Q&A, Part 1: Restaurateur Carlos Suarez on His New Venture Rosemary's, Rooftop Gardens, and the West Village Community
Carlos with his cousin, Guini Suarez, one member of the Dekar Design team (who designed Rosemary's)
Maybe it's the food or the cleverly designed space--or perhaps it's just the bees on the roof--that have created all the buzz surrounding Rosemary's, the latest West Village venture from restaurateur Carlos Suarez. Suarez, who opened Bobo in 2007, has been planting roots in this neighborhood in a variety of ways. We sat down with him to discuss the restaurant, its rooftop garden, and his commitment to the local community, including his agricultural projects with students at P.S.41.
Can you tell me a bit about your background as a restaurateur and how you decided to go into the restaurant industry? I went to university in Philadelphia. Discovered the Italian market in Philadelphia, and had a great time exploring that market and cooking for friends. Meanwhile, I was studying for a career in finance and ended up pursuing a career in finance. I worked for a small hedge fund for all of 11 months and realized that I didn't want to do that. I was young enough to be able to take a risk and pursue my passion. I ended up taking a hosting job at Blue Fin in Times Square, of all places. It was not somewhere I'd ever been, but I created a management-training program there. I started as a host, worked as a server, was terrible at that, bartender even worse, but ended up being a restaurant manager for that group...I spent two and a half years with them, but still wanted to pursue opening my own restaurant. I was working at Vento in the Meatpacking District, which is a big-box restaurant sort of thing, and it just occurred to me that the reason I was in the business was for a much more intimate experience, like having friends over for dinner. So the idea of pursuing a much more intimate restaurant than a big-box, commercial enterprise really motivated me. I really channeled that and went after a residential approach. I opened Bobo in 2007. About a year into it, or 18 months into it, I met Ben Flanner from Brooklyn Grange. He was, at the time, at Eagle Street Farm in Greenpoint. I also had the epiphany of going to Roberta's back then and saw what they were doing in their backyard. I was really inspired by that, and by what Ben was doing, and I wanted to bring that sort of urban agriculture to the city. So I began looking for places that were single-story where you could put a farm on the roof that people could see from the street, as opposed to on the sixth story and being much less accessible and much less visible.
Rosemary's is one of very few restaurants in Manhattan doing direct farm-to-table from the roof. Can you describe your set-up a bit? I continued the relationship with Ben at Brooklyn Grange, sourcing their ingredients at Bobo, and we've remained friends from working together. We've done a bunch of events at Brooklyn Grange over the past few years, including a series of dinners called Plate to Gate. So they consulted on the farm upstairs--they helped us plan it, design it, and install it. They introduced us to an engineer who helped us work on the structure of the building, because we had to modify the structure to support the new load. Then Ben and his team came and laid down special fabric on top of the roof used for rooftop gardens. One Saturday in early May, we all showed up and a 60-foot-long truck with a huge crane and these massive bags of soil came and craned soil up onto the roof. We raked it all out and mounded it into different rows. We started with a few seedlings from the Grange--tomato seedlings and some pepper seedlings--but mostly it's all little seeds. Our chef Wade (Moises) and (sous chef Xan Hast) basically run the show upstairs. They manage it, plan it, work on it every day.
What are your plans for the future in terms of meeting the restaurant's needs from the garden? I would imagine it will only meet a fraction of our needs in terms of our produce. We may end up producing all the honey we use.
So there is an apiary? There are two hives that have been recently painted by kids in the neighborhood. Chase (Emmons), the Brooklyn Grange guy, is coming back to fill the hives with bees. So we probably won't see any honey out of those hives until September--and that's if we're lucky in September. Otherwise it will be next June. At some point we will get all our honey from upstairs and a fraction of our produce. Although I think Wade said that he stopped buying herbs. So all the herbs in the restaurant are from upstairs, which is a small feat. One day, hopefully at the end of the summer, we'll have a chicken coop. I don't know how many eggs a week--maybe four eggs a week per chicken? So probably not that many chickens up there.
But the purpose of the garden is also educational for the program that you are doing with P.S. 41.Can you talk a bit more about that? One of the reasons I pursued this location is the proximity to P.S.41. We've been involved with them and the development of their greenroof with Bobo. That was a project started by this woman Vicki Sando five or six years ago, and its finally been built. Through crazy red tape, she's persevered and created an incredible roof. They're integrating agriculture and nature into their curriculum at the school. They already visit with Michael Anthony of Gramercy Tavern about twice a semester. They see that restaurant, go to the greenmarket with him, and spend time in the kitchen. We hope to basically follow in his footsteps with something more convenient for them.
You have longstanding commitment to both sustainability and a connection to this community. Can you talk a bit about what attracts you to the West Village and your connection with this neighborhood? This space is across the street from one of the most beautiful gardens in the city--Jefferson Market Garden. So it has that going for it. The West Village is fun and elegant at the same time. There's incredible talent in terms of restaurants--it's out of control how much great food there is within a few blocks. It's always really exciting to be able to go after work and be inspired a few blocks away. Also, meeting people like Vicki Sando. I went to P.S. 41 and said, "Hey, what do you guys think about doing a rooftop garden? Because I've seen on Google Images that you guys have this huge roof." They said, "Hold on one second, let me introduce you to somebody." And out walks Vicki who had been working on this for a few years. So there are a lot of like-minded people in the neighborhood and this community develops very quickly.
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