A few weeks ago in Washington DC, cherry blossom buds were about to burst, and just ahead of them did the Kickstarter campaign for the capital improvements to Bad Saint's brick and mortar space.
Genevieve's description of the build-out phase of their new restaurant is an apt metaphor for the 'Bad Saint' way of doing things: opening up to a community and inviting them in with two pop-ups and the crowdfunding campaign; digging in deep in researching our cuisine and history and finding the right team to tell those stories with food.
Team Bad Saint bet on themselves big time. Question is, will the rest of us?
UPDATE, April 28, 2015, 10:59 AM CST: Bad Saint's Kickstarter has reached their goal of $38,500! New funders can still contribute and get a lot of really cool swag rewards until tomorrow, April 29, at 11 AM CST!
I personally have not sampled any of Bad Saint's food myself. Should we be willing to part with hard-earned dollars, even if we don't live in the DMV (DC-Maryland-Virginia) area, for a restaurant, dish untasted? Would contributing to the Bad Saint campaign be one way to answer what the Washington Post article asked last week?
We present our findings, and make no apologies for the irreverence.
Building Community, co-owner Genevieve
While her front-of-house experience in restaurants like Room 11, Komi and Little Serow, and her managerial experience at Teaism and Big Bear Cafe serve her well, Genevieve's work for Bad Saint also draws from her decade in working for local nonprofits.
"I had coffee with friends, I met people for lunch, we called people, we sent personal e-mails. We did a lot of the kind of legwork that community organizers do, it was just for a restaurant," said Genevieve.
Growing up on the North Side of Chicago, Genevieve learned to organize from her parents. They organized fellow Pinoy parishoners for Simbang Gabi masses in their Catholic parish, St. Margaret Mary, at Christmastime. And in their social justice work they organized immigrants with AFIRE and mobilized voters for Naisy Dolar. Paired against her work on the boards of Asian/Pacific Islander Domestic Violence Resource Project, the Georgetown University Women’s Center, and Common Good City Farm, naturally Genevieve and the Bad Saints reached out to people directly -- outside from social media. This key technique they gathered community together for the Bad Saint popup merienda and dinner.
"To me, community organizing is really connections with people and making that person-to-person contact and being like, hey we’re having this thing, I know you got your people, come and bring ‘em out, help us spread the word. It’s really that interpersonal connection that turns people out for stuff, whether it’s a pop-up or a rally or to vote or whatever."
And in their first merienda pop-up at the Dolcezza Ice Cream factory, lines were out the door.
"I think we gained a lot of confidence about the food and it was nice to have people’s feedback about the food. I wouldn’t say it was perfect by any means, just because we were under such unusual circumstances and the kitchen was pretty much in the weeds from the jump." Good problems, I'd say, Genevieve.
Building the Brand, co-owner Nick Pimentel.
Upon returning home from a trip to New York City in early 2013, Bad Saint co-owner Nick Pimentel felt inspired to open a Filipino restaurant in DC.
As a Filipino American who grew up in Baltimore (which has a sizeable Pinoy populuation) and especially as a restaurateur, Nick had of course been to his fair share of Filipino food joints. "I was used to Filipino restaurants in the back of Filipino grocery stores where the food was served under heat lamps and florescent lights, a beloved and distinct genre of Filipino restaurant. I was amazed that Jeepney and Maharlika existed, and that they were successful. They gave me a new perspective on the Philippines, its people, and its food."
"I have been to many Filipino restaurants before Jeepney and Maharlika, but those two struck me hard. It was the first time I went to a Filipino restaurant that was built by and catered to people of my generation. The music, the design, the staff, the vibe, and the menu all appealed to me."
Nick is, by far, no stranger to the hospitality scene. His concepts, interiors and graphic design treatments and expertise are built into a number of restaurants in the adjacent Columbia Heights and Petworth neighborhoods -- El Chucho Cocina Superior, Petworth Citizen, Crane & Turtle, and notably, the well-accoladed wine bar and restaurant of which he is also a partner, Room 11. Before specializing in restaurants, Nick was a DJ once upon a time and a creative director at a multimedia design firm. The languages that this 'artistic polyglot' speaks, Nick uses to create unique experiences for the diners at his clients' restaurants, and now at Bad Saint.
"Genevieve came up with 'Bad Saint,' and I was instantly drawn to it," said Nick.
To get to the name of the restaurant, Genevieve researched Filipino American history. She learned about Saint Malo, the first recorded settlement of Filipinos in what would become the United States, in then-Spanish-controlled, present-day Louisiana in 1760s. Playing with the words and Latin etymology came the draft name.
"It’s a great name for a Filipino restaurant because I feel like we are like that inherently as a people in so many different ways. Being so observant and spiritual and religious in the many forms that that takes, but then also loving to gamble or loving to have a good time, just not being perfect," said Genevieve. "It’s a playful irreverence and a mischievousness and just a love of laughter and humor."
"I found the image of the Igorot man while doing some research for the project, and he sort of became our spirit guide while concepting the restaurant. We even gave him a name - Arroz Waldo," shared Nick.
"His 'bad-ass' image inspired our creative process. To us, he looks so traditional and so contemporary at the same time. I based our logo off of his warrior's tattoos."
Promoting our cuisine, Chef Tom Cunanan
Business partners Nick and Genevieve agreed to explore the idea of opening a Filipino restaurant in DC. Now they needed someone to helm the kitchen. "We had an idea in our mind of the style of chef that we wanted to work with, and just because there’s not a huge population of Filipinos in this area, much less Filipinos in the industry back-of-the-house, we were like, what’s most important is that their food is amazing, whoever we choose to work with," said Genevieve in describing their thought process.
"in our mind, we were like, it’d be a total bonus if they were Filipino, but what are the chances we’re gonna find some Filipino American chef who’s worked in all these places in town? So we were like, we’ll meet up with anyone. If the fit is right, if they’re on board, it’ll be great. And then we found Tom."
"It was like winning PowerBall," said Genevieve about bringing Chef Tom on the Bad Saint team.
Chef Tom is a fifteen year veteran of the DC restaurant industry, including his work at Ardeo + Bardeo, Vidalia, DC Coast, Zentan at the Donovan House, Bibiana, and the late Hook and PS7’s.
All that being said, his love for Filipino cuisine goes much farther back. As one of seven siblings in a working class family in Hyattsville, Maryland, Chef Tom already had a ready-made kitchen crew and diners. For family parties his favorite dishes that they made included kare kare, pancit palabok and lechon.
His mother, who is from Nueva Ecija, cooked Kapampangan-style dishes for the family. (Tom's father is Kapampangan.) No surprise that Chef Tom mentioned his parents more than a few times in our email exchange.
"Most days, she would cook with her own seasonal ingredients from our backyard garden - eggplant, herbs, squash, whatever she was growing."
"It wasn't just my mom. My dad's a good cook, too. He makes buro [a fermented rice sometimes made with shrimps or fish], which we would eat as a side dish."
Chef Tom told me his favorite Filipino food memory was around his mom's mongo stew with shrimp.
"It's something that I always loved eating, one of those hearty dishes that you just crave, and once you're eating it, you can't stop. She made it with a lot of love, which you could totally taste. That's something you don't ever forget for the rest of your life."
From this family environment of food, he went to start as a dishwasher at the age of 15. His career in the kitchen, he learned from his betters and eventually became known for his hard work.
"Chef Jonathan Seningen and Chef Rodney Scruggs have had the most influence on me. After working at La Chaumière in Georgetown, I went on to work with Rodney at The Occidental. Rodney was the one that taught me discipline. At Hook, Jonathan taught me so much about seafood and working with seasonal ingredients."
The heroes and she-roes for Chef Tom were the chefs in the professional kitchens he worked in, cooking for his family and Purple Yam New York City and Malate chef and proprietors, Romy Dorotan and Amy Besa.
Affectionate with the Tagalog titles of respect for uncle and aunt, Chef Tom talks about these culinary titans. "Tito Romy reinforces the fact that Filipino food is not a trend, it's our culture. It's not just something that will come and go. I admire how seasonal Tito Romy's food is, how at Purple Yam in Brooklyn, he thinks about how he can put a twist on a Filipino dish by using what is available to him in Brooklyn. Tita Amy inspires me with the photos she posts of the unique ingredients they are using at Purple Yam in Malate - the different varieties of ube, and the heirloom rice."
Chef Tom has cooked cuisines like Mexican, French, New American, Italian, Chinese and more; but in 2012, he returned to Filipino food through a catering business. Of course, a special someone gave him a little push.
"My mom was the one who encouraged me to cook Filipino food and start Tarsier," he said. In 2012, his catering business, Tarsier, Chef Tom began cooking Filipino food for the public, after hours from his full-time restaurant job.
"I really wanted to promote the cuisine; I wanted people to sit up and take notice. What I really wanted was someone to say, 'Hey! We want to hire you for a Filipino restaurant!' And that ended up being Nick and Genevieve."
Added Genevieve, "It was amazing to find someone, not only with the experience and the chops in the industry overall, but who had already thinking about Filipino food on his own. Really thinking about the soul of the cuisine."
Although all of the Bad Saints -- Genevieve, Nick and Chef Tom -- are Filipino Americans, none are taking that birthright for granted. "The approach that we’re taking and are very excited about is really digging very deep to showcase the full range and diversity of Filipino food -- doing historical research, reading culinary ethnography essays," said Genevieve.
"I can’t begin to scratch the surface of it because the history of it is so rich, because the Philippines is so diverse and the regional cuisines are so distinct and different, even if there are dishes that they share in common... There’s still so much to learn about it. Pancit molo? Never heard of it before. I didn’t know we had a dumpling soup. And I was like, why is it called pancit if it’s a dumpling soup? There’s so much to learn!"
Teamwork makes the dream work!
The Bad Saint crew is a bunch of hardworkers. And though each of them is well accomplished in her or his own right, they each told me that they realized this dream could not be realized on one's own.
"Personally, we all know what we are good and bad at, and together as a team, we form one superhero capable of more than we can imagine," conjured Nick.
"Teamwork makes the team work! (Ha!) We have such great communication. We are always sharing new ideas with each other. Our creative process helps us workshop and develop the best ideas, with the goal of making Bad Saint a distinctive and original restaurant," Chef Tom wrote in an email to Filipino Kitchen.
Like all other restaurants and businesses, the work likewise reflects the community around it. Said Nick, "It's not just between Genevieve, Tom and I. We try to work with other people as much as possible -- from hiring friends to make curtains or hiring friends to help us with the bar program. Tony, our contractor, is a huge collaborator that helps us with design, flow, and fabrication. His outside perspective is key to our concept."
And these are all aspects that truly effect what the diners experience. Genevieve echoed that the leadership they show each other also leads their entire staff, both back and front of house. "For both of our pop-ups, the people that [Tom] got to help us in the kitchen were really amazing people, and they worked so hard for him. And I know that it was because they know he works so hard, too."
"We really believe in really investing time and effort in the staff so that, as it grew, that it’s a strong, cohesive, fun group to work in. Because I feel like that really communicates to the guests, and then it’s like, how could they not have a good time? The staff is so professional and so warm and is enjoying what they’re doing. It’s contagious," continued Genevieve.
As Genevieve described, in the build-out phase of a restaurant, there are sometimes surprises when demolition and renovation starts. Unfortunately, they are not usually happy surprises; usually they can be quite expensive and necessary structural improvements. These are the grown-up realities of owning a restaurant. Now you have to think about electricity and the power grid.
"[O]ur electrician pushed us to reconsider and recommended that we upgrade the electrical capacity of the building, given that we would be having more electrical appliances than the previous restaurant tenant," Genevieve noted. "During storms in town, unfortunately there’ve been power outages on this strip [on 11th Street]. I know it’s something that PepCo, which is our utility, is working on. But we just thought, given that, we don’t wanna roll the dice with our electricity."
The Bad Saint restaurant itself will have 25 seats. Twenty-five. As a result of the smaller footprint, Genevieve said, "We really had to maximize every inch. We’re having custom fabricated a lot of storage to fit in our space so that we can really use as much of it as possible. And it’ll help us just be more efficient and be more successful."
And aside from these two major expenses, Nick described what the restaurant will feel like when the door opens to the first 25 lucky diners.
"We want the restaurant’s interior to project an energetic, cosmopolitan vibe, with a Filipino accent. Intimate, light-filled, a place where anyone would feel instantly welcome and at ease."
Nick continued, "The open kitchen and bar are at the center of the dining room, which we hope will make people feel like they are at a dinner party where everyone ends up hanging out in the kitchen. My goal for the design of the restaurant is for it to share our version of the Filipino American story, our tradition of hospitality and our passion for food."
As for the overall experience, Genevieve shared the end goal of what they would like the customer to feel: "[T]he restaurants that we like the most [and] like to go to, are ones that have a very clear point of view, both in terms of the look and the design, but most importantly in terms of the food, in terms of the style of service... so that when you go you really feel like, OK someone really thought a lot about my experience. Somebody really thought a lot about what I was gonna eat today. When I’m in an environment like that it just instantly puts me at ease. Like, ah, somebody’s already taken care of it. I just gotta sit back and have a good time."
And the food?
For the merienda pop-up in November at Dolcezza, Genevieve said the menu reflected a range of Filipino dishes that to meet patrons seeking a variety of food experiences. "Our pancit was actually vegan, and then we had dinuguan for people who were more adventurous. We had arroz caldo for people who wanted something maybe semi-familiar and comforting. And then we had ukoy [seafood and/or vegetable fritter], and we had Lumpia Shanghai. Actually it was Tom’s mom’s recipe. We felt like we had some iconic Filipino dishes and sort of within that a range of options for people, like entry level, adventurous, food restrictions." Likewise the pop-up dinners in December at Crane & Turtle had something to offer for the herbivore and the omnivore (see below).
When asked about the opening day menu, Chef Tom replied, "Well... we don't wanna ruin any surprises. I can tell you that our opening menu is going to reflect all the love we've poured into the restaurant. This is such a personal, heartfelt project for all of us, and you'll be able to taste that in the food."
Correction, May 1, 2015: Genevieve managed at the DC restaurants, Teaism and Big Bear Cafe. We added the names of the two restaurants and clarified her professional experience in the text above. We apologize for the oversight.