Welcome to the sixth installment of the Food Republic serial, The Worst Idea Ever?, in which chefs Seth Siegel-Gardner and Terrence Gallivan set out to open a restaurant in Houston, Texas as Pilot Light Restaurant Group. The serial will continue every Monday until they get a restaurant open, hopefully by the end of the year.

Being a part of opening a restaurant is something I’ve been involved in several times in my career. One of the first true kitchen jobs I had was at a tapas bar a chef and his wife were opening in my hometown of Fredericksburg, VA. I helped set the molds for the concrete that would later become the bar, moved equipment into the kitchen and planted the seeds for the restaurant’s back garden. Later in New York I was lucky enough to be a part of the opening team at The Modern, inside the newly renovated MoMA. The contrast couldn’t be starker. From a mom-and-pop operation to a multi-million dollar restaurant aiming for [then-New York Times critic] Frank Bruni’s stars. Instead of piecing together refurbished stoves, I was unwrapping thousands of dollars of Mauviel copper pans and custom Bearnaud china. While all of these experiences have helped me appreciate the process of a restaurant opening, they have provided little in the way of knowing how such a thing actually gets done.

Attempting to open something on our own is a new experience entirely: taking past experiences and putting them to use, all the while throwing ourselves into the fires of entrepreneurship. Learning exactly what it takes to get a project going can be both enlightening and disheartening all at once. Friends and family ask on a daily basis, “So, how are things going?’” or “When do you open?” These have become difficult questions to answer. We usually pull out all the clichés: “We’ve got a lot of irons in the fire, balls in the air,” etc.  I think the most apt way to describe the process is as a series of highs and lows. Getting excited about a potential space, eventual menu ideas and restaurant design can have us keyed up for days. The overall mood of the Pilot Light household can swing in any direction depending on how those things transpire. 

While every chef may have an idea of what he or she may someday want in their own space, the idea of creating something that is innately yours isn’t as easy as it sounds. We are all products of where we come from, whether geographically or professionally. And while all of us cooks may look to Scandinavia and Spain with awe, admiration and envy, it seems important to maintain what we are, and figure out where we ourselves going. And while we can’t all serve lichen and Denia prawns,  we can aim to create something memorable and lasting.

Because this entire process is new to us, the learning curve can be fairly steep, but never uninteresting. Yes, Seth and I have worked and collaborated together many times over, but this time around is something permanent and something that is solely ours. And once the initial wonderment of “Holy shit, we are actually going through with this” has worn off, what’s left is two cooks piecing together the many parts of what we hope becomes our legacy. A legacy that we hope is a testament of where we come from, who we are and where we hope to go. 


Previous installments: