Cassandra Landry | 5.1.15 | Issue #16
It’s 11 a.m., and the sun is shining on the cross-hatch of streets that make up San Francisco’s Tenderloin.
A couple of women are fighting on a corner, a beer delivery guy is dropping off cases at a bodega, old dudes are scattered here and there on lawn chairs watching the neighborhood go by. Standard city stuff.
Huxley, a 25-seat restaurant tucked on the bottom floor of one of many apartment buildings on the block, is half hidden by their spray-painted roll-up door, which chef Sara Hauman ducks under to check on her modest smoker in the back alley. By the time owner Kris Esqueda shows up a few minutes later, sandwich and a black-and-white pomeranian dubbed Ponyo in tow, the air smells a little like campfire and a lot like things you want to eat.
It's been about eight months, and people are very quickly beginning to realize what a gem Huxley actually is. This is good, because for a little while, no one was quite sure it would exist. Esqueda, who had poured his personal funds into the project and gone to his friends and family for help, was at the top of that list.
“The beginning is all fun, when you have a bank account that’s full of money and you’re picking out stuff, but as time goes on and you run into more and more roadblocks and certain things happen and certain things don’t, and the bank account keeps getting smaller and smaller…” he says. “I didn’t know if we were going to pull it off.”
Huxley was born purely by chance, after Esqueda and his business partner had been ready to give up on the whole opening a restaurant thing. A mutual friend introduced them to the landlord of this space, who had been converting it into a restaurant for another group. They had settled on another location, so he wanted it off his hands. The bathrooms were done, the hood was in, the permits submitted—it was as close to a miracle as two broke would-be restaurateurs could ask for.
“We had been looking at restaurants fairly seriously for about a year, maybe longer, so when the opportunity was presented to us, we had to act,” he says. “He gave us a week to come back with a business plan and proof of funds and a chef. We didn’t have any of it.”
He sighs. “It was a fairly hectic seven days.”
From day one, everything was about bootstrapping, and figuring out how to open a restaurant without spending a million dollars they didn’t have, he explains. “We were on such a deadline with so little money, so we just hit the ground running. Luckily, there’s only so much you can do with a 450-square-foot dining room and a 250-square-foot kitchen.”
That deadline was “pretty lofty” by Esqueda’s count: three months, chosen because they had wrangled three months of free rent out of the deal. The chef who signed on to help them land the space was Brett Cooper, a well-known chef who was available, and toying with striking out on his own. After the papers were signed and the keys handed over, Cooper brought on a cook no one had heard of as sous chef—Sara Hauman, whose cooking aesthetic he suspected would make a good fit. “It’s a neighborhood place. We wanted to be able to wrap our head around it,” Esqueda says. “We make a point of saying no tweezers or foams were used in the making of these dishes, because there’s a time and a place for dining like that.”
Esqueda’s industry cred comes from his involvement with heavy-hitter Saison, followed by a stint at Sons & Daughters. He has a reputation in the city as a natural, but the Michelin-starred game will burn anyone out eventually, and after four years, he hit his limit. “There’s always so much at stake in fine dining. I just wanted a place where my friends could come in and sit down and have a bite to eat once or twice a week, and not feel like it’s too precious or too special or a date-night only kind of place.”
Across the city at Bar Agricole, Hauman had been in the same boat.
“I was there when they opened, and had worked as both a line cook and a sous chef under three different chefs,” she says. “I went to Spain for six months and came back and was still working there, and just didn’t really see the potential for me anymore.”
As it often does in this business, it came down to money. When she briefly mentioned moving over to Bar Agricole’s sister restaurant Trou Normand, they counter-offered, knowing Trou Normand couldn’t afford to top it. So she stayed, despite her frustrations, and Cooper’s offer came one month later. Anxious to move on, and with little to no idea of what she was agreeing to, she agreed. “I was a little nervous, because Brett and I had never even worked together. We were just friends,” she admits.
As Huxley began to take shape, and loans were taken out and spent and taken out again, Cooper left to open his personal project, leaving Hauman to step into an executive chef role she was expecting months down the road. Without intending it, her moment had come. “I felt like the worst thing they could do is fire me. It’s either going to work out or it’s not,” she says. “You just have to be there and try not to really worry about it.”
“And at that point, we knew very, very little about each other,” Esqueda adds. “Just that Brett trusted her. I don’t even know if I had had her food before—”
“—before your parents came in that one night,” Hauman chimes in.
“Right. Had never had her food. Thinking back on it, I don’t think I was that worried, but there were definitely a couple times where I was like, ok, we kind of got left high and dry here. I hope this works out,” he says, “because we didn’t have the money to go look for a new chef and start all over.”
The first few officially-open days coincided with the World Series, so service was predictably quiet. The Giants were up against Kansas City, and San Francisco was a gastronomic ghost town, the entire population posted up anywhere with a big screen and cheap wings. It didn’t matter: the best training grounds are the ones where no one is watching.
“Many of the first nights we were open were the first nights we had tasted the food. We just went for it, because we had to,” Esqueda says. “We knew it probably wasn’t the ideal way to open a restaurant, but we had to open or we weren’t going to open at all. That was the finish line.”
Whether the partnership was fated, or just a combination of two people at a parallel crossroads in their respective careers, something about Hauman’s rustic sensibilities and Esqueda’s brand of easy hospitality clicked. It didn’t matter if they couldn’t afford more kitchen staff; Hauman preferred the life of a lone gunslinger. In her mind, the more hands on a dish, the more diluted the experience.
“People used to give me a hard time about not letting anyone help me, and doing everything by myself,” she says. “Part of it is trust, but the other part is that that’s really my belief. The charm is that it’s my food, that I’m cooking for you.”
Huxley may well be one of the only places where this kind of thing can work. Its size is a big part of that. “The restaurant is small, so nothing can really get out of hand. You can’t really go down in flames that hard,” Esqueda points out. No matter where you are in the dining room, you can see Hauman, calmly jumping from station to station. She cooks and plates almost everything that comes out of the narrow galley kitchen.
For the first five months, she flew solo. No line cook, no sous chef, no prep team. She would arrive at nine in the morning—which she still does, and sometimes earlier—and crank until it was done. She finally hired someone to help about a month ago, but it’s been hard to find someone to act as an extension of who she is and what she believes, and who’s willing to give themselves to this space. “No one knows who I am,” she says “just that I’m some girl who used to work at Bar Agricole. I don’t have a name for myself, so it’s a little harder to find people.”
It’s not a romantic proposition either, with no grander vision beyond making rent and keeping things simple. Dishes don’t have 15 components with fancy garnishes or labor-intensive touches. Instead, there’s rabbit, with a cream sauce. Hauman calls it “grandma food,” and that’s where she nails it. It’s nostalgic, and most importantly, thrifty.
“I’m going to put things on the menu that people will order. If they don’t, it comes off within a week,” she says. Ponyo grins maniacally from her lap. “I know we need low food costs, so chorizo for me is easy. If there are anchovies I can order, I always get them. If there’s squid that’s fresh? Then squid is on my menu, because it’s cheap and people love it.
“There are so many chefs in this city are doing things that are super creative, and that’s great, for me it’s more about business. Is the avocado toast the most creative thing ever? No,” she adds. “But people order it like crazy, and they’ll pay $8 for it, which buys a loaf of bread for me. So I sell six and I’ve paid for bread for the whole day.”
She also hates throwing stuff away, and has devised a simple way not to. When the walk-in starts filling up, she halts any produce orders until everything has been used up. This rigorous repurposing also solves a chronic problem of most neighborhood joints: boredom, both for the kitchen and the diner. There are very, very few mainstays on the menu—that avocado toast being one of them—which means the clams and kielbasa that you loved one night might be replaced by a poussin pot pie, or the fava beans adorning the roasted pork shoulder plate might be chickpeas the next. It’s fucking awesome. It feels scrappy and off-the-cuff creative and all of it is good.
“I know I can buy really, really delicious fava beans and peas for Knoll Farms but they’re really expensive. So instead of using them, I’ll go middle of the road and use something that’s not as expensive and maybe just delicious,” she says. “Is the person at table 5 going to know that these peas aren’t from Knoll? No. I do try to keep it local, but at the end of the day, it’s price versus quality that I’m weighing in my head. If there’s not that big of a difference, it’s not worth it, to be honest. All people really care about is, is it organic, or is it from California, or…”
“Or does it taste good,” Esqueda says. And it does, which is the brilliance of Huxley. They prove that you can be upfront and genuine about your intention without scaring off your guests. You can create great food without waxing poetic over Mother Earth’s bounty in a city defined by its evangelization of produce. You can have it both ways.
“It’s just the reality of the situation. I don’t think many chefs would tell anyone that, but everyone knows it,” he continues. “What people tend to forget is that it is a business. The reason that we’re here is to make money. Sara isn’t doing this as a hobby. I didn’t have a career in finance or something else and just decide I wanted to go into restaurants. I went into restaurants because it’s what I was good at, and it was a way for me to make a living.”
If the French Laundrys and the Meadowoods and the Manresas of the world are one type of love affair, then Huxley is another. It’s an everyday love, hard-won and intimate and honest.
“I would much rather have ten restaurants where no one knew who I was than one high-profile restaurant. I just want to do my thing, and I think Sara is the same way,” Esqueda says. “We just want to be able to pay our rent and our employees and put out food people like. That’s good enough for me.”