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Chef Ris Lacoste cooked her last meal at 1789 on New Year’s Eve 2005. She had decided to leave the Georgetown fine-dining destination owned by Clyde’s Restaurant Group to open her own place. Nearly four years later, she finally did. She and co-owner Mitchell Herman debuted RIS on Dec. 7 in the West End, forever quieting the tedious gossip around hospitality circles that the place would never open. Lacoste took time away from her opening week on the job to answer 10 questions from Y&H.
1. Congratulations on the opening of RIS. How does it feel being back in the kitchen full-time after a four-year hiatus?
It’s heaven, absolutely heaven. It feels great. It doesn’t get better than this in my mind. I’ve been working so hard for this, and it’s only sweeter that it’s taken a long time. After day one, the pressure was off. It’s so hard to describe. The pressure, yet I was doing what I wanted to. The unknown became known, and I’m doing what I do and what I love doing. I feel great. It’s a fabulous feeling.
2. The delays in opening RIS are now legendary. What were the main stumbling blocks to getting the doors open?
[She laughs.] It’s really difficult to say. I don’t think I have the answers to that. I think it was just meant to be. I’m glad I wasn’t open last year. I think I’m just opening at the time that I should be open…I met this space in May 2006 and, understandably, I had a lot of money to raise and it came at a very hard time. I started raising money just as the recession was settling in, and people knew and people were afraid and that was difficult. I don’t know, I think that lease negotiations went on forever. It’s a long lease. There is no reason, truthfully. There is no exact science. I have never done this before, so it’s not something that you spit out. I learned the letter of the law. I learned to read a lease, so for me it was a 101 in lease negotiations, a 101 in fundraising. I had never done that before. The learning curve has been amazing, and I participated in every single aspect of it and every single aspect of design and chose every tile and chose every material. So it’s been fabulous…
3. Not to get too geeky about the delays, but when did you officially sign the lease for the space? And how were you able to stay afloat financially during the delays? Didn’t you have to start paying the lease at some point?
I officially signed the lease on August 25 of last year, so it’ll be a little over a year later. A year from lease signing is the norm, so I was beyond the norm once again but still not so bad. And how did I survive? Well, I jumped off a cliff when I left 1789. I really didn’t have any plans except that I was sure that I was going to open a restaurant. So there was nothing ahead of time. I saved money in order to do that, so I lived the first couple of years on my own. I did open Rock Creek. I did quite a few consulting projects, small projects, you know…I worked full-time for a year with Rock Creek. I opened up Rock Creek at Mazza Gallery during the fundraising and lease negotiation time, so I did that. Then after that, for the last six months, part of the budget for opening the restaurant was paying my salary since we had enough money to survive and pay my bills…
4. I heard that the tenants in the apartments above didn’t want a restaurant. How did you ultimately placate them?
I don’t think that’s true. I think 99.9 percent of the tenants are actually thrilled to death that we’re here. So I think that you can put that notion to rest… No, I think they’re thrilled to death. The space had been empty since the building was opened, but the tenants are thrilled. I have been talking with them, meeting with them, at the board meetings and also at the resident meetings since I saw the site and since that I knew I was moving in. So I have been maintaining communications with them from day one. And then…after mock service, I entertained them, had a cocktail party for everyone in the building, just to introduce them to the restaurant and say hello. So they are my biggest fans right now. They are so excited that I am here, and they have been coming in droves and booking parties and things like that, so I’m really looking forward to working with them.
5. How did you decide on the West End location?
My personality is one that likes to please people, and I loved my corner in Georgetown. I loved being at 36th and Prospect at 1789 for 10 years, and I loved the neighborhood and being on the university campus. I worked on the Berkeley campus [Lacoste received a degree in French at the University of California at Berkeley, where she also served as assistant general manager at the Faculty Club], Rochester campus [where she studied pre-med biology at the University of Rochester], at Harvard Square [where she worked with chef Bob Kinkead at the Harvest restaurant]. I worked at Georgetown for 10 years, and now GW. But just being on campus and being in a neighborhood, I loved it. I loved my neighbors. I loved the regulars…Bob Kinkead, my dearest friend and mentor, said, ‘Ris, you look for an underserved neighborhood, you know.’ He would always say, ‘Open a diner.’ I always wanted to open a diner…My working title of the project was Lacoste Fine Diner, and that’s what helped me create my concept. It just said what it was. You know: fine diner…. So that gave me the concept, and I looked for an underserved neighborhood. I did. I looked at 20-30 places…I’ve been here for 22 years and really thought about, OK, where would I really like to be? And all these new neighborhoods. I did look at 15th and T actually as one of my first places. The new building that’s there. Granted, this was four years ago. I’m sure it’s built and sold by now, but then it was just a hole in the ground. And then I said, ‘No this is not right for my 1789, Kinkead’s and Twenty-One Federal crowds and just not the right location.’ So I just continued to look, and I met this place at 23rd and L. I met it, and I fell in love. This was it…As much as people said, ‘Don’t fall in love with it, you won’t make a good business deal,’ I just stuck with it and I prayed. Time will only tell. I think it’s the perfect transition from Georgetown, and what I loved about it are the windows and it was on the corner. I could have an outdoor café. And it’s a great neighborhood… The residential space that’s here is phenomenal. There are 18 hotels right in a two- or three-block radius. I have Georgetown, Foggy Bottom and downtown and Dupont Circle to feed from as well as the dining district of the West End. There’s the university, the hospital and lots of offices. I don’t have that immediate lunch crowd, but I will get it…. And the windows are amazing. I even have windows in my kitchen. I have windows and music. It’s just heaven. It’s just really, really great for all of us. So we really get to see life go by. I’m sitting here and looking at the length of my restaurant, and it’s quite something.
6. What are the differences between having your own place and working for someone else, whether Bob Kinkead or the Clyde’s Restaurant Group?
You know, I worked for Bob for 13 years, and I loved being second in command. I always have enjoyed that position in the sense of just running the show and making someone else’s life better. Having the ownership and having the respect and the autonomy to do what I wanted, and I had that certainly with Bob and certainly at 1789 working for Clyde’s. What I like most is that I get to create the ambiance. I get to create the mood, the spirit. It’s really, really great. I was closing down restaurants when I was 17 years old, so I have always been in charge, and I enjoy the role. I think I’m good at it. I have a great deal of respect for my staff. I love my staff. So I like being in that position. I’ve just done it for a long time, and kind of being in charge is the only thing I know. Not the only thing I know, certainly I don’t mean that. It’s just that I enjoy the role…The most important thing about calling the shots is creating the mood, the sense of how we’re going to do things, what we want to create, how we want to embrace our guests….It’s really nice here to give everybody, and each one of my management staff, the integrity and the autonomy to run their part of it. I certainly have done that, because I’ve appreciated always having that. That’s how I was taught. That’s how I grew up. So it’s really, really nice having that respect for them and, in turn, I get their full attention, hard work, and their respect for me and their willingness to do things as I want them to be done. So it’s great. I love it. I love the role, and I’m really looking forward to developing this place.
7. What did you want to accomplish with your menus?
Ahhh, I just want to accomplish a place where people come and eat delicious food. That’s all, and really be well taken care of and really be safe. Just be comfortable and just away from the craziness. I’ve created a very pretty space that is pleasing to the eye and comfortable at the same time. It’s elegant, but it’s embracing. And the food, I want the food to embrace them. I love people coming to the table. Eating food is just an important thing and just to relax when you eat. You know what I mean? It’s a concept of life that we owe to ourselves to have a little bit of calm and comfort. I want the food to be delicious, and my food is a combination of…very innovative food but very classic food as well. So there will be some very different dishes on the menu, but there will be meatloaf and spaghetti and meatballs. [We had] liver and onions today for lunch; we sold a ton of them, and rack of lamb tonight for dinner. Thursday is rack of lamb night….And the third component of the menu is that it’s fresh from the farmers market. I’m not there yet by any stretch. I mean, I am at the market; I just came back from the market. My goal is to serve, you know, grass-fed meats and fresh-from-the-farmers-market [food] and serve food that’s as good for you as possible. I’m not there…I don’t have all my farmers or my meat sources lined up yet and all that, but I will. But it’s a process to me. It’s development. It’s organic. It unfolds, and we’re searching, searching, searching for where we’re going to get this from, where we’re going to get that from. As we open and as we get into our routine, we’re going to find the purveyors.
8. Did your menus change, or your thoughts about them at least, as the economy started to tank in the past two years?
Not at it. It’s always what I wanted to do. Again, my original approach was to open a diner in an underserved neighborhood. So what I’ve done is that I’ve created a fine diner. You know, the ‘daily menu’ meatloaf on Mondays was always [part of the concept]. Julia [Child] told me that. She said, ‘Ris, you are going to have meatloaf on your menu, aren’t you?’ I said, ‘Yes, Julia.” And I love meatloaf. Meatloaf and soups, I love making soups. These are the kind of foods I love to eat, let’s say. My mother was a fabulous cook. I grew up with seven kids. Eating at the table every day at 5 o’clock was…you know, I had three hot meals a day growing up. It’s really something…I don’t know, Old World or whatever, but it’s really something that I’d like to provide for people and provide it in a nice atmosphere with fabulous, gracious service. So this is exactly what I wanted to do. It never changed.
9. I noticed that your famous rack of lamb is only available for a Thursday special? How come it’s not part of the regular menu?
It’s part of my ‘daily dining’ thing. I love that. Monday is meatloaf, and it’s a draw for people. They look forward to Thursdays. You know, I think it’s just a fun thought. I also want the menu to be a lower-priced menu, a more moderately priced menu I should say. Again, I don’t want to carry the burden of lamb. Lamb is a very high item…But more importantly than any of that, I love the fact that people are going to come on Thursdays for rack of lamb. Like, ‘I’ll be on Thursdays,’ so that’s great. It just gives that anticipation…
10. You touched upon this a little bit already, but what are the best and worst parts about owning your own restaurant?
Well, calling my own shots is great. The worst part is the sustained stress, and it will be sustained forever, I think. I have given my life to this. I don’t have a family. I don’t know how people who have families do it, truly. I think to be good at what you do, as anyone who is really good at what they do, they devote a lot of dedication and time to it. I have chosen to do that. But the sustained stress, the stress doesn’t go away. I see people now, and I say, ‘Please, how are your kids? Let’s talk about something else other than this restaurant.’ It’s constant. It’s 24/7. When you don’t own, you can walk away. You want to go on vacation, go on vacation.You really, really can… I guess that’s the only downside. Obviously, there are financial issues. It has to be a success. The ‘but’ of that is that my head will be down to work, always figuring out how to be better. I am not a cocky person at all. I have faith that it will be a success, but [the stress] is sustained. It’s non-stop. It doesn’t go away. I think the break won’t come for quite some time.
Bonus follow-up question: What is your coping mechanism for stress?
I am calm by nature. I have a great staff…and they take so much of the pressure off for me, that I know that I am in good hands. I ask for their protection….I know that they have my back. I think that building that sense of trust with your staff is very, very important, and that certainly helps. A coping mechanism, I have a membership to Sports Club/LA…I’ll go up there and do something. I have been trying to take boxing classes, but I’m certainly not strong enough yet or [garbled on tape] but that will be my goal. If I could really, really learn how to box, then I could punch that bag out and that will be a good coping mechanism….But I’m not a screamer. I never, ever scream. I get a good night’s sleep, and the restaurant business gives, allows you that freedom. You work really, really hard, so you sleep really well. If I can get a good six hours in, I’m in at 10. It hasn’t quite been the case, but it will. And if I get a good night’s sleep, I am content. I love what I do. I love coming to work every day, so I’m content being here.
(Answers have been edited by Young & Hungry.)