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Point out that Huertas (107 First Avenue, 212-228-4490) chef Jonah Miller is young for a Manhattan restaurant owner, and he’ll remind you that two of the people he worked for — Peter Hoffman at Savoy and David Waltuck at Chanterelle — were younger when they opened their storied establishments. And besides, restaurant ownership is a dream Miller has been kicking around since he was a teenager, which has given him plenty of time to meditate on how his space should work.
Miller remembers perching on the counter at age three and watching his dad cook. The kid would try to help peel carrots — he was innately drawn to food. By 10, he was actively helping prepare meals at home, and at 13, a friend of his, who was as passionate about cooking, received a dinner reservation at Chanterelle for his bar mitzvah and invited Miller to join. They had the first table of the night, and the wait staff was amused at the sight of two young teens dining by themselves at the restaurant. So the servers invited the boys back to the kitchen, where they met Waltuck. Miller followed up and asked if he could intern there.
He spent the next two summers under Waltuck’s wing, learning vegetable prep and butchery. “That was the perfect place to start,” says the chef. “It was not tremendously high-volume, so he could spend some time with us and teach us the technique.” Miller also spent time in the kitchen at Gramercy Tavern before he graduated from high school.
When he went to college for food studies at NYU, Miller worked in the front of the house at Blue Smoke before returning to the kitchen at Savoy.
A stint abroad in Spain ignited an interest in translating the Spanish dining culture here, and when he returned, Miller became focused on opening a restaurant, taking jobs at places that were opening so that he could learn how to do it. Eventually, he landed on the opening team of Maialino and stayed for three years, rising to sous chef from line cook during his tenure.
He went back to Spain for research when he left, and when he returned to New York City, he went full speed ahead on Huertas, which he opened earlier this year.
What was your vision here at Huertas?
We wanted to translate the experience of the restaurant in Spain beyond just the food. It’s really two formats in one: the front bar serves pintxos, and the back room is more formal. In the back, we’re looking toward modern Spanish cooking, which is very broad. Sometimes that means ingredients, sometimes it means techniques, sometimes we’re taking a classic dish and modernizing and tweaking it. In the front, we’re doing straightforward, traditional pintxos. So the biggest question in the front is, how do we execute this to make it Spanish? In Spain, the joy of being at the tapas bar is standing around, having a drink, and waiting around to see the next thing coming out of the kitchen. We can’t really do that here, partially because of the health department, and partially because guests expect a different experience. So we came up with this dim sum-like concept. I ate at State Bird Provisions in San Francisco, and servers there pass around with a cart. You see a dish, and it appeals or it doesn’t. It’s immediate gratification. And that’s very much like Spain.
Any big lessons in opening?
Surround yourself with people who know what they’re doing. My biggest gap was construction and permitting. I partnered with a general contractor, which really helped with the build-out. The number of departments of the city that are involved with opening a restaurant is hard to fathom without some help. And then there was the balance of raising money and finding space. People are apprehensive to invest before they see the space, but you need some money to secure the lease. I saw this space; it was sort of a chance encounter that led to it. It wasn’t on the market, and not having the big guys competing for this space was key. But even when I was about to sign, it took another month of convincing the landlord that I was the right candidate. It was a lot of calling people I knew in Danny [Meyer]’s group, telling them about the bargaining, and asking which chip they would play.
What is it that you love so much about Spanish food? It’s the format of dining in Spain. And the modern thing that is going on there is never too serious; there’s always a very playful, childlike spirit behind it. Arzak is even goofy to an extent — they’re thinking like kids. That’s not a mentality you might associate with modern French or new Nordic cuisine. All cooks are playful, but in Spain, they’re more playful than other modern movements. That speaks to the culture there. People think about food all day, but most of the food they eat doesn’t involve a lot of thinking. It’s more about the people you’re with and the environment and not making a lot of choices. It’s taking those decisions away so they can enjoy the moment of being here. That’s my personal preference as a diner.
Any advice for people stepping into ownership?
Delegate. Understand that not everyone you hire is going to work out — and that’s not necessarily a reflection of you or them. It’s hard not to beat yourself up when an employee doesn’t work out. But don’t settle, and keep looking for right fit, the right people. Go into it with one or two people that you really trust. You need a few people that you don’t have to worry about, that you feel can keep control when you’re not here. Ask yourself, “Am I comfortable with this person representing me when I’m not here?” Find one or two people that make you say yes before you get deep into this process. You’re going to need them to lift you up.
What about for someone just getting started?
It may not be popular, but think very seriously before going to cooking school. Maybe you still go, but spend a good amount of time — four months, six months, a year — working in restaurants first. It’s important to have a long-term idea of what you want to do. Constantly think about, at the end of the day, where do you see yourself? Working at a big company? Owning a restaurant? Then you can ask, where do I see myself going next, and where do I see myself long-term? Find people you like to work for. Money is rarely going to be your sole motivation; having people around you that you enjoy will make it a lot easier. Trail a lot — as many times as you can. If we had someone we wanted to hire, and they had more trails scheduled, I would still want them to finish those trails. They might see something that will help them here in six months. Travel as well. See as many things as you can see.
You’ve worked with some really prolific restaurateurs and chefs. Could you talk about lessons you’ve learned from each of them?
From David Waltuck, I learned the importance of being present. He was always in the kitchen. He worked the line once a week, and that’s not necessarily the most fun thing to do — to cook with the kids. But it helped him gain respect and stay sharp; when you work the line, you think about pick-ups differently. He also taught me the importance of trying to really tutor and mentor people, especially in a small restaurant like this. I knew nothing when I worked there, but he was willing to personally invest a lot of time in me. I have a friend now who wants to go to cooking school, and I’ve been pleading with her not to do that. She comes in once or twice a week, and I set aside time to teach her. Extending that same favor that he extended is a big part of my job now.
With Peter [Hoffman], I learned about the greenmarket. Going with him to the greenmarket was a great, lengthy experience. He knows everyone, so we were always stopping to talk with everyone. That taught me the importance of where food comes from, but also of building relationships. And not just purveyors, but also regulars — it was a unique and special experience to run into them at the market; it makes it a lot more personal on both fronts. When I was there, Peter wasn’t in the kitchen much anymore. He was in the restaurant, but not in the back of the house. Looking forward, that taught me how to be present and involved even if you’re not on the cutting board.
With Danny [Meyer], I learned so much. I learned to really take care of the team — that’s important here, and one of the greatest challenges. Day-to-day, you’re so focused on what you’re trying to accomplish and not forgetting stuff; I try to make sure everyone is having a good time. Money is not going to be enough to keep your staff here — you need to do more. So I try to have fun, and give them the opportunity to gain something from the experience.
How has the industry changed since you first started working in it as a teenager?
My expectations for ownership as a 14, 15, or 16-year-old were unrealistic. David Waltuck and Peter Hoffman were much younger than me when they opened their restaurants — they were 24, and they were able to do it on family loans. Neighborhoods then were inexpensive. It’s difficult for independent restaurants to make the numbers work now. That was a reality check. Two years ago, I thought, oh, I can do it for this much. No, you can’t anymore, unless you’re out in the boonies — and I didn’t want to wait two years for the restaurant to get busy. I actually looked mostly in Brooklyn for space, but the prime neighborhoods were as expensive as Manhattan.
What’s the biggest obstacle facing the industry?
Real estate in New York. And the continuous shortage of cooks. It’s mind-boggling. People are into food and going to culinary school, but they don’t make money, so they don’t cook. So broadly, profitability is a big challenge. Not being able to pay cooks a living wage for New York is a big challenge. It’s hard to make money at the end of the day.
What’s your take on the role of the media?
It’s great to see all the attention food gets, and my perspective has changed — I used to look at chefs on TV and think, those chefs have sold out. But once you’ve put in time and energy and not made that much money for doing that for a long time, you become much more understanding of taking those opportunities. They aren’t a bad thing — for chefs, and more broadly. I’d like to make more impact than I do through feeding people every day. These are good opportunities to help chefs spread ideas, whether that’s a recipe or something broader. It’s hard to start a movement in a restaurant — or you can start there, but it’s hard to grow it.
What’s that “something broader” that you’d like to accomplish?
I’ve reached this lifelong goal, and I’m pretty young. So I’m at the point where I’m thinking, what’s next? What do I do for the rest of my life? Opening more restaurants is not the only thing I want to do, but I don’t know what is the next big thing. But I’m thinking about it in addition to restaurant.
What do you love most about doing this?
I continue to enjoy the hands-on process of making tasty food. Even if there are things I’m not going to enjoy, at the end of the day, I’ll be cooking.
What’s been your biggest challenge?
When you walk in the door here, you don’t see the back room — so it’s making sure that people know we’re doing more than the pintxos in the front. I’m excited about what we do back here. We’re going to the greenmarket and finding purveyors that speak to what we want to do back here. We’re a neighborhood spot in the front, and while we’re also a neighborhood restaurant in the back, this is a little more special occasion.
What about your proudest moment?
The trickiest thing has been finding that balance between bringing Spain over but also cooking for New Yorkers. I think we really struck that chord beautifully. Visiting Spaniards come here and they always love it. That’s been really satisfying.
What are your goals?
On an immediate level, the first year is a huge landmark — so getting to that and then taking a step back and saying, “Okay, this is where our restaurant is going.” As a young restaurant, we continue to improve and change things. In a lot of ways, a year feels far off, but we’ll get there. More broadly, I opened a restaurant, but now it’s about having it here forever. I think about the restaurant we want to see moving forward. But besides that, I’m in a very uncertain time — I now have more opportunities, it’s easier to raise money, and I have people sending me spaces constantly. So it’s more about, what opportunities do I want to take?
Anything you’d like to talk about more?
Again, I wish there was more attention paid to the back — we have a really skilled team here, and the back is where we’re able to show those flourishes off. People are doing five-course tasting menus everywhere, but what we’re doing is quite different. Of the short tasting menu formats in the city, I don’t think anyone is looking to one cuisine for influence both in food and beverage.
And then brunch. We’re doing egg dishes, house pimenton-crusted bacon, sausages — these are fun things to do. We’re not just roasting chicken here. We’re doing big cuts of animals, and this is a good way to give back to the cook. This is a brunch neighborhood, and sometimes it’s difficult to break into that meal because people have their routine. You don’t want to think a lot — you just want to get your eggs benedict and mimosa. But with the brunches we’ve done so far, people are enthusiastic about the food, and we want to show it to more people. It’s very much in keeping with what we do at night.