Oakland's James Syhabout addresses different parts of himself at each of his restaurant concepts. His fine-dining flagship Commis is the "head": There, Syhabout, who was once the Chef de Cuisine at Manresa, holds one Michelin star for his prix fixe menus. His second project, Hawker Fare, is the heart: It serves family-style meals of Syhabout's native Thailand, located in a space that once housed his mother's own Thai restaurant. But when it came time to tackle his third Oakland restaurant, Box and Bells, Syhabout went straight for the stomach.
"Chefs want to cook what they want to eat," he says of Box and Bells' menu-planning process. "It's [about] providing a venue for us, our own playground that we can frequent and share food, ideas." Along with executive chef Benjamin Coe, Syhabout and his team turned Box and Bells into a space of "self-fulfillment," featuring the hearty, funky, soulful dishes they craved after a long night of working on the Commis line. Soon, the neighborhood spot was drawing curious diners seeking its poutine with blood sausage gravy or fried chicken with raw-oyster mayo. Non-neighborhood folks stopped by, too: In his 2.5-starred Box and Bells review, San Francisco Chronicle's Michael Bauer noted that "James Syhabout is doing more to create an interesting dining scene in Oakland than just about any other chef."
To mark the restaurant's first anniversary, Eater recently chatted with Syhabout, Coe, and general manager Jason Friend about Oakland's dining scene, giving the Box and Bells menu a "remix," and why one year in, the restaurant still feels "fresh and new."
What made you decide to open a third restaurant and add Box and Bells to your portfolio?
Syhabout: The opportunity was knocking and there was always a thirst for nourishing ourselves. What are we missing? What kind of place do I want to eat at that we don't have, that we would also like to share? Benjamin was working at Commis at the time, and we were in conversation, sometimes in the middle of service, sometimes during prep, like, "We have a space on College Avenue, what should we cook to fill our own void?" That's always been somewhat the mantra of how we conceptualize our restaurants.
"I somewhat planted the seed, but these guys brought the fertilizer to make it grow." — James Syhabout
It's the way to promote growth, too, within the restaurants. We put [Ben and Jason] in a new space to do something different and have their own input. It's more a collaboration, it's less me. I somewhat planted the seed, but these guys brought the fertilizer to make it grow.
What were those early menu conversations like between you and Ben?
Syhabout: It goes back to what was missing. When we were first opening restaurants, no one was doing snails, big aged ribeye steaks that were 30 ounces. We didn't even have a steakhouse here in Oakland. We wanted to do something in the vein of that format, as a big homage to classic tavern food: It could be a bistro, it could be in England, it could be in Canada. As cooks, we're so used to eating one meal a day, and that one dish has to have 5,000 calories in it. [Laughter] And [it has to] be delicious and comforting. [The menu is] very soulful. Sometimes it's a lot of offal and a lot of odd cuts: We also like the funk of aged meats and bone marrow, pig's blood and whatnot. That's what we cook for ourselves here at Commis, the way Ben and I work, and we kind of took that and ran with it.
Coe: This is back in 2012, and there weren't a lot of restaurants in Oakland like Box and Bells. There was really nothing here, the dining scene has changed quite a bit in the last two years. The conversations really evolved, like James said, on the line, being like, "You know what would be good? You know what I'd like to eat right now?" And those ideas went onto paper. It went from there and that's how we evolved.
How has the menu changed since opening day?
Syhabout: The evolution has been very organic. Being in an established neighborhood, you know your customers and what they want. You have to cook for yourself, but we're in hospitality, we're there to please. All the restaurants have always been in like, fuzzy logic mode. So how do you adjust? The menu at Box and Bells has evolved, because there are growing pains in figuring out what people want. Steak for two, I like to eat it, but everyone doesn't eat like us: [Steak] with Burgundy snails, and bone marrow, Bordelaise. No one eats like that. So we came to understand, not to scale back, but to be smarter about it. Offering the same experience, but not the exact same dish. It kinda got remixed.
One of the early criticisms that came up was that the food was "heavy." When you say "remixed," was that in terms of how dishes were composed, or did you shift how they were presented?
Syhabout: They were conceptualized differently. We did the steak with, instead of snails, [we] started putting wild mushrooms on it. That sold better. Using not a bone-in 32-ounce steak — which was too much for people. I can eat it by myself, no problem, but like, maybe 12 ounces is plenty [for most people]. Doing stuff like that also decreases the price point. It's still our food, it's just a remix. Our food hasn't changed at all. We still have the blood pudding poutine on there, fried chicken with oyster mayonnaise is never going to leave, it's actually one of our popular dishes. Those things are our identity... You have to pick and choose your battles.
Ben, you mentioned that Oakland's dining was very different even just two years ago. What was the scene like then and how has it changed?
Coe: Well I'm a newbie to Oakland myself, but just in the Rockridge neighborhood where Box and Bells is, I think in that year, 2013, there were at least three other restaurant openings just on our street. It's really brought the neighborhood up and made it more funkified a little bit. It was fun to be a part of that scene. Since then, Oakland has a number of restaurants that have popped up with their own identities, and it's been really fun.
Friend: I moved here from Portland in 2009, and [even then] every restaurant in Portland opening up tended to have a great concept. There were people that were hungry to go out and eat. Coming to Oakland in 2009, it was different. There just wasn't a level of restaurants here that you would see in Portland or across the Bay in San Francisco. I think that since then, over the last five years — with the prices increasing in San Francisco, with people looking for an alternative city to live in — over 200 restaurants have opened up in Oakland.
"It's hard to chisel out your own niche, and Oakland is still in the process of doing that." — Jason Friend
The population of Oakland doesn't necessarily grow at the same rate as the restaurant scene. There's a lot of restaurants now, in almost every different concept. It's grown so much from a place that seemed like not a restaurant town five years ago, to a place where now you couldn't even choose where to go out one night. It's been good, to see the evolution of the city that has its own identity, being across the Bay from a giant in the restaurant world, San Francisco. It's hard to chisel out your own niche, and Oakland is still in the process of doing that.
Given all of your reputations, there was a lot of anticipation for this restaurant. Was that something that you were aware of, or maybe even a little wary of, at the time?
Syhabout: With every project, even at Commis given all the press and what not, I think we're harder on ourselves. Not only because we're very passionate people, we want to do well, we want to exceed our own expectations, and we want to get better. The expectations of diners, yes, we do feel that pressure, but we beat up on ourselves more. We want to better ourselves — I think that's the main goal — and over-deliver. That's the way I look at it.
Friend: I felt that there was some personal pressure of being given a position by James — someone I had already worked with for a couple of years — [to tackle] a brand-new restaurant, me and Ben having the responsibility of running with this thing. It was great. I think there was pressure, but the pressure was good. It motivated us to think things out, hopefully make the right decisions and then have fun at the same time.
How was opening night?
Friend: We got off with a big jump. When we did our pop-ups in February, that's when I got nervous, because it sold out in three minutes. It was like, "Wow, this is big." I think there was a lot of excitement going into the opening. It was a good time.
Speaking of, were there things that you learned during those pop-ups that you ended up implementing and were in place by the time you opened for real?
Syhabout: The pop-up was a very different format. It was pretty much a set menu, it was all family-style. Food-wise, some of those dishes we'd never tried before on a big scale. At Commis, [we're cooking] for 10 people. Now we're cooking for a restaurant that seats 50 people, so you have to think differently on a larger scale and how to execute. The pop-ups helped us learn that. How much is it prep for 50 people rather than 10? How long is it going to take? It definitely helped us figure out workflow. It made us work smarter.
"I can eat a 32-ounce steak by myself, but that's not everybody." —SyhaboutFriend: [We learned] how much people were going to eat.
Syhabout: Yeah, like I said, I can eat a 32-ounce steak by myself, but that’s not everybody.
In the past year, what would you say was your most memorable service?
Syhabout: I think the most memorable service for me was the first night. Everything we worked towards, given the delays, we were still working, trying to polish things… I was very proud the first night. It felt like the restaurant was already operating a month long. That’s a rare occasion. I was very proud that that was our starting point. It was like, "Wow, we're already there, let’s keep it going now we're heading in the curve." That's very memorable, and that sets the bar of restaurant openings now, if anything.
Coe: I would agree, that first night. It was exciting times. Having done the pop-ups, having done restaurant openings before, there's always so much you can prepare for, variables, anything can happen. It's nerve-wracking and it's exciting, and that's also the fun part. It was great to have a first night go so well. I was blessed with a great staff and crew, the stars were aligned. It took off from that first night and it was smooth sailing from then on up.
So what are your goals for the restaurant moving forward, say a year from now and beyond?
Syhabout: Sustainability is always the goal. Restaurants are a tough business, keeping our employees happy, keeping our guests happy. I think that's the foundation for our restaurant to build on. The guests come in and allow us to do what we do, and hospitality is a two-way street. That's our goal in general. There's no one-year goal, five-year goal. We just take it day-by-day and that's our main goal: to keep our guests happy. They keep coming back and bring other guests in to see what we do, and [we] build this family outside of the employees.
"There's no one-year goal, five-year goal. We just take it day-by-day." — SyhaboutFriend: [For me, it's about] building more of a relationship with the people have been coming in over the year, now that we have the foundation. Being able to forge deeper relationships with the people that really help sustain the business, and at the same time continue to challenge ourselves, at least in the front of the house. Continually training on wine, training on service, and routine maintenance that you have to have in order to keep something fresh and keep people into it.
James, you mentioned earlier the idea of promoting from within. So are there plans for you to open more concepts?
Syhabout: There's something in the works but I can't say.
Will it be in Oakland?
Syhabout: I can't say that, either. [Laughter]... I can honestly say I'm very proud of what we accomplished [here] in a year. Even though the restaurant is a year old, it still feels brand new. That's what I love about it. That means we're growing, we're not on auto-pilot, we're not being stagnant. After a year it still feels fresh and new, the learning curve is still there, I'm still enthusiastic about going to work every day and learning how to get better.