In New York City's novelty-driven restaurant marketplace, restaurateur Doug Crowell has made an improbable success in Brooklyn with two very traditional restaurants. Crowell opened Buttermilk Channel in 2008 and, with his partner, chef Ryan Angulo, opened French Louie in 2014. Both restaurants are modeled after the traditional bistro and they have set themselves apart as much with over-the-top hospitality as with excellent food. Although their Brooklyn locations are remote by New York standards, long waits for a table are standard at both restaurants. In 2014, Buttermilk Channel became the first Brooklyn restaurant since Peter Luger's to be voted onto the Zagat list of New Yorker's top 100 favorite restaurants.
Born and raised in Manhattan, Doug Crowell started his restaurant career in the kitchen. He attended the Culinary Institute of America and cooked at Picholine and La Grenouille before discovering his true calling in the dining room. Crowell worked for Steve Hanson as General Manager of Blue Water Grill before moving on to open Buttermilk Channel.
How did you get into the Culinary industry?
In college in Boston I got interested in cooking through watching cooking shows on PBS. Kind of out of nowhere I decided that this is what I wanted to do with myself. I took a cooking class that was part of my school's hospitality program and set out to find a kitchen job by looking up places that were highly rated in the Zagat's guide. There's always jobs out there for entry level cooks so I found a job literally in a few hours at a popular restaurant in Brookline called Providence, which has since closed. I stayed there for 2 years. I loved the work and the camaraderie of the kitchen and I was sure I wanted to be a chef.
I enrolled at the CIA right after college. It was there, three quarters of the way through my training, that I got my first taste of front-of-house work. All students at the CIA are required to work as waiters at all the restaurants. I had so much fun doing that work and felt really motivated to give people a great experience. That experience planted the seed of the idea in my head that the dining room was the place for me. I moved back home to New York and worked as a cook at La Grenouille and Picholine. Those were both amazing learning experiences that taught me how to take a lot of pride in my work and how a team is motivated to achieve at a high level. At the same time, I was realizing that I was never going to love cooking and, therefore ,was not cut out to be a chef. I remembered how much fun I had back in the dining rooms at the CIA and I decided to leave my line cook job and find work as a waiter.
I worked as a waiter for a only about two years before landing a management job with the BR Guest restaurant group. There I was fortunate to have the opportunity to work directly with Steve Hanson and some excellent upper level managers in the company. We opened Blue Fin, a huge restaurant in the W Hotel of 47th St and I was soon promoted to GM there and then was moved to be the GM at Blue Water Grill in Union Square. It was an excellent education in all aspects of restaurant management. After that it was time to open my own place, and that's when buttermilk channel was born.
Tell us about Buttermilk Channel. What inspired the idea and what is your vision for the restaurant? I was open minded about what kind of restaurant I wanted. Since I'm not the culinary guy, I could have opened a Japanese restaurant or Italian. I decided to find a great location and then see what the neighborhood needed. I found this space on the edge of a beautiful neighborhood (Carroll Gardens) and I decided that the neighborhood needed a bistro, a versatile restaurant with a large menu that's a place for a quick bite or a big occasion meal. I really admire Zuni in San Francisco and I literally set out to interview chefs with the Zuni cookbook on the table. I met Ryan Angulo and he just understood immediately and came up with the perfect menu for the place.
Tell us about French Louie.
Ryan and I both love French food and wine and we were both really inspired by a new wave of bistros that we saw in Paris and Montreal. Places that really invigorate classic bistro cuisine, and put a lot of skill into making a casual, fun restaurant. We found another location in Brooklyn, this one in Boerum hill, and we built a bistro there. We ended up naming it after this character, French Louie, who's a legendary hermit from up in the Adirondacks. Like us, Louie was not actually French. There are certain things about the place that reflect French traditions, certain dishes on the menu, a wine list that focuses on the classic regions of France. Other things reflect French influences in America, like the crab dirty rice and the sauce marchand du vin, both of which are cajun preparation. I think the French bistro is the greatest kind of restaurant ever invented and that's our basic model for both restaurants. The difference is in the cuisine.
What strategic partnerships/marketing strategies have you implemented that have attributed to Buttermilk Channel and French Louie's success?
There are a few relationships that have been very important to us. At buttermilk channel, Caputo's Fine Foods (a Carroll Garden institution) has made our fresh pasta and mozzarella since we opened. Esposito's Pork Store sells us our hot sausage that we go through tons of at brunch. We are fortunate to get wonderful local cheeses from Saxelby Fishmongers.
Maybe the most important relationship for both restaurants is with the farm at Snug Harbor in Staten Island. For the past four years they have provided Buttermilk Channel, and now French Louie, with our lettuces and other vegetables, fruits, herbs, and flowers. The farmer, Jon Wilson, delivers the greatest ingredients right to our door. It's a very unusual, amazing resource for us.
What industry trends are you noticing and how do you capitalize on them?
People, carnivores included, are eating vegetarian more and more these days. At Buttermilk Channel we opened with a whole separate vegetarian menu and we've continued to expand and develop it to keep it interesting. At French Louie the three steak frites options are our most popular items but we have a number of really cool vegetarian items on the menu all the time and they have been very popular as well.
Never thought of one.
Buttermilk Channel and French Louie's Motto?
I have one for the front of house employees. "be nice, don't be gross." There's a lot that goes into great hospitality, but that motto sums up the most important part.
Your greatest success as Proprietor of Buttermilk Channel? Most difficult moment-how did you overcome and what did you learn?
My greatest success has been in putting together the amazing team of people who continue to grow and improve the restaurant every day.
Your advice to an aspiring restauranteur?
Create a place that you love. Get a good, long lease.
Describe the ideal experience at French Louie.
It's a romantic dinner. Ideally, it's warm and sunny and you can start with cocktails or a glass of sparkling wine on a bench in the garden. Maybe you move inside to a table on the banquette by the window. You start with oysters and a half bottle of Champagne as the start of a long, luxurious dinner. After dinner you have a glass of calvados or Armagnac back out to that bench in the garden. One of you proposes to the other and you're married soon after. You return for each wedding anniversary and also come back with your kids for 530 school night dinners. Louie hasn't been around quite long enough to completely realize this dream, although we've had a few proposals. At Buttermilk Channel, though, we have a number of couples who have celebrated all these milestones with us.
How important are architecture/design to the success of Buttermilk Channel and French Louie?
At both places I think the lighting is most important. It's soft and diffused, comes from many indirect sources, and it's warmth comes from the paint colors we used. There isn't much design at Buttermilk Channel because I designed it and I am no designer. Fortunately, it's on a corner, with a lot of windows and a big brick wall, so there's not much left to design. At French Louie we worked with the amazing designer Joseph Foglia. He made us an elegant room with so many wonderful details that evoke a traditional French Bistro without being imitations of that style. Design effects your mood, your ability to relax, how you and others around you look, how the room sounds and how you move around in it. In that sense, it's important to both restaurants.
How do you motivate your employees?
We hire people who love the work whether it's in the dining room or the kitchen. Mostly, they motivate themselves. We create a comfortable work environment where people are kind to each other and they have a voice that we respect.
One food and drink left on earth, what would you choose?
Food- good cheese and bread. Drink- red wines from the northern Rhone.
What literature is on your bed stand?
I keep a couple short things to read by my bed because I tend to fall asleep fast. I have a collection of short stories by Edith Wharton and book of essays by EB White. Those essays got me thinking about Charlotte's Web, also by EB White, and I've been reading that the past few nights. His voice is very soothing.
Role model - business and personal?
Isn't Danny Meyer everyone's role model? I've never had the chance to work for him and I certainly don't think I'll build one tenth of his empire but he inspires me as someone who approaches his business without cynicism and who makes decisions with the right priorities in mind.
I need to find time for one of those.
Favorite travel destination?
What's next for Buttermilk Channel and French Louie?
My goal is to improve every day and to keep these places going for a long, long time.