For the past month and a half we've been tracking a Frenchman's endeavor into restaurant ownership, as he transforms what started as an empty shell into JoJo, an upscale pan-Mediterranean restaurant and bar on Howell Street in Uptown.
Laurent Poupart started his career as a chef in Strasbourg, France, then worked in New York City at Metropole and Les Celebrites. For the past few years he's been a private chef in Dallas and Louisiana, but now he's ready to get back into the restaurant business.
The first thing Poupart did was hire a seasoned team to help him through the trying process. Royce Ring with Plan B, a restaurant design firm, has worked locally for seven years and in addition to the details mapped on blue prints, he knows the finer points of getting through city code and inspections (one of those finer points being patience). Then Poupart tapped Gregory Swain as general manager, who cut his teeth at Craft and Townhouse Kitchen at the Galleria.
Getting all the paperwork, plans and permits in order is like a long slow pull of the band of a slingshot. Then once all of that is settled, restaurants are hurled into the world at a feverish pace because, like with most things, time is money. Once your hands are liberated from the red tape, if you're not working towards opening, then you're burning cash in a business in which margins are already tight.
In early August, we chronicled the start of construction at JoJo; Plan B was orchestrating the renovations, and Green Tag Construction Group was making a huge mess and a lot of noise. Just a few weeks later, JoJo is already taking shape.
One important detail for Poupart was snagging Andrew Bell from NOSH as the executive chef. Together they've completed the menu and are seeking out local purveyors to supply fresh vegetables, meats and everything else, including local wine and cheese.
They also hired Laurel Wimberg as the new pastry chef, who spent some time at Craft.
I asked Poupart about the most difficult part of opening the restaurant so far.
"Money goes fast," said Poupart. "So everything has to be on schedule. Our shou sugi ban [wood for interior] got lost for three days between the restaurant and the manufacturer in West Texas. Those types of last-minute problems are hard. Also there was an issue with the door system and we had to make last-minute changes to that as well. We want the doors to be open, but we don't want bugs to get inside. So, we looked into these fans, but you don't want anything too noisy. Then, for everything we do we have to get bids, then we have to wait for all the bids to come in to make sure we're getting the best deal."
For Poupart, it's been a learning process.
"One thing I've learned from this is to keep my cool," Poupart said, "which is a good lesson for me, particularly given my history in the kitchen [laughs]. It has helped me learn to keep things in balance."
Although it's hard to imagine now, as he slouched back in a booth in jeans and sneakers, Poupart said the pace and stress in kitchens in New York would get to him, "I could be a monster at times. I don't want to be the monster like I used to be in New York [laughs more]. I'm older now and don't do all that anymore."
He has lived and worked in France, New York, LA, so I asked Poupart about his motivation to open a restaurant in Dallas.
"It's a very diverse city," Poupart said. "Dallas diners travel a lot and eat all over the world. Also, it's honestly a very friendly and classy city. As for the dining scene, there are some great local chefs."
With refined tastes and class in mind, Poupart has created an ambitious wine program, which is also a major element in the design and construction of the space at JoJo. Poupart invested in 10 iPads to guide diners through the wine list and will hire a sommelier to oversee the program. Poupart will have a glass or bottle for every budget and a bevy of options.
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Wimberg will manage a small bakery in the back that, in addition to making fresh breads and pizza crusts for the restaurant every day, will also dabble in wedding cakes. (They already have an order for late October.) After Poupart opens his other new restaurant at the old Lemon Bar spot in the West Village, they'll move the bakery there for more space.
Aside from the extensive wine program, bakery and everything else going into JoJo, another issue that brings a sparkle to Poupart's eye is the pizza. In August he traveled to Wood Stone test kitchen in Oregon and spent a day in chef heaven trying different recipes and equipment. He's so proud of his new oven, which recently got installed, they're going to have a customized JoJo Vespa and Smart Car to deliver pizzas to hungry office and house-bound souls.
As the end of construction nears, Poupart sees what's been on paper and in his mind is slowing coming to life.
"I'm so excited," Poupart said. "I look forward to putting all the stress behind me."