The Mind of a Chef: A Conversation with Chef Ehren Ryan of Millburn’s Common Lot Restaurant

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Chef Ehren Ryan of Common Lot Credits: Jonathan Sym
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Nadine Ryan, Co-owner and General Manager of Common Lot. Credits: Jonathan Sym
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Assistant Manager Mercedes (left) and Nadine Ryan (right) discussing staffing requirements. Credits: Jonathan Sym
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Just another day at "the office". Credits: Jonathan Sym
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Main dining room Credits: Jonathan Sym
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Main dining room Credits: Jonathan Sym
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Kitchen overlooking Main and Essex Streets. Credits: Jonathan Sym
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Kitchen Credits: Jonathan Sym
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Second Floor entrance to dining room Credits: Jonathan Sym
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Second floor dining room Credits: Jonathan Sym
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Second floor dining room Credits: Jonathan Sym
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MILLBURN, NJ – Opening a new restaurant is no simple task, particularly if it intends to cater to an educated fine dining audience.  Though the competition for diners’ dollars in “the biz” is tough everywhere, it’s particularly risky for the fine dining establishment as the relative investment in construction, equipment, staff and ingredients is much higher than opening, say, a similarly sized diner. 

According to a Cornell University study, 60 percent of restaurants will fail in the first year.  This number may seem high but in relation to any start up business, restaurants are actually no more risky than starting, say, a technology company developing apps for smart phones.

Regardless whether one serves the masses or food aristocrats, there are distinct patterns why some restaurants succeed and others fail. 

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We can all forgive the well-meaning restaurateur if, from time to time, there are lapses in execution or if service isn’t up to snuff.  Anyone (and everyone) can and will have a bad night. 

Many restaurateurs say that having top-notch service, consistency in execution, high quality ingredients, a prime location and an attractive venue are keys to a restaurant’s sustainability.  For the most part, I have to agree.  However, I believe the biggest factor in a restaurant’s success is none of these, but rather the most important criteria is matching and meeting a customer’s expectations.

How many times have we gone out of our way, stood in line for what seems like hours or made a reservation months in advance just to get our favorites eats?  When I was working in Manhattan I can’t recall how many times I endured long lines, in sweltering summer heat, only to be greeted by a guy behind the counter who couldn’t care less why I wanted to lunch at Shake Shack.  But I gladly returned, time and again, for that over-priced and relatively small burger in Madison Square Park.  Remember the Soup Nazi from Seinfeld?  Yes?  Point made.

If I’m paying a lot for one meal, it’s more than just food I require.  I want to be welcomed, comfortable and feel like I am being taken care of.  If I’m entertaining guests, service may take precedence over execution.  If I’m dining with my friends and family, it may be the other way around.  My dining experiences at a restaurant may vary but my expectations will not. 

Amidst the stacks of unopened boxes of stemware, large unhung paintings and dusty floors, I had an opportunity to chat with Chef Ryan about the upcoming opening and his culinary point of view.

The high ceilings of the ground floor dining room we were in echoed a cacophony of construction during my conversation with the young and highly experienced chef.  He talked about the years of meticulous planning, travel and sacrifices that were made, cumulating into Common Lot.  This was a unique opportunity to for me to get a glimpse into the mind of chef whilst his attention was on flatware, menu design and soft openings and not distracted with expediting and overseeing a brigade of line cooks.

Ryan is an affable, young man and like many successful 31 year-old chefs in the high-pressure world of fine dining, he started paying his dues at an early age.  His passion for food and cooking was inspired by one of his high school teachers in Sydney, Australia where he grew up.   From then on and for the next 12 years, he found himself traveling the world, cooking and apprenticing in some of the most esteemed Michelin rated kitchens in Sydney, London and Paris. 

“Working at Sketch was the toughest year of my life.  I was lucky if I got three hours of sleep a night.” Said Ryan about working under Pierre Gagnaire at Sketch Restaurant in London, No. 18 on Pellegrino’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants List in 2005.

Unlike many of his U.S. counterparts, it took Ryan six years of working in high caliber kitchens to become even a junior sous chef.  Not because he wasn’t talented but because the expectations of European and Australian chefs are, in general, much more demanding.  With that experience and discipline, at the age of 27, he was asked to be the Executive Chef at Cottage Point Inn, one of Sydney’s top restaurants.

Common Lot is beautiful, modern and forward thinking in its décor and design.  Ryan contracted local architects Studio 1200 of Short Hills to help create his vision. Even in its unfinished state, I felt as if I were in a modern drawing room or library (sans books).  Contemporary grays, metals and rich colors grace the interior, marrying well with the polished steel of his state-of-the-art kitchen.  Clean lines run throughout the two-story restaurant as well as bold textures and smart light and window placement.

After over an hour of chin wagging with Chef Ryan, I realized this guy is absolutely insane!  I don’t think I have ever met a chef so meticulous or attentive in his approach to food, cooking and his customers.

For example, it took him, God only knows how many, months to even come up with the name for his restaurant and that’s with the assistance of a professional firm he hired, in Nashville, TN, which he traveled to no less than three times from Down Under.  That doesn’t include the multiple site visits to the U.S., scoping out locations, sourcing his ingredients, visiting purveyors, architects, contractors and all the folks required to build a restaurant.  In total, it took almost three years to get to this point.

Common Lot is the only restaurant I know that will not have a coffee machine.  Every customer desiring coffee will instead be presented with individual French presses.  He’ll accompany your press with suggested steeping times, which by the way, he has tested personally many times.  Forget about tea bags.  Nadine, his wife and co-owner, hand selects 12 varieties of loose teas to accompany each dessert.

He grows his own herbs, which many chefs do but he also makes his own Ponzu (a citrus based soy sauce), currently steeping it in his Chatham home.  He even has a homemade gluten-free alternative.  Who does this?  I might expect this if he ran a predominantly Asian menu but he’s doing this for only a handful of his Asian inspired dishes.  Welcome to Chef Ryan’s world.

My favorite part of Common Lot will be the kitchen pass seats, of which there are only four.  It’s’ Ryan’s version of the Chef’s Table where diners will have the opportunity to interact directly with the kitchen, line cooks and, of course, the Chef.  These bar stools are situated in front of the kitchen and “rented”, not reserved.  This means that for a fixed price, you literally own the seat for the entire evening’s dinner service.   Whether you stay for four hours, or come back and forth throughout the evening, it is yours.  No one will be in that seat except you, even if empty.

The kitchen pass seating includes several tasting courses up to 15, many of which are not on the regular menu.  They may customize dishes just for you or they may create a new test dish and solicit your opinion.  As long as they have the ingredients, you can even ask them to make you something on the spot.

According to the Ryan, Common Lot serves “modern American food that is globally inspired.” Though Common Lot does source many of its ingredients locally, is not “farm to table”.  Supporting local farms and businesses is important, and important to Chef Ryan.  However, he’d rather serve the best seasonal ingredients possible, even if it means he needs to search beyond 100 miles of his restaurant. 

We’ll have to wait and see if the hype (which I am guilty of contributing) is well deserved or not, whether Common Lot is here to stay or we’ll get bored once the newness wears off.  Given what we know thus far, it ought to be quite good. 

Common Lot will continue with soft openings until its grand opening on Mar. 29, when the restaurant will be open to the general public. 

For additional information, please visit Common Lot.  Show your support, LIKE them on Facebook

Jonathan Sym has been writing professionally since 2003.  He began writing about food when managing two kitchens in Cuba, feeding over 2,500 people everyday in 2005.  He has given interviews to Reuters, The Miami Herald, Associated Press, Radio France, Korea Times, Le Monde and other major international newspapers on food and kitchen management.  Jon has cooked and competed with celebrity chefs, won Boston’s first food truck competition and is an avid home cook. In college, he was the sports photographer for the Harvard Times.  He is a Professional Member of the James Beard Foundation and the International Association of Culinary Professionals.  Jon resides in Short Hills with his wife and two young children.  He can be reached at jsym@tapinto.net

The opinions expressed herein are the writer's alone, and do not reflect the opinions of TAPinto.net or anyone who works for TAPinto.net. TAPinto.net is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the writer.

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