When Ruxbin opened, Edward Kim (a veteran of Thomas Keller's Per Se) and his team worried that their location on Ashland Avenue wouldn't attract enough customers to warrant reservations. It didn't take long for those thoughts to be dashed as accolades from Bon Appétit (best new restaurants, 2011), Time Out Chicago, Chicago Tribune (outstanding restaurant, 2012) and GQ (ten best new restaurants in America) came pouring in. After a while, Kim and his partners (wife Jennifer, sister Vicki) realized that making people wait outside in inclement weather strayed from their goal of being "hospitable," so they made a change.
Kim pushed himself and his crew hard in the beginning, going out of his way to "make things difficult" on purpose in order to adapt and evolve. Eventually, he realized that a more balanced process was needed in order to accomplish his goals.
Finding that balance led him and his team to open a second restaurant, the more casual Mott St. in Wicker Park (also on Ashland) two years ago. The additional duties allowed him to grow his managerial side more as he gave up control at Ruxbin. "No matter how good of a cook you are, no matter how strong you are, you can't cook at two restaurants at the same time," Kim remembers of that time.
Five years in, Ruxbin is celebrating with a first for the BYOB restaurant: a tasting menu. Kim has put together a special menu to celebrate the anniversary (see the full menu below), giving a chef's choice tasting menu of five courses for $55. Below Kim discusses the changes, mistakes and future of Ruxbin, along with the possibility of opening a third restaurant.
Five years, that's quite an accomplishment, how does it feel?
Edward Kim: It feels pretty great. It's hard to be more than a flash in the pan. Usually there's that initial hype and to have some staying power, it's a huge blessing. I'm very blessed because of that and it's really exciting. It's such a tough industry. I think everybody knows that the success rate for a restaurant is very low.
What are some mistakes you feel you made initially and that you've learned from over the last five years?
Jen, Vicki and I, we are second generation and we have parents who are small business owners and they worked incredibly hard and it was tough for them. So we were very lucky. We just pushed and kept pushing to make things more difficult. And I think that there was a point where we figured out some kind of balance, and also becoming more comfortable with technique. I remember there were times where I would look at Thomas Keller's recipes and be in admiration that he would have a dish with just three components on it. How brave that was and how, when you do something like that, you have to make sure every single component is perfect. I feel that, over the years, we've matured enough where we're capable of doing dishes like that now.
You change the dishes out frequently. I read something where you were talking about a dish that was popular that you felt you had taken as far as you could and retired it. What has been the reaction from diners when this happens?
They'll explore other items on the menu, so I think it's a positive. But also, I think change is a huge process. Otherwise, you become stale and you die. When you're doing the same thing over and again, it's hard to enjoy some things that seem monotonous. When that dish is not changing or improving,and it can be something very subtle - something a little bit more than you did the other day, then there can be a lot of joy in it. I say to the guys when they cook (that) I want them to always be cognizant of what they're doing. Be aware and think about ‘how could I be doing this better?' Just be aware of the products that you're using.
What can you tell me about the anniversary tasting menu?
I'm really excited about it. One of my hesitations about ever offering (one) was that (I thought it) would be presumptuous for us to (do so) when we first opened. We didn't even think people wanted to have reservations with us at the beginning so why would they want a tasting menu? We are going to roll it out. We'll see how it succeeds.
You mentioned that you didn't take reservations in the beginning, what changed?
It was during the winter and we saw people standing outside, (some of who were) coming from the suburbs and stuff like that. At some point we felt that was kind of cruel (to make people wait outside). It's one thing if it's a beautiful summer day, but when it's in the middle of winter? We were just praying we wouldn't have a goose egg and that there would be nobody showing up. Also, we thought it was more convenient in the beginning for customers and for the neighborhood to just be able to drop in whenever they wanted. As that changed, it made more sense for us to take reservations.
What have been other major changes for Ruxbin over the years?
I think that the major change is that when we first opened the mentality was to be a neighborhood restaurant. I guess with my background and with my training and with our experience, our goal was (to create) a restaurant (in the way we felt it) should be and pushing towards that. As we evolved and as we pushed, we tried to get better and better. I would always ask the cooks to push harder. Let's do what we couldn't do before. I feel that we are much more stronger than when we first opened due to all the experiences we've had. Seeing that growth has been really encouraging and learning how to mentor and teach is part of that evolution. (Personally), I feel I've grown quite a bit as a chef in terms of management.
When you opened at Mott Street, I'm gathering you had to rely on the crew at Ruxbin more than you ever had to before. Was letting go of control difficult?
It definitely was. With Ruxbin and Mott - from the beginning I was always in the kitchen and taking up a very physical position and then going from that into more of a managerial position. When you're running around and you're chopping carrots you can physically see what you are accomplishing. It's very, very satisfying. On a managerial level, you don't have that same spike of physical adrenaline and results are not always as clearly tangible.
What do you see in the future for Ruxbin? Do you have any plans to change the décor or is there anything new planned?
I think we're very open to adapting and evolving. In terms of what we're doing, I hope that Ruxbin can be a fixture in Chicago. I would love to establish ourselves as a restaurant that just makes good food. We're not trying to do stuff that is super trendy, but I would love for it to be in people's minds as ‘this is a place that has good technique and has beautiful food, and the food is beautiful because the people behind it care.' I hope that my sous chefs and myself train our cooks and are able to pass down that feeling, that love of craft.
Do you anticipate doing a third restaurant? Do you have something in the works or in the back of your mind?
We have some ideas and seeing our staff as they grow we're trying to keep them and create new opportunities for them. So when we feel like we're in a position where we can grow, then we go for it. The whole process has been to do it organically, lets evolve versus forcing ourselves and make sure we're in a good place. We're on the second year of Mott St. and Ruxbin's in its fifth year. This year we (decided) to not open a new place and to nail (everything) down and invest our time into making sure that the operation is working as smooth as we want. We're investing as much as possible into the two restaurants that we have. If we're in a good place, then we can look into opening a third.