Alex Friedman, Pâ€™cheen International Bistro & Pub
This profile article excerpted from: From Classic to Casual
Restaurant Forum, September 2010
By Jaymi Curley
GOING GASTRO WITH GUSTO
Gastropubs have lit up the scene in the past few years, offering diners upscale fare in a casual atmosphere without breaking the bank. But in 2005, the concept of fancier food in a bar setting was virtually unheard of in Georgia. Pâ€™cheen International Bistro & Pub in the Old Fourth Ward neighborhood of Atlanta was one of the first of its kind in the city, and itâ€™s still going strong five years later.
Chef Alex Friedman, co-owner and chef at Pâ€™cheen, does not see a fine dining background and a casual restaurant as mutually exclusive. â€œTo use the term â€˜upscaleâ€™ versus â€˜casualâ€™ is to miscommunicate what we are doing here. Because the main difference between [fine dining] cuisine and mine is that their portions are smaller. Their plates may be more expensive, their wine glasses may be made of fine crystal, or they may have an army of servers circling around you at all times, but the quality of food at Pâ€™cheen is just as good and maybe even better than some fine-dining restaurants in Atlanta. Because I doubt most of them are making as much of their food from scratch as we are here.â€
Friedman, a graduate of Johnson and Wales University, began his path in the industry at just 14 years old, starting as a busboy and running the gamut of the kitchen hierarchy, until at 19, he was taken aside by the chef at the Petroleum Club, a CCA-networked private club in Evanston, Illinois. â€œI had worked my way all the way up to sous chef,â€ says Friedman, â€œand Chef said I had natural gift for it, but basically had two choices: I could stay there and work for him as a sous chef or I could go to culinary school. So I started applying.â€
Upon graduating and working three years as a sous chef at the Biltmore Estates, Friedman moved to Atlanta, where he worked under Arnaud Michel and Jean-Frederic Perfettini at Pastis. He later transferred to the pairâ€™s Anis Bistro in Buckhead, where he became executive chef. It was there that he met his business partner Kieran Neely, who is now co-owner of Pâ€™cheen.
In the creation of Pâ€™cheen, Friedman says he was not turning his back on his fine-dining roots, but rather creating a fusion of the quality diners expect to see in fine dining with an atmosphere thatâ€™s a more relaxing experience.
â€œWe were trying to accomplish something at Pâ€™cheen that no one else had done,â€ Friedman recalls. â€œAlthough we did not realize it at the time, we were creating Atlantaâ€™s first gastropub. We wanted to try to create an environment where there is high-quality food, but you are also breaking bread with spirits and enjoying yourself, because great food and spirits always go together.â€
The move to casual dining really only came about over the past decade, following a period when the high-end, 12-course chef tastings had exploded.
â€œBut the average personâ€”who canâ€™t afford to spend $300 or $400 dollars on a meal that, frankly, you walk away and you are still hungryâ€”wanted to be able to eat high-quality food in an environment they can enjoy and relate to,â€ Friedman says. â€œKieran and I wanted to create a place where weâ€™d be comfortable. Where anyoneâ€”white, black, Asian, Hispanic, gay, straightâ€”could sit down, look at the menu, and find something on the menu that they can understand and enjoy.â€
STAYING LOCAL AND AFFORDABLE
As a recent study reports, 70 percent of consumers say they are more likely to visit a restaurant that sources local and/or organic food for its menus. Therefore, it makes sense that the principles of local and sustainable ingredients would filter from the fine-dining arena into the casual concept restaurant. And although the trend toward local and organic food has upped the price per person for many restaurants, Friedman makes it a point to use local ingredients while also keeping the menu affordable.
â€œAs much as we are all in this to make a living, I am also here to provide service. And where some chefs are going to say, â€˜Well I can charge more for local and organic,â€™ I work along the lines that because we make just about everything here from scratch, I can charge the customer a little less than if I were buying things already made. I pass it on to my customers,â€ Friedman says, adding that keeping prices reasonable is the best way to protect the overall bottom line at Pâ€™cheen over the long term. Most items on the menu hover around the $10 mark, and nothing is over $18.
â€œI have had to raise my prices a little bit just like everyone else in this economy, but I want to make sure that my clientele can still afford to come in here to eat. And you are seeing a lot places shut down left and right, all over Atlanta and all over the country, because people canâ€™t afford the prices.â€
Chef Friedman uses local ingredients primarily sourced from Lazy S Ranch outside Athens, and he also has an herb garden beside the restaurant that he uses frequently as well. Everything on the menu is made from scratch, including the Potato Gnocchi Primavera, Bistro Steak a la Plancha con Chimichurri, and its Jar of Pickled Farm Fresh Veg â€“ a mix of pickled green beans, garlic, red peppers, celery, carrots and jalapeno along with fried house pickles.
A CLASSIC EDUCATION IS STILL KEY
For whatever kind of restaurant is the ultimate goal, Chef Friedman maintains that a classic education is invaluable. â€œThe beauty of culinary school is that it refines the skills that you learn from working in kitchens. Unless you are working under the highest caliber of fine dining chefs, you are never going to learn the real traditional way to make a stock, or what a proper brunoise or bouquet garni is,â€ he says. â€œThere are the properties of a sauce, or all these great, old-school classical dishes that you may not see on menus anymore, but that are the cornerstone for the techniques you need in order to be able to cook in todayâ€™s restaurants. And you can learn the majority of it in restaurants, but you donâ€™t learn the refined techniques like you do in culinary school.â€
â€œCulinary school is one of those things where you get out of it what you put into it. You go through the program and really learn the techniques, get Aâ€™s across the board, graduate magna cum laude, and youâ€™ll find yourself being chased after by the big fine dining establishments and top organizations,â€ Friedman says. â€œAnd I think that is the proper way to go for someone who is interested in being a chef-owner someday.â€
STAFFING MAKES ALL THE DIFFERENCE
Even in a casual environment, both Friedman feels that the team members can make all the difference to both the customer and the chef-owner. Friedmanâ€™s approach to staffing is to look for people who are â€œcommittedâ€ and willing to contribute to the success of the restaurant. â€œI donâ€™t have some college kid who is thinking, Iâ€™m just here to earn a few bucks between classes and Iâ€™ll be out of here in six months when I graduate.â€
Friedman helps foster a sense of unity among his employees with staff meetings where they contribute ideas to help the growth of Pâ€™Cheen. In addition, Friedman is adamant about modeling the kind of hard work and dedication he expects from his employees. â€œI would never presume to ask anyone who works for me to do something I am not willing to do myself. This place takes everyone to run it. If the grease trap is backed up and it needs to be emptied before a plumber can get out here, I am the first one to pull on a pair of gloves and get disgusting.â€
PHOTO CREDIT: Haigwood Studios