Mar 30 2015

Restaurant and Community at Paladar 511

By: Chris Plattsmier

New Orleans is a proud community. Within the greater New Orleans area, every area, neighborhood and even street forms their own micro community. Is it possible to create the same kind of community within a place of business? Perhaps within a restaurant?  

Enter Jack Murphy, Susan Dunn, and Ed Dunn. I know Ed from working with him at one of the many stops in the food industry he has made in New Orleans. I visited their new restaurant, Paladar 511, in the mid morning while they were readying for that night’s shift. I did not want to keep them waiting for our 10 AM appointment since I knew they were busy working out the kinks, considering their restaurant has been open less than a month. I walked into the worn brick industrial building that looked like it would be home to a fire station or packaging plant on the outside. Ed took me to see the space one night after we got off work still amidst their renovations, but I had not seen the finished project.   

Going into the restaurant, the sun outside softened up from a heat lamp and turned into comforting glow swimming through the large windows that line the restaurant walls. Where there were once saws, beautiful leather booths and wood tables sat. Where all the hand tools had laid in the middle of the room, a long table laid underneath one of the three glass and iron chandeliers. The bar had new glasses stacked behind it, and the industrial floor mixed with a smell of fresh vegetables out of a refrigerator.  

Ed walked out from the open kitchen that sits behind a wooden bar to greet me, while Jack and Susan fit in two echoing “Hellos” as they continued their prep work. I felt bad for interrupting their work but they were gracious and invited me to sit in front of the prep line. Watching all three of them in the open kitchen felt like watching a cooking show, except a lot more approachable. Ed is a veteran of some of New Orleans finest restaurants, while Jack and Susan worked in a small but renowned pizzeria in San Francisco that Jack has owned for five years. The trio had worked on Paladar 511 for two and a half years, and although I am sure there were plenty of frustrating moments, the connection between the three was a pleasure to be around. Ed and Susan, brother and sister, seem to be able to perfectly mix that sibling relationship with professionalism.  

When I asked how it had been going, both Jack and Ed gave a proud, yet exhausted response. “It has been good, we seem to be getting busier every night,” Ed told me. Ed would later call Jack a “workhorse,” mentioning the 8 AM to 1 AM hours that are normal for Jack. “The staff has been great and the experience has been wonderful so far,” Jack said while cutting some greens.

I looked at the menu and offered my compliments; it is worth a visit to check out if you have a chance. When Jack saw me scanning the menu and asking questions towards them about what dish was the most popular and their personal favorites, he was quick to mention that “We are about to get rid of this menu. Everything here is seasonal, plus who wants to cook the same dishes all the time?  We want guests who come in more than once to see our experimentation with the menu and allow them the chance to try new, fresh dishes.” Besides the Tuna Crudo (crudo is Italian for raw), they plan to have the first overhaul in their menu very soon. The Tuna Crudo was their most popular dish and the three of them already seemed exhausted by it. Not because they do not like it, but because they always want something fresh. Susan came up with the dish, but gave credit to the ingredients instead of her own skill. As if the ingredients did all of the work. Coming up with new seasonal menus amazes me—just to think of the constant creativity that would take is humbling to be around.

We then started to talk about the space. Jack pointed out the repurposed wood the bar and tables were made out of, the tiles on some of the walls that they installed, and the chairs they got from the Habitat for Humanity Restore they revamped. “About three hours of work per chair,” Ed said to cut off Jack when he mentioned the chairs. You could tell Ed and Jack were happy to be behind the stoves and cutting boards instead of donning work gloves and tool belts. Jack paused for a second, looked up from his knife work and said, “Honestly, the best part of this right now is that we are open. After two and a half years and so much work on the space, that sometimes didn’t seem like it would happen. It was a long process.”  

The space is shared in its entirety; there is a long family style table, kitchen bar, shared booths and very little separation between all the elements of the restaurant. The contemporary art and ironwork breathe life into the space but do not crowd it. More importantly, they stressed the shared responsibility of the community they are trying to build within Paladar 511.  

The staff is cross-trained; the servers are capable of working in the open kitchen and the cooks can wait tables. I asked Ed if that made operations harder but he was quick to squash my doubts. “If everyone is willing to learn and have some interest in culinary skills, then no.” Jack and Ed also explained how they are implementing a tip sharing system. All of these ideas seem simple enough but are more complicated in execution than those who have not worked in a restaurant would understand. “After every shift, we try to cook a family meal and let everyone have a glass of wine or a beer,” Jack explained to me, as I became jealous of how cool this place was, “they are human beings and we want everyone to be friends and to enjoy the work they are doing.” Ed may have given me the best description, saying, “We want [Paladar 511] to serve the food and create a feeling that you would want if you were having friends over at your place.”

I do not know if they are idealistic for trying to create a micro-community of their own, but I think they are right in doing it. They are having fun and have succeeded in creating an “approachable” restaurant. I brought up Ed’s previous experience in fine dining and he stopped me short, saying, “I mean, this may not be a white tablecloth place, where customers are closed off from the entire operation of the restaurant and can’t interact with it. They are part of our family when they walk in. Our food is fresh and delicious and our service is friendly and comprehensive, all for a good price. That can be better than ‘fine’ dining.” The inspiration for the restaurant is in the ingredients, and aiming to give New Orleanians the pleasure of interacting with people who appreciate such a fresh and honest cuisine . Jack, whose roots in Californian cuisine exude from his farm to table mentality, scraggly beard and laid back attitude, made sure to tell me that Paladar 511 is not a product of “sprawling” from his San Francisco restaurant. It is meant to be a New Orleans community.

The interaction between all the moving parts at Paladar 511—the servers, cooks, customers, and bar—are all moving towards building a community people can appreciate and enjoy. The creativity, dedication and joy of working with each other and the ingredients shone through in the mere hour and a half I saw the three owners prepping for a dinner shift. I recently went in and dined at the bar in front of the kitchen, and every aspect of the menu (it changed from the first time I saw it) and experience felt comfortable yet exciting. If the care that Jack, Susan, and Ed show bleeds through to the entire staff, this no doubt appears to be a community they can sustain for years to come. The trio at the helm of Paladar 511 are seasoned veterans of the restaurant game, but are not trying to create another restaurant to add to their résumés. They are building a community to be proud of in a city that they love.  

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