Just six days after her hotly anticipated new restaurant, Trove, opened in Seattle, chef Rachel Yang looked surprisingly calm. "We feel very lucky," Yang said of herself and husband/fellow chef/partner Seif Chirchi. "There are tons of hardworking cooks and chefs out there, and we cannot believe we are where we are." Yang and Chirchi, who met when they were both working at Alain Ducasse at Essex House in New York City, moved to Seattle in the mid-aughts and opened the Korean-French restaurant Joule in 2007. In late 2010, they debuted the more casual Revel, where Yang's rice bowls were christened the "Best Thing I Ever Ate" by former New York Times food critic Frank Bruni.
But on September 14, the pair unveiled their most ambitious project to date: Trove, a 4,000-square-foot restaurant that houses four separate concepts under one roof. In addition to a takeaway frozen custard window, bar/lounge, and noodle counter, Trove's main dining area focuses on Korean barbecue, both of the cook-it-yourself variety and in plated dishes like brisket char-grilled and served with a Szechuan barbecue sauce. For Yang, the new restaurant represents an opportunity to appeal to "so many different people," an appropriate mindset for a chef who discovered cooking as a window into American culture. "What I loved about it is it became almost like my third language," says the Korean-born Yang. "The food that you make totally speaks this whole universal language for everyone. I found I don't have to be 'Korean' or 'American,' I could just be a 'cook,' which really put me in a comfort[ing spot]. That's why I kept cooking." Eater and Yang recently chatted about how the four-concept Trove came to be, opening-week lessons, and why Yang and Chirchi aren't quite ready to transition from working chefs to restaurateurs.
How did the Trove concept come about?
When we opened Joule, everyone was like, "a Korean restaurant: Do you guys do barbecue?" This project was something that we've been wanting to do for a long time. Not particularly this crazy four-concept thing, but we were wanting to open a Korean barbecue restaurant. Because when we opened Joule, everyone was like, "a Korean restaurant: Do you guys do barbecue?" People always associate the Korean restaurant with Korean barbecue... I love Korean barbecues. It's not about getting the meat and actually cooking it, it's more about the whole way you eat. It's very interactive, you're actually involved. You're not just sitting down and someone's handing you food: It's like teamwork. That's what's so fun about it. Your family's going out and having this campfire barbecue where everyone's involved, everyone takes part in it. We love that whole aspect about cooking. We thought, "My god, this will be so cool to have in Seattle." So we've been wanting to do that for a while.
So how did the barbecue concept kind of fold itself into this larger concept?
We realized we were getting into all these difficulties — we're working with really great architects and contractors, however, none of them have experience [in building this kind of restaurant]. "What do you mean you have six different hoods and grills? This is going to be crazy." We had to narrow down our search to a single-story building, which is really hard to find in Seattle now. At the same time, a lot of them can't really accommodate our situation. So we found this great building, a two-story building on the corner of Summit and Pike, on Capitol Hill… It's a really great corner location. We thought, "My god, this place would be great, we love it, we love the location, the building is great"… but it's a little bigger than what we wanted it to be.
Joule shares a space with the Whale Wins: Did you consider doing something similar here, to share the square-footage with someone else?
At Joule, we share the hallway and the bathroom, basically. We kept thinking, that's great because we get to work in a place [that has] people flocking to both restaurants. At the same time, there's really no shared efficiency because we have two different staff, two different walk-ins, two different everything. It was like, if I can bring a concept where we can have them share efficiency in the back of the house — having one big kitchen, one big dishwasher, and one having one big-walk in — that's really what this whole shared [ideal] could be. Basically, the barbecue has about 2,000 square feet, and then the main thing was, I don't want to compromise the Korean barbecue concept and change it just to have a lunch concept there.
Oh my god, it's a Korean barbecue... it sounds so exotic and foreign and different.
But the fact is [we're close to downtown] and we have such fun doing all these house made noodles at Revel. So we're like, "Let's have something that's really easy and comforting; something that we can bring to people who may be worried about, 'Oh my god, it's a Korean barbecue, I've never done it before, it sounds so exotic and foreign and different.'" Just having a little gateway, a little portal in the front: "This is noodles. Just come in and don't worry about it." Because everyone loves noodles. [We thought], "Hey, this will be really fun to have a lunch concept that's serving noodles and then have the barbecue in the back."
How did build-out go, with all these moving pieces?
We have tables that do not have a barbecue. It ended up being incredibly — a lot more expensive — than we anticipated. We thought that we would have tabletop grills on all the tables, but then [we realized] the total HVAC/plumbing was probably, like, a third of the whole build-out [cost], because they need to have one hood for every single barbecue. All that stuff, it was just insane.
We thought, "Wow, this is getting way over our head," so we ended up having just eight big tables with the tabletop grills. We have all this seating that doesn't have tabletop grills, and I was thinking, "Gosh, we can't really bill ourselves as a Korean barbecue, have people come in, and they can't even have the barbecue experience." We spent a lot of time coming up with a menu that actually has a lot of non-grill items... People have actually been really happy with that. We have a lot of people who come in and have a barbecue table and they just order from the roast menu. That's exactly what we wanted people to want to do here: Having people not ever feel like they're getting an inferior part of the menu because they're not sitting at the barbecue grills, that's been really great.
It's a week old, but is there one of the four concepts that's busier than you expected or maybe one that's a harder sell than you expected?
It’s really funny because barbecue was the one that we didn't know if it was going to take off. But barbecue has been the busiest, actually — which is really great because it's the main dining area. People are just excited to try something different, and we love the fact that parents actually bring their little kids. Kids are cooking their food on their own. We were totally worried: Are people going to get scared of the cooking? Are people going to burn all their food — or their fingers or whatnot — because everything's really hot? Everyone's super-stoked about it; no one's burned themselves. So far, dinner's been stronger than lunch, so this is very cool: There's huge potential because lunch has people who don't know about it yet. Ice cream is the one that's suffered the most. [Laughs]
So how has the first week gone otherwise?
It's one of those things where chefs: They're anxious to see all the people coming in. At the same time, they're relieved to see not that many people come in. [Laughs] Because it takes time to get all your staff trained. It takes time to get staff to the whole smooth, machine-like efficiency of working. But yeah, first week's been great: Last night, I talked to them on the phone and they had a really busy night but everything went really smooth. It's been a crazy week. Every day I was there [I saw] a lot of people who come into Joule and Revel, and everyone just wanted to see what we're doing with these four spaces. I was like, "What is going on here?"
I hear two completely different sides of the story from my customers.
It's really fun, because I hear two completely different sides of the story from my customers. Some people are just super excited, like, "My god, this is the coolest thing, I love it." Then some people go, "This is so confusing. What's going on, where is the barbecue and then wait, I have to get the noodles over here but not in here?" Obviously most people are really excited about it. They want to wander around and just check out everything for themselves. I think it's going to be okay, but at the same time, we might have to put a little sign that says "Barbecue this way" and "Come sit at the bar," just to make sure. When I talk about it, it sounds like a really big place. But it's very manageable.
How are you planning to split your time at the restaurants?
This is something that we are working on… my husband, Seif and I, we basically are still working chefs. I have my five-shift schedule at Joule and Seif has his five-shift schedule at Revel. You can find us at one of our restaurants all the time because we're there and [now at the] third restaurant. This is definitely our huge step that we took. We are not moving away from beings chefs to restaurateurs. That's the big thing: After two restaurants, we have some amazing staff. It's been such an amazing experience working with these staff members who know exactly what we're trying to do, and then it's an amazing experience, being able to trust these guys. They care about food as much as you do — or more. They're the ones who would always tell you, "Let's do a better job, let's try some more recipes and then find out if we can do better."
It puts us in a really interesting place because I feel that almost demands us to work harder.
Having these people who are also into the food, it's been an amazingly gratifying experience. Because I'm still the kind of person [who thinks] that it's so much easier for me just to do everything myself… that's just how it's been all the time. Then I realized — because a lot more things are on our plate — I don't get to do as good of a job, because I have very little time. There are few things [I've realized]: Having someone who you trust means it actually ends up being than if you did the job yourself. It put us in really interesting place because I feel that almost demands us to work harder. All the cooks that work the same hard hours and give everything they've got: My sous chef works harder than anyone I know. I feel like I have to work harder than any of my sous chefs and that's my thing.
Is it hard for you and your husband? Two chefs, two small kids: When do you sleep?
It's a lot. Sleeping has been my last priority for a few months now. It's not easy but at the same time, it actually works. This opening has been actually very different than our first opening. It's really funny because when you open a restaurant, that's all you think about. You get totally burnt out and stressed out about it, because you're just so focused and concentrated on this one thing.
The thing is, because we have these two-year-old and four-year-old boys who demand all your attention when you're playing with them, they would never let you be on your phone. If I didn't have them, I'd be literally on my computer or having meetings or would be in the kitchen 24/7. Playing with these guys makes me — forces me — to basically step away from the project. So in a way, crazy as it is, it actually got me to stop thinking about work, after I play with them. On some insane level, it got me through this whole process.