In mid-April, Tonic swapped the "coming soon" sign above its door for a chalkboard out on the sidewalk that lets locals know the soft opening phase had begun. People caught on, and the official opening followed soon after, marking Ryan Kelly's debut as an executive chef. Previously, he had previously worked in the kitchens of Clio, Haru, Canary Square and Foundry. Eater spoke with Kelly about the first week at his new gig and what he wishes he could have told himself on night one.
Any interesting feedback so far? People were pretty pleased with the food and were happy to see a place like this in JP. I think we're a little more modern than a lot of what's going on around here as far as the decor. It's a fresh look in JP.
And is this your first exec chef job? This one is, yes. I was head chef when I was at Haru but this is my first menu. This is my real baby, the first time I got to make my own food and execute my own food.
How did that feel? I've been waiting ten years for it. That's basically what I was looking for here. I was happy at Canary Square, but it's like 180 people there. I met with the owner [of Tonic] and we have fourteen tables and like a twenty person bar, and it was more fitting to me. I enjoyed my time at Clio, I enjoyed the technique and the absolute love of food that every chef in that kitchen has, the complete dedication to the craft, so this is a good place to exercise that and give love to every single plate that goes out of that window. We're never too busy to put the right details on every single plate.
When people you used to work with come in and try what you're doing, do they really tell you what they think? When you work the kind of hours you work in a kitchen, everyone becomes more than a co-worker. They become your friend and there is that kind of gray area. You're always going to find a silver lining when you talk to a friend, but at the same time they're all people I respect and I respect their opinions, so if I tell them to be critical, and they think there was something that wasn't up to par, they don't hesitate to say it.
Did you make any changes based on conversations like that? I actually haven't had any of that yet, I've kind of told them all to let us settle in a little bit. But I'd always be open to listening to it, especially all the guys I knew at Clio. I respect all those guys and how hard they work. I think to be a chef you need to be a little bit cocky, you need to be full of yourself, they gotta think they're the best, even if statistically they're not. I know there's big names in this town, and obviously that's the goal. The goal is to shoot for those big names, become one of the better ones, and you get there by listening to critique but also by believing in what you're doing. You can't please everyone all the time, but if you're stubborn enough to not listen to anyone else, you're going to fail as a chef.
Speaking of big names, do you think Ken Oringer will come in? I would definitely hope so. I know how busy he is with all the restaurants he has, but there's no restaurant that I worked at that I took away more from than there, and his current chef de cuisine, who was the sous chef when I was there, Doug Rodriques, I know he'll be coming by because he's a good personal friend.
What dishes have been popular? The tuna tartare, the scallops. It's a smaller menu, I didn't really want to overexpand it, and to be honest most of it has sold so far.
How are the scallops prepared? They're pan seared and accompanied by daikon radish, and I confit that so it takes on a very tender texture. Being a white radish, through the confit process it stays very white, so I sear the top of the scallops very hard so it's got a white bottom and a caramelized, brown top, and the daikon is the same way. The whole concept of that dish is when it's placed in front of you, you don't really know what's a scallop and what's the radish.
If you could go back in time and give yourself advice for the opening, what would you say? Probably just relax, it's all going to be okay. It's a high strung profession as is, and more in this place because one of the things that made me very eager to come here was that the owner made a very big point that my name was going to be all over it, and it's really my coming out party as a chef. I think that put a stress on me that I didn't need to actually have there. Had I relaxed and if I'd just taken a step back and had a sip of water and just chilled a little bit, it probably would have been a little less harrowing on me. It all went off well, and now knowing that I didn't have to be running around, I probably could have done things quicker if I'd just taken the time to think.
· All coverage of Tonic on Eater [~EBOS~]