For more than a decade, Frederik de Pue has managed to be a culinary force in D.C. while flying relatively under the radar. During his tenure in the District he's owned a catering company, worked in the Embassy world and served as head chef at Smith Commons.
Then, 2013 happened. De Pue opened not one, but two much-talked about restaurants. Table, a seasonal, ingredient-driven small plates eatery in Shaw has thrived. Penn Quarter seafood dining spot Azur, though, faltered, shutting its doors within six months. Now in the same hulking space that held Azur — and before it Jose Andres' Cafe Atlantico and Minibar -- de Pue is trying again with Menu MBK. Three concepts in one, the MBK stands for market, bistrobar and kitchen (a six-seat chef's tasting table), to signify the components that are spread out over three levels. The ground floor market opens first on Friday, followed by everything else next week. Eventually, a complete inventory of the cheeses, sauces, desserts and other delicacies sold in the market will be available on Menu MBK's website. For now, though, the site features Menu's dining menu.
De Pue talked with Eater about the surprising challenges he's faced at Table, just how hands-on he is with the decor and feel of his businesses and why the names of his restaurants skew toward basic food-related objects.
Table opened just about a year ago, You've gotten praise and recognition for the restaurant. But how do you think the first year went?
It goes fast. It's been a wonderful year. I love the restaurant itself. I love the whole feel of the restaurant. I think it's great that lots of outlets have recognized what we do but, for me, it feels very normal. I don't think we do anything more special than anybody else but I think we have to do something right probably. It's interesting to see that certain areas that I wouldn't think would be problems are the most challenging parts of the business. At the top of that is probably staffing, where it's always kind of a hassle to get people to come into the restaurant team. And then when they're there they don't stick around that long. I'm used to working in brigades that stay and stay as a career. I feel like lots of people just go and get out because there's lots of demand and they feel like they can do it. And I think it's a shame because they don't really get the time to learn. A lot of young guys they come in and think they know everything, they have the line skills. So I mean that's one aspect to deal with.
Also, we opened the patio in May, and that was a great success as well. It's been a blast. I love seeing people come in and enjoying, and they walk out and say, "That was fantastic." It's very warm, fulfilling.
What's in store for year two?
I give a restaurants a year and then, for me, the second year is going back and analyzing — numbers, sales, all those kinds of things, to see where we can improve. First year we need to create a name for ourselves and all these things like that. Year two is pushing and creating great menus, original ideas, really using those seasonal products and creating better relationships with my venders. We have great relationships but I want to get to another level, get better service from them as well.
And we want to work out a better patio option so that we can have it useable seven, eight months of the year. We don't have anything covered. I don't want to put up a roof up because I think that it will lose all of the charms it has now. But I want to find an area where we find something that, even when it's raining, you stay dry and have a nice time out there.
Very shortly after you opened Table you opened Azur and then shut it down months later. When you look back, why do you think that concept didn't work?
I would say that the restaurant concept was great. The building was too big for it. For me the problem was having the full restaurant upstairs and the bar downstairs where it would be empty at night, and people didn't see the movement of what was happening upstairs. So after two months I said, "I have to make a change."
And then I had this market concept in my head, years and years before I opened Table. I've had a catering company and I thought it would be great to have a facade to a catering company. Nobody in D.C. has this. In Europe we have catering stores where people can go and pick up their dinners. The concept was really for me something that was in my mind. And then I thought, "This neighborhood has no supermarket." The closest supermarket is 4th and K Street. People living in the neighborhood, working in the neighborhood -- it's probably one of the most high-density office neighborhoods -- would be able to walk downstairs, buy dinner for the night and have options. It's raw materials or, inside, a finished product, they either cook themselves and heat it up or they just eat it here. I think it's a fantastic concept.
Then it becomes a place where people can spend $10 or come up and spend $100. There's an option for everybody. You want to have drinks with friends during cocktail hour. And we created a very warm atmosphere that gives you relaxed seating for people to come after work.
Were you able to transport any of the food from Azur to Menu?
We discussed that if we put the market downstairs, do we keep the idea of the seafood restaurant upstairs? Of course that was an easy way out. But I wanted to do something that blends more together, that unites. I think what we have now, it comes all together. You can shop and walk your way up. It's all together in one piece even though it's three different concepts. Keeping a seafood restaurant in this space wouldn't have been the same because people would think that we were selling seafood. It makes sense. BlackSalt sells seafood because they're a seafood restaurant.
Does Penn Quarter, then, still need a good, basic seafood restaurant, like you tried to do?
Well they have their choices. There's Oceanaire around the corner, and Legal Seafood, which is a chain. But I think there's sufficient options around here. There's so much choice in this neighborhood overall. I think if you can't find anything good to eat in Penn Quarter then you have a problem. There's pretty much everything. And we'll always have nice, good seafood on the menu anyway.
You're known for having your hands in all of the details of your restaurants. Is that the case with Menu?
Yes. Very much. [Pointing] That light cluster — I did that. That's me. The front of the bar, the bar, everything around the bar. Pretty much, I did that. The wooden wall, that's me too. Two days ago I just smashed up the railing and I'm going to put reclaimed wood there. Every single thing is me. It's a bit like Table and no so much Azur, because we were opening Table as we got Azur ready, so I didn't have time to be part of the construction there. [With Menu] pretty much everything you see has been handpicked, like at Table. Hang this here, this there. [Pointing] That sign is from my trip to Europe. We'll have candles on the tables, and I picked them up in Provence in a little store. I visited 30, 40, 50 stores and markets. It's all really vintage furniture. The shelving is vintage from India. Everything you see is from my shopping. This table, is from an antique shop in Paris. It's cheaper there, by the way, than anything you could buy in the U.S.
Good to know.
We really got deals left and right, and in the end, it really fits. It could be in Ikea. It's important that...it's me. It's great working with interior designers. It's great working with architects. It's great working with construction people and all that. I'm not going to say anything bad about them. But to be an owner who's really involved in every single part of the concept, it becomes more your own. I really look for that. I come here and it's my baby, like at Table. It was too at Azur, but lots of other people were making decisions because I was very busy.
In December you did a pop-up version of Menu at Table. What kinds of feedback did you get from customers who went to the pop-up?
It was fantastic. People really enjoyed the food. It's very different from Table's food but the approach is the same. Because it's Bistro food, it's really a style of back to nature — natural plates. I don't want to become known as a French bistro. It's more of an international bistro. We will have a steak tartare on the menu because it's one of my favorite dishes ever, and we'll have an escargot on the menu. But it's not because the two things are very French and we've gotta have that. I really like to have the liberty, the freedom to do what I feel, the same way I have at Table. There, we have a pad thai and mussels on the menu, we've had eel on the menu.
At the pop-up we also did menus where there were beer pairing options. And I think the result is what we're going to do when Kitchen opens is create a menu where it's five main ingredients that will run for a month. And we'll have a team around it. So the first one we'll start with will be Belgium, because I think I'm from Belgium, at least last time I checked. [chuckles] And what we want to do there is create a menu with those five ingredients. So it could be the ingredients are eel, duck, lobster, cabbage and vanilla. One night the cabbage could be third course or another night it could be first course or a side with the duck. So we really work with products we have available. It'll be $65 for a 5-course menu. I think it's an amazing deal. And it will always feature items that are available in the market. It should be fun and challenge us a little bit.
I like to have fun when I work. And, for me, fun is freedom. Freedom in cooking is what we all want. We don't come home and every single night follow a recipe book. The idea is when you have the freedom to do what you feel like, you have fun cooking. For the people that work around you, they learn new things, become accustomed to products they've never used. For me, it's fun to show things. For my chefs here and my chefs at Table, I learn from them too. That's the kind of atmosphere I like to create.
...For the Belgian theme, instead of a wine or champagne pairing we want to do beer pairings. I haven't really thought of the menu yet but I have a few weeks.
Now beer, in general, is going to be a big emphasis, isn't it?
Yes. I thought my previous menu here was lacking in beers and in diversity. So we're going to have 40 beers. There's no tap. They're all on the bottle. We have, at the bar, just a really fantastic assortment of alcohol. Forty beers -- yes, it's a lot. But I think it will allow people to have a diversity of choices. Of course, a good percentage of the beers are Belgian, but not all. And, with the wine list, it won't be enormous but enough to offer choice and satisfy the palate of everybody.
Let's talk about names. You have Table, Menu, Kitchen. There seems to be a pattern with culinary objects. Why did you go in that direction? And will there be more —Spoon, Fork?
[Laughing] Spoon, I can't. Someone has, I think, a cookbook of spoons...But I like simplicity. A friend of mine was saying that if you look at all big companies, they create names that you can pronounce in any language. Yes, people ask me, do you you call it Table [pronounced with a long a] or Table [pronounced with a short a]? It's a word that you can say in any language really. You can call it either, as long as you come. I'm not really attached to either pronunciation. It's Table. It's Menu. I like how simple they are.
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Correction: This article originally listed an incorrect restaurant on de Pue's resume; he used to work at Smith Commons.