A restaurant and bar in Boston's South End that is home to an eclectic craft cocktail program also doubles as a culinary incubator, where a rotation of chefs puts new concepts to work in the kitchen for about six months at a time.
Wink & Nod, which first opened in March 2014, is a member of the Boston Nightlife Ventures family, along with The Tap Trailhouse, Griddler's Burgers and Dogs, and the forthcoming Southern Kin and Certified Meatball Company. The South End restaurant is currently hosting its fourth resident incubatee, Pelekasis, which is a Greek-inspired concept from chef Brendan Pelley.
Bill Brodsky, the chief culinary officer for BNV, is integral to the process of selecting the chefs for Wink & Nod's six-month residency. After four selection cycles and some trial and error, he has developed some solid strategies for determining whether a chef has the chops to see the project through.
"It's like they'd be applying for a job. They're really showing us what they can do," Brodsky said of the chefs who pitch BNV on their ideas.
First, a chef will deliver a kind of elevator pitch of the concept, describing it in one or two sentences before sharing how they developed the idea, any inspirations for it, and what they bring to the concept that is especially personal and rare.
Then, Brodsky said, they'll discuss the menu and possible plates the chefs want to serve that will help them identify with both the chef and the overall concept.
"I like to talk about Wink & Nod's demographic," Brodsky said. "You almost want to ensure that there's an organic fit to the process. Once we kind of reconcile that piece of the puzzle, I tell them what kind of dishes have been popular in the past."
Brodsky said a key part of this process is making sure the chefs are capable of "executing food and balancing needs of the business."
Brodsky said he gets about a dozen people interested in taking up residence at Wink & Nod, and that number gets whittled down to three or four that make it to the next stage — tasting. "Push comes to shove," the chefs need to be able to throw down some interesting dishes, he said.
For the testing, the chefs come in and cook at the Wink & Nod kitchen; Brodsky will let the chef in residence (currently Pelley) know that there will be someone cooking in the kitchen that day.
"When we're going through the vetting process, we're looking for people that are looking to do something different," Brodsky said.
There are a handful of chefs in contention for the next residency. Brodsky said one is an Italian concept, heavily focused on homemade pasta; another features Nepali cuisine; and a third takes a stab at charcuterie and offal meats. Further details are kept under wraps until a new incubator is chosen. Brodsky said they have completed one tasting and will likely complete the process by the end of April.
Brodsky said part of the allure of the incubator program is that South End residents can try a new restaurant every six months, and it provides chefs with a space to test and refine their concept and potentially open in their own space, as Pelekasis' predecessor Akinto will do in the former Merrill & Co. space. (The other past participants have also found permanent homes — the Bread & Salt Hospitality team recently opened Juliet in Somerville's Union Square, and the Whisk team purchased Fazenda Cafe in Jamaica Plain and is currently converting it into Brassica Kitchen.)
"It gives aspiring owner-operators a chance to get a taste of what reality in the business is like without them having to come up with a huge capital expenditure," Brodsky said.
"I think a lot of people thought that it was a little gimmicky and a little bit risky coming out of the gate, but it's like anything — the more energy you pour into it, the better the result's gonna be coming out the other end," Brodsky said.