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Kyle Bailey was shopping for wedding rings with his fiancee at a Jersey City mall last month when he got a call on his cell. He didn’t recognize the number, but he decided to take the call anyway.
On the other end of the line was Michael Babin, co-owner of Neighborhood Restaurant Group, who was phoning to see if Bailey might be interested in one of the most intriguing culinary positions in the District: executive chef of the forthcoming gastropub, Birch & Barley/ChurchKey near Logan Circle.
The call couldn’t have come at a better time for Bailey.
Less than two weeks earlier, Bailey had parted ways with the respected, romantic, candle-lit Allen & Delancey in Manhattan, where he was hired, just eight months earlier, to lead the restaurant’s kitchen. He had decided to walk away from his first-ever executive chef job when A&D’s owners apparently wanted to effect more cost-cutting measures than Bailey could swallow.
“I can’t do what I don’t want to do,” Bailey told Y&H this afternoon. A chef needs motivation to devote 16-hour work days to a job, he added, and Bailey knew that, with the pending budget cuts, he wouldn’t be able to summon up the necessary desire. So he left Allen & Delancey, despite making quick fans out of bloggers like Gothamist.
You could argue that it was a poor time for Bailey to take a stand on principles, given the recession that has hit NYC restaurants and chefs particularly hard. It didn’t help, either, that Bailey was getting married in Hawaii soon. Yet even with the social and economic pressures, Bailey said he didn’t just leap blindly at the Birch & Barley opportunity. He wanted to visit the space on 14th Street NW and learn more about the restaurant’s beer-forward approach to food and drink.
So just days before he was scheduled to leave for Hawaii for his wedding, Bailey drove down to D.C. to conduct a tasting for Babin and a few Neighborhood Restaurant Group employees. He didn’t have time to find all the ingredients he needed, so Bailey relied on what he could secure at a New Jersey grocery store on the way down to the District. The multi-course tasting didn’t get any easier when Bailey started cooking at the kitchen at Evening Star Cafe. The power went out, which forced everyone to relocate to Tallula, another NRG property.
Despite the hassles, Bailey impressed his would-be employer. “It was really, really great,” Babin recalled this afternoon.
You could say that Bailey was Babin’s kind of chef almost from the start of NRG’s search, which was prompted after the surprising departure of Frank Morales last month.
Babin had compiled a list of qualities for the perfect Birch & Barley chef. He wanted a young person who had worked in a demanding kitchen or two. He wanted someone who had worked in a restaurant with a serious beverage program. He wanted someone committed to local/seasonal ingredients. He wanted someone passionate about beer and about Birch & Barley’s suds-forward concept. He even wanted someone who had worked at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, a menu-less restaurant and educational center just outside NYC that sources 80 percent of its ingredients from the surrounding area.
He found all of those qualities in Kyle Bailey. “He really was the prefect candidate,” Babin said. “I hope that it is borne out.”
How perfect is the 29-year-old Bailey for Birch & Barley? The Culinary Institute of America graduate worked for nearly four years at Cru, which boasts one of best wine programs in the country. It also boasts Shea Gallante, a well-decorated chef whose obsessive, detail-oriented approach had a strong impact on Bailey. But Bailey also spent a year working at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, where the interplay between food and drink is just as important as it is at Cru.
Then there’s Bailey’s time at the spirits-friendly Allen & Delancey, where he was hired to bring discipline to a kitchen that had started to drift following the departure of original chef, Neil Ferguson, a former Gordon Ramsay lieutenant. Bailey once worked 100 days straight at A&D, regularly working the line. “People need to be led,” Bailey told Y&H. “When there’s no leader…it gets crazy.”
So what about beer? Is Bailey a devotee to the suds?
Without question, the chef said. He’s even an avid home brewer, and better yet, he’s almost giddy at the thought of developing a beer-oriented cuisine at Birch & Barley. “I’m excited by any chance to cook with beer,” he noted, “and not poach fish with Coors Light, but really cooking with beer.”
Bailey officially starts as Birch & Barley’s chef on Sept. 1. The gastropub is expected to open sometime later the same month.