Chef Chat, Part 1: Rishi Singh of Boheme, on Running a Renegade Kitchen
Photos by Mai Pham Rishi Singh of Boheme inside his current kitchen
This is the first part of a two-part Chef Chat series. Check back with us tomorrow for Part 2 of this Chef Chat.
Boheme Cafe & Wine Bar is almost like a small utopian village of sorts. The space has all these nooks and crannies -- little subdivided rooms with couches, and a sprawling front, side, back patio that just seems to keep on going. People are always milling about because it's so casual and comfortable. You get a sense that it's a home away from home for some, and you could just spend literally hours sitting around with friends, pondering life or whatever. Just like its name, Boheme is utterly bohemian.
You wouldn't think to find good food there, but then you look at the huge menu, and you order something like their Barbacoa Korean Lavash Flatbread pizza, and your taste buds can't help but dance. You're blown away and you can't stop eating. And that would be because the owners brought on a chef, Rishi Singh, to consult on the menu who enjoyed working there so much, he hasn't left since he started approximately two years ago. We caught up with Singh for a chat about his famous flatbread pizzas, why he's working out of a food truck and about the road that led him to Boheme.
EOW: You know, people don't think of this place as having an executive chef, 'cause it's a bar.
RS: It's actually an interesting story about how we started the food program here. My brother actually introduced me to Morgan, who's the owner. It was after a consulting gig at a sushi restaurant; I wasn't working for about a month. And my brother said, "Why don't you come take a walk with me and Morgan and his wife at Discovery Green?" And I was walking with Morgan, and he was like, "Hey, Rishi, I have this pizza prep table in the office, and I was thinking about starting a food program. Do you wanna jump on board?" And I was like, "I don't have any obligations, so why don't I come; it'll take about four to five weeks, we'll start a pizza program, then I'll move on to the next consulting gig."
EOW: This was when?
RS: November of 2011. It was crazy. I'm going to be honest with you. The kitchen he presented me with is actually our current office space. It's a tiny little room, maybe 15 feet long, ten feet wide. And it wasn't an up-to-code kitchen -- this is public knowledge. We did a renegade kitchen. We were renegade cooking out of this space.
EOW: What is renegade cooking?
RS: Renegade cooking is basically, "Let's start up a menu, and we'll deal with the repercussions later."
EOW: Did you get in trouble for that?
RS: We did. Well, not trouble per se, but because not everything was up to code, it did get shut down.
EOW: What were the code requirements that you didn't meet?
RS: There were certain ventilation issues, and you had to have certain materials on the walls, etc. etc. So we were almost there, but it just wasn't 100 percent up to code.
EOW: How long did you get away with it?
RS: We got away with it for about four months. And I think as the popularity grew with the pizza menu, that's when we came more under the radar.
The Korean Barbacoa Flatbread Pizza, a must order
EOW: So you really just started with pizza?
RS: Yeah. He had bought a pizza prep table...
EOW: What is a pizza prep table?
RS: It's just a long refrigerated unit with two doors that open on top where you put all the pizza ingredients. So when you build a pizza, you basically pull the ingredients out of the prep unit to put the toppings on the pizza.
EOW: And how were you baking it?
RS: We had two small convection ovens, so it got to about 100 to 110 degrees in there, so we're all sweating working our butts off every day.
EOW: How many pizzas were you doing at that point?
RS: When I launched the pizza program, I thought, you know, we might do about 100 a week. So the first week, we do 75, second week 125, four weeks later 200, eight weeks later 300. So we saw this demand happen that we'd never anticipated. We just wanted to offer some basic good food for our customers.
Oyster mushroom truffle pizza at Boheme
EOW: What was here before the pizza?
RS: What I walked into was basically a Gordan Ramsay kitchen nightmare. It was frozen pizzas that we'd run through the conveyor belt oven. We didn't have a chef at the time, so the bartenders were the ones who'd have to run back there and prepare the food. So, I walked into this atmosphere where there's only frozen products back here -- it's time to really elevate. So after about a year into it, we'd gone from doing 75 pizzas a week to about 600 pizzas a week. And it's funny; at that six-week period, when my contract was unofficially up, I told Morgan, "It looks like we have a good thing going here; why don't I just stay on as the exec and let's build a program from scratch. Let's do something brand-new."
EOW: And then your kitchen got shut down.
RS: So yeah, we ran into this immense popularity, and then one day we got a visit from the health department, and they were like, "You're not up to code; we're going to have to shut this kitchen down." And it kind of broke our hearts. And I'm like, "We're onto something now, we have all these customers coming into eat; what are we going to do? Am I going to find a new job? Do I have to fire all my staff?" It's that moment when you decide that you're going to find a solution or let everything go. So we said, "Well, why don't we get a food truck in the meantime?" So, we went and we purchased a food truck, and said we're going to run our menu out of that while we build a brick-and-mortar kitchen, which we're in the process of building right now.
EOW: And how long has that been?
RS: We've been using a truck for about a year now, and we've been producing a pretty incredible menu from a truck. We have the drawings done from the kitchen.
EOW: Where is the kitchen going?
RS: The kitchen is actually going into a shipping container. It's going to be a galley-style kitchen, and that way we'll finally be able do the proper cooking that we want to do. Unfortunately, because we're doing food from a truck, we have to use disposable plates and forks and knives. We've elevated, I think, to the maximum level that we can out of a food truck that we can, which we're very proud of, but when we get this new kitchen, we'll finally be able to present things exactly the way we want to. It's been such an incredible challenge. Actually, it's funny; it's almost like, every day here I feel like I'm on Iron Chef. It's like, "Oh, you have this food truck? You need to make this amazing menu out of this food truck." It's like an Iron Chef challenge every day.
Check back with us tomorrow as we continue our chat with Rishi Singh.