If it seems like The Pass & Provisions has been around longer than one year, it might be because the young restaurant has already earned more praise and attention in that time than most restaurants ever will. After having The Pass earn the coveted four-star rating from Houston Chronicle food critic Alison Cook, a feature in Food & Wine and being ranked the No. 6 best new restaurant in the country by Bon Appétit's Andrew Knowlton, The Pass & Provisions still shows no sign of slowing down. Which is a good thing because the unique layout — two sister spaces in one restaurant — is hardly the most fascinating aspect of this establishment. The dishes at The Pass sometimes look like miniature installations on a plate, and lunch at Provisions is casual without sacrificing quality or satisfying flavor combinations. Plus, there's something about a place that encourages greasy, messy hands with its caviar service that warrants attention.
In this "One Year In" interview, owners Seth Siegel-Gardner and Terrence Gallivan tell us how they formed the Taft Street prodigy, and the triumph and travail that came with their hectic first year in business.
How and when did you decide to come together and open your own restaurant?
Terrence Gallivan: I guess it was something we talked about in the past. We worked together about seven or eight years ago and after about a year of working together and getting dishes on the menu, we said it'd be kind of cool to do something together. I think we worked together long enough and realized we had very similar styles and outlooks and visions in terms of what we thought restaurants should be, and what hospitality should be. I think it was about a little less than four years ago now that we kind of just generally talked about it, and Seth convinced me to come down for a pop-up here in Houston. After that it was kind of off to the races trying to figure out exactly where and when we could find our own space.
Seth Siegel-Gardner: I think it's also just a little bit about wanting to be our own bosses, never wanting to have to work for someone else again and really being able to do the kinds of things that we wanted to do and kind of realize the things that we'd been thinking probably since we started cooking.
The separate-dining format has drawn a lot of attention. How did the concept for the layout and the distinct dining rooms come about?
Terrence: As we were going through the real estate hunting process, we really wanted to make sure the building kind of spoke to us as far as the concept and the food; what it could be for each space and finding the right space for that. Being able to find a building where its history only existed with food in it, and figuring out a way to realize our vision in terms of what we wanted to do. And we had talked about a lot of different concepts. This one gave us an opportunity to do two in one space.
What's been your biggest surprise since opening a year ago?
Seth: I guess just being busy, being really busy. And we definitely wanted to be a busy restaurant, of course, and that's why we designed the spaces the way they are. I think the way people react to one restaurant as opposed to the way they respond to another restaurant, is something that's been interesting to us. And just generally, the patio. When it becomes patio weather out there, it's just chaos. I don't think we realized that people love eating out on the patio as much as they do. And it's great because we're about to be at that point when we have beautiful patio weather, and do the full menu out there, you know, full bar, and you get the full Provisions experience on our patio. It's something that people don't really know as much about, so getting that walk-in traffic a little bit more there, and kind of building that.
I think maybe we thought lunch in Provisions would be busier than it is. It's definitely building more and more, it's one of the areas that we could build on the most. And I think people forget about [Provisions] for a lunch place. I guess maybe that was surprising, that more people wouldn't be like, man I gotta have a fucking delicious pizza for lunch, or like, the sandwiches there are really good, or something like that.
And speaking about lunch and different menus, you recently launched your brunch program. How did that come about? Was it something you'd planned to do after a year?
Terrence: Yeah initially when we first started, it's one of those things that we spent — before we opened the restaurant — we spent a year literally working like six or seven days a week just trying to conceptualize ideas for the restaurant. We talked things to death; we just agonized over details and would go over and over and over different scenarios. We're trying to push forward now on a lot of the ideas that we've cooked around in our heads in terms of just like, fun events or things like that.
So the brunch kind of fell into one of those categories that we really wanted to do, and Provisions kind of lends itself well to a good weekend, daytime kind of cocktail at noon on a Saturday. And you can get some good food and hangout with your friends, or families or something like that, and the kind of place that you can just picture people kind of wandering in and moseying up to the tables, and just kind of hanging out and enjoying themselves. It was one of those things where we did the services in stages. So we opened Provisions, then we did lunch then we did The Pass, then we started doing private dining events.
It's a big building with a lot of moving parts to it, so we wanted to do things in stages and figured, a year in was a little bit longer than we'd hoped to do brunch, but it gave us time to really think of exactly how we wanted to run it. And the menu itself, the format of the menu, really lends itself to brunch. So we had to supplement a couple of things with more breakfast-type dishes. And I think a lot of the aesthetic and the feeling of the room really lends itself to that. And it's one of those things that, brunch can be the bane of a cook's existence.
People love brunch.
Terrence: It's not a fun service to work.
Seth: It involves a lot of eggs.
Terrence: It can be a really busy service. Obviously it's on the weekends so people are typically tired or hungover, or both. So you're dealing with a clientele that, they want the cure for what ails them. That's why we put BC powder on our brunch menu. [Laughter.]
Has there been any big change that you've made in the last year that you didn't think you'd have to make?
Terrence: Minor stuff. We had to adjust and just figure out different variables; we adjusted floor plans and staffing issues. Things like that. Things that you kind of expect in a restaurant, but nothing really where we changed the entire concept of how we do something or anything like that. I think that, like I said, there are a lot of things that we have in store that we'd hoped we'd gotten to sooner, but I mean obviously we'd like to think that we have plenty of time to kind of roll out new ideas and different types of menus or really expand on our cocktail list and keep the whole project moving forward. But nothing's been like, oh my god we took ten tables out of the dining room, or added ten or something like that.
Seth: The way we saw a lot of things working out, actually are working out. From the business side of things too, not just necessarily the food, so I think everything's moving in the right direction. And now we just have to get better at it, you know, get better at it as chefs and try to educate our staff better. We describe a restaurant opening as, I think about it as a runaway freight train or something like that. There is no stopping it, you cannot slow it down, so we asked a lot of these people to get on this train with us, and hopefully we're going in the right direction and everybody's enjoying their time here and learning a lot and going on to make the city a better place and create better hospitality for the industry in general.
I wanted to ask you about the dishes. Where do these ideas come from? Is your focus more to be playful or to be innovative?
Terrence: I think that, especially in The Pass, there is an element of playfulness or cleverness. We always say, never at the expense of the food, but we want you to enjoy your time and not just be, oh look how serious we are. Obviously we take what we do very seriously, but we have a quote on the wall that says, you know, at the end of the day it's just food. That really helps to keep us in check, and that idea that we're asking people to put their trust in our hands in terms of coming to spend an evening with us, whether it's at Provisions, the bar, up here, upstairs, wherever it might be.
So we take what we do very seriously and put a lot of thought into it. But when people are sitting down in the dining room, I don't want them to have to think too much. I think people want to come in and enjoy themselves and they get a chuckle out of a clever idea, but also, that's all for naught if it doesn't taste good or it doesn't make sense. But we always try to start with an idea that's a riff on a classic dish or a classic combination of flavors, or just something that we enjoy eating. That's what bridges the gap a lot of times, and what makes it great having two concepts that are pretty stark in terms of how different they are, but that are coming from the same place in terms of style.
I think that's what Bon Appétit's Knowlton liked about your "Ham and Eggs" dish.
Terrence: Yeah, it's been one of our more popular dishes for sure. I think it's kind of a good example of what we like to do. It's a caviar service, and it's taking something that would typically be very pretentious and snobby and reserved for a very affluent sector of the population. But you know, we took it and put pork cracklings with it. We like to think of it as still elegant, but then the point of it is that it gets on the table, and it gets really messy and your hands are greasy, and it's one of those things that kind of dials it back a little bit. But it's still caviar and there's still a lot of thought going into it.
Speaking of Bon Appétit, your anniversary party was also a celebration of being on their big list. What's been, overall, the most rewarding accolade you've received in your first year?
Terrence: I don't think we expected any of it. It's been one of those things that you shoot for, you know, any sort of recognition I think is good, not necessarily for us, but more so for the people who work with us, our staff. We have a lot of people that work really hard and dedicate a lot of their time and hours and effort to us, and there are a lot of people that have been here since the beginning, some since before the doors even opened, who've put a lot of themselves into this building and this whole project. So it's really more so rewarding for us to see them getting the recognition in terms of the restaurant in general. Obviously being among those top ten or whatever by someone that we really respect, Andrew Knowlton, I think that his opinions are really one of our generation's, I guess you could say. He's a guy who shoots from the hip and seems like he definitely knows what he's talking about. Anytime people eat all over the world for a living and have this massive perspective of what's happening in the food scene and the food culture, and—
Seth: And very in tune with what's going on, and is on the ground really eating at all of these places, getting an idea of what's going on. When we were there, at the event, you know, obviously being included in the magazine was a huge honor. Just the idea of us being there, of my mom getting her Bon Appétit, and opening it up and seeing her son's restaurant, that definitely puts a big fucking smile on your face.
But being at the event and talking to the other chefs there, talking about doing some stuff for them down the line, maybe bringing them down to Houston or going up there and cooking at their restaurants. And then just getting to eat their food and being like, this really is delicious; this isn't just a picture in a magazine, this is one of the best things I've gotten to try all year. That was really cool. It's cool being in the same boat, too. You get there and you're at the event with the other restaurants that were listed and they're all in the same boat we're in, in terms of, yeah they may have opened at different stages of the year, but they're all kind of newborns, so to speak. So it's definitely kind of cool hearing other people's stories. And we've all been through openings at other restaurants of other people, but until you experience it for yourself and make those decisions that ultimately affect the product that gets to the guests, or the bottom line of the restaurant, or whatever it might be, is really good perspective. So it was certainly humbling to be on that list. I think it's humbling to be on any sort of list for doing a good thing.
What do you see for the future of Pass & Provisions? Any big plans or changes in mind?
Terrence: The biggest thing we talk about is evolution, it's one thing to start out of the gate with a bang and people loving what you do, and being lucky enough to have repeat guests and [to] greet regulars and things like that, but the only way that those people keep coming back is if you continue to evolve. So no, nothing specific or sexy like, oh we're going to do this whole thing on the roof or anything like that. But we have some plans. We want to expand both sides of the restaurant in terms of the menus. The bar is one of the areas of the restaurant that we're really proud of, and we think it has a lot of potential for expansion in terms of the concepts and in terms of where that's going to go. But just pushing forward and having a plan every year it's open to make sure that we're continuing to evolve and get better. And never resting on our laurels.
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