We Chat with Chef Tien Ho of Montmartre
"I don't know how to do true, beautiful, 'authentic' French cuisine. So everything is an interpretation. Everything has its own unique spin and touch to it because it's who I am."
I don't often eat at a chef's restaurant until after I've interviewed them. But a chance dinner with friends got me into Tien Ho and Gabriel Stulman's Montmartre a few days before our chat. Packed to the brim two weeks after opening, the only sign that the restaurant was in its infancy was a heightened energy from the staff and a few small kinks that, knowing how a Little Wisco team runs, we trusted would quickly be caught and adjusted.
But honestly I couldn't care less about foot traffic after I'd had Ho's sticky rice. Or the sunchokes. His dishes have layers of depth characteristic of solid French cuisine with just enough contemporary American and Asian aspects to make them bright and relevant, acid cutting fat and sweetness in fresh, comforting ways.
The road to Montmartre—named after the bistro where Stulman first worked and where much of his devotion to hospitality was born—has been something of a journey for Ho, who was previously the chef at Ma Peche.
Before you started working with Gabe on Montmartre you had taken a year off to travel a bit. Did you learn anything about food that helped shape your menu here? I went to Vietnam for a month, and it was an amazing experience, but it wasn't about food for me. It was more of a personal thing.
When was the last time you'd been there? Since I left. 30 years.
Do you still have a lot of family there? My grandmother is still there, and tons of aunts and uncles and cousins.
Has your grandmother visited here? No, I hadn't seen her in thirty years. It was intense. That's why it became more of a personal trip than a food trip. So as far as menu development and what not, I had the idea but really didn't get the chance to test it out and refine it until we started with this.
When you were planning your own place, was it also along the French bistro lines? The original idea I had was a French/Asian influence, but the more I talked to Gabe the more we wanted to shift the focus to the French-American bistro. There are certain dishes with Asian influences or straight-up just Asian—the sticky rice, for example—but for the most part the menu is very classic French bistro inspired. [Ed. Note: Since this interview the menu has been changed to include more Asian-inflected dishes.]
What's the through-line of your menu for you? I think really using great ingredients and maximizing flavors out of each of the ingredients. A lot of it, too, is a combination of ingredients and technique. We're very conscious on how we execute things and the techniques involved. Like, just for shit and giggles we started fluting the mushrooms. It's one of those techniques that's completely lost and no one does anymore, but it started as a joke here and just stuck.
Speaking of lost technique; one could say that classic French cuisine hasn't quite sat well with young, experienced diners of limited means. Do you think elevated food on a more casual level is going to be more of a focus in New York? I don't think that's really changed much. You look at what Daniel has done with DBGB and Bar Boulud and even DB Bistro, which is ten years old. They're already doing high caliber cuisine in a more casual environment. A lot of people have been noting the resurgence of French bistros and cuisine in New York. I don't think that it was lost and now suddenly found its way back. I would say that it just needed more attention.
Why do you think it's getting more attention now? I'm honestly more interested in the in how. How is someone going to represent, interpret and reinterpret and present their vision of French cuisine? For me it's so interesting to see what people are doing and how they're doing it.
Does New York play into that? Would your menu work in San Francisco or Boston? I don't know. I don't know enough about what and how other cities are doing. I always find that New York is the toughest niche there is; I think people here are so much smarter and food-savvy, and a lot more demanding, too, because they know the quality of food and so expect more, as they should. It's always a challenge for us who work in restaurants to deliver. So can this menu work in San Francisco? I'd like to say yes, but when I was last there I didn't notice that many French bistros, so it might not work at all.
You've only been open a few weeks, but there was so much buzz before you even opened and you've been packed nightly. Did you feel ready? Ha, no! That's such a loaded question for me. Can you ever be ready? There was just so much, I can tell you, in the construction process, that was really hard. We were pushing and pushing so hard to get this place finished and literally the paint wasn't even dried yet and we knew we had to open. So the first week by the end of every service we were like, "Ah, man, we just ran out of everything so we have to start again with everything tomorrow!" We didn't know how much we were going to do, and being that busy all the prep was gone. So we were constantly working so hard to keep up.
What kinks need to be worked out? I'll show you my punch list! There's just so much. Not in a negative way, but there's just so much that's not organized enough. With such a small space we have to use every nook and crevice that we can, so it requires constant attention. Everybody jokes about me moving things around all the time; one day the sugar's here, the next day it's there, the next day it's over there. The running joke is, "Ah, Tien moved it again."
You've been focused on your own restaurant for a while now. Do you feel like this one could be "it?" Well, I would first and foremost adjust that question from "your restaurant." It's "our" restaurant.
Gabe did the same thing to me when I interviewed him. And it's true! Maybe it's just a semantic difference, but that word means so much. It is a recognition that so many people are continually involved on a daily basis to keep things going on this level. I am so fortunate in the kitchen because I have an amazing staff of cooks that are so dedicated to what they're doing. And that's the only way we are able to execute this menu right now. It is a big menu and it's pretty ambitious given the size of the kitchen.
What do you want the biggest takeaway you want your guests to remember that they're going to want to come back tomorrow, and next week, and next month? I don't think it's any specific thing. I would want people to come back all the time because it's such a great experience. I know that's a broad statement. A political answer, really. But it's the truth. I think that the combination of the hospitality, the service, the wine, the food, the space... we want to be a neighborhood restaurant. We want families to come back and bring other families. That's what we've always wanted and hoped for. That's our goal—to be that to the neighborhood.
About the author: Jacqueline Raposo writes about people that make food and cooks now and then for her bread and butter. She has sunchokes in her kitchen right now that she can't bring herself to cook, because she now wants them to taste a certain way that she can't execute. Dammit. Read her rambles, grab her recipes and chat her up at www.thedustybaker.com or tweet excessively with her at @dustybakergal.