Restaurateur John Kunkel has had a busy year.
Since November, the founder of the fast-casual Lime Fresh Mexican Grill chain, whose 15 units he sold to Ruby Tuesday Inc. for $24 million last year, has opened two high-concept restaurants in the Miami area. Khong River House brings the food of Northern Thailand, Myanmar and Laos to South Beach, and Swine Southern Table & Bar is a “man cave” specializing in barbecue in Coral Gables, Fla.
Khong River House is named after the Mekong River, also called the Khong in Southeast Asia. The 150-seat concept is inspired by Kunkel’s travels in the region, and he has hired Thai staff to maintain the restaurant’s culinary integrity.
At 120-seat Swine, Kunkel has brought barbecue pit master “Fireman Joe” Fantigrassi to work with classically trained chefs Philip Bryant, a veteran of Norman Van Aken’s kitchens, and Justin Stark, a barbecue lover who has spent his culinary career working at resorts across the South.
Kunkels’ 50 Eggs restaurant group also operates Yardbird, a critically acclaimed and commercially successful Southern restaurant in South Beach.
He discussed his latest projects — and plans for the future — with Nation’s Restaurant News.
Barbecue’s not a food group; it’s a religion. You get that wrong [and] customers don’t just write a negative review; they come to your house looking for you.
So you had to do your homework?
We found a fireman who was a competition barbecue guy. We put him in the kitchen for a week and decided on using the deckle [the outer cap of the rib eye] that the Miami area knows as brisket. Texas brisket is more steak-y, less fatty and more dry.
Fireman Joe’s is moist, juicy and hit for 12 hours in slow smoke. We make enough for lunch and enough for dinner, and that’s it. It’s going like hotcakes.
We had to do pulled pork and ribs, too. We ended up getting a supplier out of Alabama who does whole hogs for us. The ribs are dry, with a little light Carolina-style vinegar-based sauce on the side.
The rest of the menu is a very refined take on Southern food.
Swine is the first restaurant menu that I’ve never touched. The chefs nailed it out of the gate. Executive chef Philip Bryant is the former chef de cuisine at Yardbird and probably one of our most talented culinary guys. We have high hopes for him.
The chef de cuisine, Justin Stark, grew up in the South and loves to barbecue. Between him and Fireman Joe, when you go in the kitchen you have a cologne for the day to take home.
Philip and the barbecue guys have really assembled a pretty cool kitchen, from a classically trained Thomas Keller kind of guy to a pit master.
Last night we did our first large-format dinner at our 25-seat table in the center of the room. Our smoker’s about the size of a small Pinto, so you can get a couple of hogs in there. Last night we brought down a whole hog.
Describe the décor at Swine.
It’s like a giant man cave in there. It’s a split-level room, and the top bar looks down over the whole place, and wood is stacked throughout the restaurant because we have no place else to put it. So we have guys coming through and gathering wood [for the smoker], which is pretty cool.
And how is Khong River House doing?
Of all the things I’ve done, I’m probably proudest of that restaurant. It’s been busy since the day we opened, but it was probably one of the more challenging things we did.
We took an extra couple of weeks to educate the staff, to make sure they were educating and not preaching to the customers about the food — doing it in a respectful way.
And we had to integrate the Thai and Western staff — get the Thai cooks to write down their recipe and the Westerners not to move things with their feet [a cultural taboo among Thais].
We really wanted to do it right, so for everyone it just became our sole focus in life. We didn’t want to serve food that, if you were Thai or knew Thai food, you’d say, [dismissively,] ‘Nice try, guys.’
We were adamant about not going off the rails. We stuck to the recipes, and we’re not serving pad Thai noodles or Panang chicken.
But you’re never going to re-train the American dining public about how they want to eat. So [even though Thais don’t serve meals as courses] we figured out what worked as small plates. And jungle curry [a rustic coconut-free curry] had to be pulled, because it was different from the coconut-based curry people expected. We reintroduced it as “jungle stew.” We’ve had to deal with [our guests’] perception, which is sometimes ignorance.
But the biggest win came at the 11th hour. We knew of a group of Thai farmers in Homestead, [Fla.,] who were growing Thai ingredients and only selling them to Asians. We went to meet with them, and then we went to their [Buddhist] temple and got approval from the monks, and the Thai farmers agreed to make us the first non-Thais and the first restaurant they were selling to. I absolutely think that’s the biggest win we could have had.
It was huge with the Thai community. It was like someone picked up the red hotline and all the Thais in South Florida seemed to come and support us.
What’s next on your agenda?
I want to bring authentic Chinese food and Korean food. I want some of these other fantastic cuisines to come to South Florida.
But right now I’m working on opening a test kitchen on Biscayne Boulevard in a place called The Sunshine Inn. The two upper floors will be our offices, and underneath that will be a place for the Miami culinary industry to use as a test kitchen for continuing education or developing new dishes.
I have 500 employees, and for the first time in 12 years Miami has some sense of [restaurant] community. I’m meeting with different restaurant owners and engaging in information sharing. It’s a really good thing for us as a company.
We have the James Beard Foundation, Johnson & Wales, Common Threads and the Miami Culinary Institute involved.
For me as a businessperson, this is a huge opportunity to work with other restaurateurs and keep them from making mistakes before they blow their life savings. Their success is our success in that we need a true culinary scene. We need another 20 chefs hanging shingles.