Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one year anniversary.
[Photo: Aubrie Pick]
Last summer, industry vet chefs Evan and Sarah Rich opened the highly-anticipated Rich Table on a bustling corner in Hayes Valley. The airy, farmhouse-inspired restaurant was the long-steeped vision of the couple, who arrived in San Francisco from New York City over five years ago and gained accolades and experience at fine-dining institutions from Quince to Coi to Michael Mina. Over the past year, the restaurant became a media darling on both the local and national level, with nominations from James Beard and Andrew Knowlton's Top 50 US Restaurants in Bon Appetit, not to mention 3.5 stars from Bauer. Eater recently caught up with the Riches and discussed the pressure of the press, their two-year-old's love for porcini donuts, and their plans for the future.
It's a little over one year in, and you guys have had a lot of really great press and exciting things happen for you, especially after working in the industry for a long time. What has surprised you in your first year as restaurant owners?
Evan Rich: People coming into eat [laughs]. But it's always been our goal to open a restaurant. When we opened, insecurities and not really knowing what you're getting yourself into and always being behind the scenes and never being the driving force, you never really expect or consider the amount of people who come into eat. I remember writing the business plan and writing that we want a hundred people a night, thinking a hundred people in San Francisco are going to come to our restaurant, and wondering, why would they come here? And the response to it has been humbling. We just opened this place to have fun, and cook how we wanted to cook, and just enjoy what we do, and come back to having fun cooking. And we couldn't have expected anything better.
Sarah Rich: It's true, exactly what Evan said. When we would write our business plan, we would try to figure out, who these people are that are going to come in, and you're terrified. Maybe a hundred people won't come in. And I still remember the first day we opened, I had this panic attack, because all of a sudden it's a real thing, and it's not stopping. And you have no idea what's going to happen. So, it's been really exciting to see people enjoy it.
What have been some of the major challenges you've faced?
ER: I always tell people I've never worked so much. I've never dealt with so much shit, and I've never gotten paid so little. But, I mean, I love it all. We definitely made the right choice. I think the major challenges have been dealing with the part of being a business owner and not just being a chef. We not only deal with the kitchen and prep and dishwasher, but we also had to deal with numbers, accounting, taxes, permits, and all that stuff. Also, dealing with the front [of-house], and just being that driving force. If you come in one day and you don't believe in it or feel down, you're at the top, people feel it and feel the same way.
SR: Maintaining your own motivation is a challenge, and it sets the tone for the entire staff and entire restaurant. I would also say that there never really is a moment you have off. It really is like being a parent, because even when you do get a day off, which is very rare...
ER: You're answering emails and dealing with phone calls and getting orders.
SR: ...even when you go out of town, you're still dealing with all of that. You're never completely free of everything, and that is a challenge. And then there's also the challenge that we have a son, and we have to manage our time together. We have a lot of time that is restaurant-involved, but we don't have a lot of personal time. And, that is hard because we are a couple.
So, having a son and having a restaurant is like having two children?
SR: It's great. I highly recommend it to anyone.
Which child is more high-maintenance?
ER: It depends on the day.
SR: Our son is two-and-a-half.
ER: They are both pretty challenging. I think one of the challenges that comes to mind is developing what Rich Table is. We came into opening this restaurant and people would ask, "What kind of restaurant is it?" I would say, "I don't know, a food restaurant?" We're just going to cook what we want and work on developing a personality and pushing what is Rich Table and evolving. For example, we started with six people in the kitchen, including us and dishwashers. And now we're up to about 17. We're not a conceptual restaurant. We have a love and a passion for what we do, and we want to make people happy. We want people to enjoy their food, enjoy the service, and enjoy the atmosphere, and have a good time. We don't want to change world with our cooking. We don't want to change your idea about food. We just want you come in and enjoy it. So, to stay on focus and not steer in another direction because of what people say or expect, is difficult.
What kind of restaurant is Rich Table?
ER: Recently someone asked me that question, what's your concept? And it clicked in my head that there really isn't a concept. It's about loving to cook. We love what we do. It's more about expressing ourselves. We named it Rich Table because you're coming to our table, and we want that personal connection. If you go to your mother's table, and she cooks dinner for you, you don't ask her what kind of cuisine she made. She cooks what she wants. And we have pretty eclectic backgrounds and have done a whole range of things. So, that's part of the challenge every day of defining what we do, and just making sure there is consistency and quality. And Rich Table will form a personality of its own. It's unique and special in San Francisco, and we don't want to be compared to a place that's like this or that, because it's not that, it's just what we do.
Since both of you come from back-of-house cooking backgrounds, how did you develop your front-of-house styles?
ER: Our partner Maz Naba, who was the somm at Coi when I was there, he has a lot of experience with it. The one thing that we are really adamant about, is we want our service to be very casual, but we want people that are like us, that are really passionate about what they do, but they don't have to have someone stand over them. We want people who are passionate about making people happy. Finding the right people to serve and put the vision out there has been a challenge. We've had some bumps along the way, but where we are now, the service and people who work with us are amazing. They believe in us, and at the same time, we believe in them. Bringing people like that in helps us push ourselves harder, and we don't want to let them down. We sell them on a dream and an idea of who we are, and they believe in it, and it helps to drive us to be better.
SR: I think also what Evan is saying is that originally when we put our idea of how we wanted our front-of-house to run and act, similar to the kitchen staff and the food, our intention was that you could tell there was a background in fine-dining and a lot of experience, but it wasn't necessarily hitting you in the face. We don't have anything that's overly plated, and it's the same thing with the service. You can tell the servers are experienced, but there isn't that sophisticated air thrown into your face, not casual, but more casual. Also, one thing we reiterate to all of our staff is treating the restaurant is if it's your own and instilling ownership of the food and the service and the space, and that way, everyone is invested in the customer being happy and going well. It's not just the two of us running it. It's every body involved that wants to see the endeavor succeed.
Now that you've settled in, how do you feel about your location?
ER: It's been fantastic. The neighborhood itself is filled with people who love to eat food. The theater helps out for extra business. But the type of person who lives in Hayes Valley really gets what we do, because it seems that they're people who know dining and want quality, but don't necessarily want to dress up and make a big occasion out of it. So, we're kind of a good place for that, where you can come in and have a great bottle of wine, have a great server, and get a great bowl of pasta or however you want to experience it. It could be Tuesday night with friends without having to wear a suit and tie.
SR: It's also nice being just off the main drag, because we get the theater crowd, which, let's be honest, restaurants want that. It's a good thing. But it's not a theater restaurant. It's not all we get. We get a lot of neighborhood people. We get a lot of people from around the city and from around the country, really. We have a good mixture of clientele. It's not just one kind.
ER: Being centrally located, we get people from on top of the hill, we get people from the Mission, from the Richmond, the Sunset. We have this really eclectic group of people. We've had a lot of comments about how different our customer base is. From an older person who is going to the opera to a Mission hipster, to someone who works in tech, it kind of all works together.
What are your favorite neighborhood spots when you have a moment to grab a bite?
ER: We love 20th Century Cafe, Gourmet & More for a cheese plate and a bottle of wine when we have a break, but we don't really get out much. Zuni Cafe, right around the corner, we do go there a lot.
On your menu, the sardine chips have gained quite a following. Are there any other cult favorites?
ER: We do these porcini donuts with do with a raclette sauce, and people really seem to love them. We did Outside Lands this year, and Spin Magazine did an article about the 40 best things they saw there and number one was Nine Inch Nails, two was Phoenix, three was Paul McCartney, and four was our porcini donuts.
SR: Five was the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
ER: Those are something that we just can't take off the menu because people come in looking for them.
SR: Our son loves them. When he comes into the restaurant, I've taught him to go right up to the guy who works that station and say, "Donut man. I want donuts!" And he'll eat the whole thing, though he doesn't like the cheese sauce so much.
How do you stay inspired while working so many hours?
ER: We're still trying to work it out. Sometimes for me, it takes stepping away for a day and not even thinking about food and getting some sleep. And then going to the market and talking to the cooks about what ideas they have had and places they've eaten. It comes in so many ways without rhyme or reason.
SR: I usually go home in the afternoon. I'm trying to work more at night, but generally I work during the day and then take care of our son at night. And those times that I'm away from here is what helps me reset my focus. But we do really well with bouncing ideas back and forth with each other.
How do you find yourselves collaborating in the kitchen?
ER: There's no formula for that. It's in passing. I'll say something or she'll send me a text message. Or I'll have an idea and she'll taste it. It's very organic.
After a few months being open, you received a great review from Michael Bauer of three and a half stars. How did that impact you on a business and personal level?
ER: On a business level, we were extremely busy. The phone was ringing off the hook, which is something you don't realize the impact of when you're coming up but not the driving force. After that, so many people came in. So many people made reservations. All of a sudden, we're thrown into the spotlight, and so much anxiety comes with that. Maybe it's just me and some of my insecurities, but thinking about that type of rating, it puts you on a level with all these other restaurants that aren't really like us. So then you feel like you have to live up to this level.
SR: As much as it's true that there's a glowing review and wonderful things said, there's right back at you the people who say that we don't deserve that.
ER: For me, we had to live up to this idea. I hung it up really high in my head, because it was something I always saw from chefs I really looked up to. But then, it took some friends to say, "You got that because of what you do, not what you can do, but what you are" and then I was able to relax with it. But for a while, living up to it almost changed what we were doing, but then you sink into it and you have friends and regulars who keep saying, "Keep doing what you're doing, because we love what ever it is."
SR: That goes back to what Evan was saying at the beginning, that one of the biggest challenges is maintaining the vision and focus and doing what it is we always said we were going to do, because it's very easy to get side-tracked, especially by people who expected this or that. They ask, "But you worked at Coi, why aren't you doing Coi food?" But that's not what we do. It's about filtering that out and staying true to yourself.
ER: Just because someone comes in and expects you do to Coi food, doesn't mean you should be doing it.
Do you feel that a lot of diners have come in with expectations that are different than what you're putting out?
SR: I think at first a lot of people thought, "But they worked Michael Mina and Coi and Quince, where is that kind of food?" We gave them our background but we never said we were going to cook that kind of food.
ER: Now, we've developed such a regular customer base so people know what to expect.
Another press item you received was Andrew Knowlton's nomination in the Top 50 Restaurants in the US. Did that also impact you?
ER: Business-wise, yes. It was great to be mentioned. That and with the James Beard nomination, those are things that you couldn't really expect, or at least we didn't expect those when we opened. At that point, you don't think too much about it. I've arrived at a place where I don't let it affect me. I personally try not to read all that stuff because of the stress and anxiety that came from the initial review. I try to just stay away, and when the diners smile at me and tell me it was great, that's when I feel good. Someone writing something about you is fantastic and great, don't get me wrong, but I don't want to get lost in it. I've worked for some chefs who got lost in status and press, and I don't want that.
SR: It totally changes your focus, and your focus should be here. I say that because I've seen it happen.
Do you have any evolutions in mind for this coming year for the restaurant?
ER: We just want to keep getting better. We just want to keep evolving what we do, figure out how to not get bored and stay relevant, and keep people interested. But that would make it seem like we plan ahead, and we don't plan that far ahead.
SR: That is one thing this man does not do is plan ahead.
ER: I have trouble planning ahead because it never works out the way you thought it would be. My day-to-day focus is making things better and more exciting and keeping cooks and diners interested.
SR: You can always be better. You can always be more efficient and push the envelope more. We never want to feel complacent.