One morning in 2007, soon after returning from a culinary tour of India, the idea for a restaurant settled in my head. It was inspired by the thali—a round tray holding various small, individual dishes that work together as a complete meal. In the few weeks of my trip, I ate many. Some were simple lunches with dal, curry, rice, pickle and flat bread; others were elaborate dinners with nearly 20 separate items on one tray, all with bold and varied flavors that complemented and contrasted each other. A thali is meant for one person and eating it is an adventure at the table. That morning I thought about how much fun it would be to serve my own style of food on a thali, and all at once I decided I should open my own restaurant, and that this restaurant would be named after my mother, Poppy, and I that I would leave The Herbfarm after 17 years of heading its kitchen.
Until the day this idea came to me, I was never driven to open my own place. I held a job most chefs fantasized about, and I knew too many other chefs whose quality of life was diminished by the day-to-day grind of restaurant ownership. But if I was ever going to do this, the time was right. As far as I could tell, there were no other restaurants in North America doing anything like it, and here was an opportunity to make my mark with something truly original.
It was this excitement of designing a new dining experience that motivated me more than anything. The small plate phenomenon had been going on for some time, as diners were eager to sample many things on a menu rather than a traditional appetizer and entrée, but there were several things that bothered me about the trend. First, most diners share the plates and pass them around the table, and at a table of more than two, it leaves everyone with a bite or two of this or that. And who gets the last bite? Secondly, when you order a selection of these small plates, they don’t always make sense together or feel satisfying as a meal. The thali would be different. It would allow me to conceive a balanced array of dishes that are meant to go together, and best of all, you would have them all to yourself.
The opportunity to create the environment also excited me. Even though the serving style is Indian, my inspiration for the interior was Scandinavian. I grew up in a house of Danish modern furniture and wanted to draw from that sensibility, pairing modern design with warm materials and practicality. I hired Seattle’s Kerf design, who custom designed the chairs and cabinetry, and we hung le Klint lamps, tektum as a wall covering and a mobile at the kitchen’s entrance. We dotted the room with orange circles representing a poppy and used the circle in our menu design.
Traditional thalis are most often served on stainless steel trays holding stainless cups. Mine needed to be warm and modern. I gathered all the small dishes I could find, avoiding the white dishes every other restaurant seemed to be choosing, and began mixing and matching to come up with an anodized aluminum tray (a pizza pan) of Heath Ceramic’s bowls and ramekins mixed with miniature Japanese dishes, along with a few other small-scale odds and ends.
I was already taking a huge risk by opening a restaurant of any sort; we all know they often fail. Opening one with a completely new concept multiplied the risk. I had to invent everything from the ground up. I had no idea how to get things rolling, how things would run once the doors opened or how the public would react.
Honestly, I brushed thoughts of failure out of my mind. I had to believe this was going to work and convince everyone around me it was a great idea. I opened about 18 months later.
The first year was tough, especially the first few months. We had little time to train staff before opening, and we were packed every night. Opening a restaurant is a process, and it takes time to fine tune, especially when there is no template to work from.
The criticism hit me hard. With online rating sites and blogs, you hear everything, and the negative comments got under my skin. Many customers loved what we were doing, but others were resistant. They were used to dining a certain way and were confused by a meal set in front of them all at once in a bunch of little dishes. They wanted to know what order to eat things in and wanted instructions. Some would eat their soup and salad first and be annoyed because other food became cold. Some were expecting Indian food. I was questioned again and again if I was planning to stick with the concept. And the economy kept getting worse.
I toughed it out. As time passed we found our customers—the folks who got what we were doing and were delighted by it. We became part of the neighborhood. We listened to feedback and tweaked everything. Service became more polished and the cooks found their groove. It’s been nearly three years, and we are still serving thalis. Our seats are filled every night. Our guests love the varieties of tastes set in front of them. I still haven’t heard of any other non-Indian restaurants opening that serve thalis, but if another chef follows my lead, it will make me happy. I’ll know then I’ve left a mark.