], but with this being my first restaurant build-out, first design process and everything, I'm like, "Oh, we still need a kitchen. We still need a bar." So it winds up expanding to about 95 seats inside, which I feel comfortable with, but then the whole premise of "Arcade" is because of this outside dining area that we have.

How did the build-out go? Any surprises?

"We were not going to give people the opportunity to say, 'Wow, they weren't ready yet.'"

Yeah, I really wanted to be the first operator ever that started on time and ended on time, and… yeah, that didn't happen. We broke ground in July, we hoped to be open in November, and I'm the crazy one that had to open on Valentine's Day. [Laughs] So, you do the math when it comes to how many months that was.

The build-out was a hell of an experience, but you want to make it right. You're constantly making changes because of a mechanical issue, or an aesthetic issue. You're making changes to make sure you get it right, because you can't open half-assed… I could've pushed it and opened a month earlier, but I wanted to make sure that when we opened the doors, that we were not going to give people the opportunity to say, "Wow, they weren't ready yet." You can't afford that as an operator, especially with your first restaurant. So, I made sure that we were absolutely ready before we opened the doors, and it took a little longer than I expected, but I think we made the right choice.

So the delays were more because of your personal expectations than, say, contractor delays or something.
It was a combination of both. A lot of times, you're at the mercy of your vendor. I think the biggest horror story I had was the chairs. I was very particular about the chairs for the restaurant; I wanted to make sure we had a chair that was good from a comfortable standpoint for the customer, but also fit the design of the restaurant.

Long story short, I ordered some chairs from this place down in New Jersey, some vintage chairs. And you knew it was bad when the guy delivering the chairs was like, "You bought these chairs for the restaurant? How much did you pay for these?" And I'm like, $225? And he's like, "These look like you should've paid $15 for them." And when he took them off [the truck], it was no bullshit: The chairs looked like they were in someone's backyard for 15 years. None of them matched. It was the complete, perfect example that the pictures do not matter. I was going off the pictures on this guy's website, and he talked a good game that they were going to be great. I took those back and ended up finding these really cool chairs at Crate & Barrel.

[Photo: Jenn Whitney]

You mentioned drawings of the first space. Did any of those details make it to the second, or was it a completely new slate?
We were pretty set on some of the components... We have an outdoor bar that I wanted because of the San Antonio weather, people like to sit outside when you have ample shade. We were going to have that in both spaces. We have this garage door-opening bar area that people love. The other design that never changed was the open kitchen. I wanted an open kitchen where people actually walked through the service area and kitchen itself and feel like they're walking to a whole other part of the restaurant and that they're in the hustle and bustle. So that never changed, either.

But I think the biggest change between the two was the patio space. The other patio space was only going to have 25 seats, and this one here has 65 seats. That was an operational change that we've learned to adjust to. But the original business plan only had 25 seats outside; now, this has become part of our program here where the outdoor seating is really getting us over the hump on Fridays and Saturdays from a revenue standpoint, which is nice.

Tell me about opening night.
We did two soft openings. I think the first soft opening we did was two days before we opened the doors on Valentine's Day. That one didn't scare me as much, because when we opened to the public, it's Valentine's Day: In most cases, it's the unexperienced diner. So, if we were going to fuck up [Laughs] it's Valentine's Day, most people that go out on Valentine's Day normally don't go out. It's kind of a crazy way to think about it. But the soft opening on the 12th was very emotional for me, because it was the culmination of all this hard work. It was like, "Wow, this is really happening." It was nothing but VIPs in the restaurant, people that we personally invited, and they were so happy for us. There was so much pressure on me that I was so focused, I was not nervous. I was more proud and excited and happy that it was after when I was like, "Holy shit, I need a drink." But I was so in the zone that I just wanted to make sure we made them happy.

My mom is a focal point of the restaurant — we lost her to breast cancer five years ago — and right before we opened, I drove as fast as I could to her burial site. I went and just said, "Thank you" and cried my eyes out, came back. If I had not done that, I think I would've been a bundle of nerves, just so compressed with emotions and anxiety. I think going over there and doing that, I needed that release. When I came back, I was on another level. I was ready. That I'll never forget, ever.

Were there any problems in those early services that you had to address?

"We were getting complaints of the food coming out cold because I'm the one who forgot to put in a heat lamp."

I think it was our timing, of the tables, making sure that we're pacing our customers appropriately. And making sure that the timing in the front of house and back of the house was correct, in terms of communicating with each other and not jamming so many tickets in the kitchen. I think that was the biggest challenge in the beginning. And the other one was that the food was coming out cold. We were getting complaints of the food coming out cold because I'm the one who forgot to put in a heat lamp. I mean, we had heat lamps, but they weren't what we needed. We needed something better. And I realized that really quick, and so we made that change as soon as we could. That definitely got lost in the shuffle.

[Photo: Jenn Whitney]

Are there any plans for another restaurant?
There's definitely aspirations, because I have a great core management here that I want to make sure can grow within the company and express themselves, as well. I think that's the goal for a lot of operators, is to take care of the people who are taking care of you, and provide them with a unit: whether an original or a new unit. There are aspirations to open up a bar, because our cocktail program has become so well-respected. So, we want to open up a speakeasy. And there's ideas right now to open up another restaurant that would be separate from Arcade but still underneath the umbrella of it, being modern Americana-style cuisine.

But honestly, I would like to open a diner. Now, with all these restaurants and all these chefs, we're all looking for that place to go hang out after work at two, three o'clock in the morning. And what better to go somewhere that's offering chicken and waffles at two o'clock in the morning, and you can have a beer. That doesn't exist right now… I'm talking 25-seater, if you're not in by one o'clock, you're screwed type of thing. And that's exactly what I would want to do.

But no solid plans yet.
Those are aspirations, goals for us. But nothing's in the works at the moment.

Does it feel like it's been a year?
No. No it doesn't. When we're hustling and we're going, it feels like yesterday that we opened the doors. It really flew by.

With Arcade specifically, any goals for the next six months, then maybe a year from now?
I think the goals are for us to go ahead and up the ante for the food and the cocktail program… When it comes to the food in particular, I want to give my guys an opportunity to be more involved with the menu, so they can have some accountability for it and also be inspired, [make it] more a team effort. That's where we're going to be able to grow other operations, where I can see who would be able to lead this one and keep on going. But now it's just to up the game a little bit and really put ourselves more on the national level.

· All Arcade Midtown Kitchen Coverage on Eater [-E-]
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Arcade Midtown Kitchen

303 Pearl Pkwy, San Antonio, TX 78215