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Isaac Johnson of The Pass & Provisions

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Gary R Wise

This is The Gatekeepers, in which Eater roams the city meeting the fine ladies and gentlemen that stand between you and some of your favorite impossible-to-get tables.

Although Houstonians may be well acquainted with chefs Seth Siegel-Gardner and Terrence Gallivan, The Pass & Provisions general manager Isaac Johnson is a more unknown quantity. Johnson spent 15 years in Austin's restaurant world. Among other projects, he launched that city's Max's Wine Dive. Just as he was looking to make a change, he heard about The Pass & Provisions. A one hour phone call lead to a drive to Houston, where Johnson had a four hour meeting with the chefs. He moved to Houston a week later and has been working 100 hours weeks ever since.

In this interview, he discusses the lengths people have gone to try to get a table at The Pass and explains that he considers a reservation to be "a sacred trust between a guest and a restaurant."

How big is this restaurant? Provisions encompasses the dining room, the garden terrace and the bar. In the bar, I can seat about 40, the patio seats 40 and the dining room seats 54. The Pass seats 36. The private dining room seats 50.

Do you have a favorite place to sit? Absolutely, the chef's counter at Provisions. You're literally in the line of the kitchen, three feet from an 800 degree oven. You get to see every dish that comes out of the kitchen; at the same time, you get to see the entire Provisions dining room. It can be hot. It can be a little loud, but you're hands on with the chef. If you see something interesting, chances are you get to taste that.

How long is the wait at 8:00 p.m. on a Saturday night for someone who doesn't have a reservation? I'm usually able to accommodate them on the patio or the bar within 30 minutes. In the dining room, one of the exciting parts of this project is that when we're full, we're full. It's a 54 seat dining room. [The Pass] is a 36 seat dining room. In The Pass, we don't do turns. Once we're full, we're full. In Provisions, our turn time for a two-top is basically two-and-a-half hours. Basically, once people are there they're there for a long time.

So people see lots of empty tables, and they want to know why they can't get a table. It may be 7:00 o'clock, and I don't have that table reserved until 8:00. But there's no way if I seat them at 7:00 they'll be done. Everyone just says, "oh, we'll eat quickly." Every time we do it I need the table back, and they say we're not leaving. We're only halfway through our dinner.

That's certainly the biggest challenge we have. Everything is meant to be shared. There are new and interesting dishes, things that you've never heard of. Once you start tasting, you want to taste more. One hour leads to two hours, leads to two-and-a-half hours. One bottle leads to two bottles; start with cocktails, end with cocktails.

It's also an interesting place. One of the most challenging parts of the job is I have four distinct concepts going on in one building. What also makes it great is I'm able to, if I need that table back, can we have you finish cocktails and dessert in the bar? I'm able to move people back and forth or on and off the chef's counter. It's really exciting. People after they've dined with us once they immediately ask, "How can I get up there? How can I sit up there?"

Eight o'clock at The Pass. We've been open two weeks. On our launch day, I was offered a lunch, a car, a $100 bill. Did you say a car? A car, and $1,000 cash if I could get them in.

I would say that's something that's been really driven into my head from my mentor from Jacques Pepin. A reservation is a sacred trust between a guest and a restaurant. If you have a table, you have a table. If I don't have a table, I don't have a table. I think that's the hardest thing.

There's become this level of pretension between restaurants that create waits. We're not doing that. Honesty at the host stand is one of the things we hold ourselves to very strictly. If I have a table, I will absolutely seat you. If I don't have a table, I don't have a table.

(People ask) Can we just go over and have dessert? Can we just have a drink? Getting people to understand how this dining room (The Pass) functions. This is a four hour experience. You can't just have a drink. You can't have your friends come meet you for a drink. I can't move the reservation. Right now we're booked six weeks out. You come. You sit for four hours. You think about what a spectacular evening you're going to have.

The seatings are staggered, right? We do our first seating at 6:30. Our last seating at 8:00. Those 36 seats are staggered through the evening. The caveat there that we want to get out to people is we take a wait list everyday, Tuesday through Saturday. So far I would say I've been able to accommodate 90% of people on the wait list. As the reputation for the restaurant spreads, the number of cancellations will probably decline. Right now, I was able to accommodate six people off the wait list last night (a Friday), and that's been pretty standard.

How long is the wait list for tonight (a Saturday)? There are at least four people that are waiting for a table, and I haven't had any cancellations yet. We've been confirming. We started out the day before, then it was two days before. Now we just started calling regularly to make sure.

To give you an idea, we opened the reservations at 5:00 p.m. on a Friday night. By the end of the first night, I had 500 reservations. By the beginning of that next week, Monday, we had over 800 reservations, going into March.

We kept saying there's gonna be a flood of phone calls. We had three phones set up. We had people man three different phones, and we thought we'll get 30 or 40 or 50 phone calls and that will be fine. When we got done with that first 30 minutes, I looked down and it said we got 300 calls. It was just, like. We spent the next two days just calling people back.

When I bring people into the room, it strikes awe into people. They just go quiet. I would say 99% of the people don't realize what they've walked into. People who've been to the Pilot Light dinners know what these two men are capable of. Then the dinner progresses and each course comes out. There's a lot of table-side presentation. The interaction directly with the chefs. Seth and Terrence come to your table, talk to you. It's an incredible opportunity for face time with two of the most talented chefs in the country.

But getting a table when you don't have a reservation at The Pass? Very tricky. Even with $1,000.

In terms of Provisions, what do people say to try to get in? Our very first night open there one of my hostesses came to me, she'd never worked in a restaurant before, she says, "This guy just give me a $100 bill for a table." I said, ok, what did you do? "I told him we don't have a table." Over and over again we hear, "We must be at the wrong restaurant. I thought you just opened. I thought you were new. Why is there a wait?" Both places first night, here's 20 bucks, here's 100 bucks. We return it and very nicely say there's nothing that I can do to create more tables at the restaurant.

It's the same thing with the communal table. I have people call and want to add a person to their table. We're used to these very large, expansive dining rooms where I can bring in another table. I have one little table I can bring it, and then people can't get in to sit down. Having that limited number of seats is something you understand in Manhattan. You can't do the Goodfellas thing where you bring a table out of nowhere? Exactly. I wish I had a suspended table in the dining room. You can't add anything. It is what it is.

I would say that's a challenge for us, but it makes it very exciting, too. I've never seen a restaurant where we're our thirteenth week at Provisions and every night the dining room is full. We do offer the full wine menu, full service on the terrace and the bar.

I think we'd been open three or four weeks and we were named one of Houston's most iconic dining rooms. I remember Seth just going, shouldn't we be open for a year before we become an iconic dining room? But there's something about the designs of both spaces that we've created. People love to be in the spaces. I think this room particularly at night with the lights. Like any great architecture. When you walk into a great courthouse, when you walk into a great cathedral ? it emotes a certain reaction.

Our shared bathroom, which I think gets as much press as the kitchen does. I think one of the things is to sit at one of the tables and watch people go to the bathroom and poke their head in. Gentlemen will come out and say, "Where's the men's room? There's a lady in there." It's ok. It's shared.

I'm a very detailed person. Working with Terrence and Seth, their sous chefs, Fred, my service manager, my two house managers and my events manager, we are all the same OCD, detail-oriented people.

Usually, myself, I'm very detail-oriented, the other manager is more laid back. On your day off, the same levels don't get kept up, or you compromise on dumbing it down to some degree. In this restaurant, if there's one detail that one person lets slip, the other person picks it up. It makes it very challenging, but it's also one of the biggest reasons for our success so far.

Do you have regulars yet? Immediately. Some of that is due to the fact that they were doing the Pilot Light dinners. They already had their fans that we're coming to the dinners already. We opened with regulars. After the first night, this is our new place. I told the guys this morning in lineup. It's exciting that we have new people, but we also have people that this is their favorite restaurant. This is our place. We have family coming in town for the holidays. We can't wait to bring them here. The number of people who come here straight from the airport. Or the number of reservations we take, "I'm picking up someone from the airport. We're on our way to The Pass. Is there anyway we can get an extra 30 minutes on the reservation? Can we move it back because we're coming from the airport?"

I definitely have my restaurants where I want to go when I come home. It's exciting to be that place.

What do you do for VIPs? You must have other chefs coming through here. We do. We take that as the highest compliment. The industry is in here every night: Chris Shepherd, Justin Yu. It's exciting, because we have our places we like to be when we're not here, which is most of the time. We know other chefs and people in the industry feel the same way. I would say the most exciting option that I have to offer them is having the chef's counter. That's where initially, during the first couple of weeks, those were the only invitations to sit up there were other chefs. They could come in and literally be in the kitchen. When you're a chef in the kitchen, it's hard to pull away and talk to a table. When they're right there, the chefs can have that interaction with them.

At Provisions, VIPs get to sit at that counter and talk to the chefs. At The Pass, that same courtesy is extended to everybody. The chefs and sous-chefs are by your table for five, eight or more courses.

Will you send people an extra course? There are courses that are presented to every table that are not on the menu. That are extended to everyone. In Provisions, like any kitchen, there's a lot of things we send out to VIPs and friends of the house. One of those is we have that beautiful red slicer on the counter, where we always have a different ham. Whether it's Tennessee or Virginia or Austria. It's an easy thing to shave it off as one of the first things we send out to a lot of our guests is ham of the day.

What is the one Gatekeeper tool necessary for you to do your job? The bow tie and the watch. I didn't wear a watch for a long time. Meeting with my mentor and just preparing for this position. He set the watch down. He said, "I'm not giving this to you but wear this." Having two services we go from setup to lineup to service to cleanup to setup to lineup to service to cleanup. With all the restaurants, keeping track of reservations in The Pass, Provisions and the private dining room, my time is essential. Being able to check that watch and know I've got another table to seat in here, I've got another table to seat in Provisions, check on the party in the private dining room. It's a constant rotation. It's like a watch. It's being that balanced wheel. My position is channeling all that energy that's coming from the back of the house and the front of the house. Keeping it steady, keeping it on time and keeping it from unwinding all of the energy all at once.

The bow tie. That was something I embraced just coming here. I hadn't bought a suit in 10 years before I moved to Houston. In Austin, flip flops and jeans rule. If you dress up, you put on jeans and cowboy boots. Coming and knowing that I would have to invest in some suits, I put on my first bow tie, learned how to tie it. Always got to have a bow tie. I haven't put on a necktie since and don't plan to. It just represents, with the number of times I have to say no, there's a level of charm and hospitality that's required. Our level of hospitality has to be at the level of the greatest restaurants in the world. People have to know that if we say we don't have a table, we don't have a table. If we say we can't accommodate a request, I can't accommodate it. Over time, there's a level of respect and understanding that will grow between us and the community. It's not about being pretentious. We're doing everything as honestly as we can. People are embracing that, which is great.

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The Pass & Provisions

807 Taft Street, , TX 77019 (713) 628-9020 Visit Website