Commonwealth is a critically adored restaurant from chef Jason Fox, chef de cuisine Ian Muntzert, GM Xelina Leyba, and Anthony Myint, whose name you might recognize from some things. Since opening a little over a year ago in a former taqueria, the team has stayed the course, offering the style of dishes you might see at Michelin-starred restaurants without "the trappings of fine dining." Today, we sit down with Fox, Muntzert and Leyba, to reflect on a relatively glorious first year in business.
Let's talk about how Commonwealth got its start.
Fox: We all worked at Bar Tartine together: me, Ian, Anthony, Xelina. Anthony left a little bit earlier to work on Mission Street Food. Me and Ian left kind of together. That's when they sort of shifted to a bistro theme. We talked about wanting to do our vision of what a restaurant would be together. We all really liked each other. We had a pretty concrete vision, so we pooled resources.
So what was that vision?
Fox: We wanted a demystification of fine dining. We like the aesthetic of food, we've eaten at Michelin-starred restaurants throughout the world, and we love the experience, but I don't think everyone is able to have that. So we're hoping to provide a snapshot of that, but with value created, but still trying to be creative and still have that aesthetic. Good service, but casual, personable service. You go to some places and they're so stuffy. The list of restaurants that have Michelin stars that I've lit menus on fire, and knocked wine over is long, and it's steep. We want people to feel comfortable.
So highly refined food. Casual atmosphere. Why is that so hard to find?
Fox: It's hard and it's expensive. And some of the things we try to do technique wise, the labor is high. When you've got ten people trying to do what we're trying to do, it's easy. When you've got three people in the kitchen trying to do it, it can be sort of difficult. The ingredients we use are sometimes more expensive. There's a fine line between doing that and not being more expensive.
It's a feat.
Fox: We try to do it without crying. Occassionaly we do. It's how tight you do things, the labor of cutting, etc. We're trying to find that balance in a smaller kitchen, with more covers and less staff than other places where you'll find this food.
Muntzert: I think there's also a stigma that if you're going to do refined food, you need a refined setting, you need all the trappings of fine dining. I've had so many meals in Michelin starred restaurants where I've thought I'd rather be sitting on a bucket in the back of the kitchen eating this.
Fox: Yeah, there's always the votive there, and it's so easy to light the menu on fire. We want it to be joyous and fun. A lot of places say they're fun, but it's such a calculated amount of fun. We want everyone here on the service side to enjoy being here and for that to translate over to the customer.
How was the opening?
Xelina: I think it was a little tricky, because everyone comes in with certain expectations. What we're doing here is 90% similar to what we were doing at Bar Tartine in terms of the food, and the service and the style. We had a lot of people that followed us from there, but there was also this much larger audience that kind of was either into the molecular gastronomy aspect, or the charitable aspect. But overall we had a strong set of people that really got it, and we had regulars within the first couple weeks which was really awesome.
Fox: We were busy from the start. We had a strong following. We got a lot of good press when we started, built a lot of good momentum, and everyone has been pretty kind to us, even past year one. So we're grateful that we're still getting written up. It's helped keep us busy.
Aren't there any rocky horror stories? Early liquid nitrogen SNAFUs?
Jason: That's the toughest thing. You know using it [liquid nitrogen] is fine. The way it's stored, and how much you go through is a little tricky. And you know you don't get it on the weekends, so you don't know if you're going to have enough. So we've had times where we've had to 86 things with liquid nitrogen. We figured out how much we go through and how to order more to stay ahead. You know when your produce purveyors, who we love so much, they're small and they don't always deliver everything on time, but you can always run down somewhere else and go pick up meats and vegetables. When your liquid nitrogen doesn't deliver, there's nowhere else to get it.
What were your lessons learned? Any immediate changes in the beginning?
Fox: Not really to be honest. We were pretty focused. We had a pretty strong vision and plan.
Xelina: We also had a lot of staff that we'd worked with before. For our front of house and back of house. We had a strong set in place. That was super instrumental. As opposed to bringing in new people. Then they all left. [Laughing] We knew they were leaving. They were moving to LA.
Fox: That crew got us through that first hump. They understood our philosophy. Since then we've brought on new people. And we've had about average turnover. A pretty stable group.
Any opening surprises?
Xelina: We were surprised that we didn't sell as many tasting menus when we first opened. It's been kind of interesting, in the past year, we've actually sold significantly more than when we first opened. I remember you [Jason Fox] and Anthony thought we'd be selling a lot more in the beginning.
Do you think it's a trust thing?
Fox: Yeah I think once you get past the beginning, we've been steady, people are more willing to put themselves in our hands. I always wanted there to be an adventurousness to the a la carte menu too. We've been a little more adamant about not doing tasting menu stuff a la carte as well. In the beginning we had more cross-over. Now we sell so many more tasting menus, so there are more exclusive things there.
What was the review process like?
Xelina: It was kind of scary. You know we've been doing what we've been doing for a while with confidence, but we didn't know how we were going to be received.
Fox: We weren't sure. We thought people may not get it. We thought we were busy enough that no matter what happened we'd be able to move forward. Luckily we got some nice reviews, and it helps. We're happy for that.
Xelina: It's crazy though right? Because we didn't really expect it.
Fox: We follow reviews. You know, there are places we love that don't get good reviews. We don't know about the consistency, or who likes what, or why.
Were you aware when the critics were in?
Muntzert: Patricia Unterman sat right at the bar
Fox: I've been friendly with her for years, so you know, I walked out and cooked for her. We talked to her. We knew pretty much everyone that came in. I mean in this day and age, there's no one you don't know or spot.
Fox: [Laughing] I think we might have missed Kauffman. I don't know what he looks like, so. I don't think he uses his name. The thing is people who come multiple times, use credit cards with their names on it.
Xelina: No one visited us until the first month in, which was also nerve-wracking.
Fox: Kauffman was the first one to come out. Then Patricia Unterman wrote her love letter to us. Bauer was the big one. So many restaurants opened at the same time as us. Benu opened the same day, [Bar] Agricole three days later, Prospect the month before. And then when the reviews came out, it was Benu, then it was us, then it was Plum. The Chronicle review was definitely very helpful. I think he reaches a pretty wide audience. And he's been a fan of ours.
Can you identify the type of person the Chronicle brings in. Who does Bauer draw?
Fox: You see a shift in clientele. I mean there's a younger Mission 20-something, 30-something, you know the type of people we've seen since the beginning who are very blog-savvy, the type who keep up on all that. After the Chronicle review, we saw people getting older, coming in from all over the city. We've actully seen a lot of people from other places, which is exciting and a little weird.
Fox: If they say someone in Austrailia told them to come here, we find that very flattering and cool, but you know there are a couple Canadian towns that apparently we have a little bit of a following. Calgary. Whenever we notice people are from out of town, we're excitied. We chat them up. They tell us people are talking about us. It's pretty cool.
How has the charitable aspect evolved?
Xelina: We started with a different charity once a week, and that became a little chaotic. I think once a month has worked out really well because it turns out to be a significant sum, and it's easier to plan ahead. Often we'll try to coincide with a charity's event or fundraiser, so it will be more beneficial for them.
Fox: We always try to downplay it. We first and foremost want to be considered a good restaurant. We didn't want to have that take over the messaging, but we wanted to help out the community on the side. So we're happy it's been pretty successful. If we can't run a good restaurnat, whatever we do charity wise falls apart.
What have you learned?
Fox: I've done this before. you know. I don't know what I've learned. [Xelina and Ian laughing] I mean, you know, we had a strong vision and a strong goal and we haven't really wavered much from it. I'm trying to think of what has really changed since we started. We're always trying to take things to the next level.
Are you still doing the frozen slushie cockatils?
Muntzert: [Smiling] Those things are a pain in the ass on a busy night.
Fox: We've learned if you're out of control busy, that you 86 them. [Xelina and Ian laughing] What else have we learned Ian?
Muntzert: At least on my end, it's been learning how to manage individual details better. I've learned 11,000 small things that have all hopefully made me better at my work, but there hasn't been like one ground breaking holy shit moment.
Fox: That's what's cool about this career, is that I'll never know everything about food. We can add new techniques to our repertoire all the time.
So what are you excited about now?
Fox: It's in the lab downstairs. We've cloned two line cooks.
Are they edible?
Fox: No. Everybody asks if they're twins. I think now they've proved to be good workers.
If I came in tonight what would you tell me I had to eat?
Muntzert: I like that pork dish a lot. I would always order the uni. It's always on the menu.
Fox: Yeah sea urchin is cool. We've always had one or two versions on the menu. And we sell tons of it.
I know you hate this question, but signature dishes?
Fox: I think we've developed some dishes that could be called signature dishes. We do this little horseradish dome salmon thing that I think we'll bring back. But our goal is not to keep offering the same thigns. The cooks get sick of making it and it starts to feel stale. So we're happy to take something off, and then bring it back so it's exciting again for the kitchen. It feels less routine.
Muntzert: Would people riot if we took the peanut butter off?
Fox: Oh that's a signature. The peanut butter semifreddo with the frozen pop corn. A lot of things that take a long time preparing, but are easy to plate become our favorite things in the world. You know there's a lot of complexity and technique that goes into the making of it, but when you're plating it, it's just a quick drop and a garnish.
Fox: Brunch. Yeah, we've always talked about brunch. The Mission seems to really like brunch. We like it. Again we've been lucky enough to be busy just doing dinner. We've finally gotten to a place where we can step back a little and not be here 24/7. Once we add brunch, we're all going to be here around the clock again. I think we might do brunch. Anyone? Anyone? Brunch?
Fox: Everyone in Calgary would be happy. We can franchise out! [Laughing] Probably if we did something else, it would be more casual. As much fun as it is putting everything on the plate with tweezers, you know that if we did another place it would probably be a little more rustic.
Fox: Not Pizza. You know there's quite a bit of pizza out there.
I know, I know, I was kidding.
Fox: We love pizza. But we won't be doing that any time soon.
· All Commonwealth Coverage [~ ESF ~]