Sweet Cheeks is chef-owner Tiffani Faison's first restaurant, the culmination of her past 15 years of cooking all around the country, not to mention competing in multiple seasons of Bravo's Top Chef. In its first year, Sweet Cheeks has already gained a substantial amount of positive press, both locally and nationally, including a Forbes article naming the biscuits the "very definition of biscuitness...with no room left for improvement." Faison sat down with Eater to chat about how things are going a year in, how the Sweet Cheeks concept was born out of homesickness, how she's still learning to not take things too personally, and more.
Does it feel like it's been a year? It feels like it's been a year. It feels like it's been ten years. Time has just flown. I've never had a baby, but I imagine this is a lot like what it feels like having a baby; it's just unbelievably difficult in every way, but then you forget all the hard things, so you can do it again. So does it feel like it's been a year? Yes and no.
How did the idea first come about? When I first moved here eleven years ago and started cooking, I would become very homesick. I wasn't around my family and sought out the food that my family cooked growing up, and it wasn't really here. It was either kind of this fancy version of Southern food or not very well done, so it made me more homesick over time. I kept cooking in my career, leaving Boston and coming back, getting my chops around the country. When I finally settled here, that food still wasn't really here. I was actually looking for a space that was more amenable to fine dining, and it was taking a long time to find the right space. I was looking for something really, really specific and wasn't finding it when someone said, "You should come look at this." I was like, "Fenway? I don't know..." I had this idea in my head that I thought I would do much further down the road, but when I walked in, it was pitch perfect for what we wanted to do. I don't want to sound hokey, but it was like, "The universe wants you doing this now," and if you fight stuff like that, I think you're swimming upstream. It was also a lot about building the city that I wanted to live in as opposed to just having a restaurant that's a monument to me or ego. You know what I mean? It's just fun.
How did opening day go? Oh my God. We had a line around the block, like 50 people, and I remember being in the kitchen, smacking my chef de cuisine, being like, "Look!" It's the most bizarre feeling because you have this sort of relief; a lot of it feels like a high school dance where you're never sure anyone's going to come. Will anyone want to dance with us? And then you realize that they do want to come, and they're lined up around the block, and then that sheer terror sort of sinks in. So opening day was insane. It was packed to the gills. It was difficult and terrifying and a really good time all at the same time.
How have you felt about the reviews, both professional and amateur? The professional reviews have been outstanding for us. You know, we're a barbecue restaurant, and I didn't really expect the level of reviews that we were receiving. I think one of the things that's nice about being in Boston as opposed to other cities is that you get critiqued upon what you set up to be, not a really rigid four-star or other standard. We got incredible reviews. We got three stars in the Globe. It was just crazy, and it made me feel like other people wanted us here too, and that we were doing it right. It was really nice. The other reviews - Yelp, and what have you - we listen to them. We've overwhelmingly just had people thrilled that we're here, which is really nice. But people like very specific versions of barbecue. There's a really clear difference between people who are online reviewing based on something that they think might be useful and that they'd like you to know and the people who are trying to build a blogging career or just be unkind, so we try to suss them out and pay attention to the people who are telling us things that can really help us out.
Did you make any major changes over the year? We didn't. We're a really specific niche. We're looking at playing a little bit of Jenga with the menu right now but not really changing who we are. The core of us has to stay the same. I believe in who we are, and I think that other people do as well, and I think there's serious danger in changing. I mean, you tweak, absolutely, but as for serious changes, we really had a very strong sense of who we were from jump, and we're not going to veer from that at all.
In terms of smaller changes, I heard that the biscuit availability might be expanding to lunch and takeout, not just dinner. Is that true? They are now! The biscuits are now available at lunch and for takeout. When it's nice and snowy outside, you can roll by and grab a biscuit at lunch, you can take it to go, yes. In the past, we honestly just couldn't keep up with production. We added another oven. We bought another oven for biscuits. Good problems to have. So yeah, they're available all the time now.
Were a lot more people asking about them after they were featured in that Forbes article? Yeah, I think the article was certainly a huge bomb for us with the biscuits. But even before that, we had a takeout order during our opening party from Jay-Z and Kanye West when they were in town. They ordered a ton of biscuits and tweeted about them, and I think that was part of it. I mean, It's a barbecue restaurant; it's not a biscuit shop. But really, I'm thrilled that everyone likes our biscuits so much.
Have you had a lot of other celebrities come in here or order from here? We've had a few, yeah, but I don't believe in blowing up their spots.
Any bizarre or funny stories from the year? Nothing specific, really. There's an old adage that running a restaurant as a chef is much different than being an owner, and I've had a lot of people say that it's going to feel different as an owner, that I'll experience things I've never experienced before. Not in an arrogant way, but I sort of felt like, "Wow, I think I've seen it all." I had not seen it all. So there hasn't been a catastrophic event or anything, but there have been ups and downs. The emotional pull of those ups and downs has been different this time. It feels super personal. I'm working on that, but it all feels pretty personal.
If you could go back to just before opening and give yourself one piece of advice, what would it be? Don't take it as personally. I'm pretty sure I couldn't have followed it, but I would have told myself that. I'm still having a hard time following it. I mean, it's your baby. I remember that we got this crazy Yelp review in the beginning. We still read them now, but we were hanging on every one at the beginning. One of my managers came up to me and said, "This looks, smells, and tastes exactly the way you want it to be?" And I said that it does, and she said, "Then why are you worried about it?" So yeah, don't take it so personally.
Any changes in store for the coming year? Now that we've sort of got things dialed in a little bit more, we're talking about running a few more specials, like some shrimp boils and things like that, but we're careful about not veering too far off the course. We're really going to start focusing on catering in the coming year as well. It's something that we did a little this past year, but it's something where you really have to have your feet solidly underneath you before you start sending trucks of your food out.
What's your absolute favorite dish on the menu here? It's like children - which one is behaving the best today? I mean, consistency is really what we aim for. It also really depends on what mood I'm in. I will always love the pork belly because I think it's a perfect cross-section of really classic barbecue flavors and chef-driven technique to get it to be the consistency and the flavor that it is now. That would probably be it.
So what are your overall feelings about how the year has been? It's been really exciting. It's been a really interesting year of doing something I hadn't done before and cooking food that is very much within a box. We are barbecue; that's what I want us to be. I definitely miss cooking at a more nuanced level, which is coming, but it's been a great year, a really, really fun year looking back. I wouldn't change a thing. You really do learn from every stumble. You find out that those are the lessons that you need to keep moving on.