When Janine Booth was ten, her best friend’s family introduced her to the foods and flavors of their Malaysian heritage. “They always had fish sauce, lime juice, soy sauce, cut chilis — all these different condiments I’d never experienced. It was really unique to me. That’s when my excitement for food began,” she says, wide eyes smiling.
Unsure she wanted to commit to the demanding life of a chef, Janine explored a gamut of careers in her native Australia, from naturopathy to beauty to primary school teaching to nursing. She grew frustrated. “I needed a breather,” she says. She took a job as an office administrator, focused on saving money, then traveled solo through Europe and Asia for nine months. “I backpacked on a budget and went where the wind blew me. It was a great experience.”
She moved to the states to study PR at the University of Miami but discovered it wasn’t for her. “I needed something I was passionate about.” In 2010, she enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu’s Miami campus and began interning at the city’s popular Gigi. She and the restaurant’s acclaimed shaggy blonde chef, Jeff McInnis, became friends and roughly two years later became a couple. During that time, Janine was also a contestant on Season 11 of Top Chef.
In 2013, Janine and Jeff packed up their knives and moved to New York to open Root & Bone in Manhattan’s Alphabet City. Since opening on June 30, 2014, their elevated Southern-inspired menu has received a wealth of enthusiastic praise from New York’s hyper-critical and hyper-fickle restaurant reviewers. Their fried chicken has topped a number of “Best Of” lists and won the coveted title of being “Manhattan’s Best New Fried Chicken,” according to Eater New York.
Speaking to Janine now, in her bright, whitewashed restaurant that could be mistaken for your great aunt’s cozy country home, you can tell she’s where she’s meant to be. “You always get brought back to the path you’re supposed to be on, even if you get there in a roundabout way.” It may be a loss for the Aussies, but it’s most certainly a win for New Yorkers.
WORDS BY MIA SAKAI | PHOTOS BY TIM HANNIFAN
You and Jeff were both living and working in Miami. Why did you choose to move to New York to open a restaurant?
I’d been in Miami for almost three years and was getting ready to go somewhere else. Being Australian, I like traveling and experiencing new places. I love Miami and feel like I’ll probably end up back there at some point, but New York is the food mecca of the world. It has such an abundance of culture and restaurants that have been here for hundreds of years and are still around. That’s really cool. Then there’s restaurants that are just opening up and pushing the boundaries and doing really unique things that I’ve never seen or heard of. They’re making it successful and creating dishes that are becoming the new “it” thing. Miami is up-and-coming for food but the food culture is definitely still developing. Here, it’s the mecca.
It took you a year to open, which is a considerable amount of time compared to most restaurants. What was that process like?
We looked at the space in July 2013, moved here in September and then began construction. Jeff’s brother and sister-in-law are architects, so they helped us design the space. It was very closed in, very dark. None of these windows existed. The kitchen had to be completely redone and the basement was a pile of rubble. We had a construction crew but when the winter hit, sometimes they just wouldn’t show up because it was too cold or they got snowed in. Everything came to a stand still. We had to keep things moving so we ended up doing a lot of the construction ourselves. I learned a bunch of different skills that I never thought I would learn: sanding, drilling, painting, wood bleaching, cabinetry, wiring, plastering. We basically made everything ourselves. It wasn’t planned that way but we wanted things to move along as fast as possible.
What are your top three tips for running a successful restaurant?
A reliable staff is the number one thing. Finding the right people for the right job makes running the business so much easier.
An accessible concept that people are going to respond well to that’s not overpriced or overcomplicated. Our food is really simple and we price our menu pretty reasonably. That’s what people want at the end of the day.
Keep your finances in check. Be perceptive to those changes in the market that are going on weekly, daily and monthly and respond to them. Make sure you’re turning a profit because after all, it’s a business.
How did you find funding? Did you need to find bank loans or investors to get Root & Bone off the ground?
Our plan from the beginning was to do it on our own. It was really important to us that it was just the two of us — no investors. I had some money in savings and my family helped out. We also had to get bank loans. It’s not easy to get loans, especially for me since I’m foreign, but we found some really great cooperative banks around New York that work with small, unique businesses that are trying to get off the ground. About two thirds of the way through, we realized we needed more money since the construction was running over budget. It’s an old building, so when we got in there we basically found a can of worms. It was a tough time. But we were able to get loans and make it work. Everything’s on our shoulders, but the reward is worth it. It’s ours.
What’s it like working with your partner and how are your roles split?
It’s great. Jeff is more general manager, overlooking everything. I’m more involved in the kitchen with menu direction, recipe development and day-to-day operations. We’re both fortunate to be able to do a lot of media and PR stuff. I really enjoy that but it takes me away from being in the restaurant, which is really important. There’s so much that goes into it, so much to do. It’s not just a store where we buy product and sell it at an upmarket rate. We have to prepare the food, work with it, be creative. Budgeting is a constant thing. Labor costs, food costs, inventory. Making sure you’re actually going to make money in the end. You have to go with the market and what it’s telling you, what your business is telling you, and be perceptive and respond and get creative with how you’re making money and doing things. I guess that’s why they call it “running a business” — you’re always running around doing something!
You’ve had an avalanche of press about your food and opening. How have you managed to drum up so much attention and how has it impacted your business?
I’m not exactly sure how we’ve managed to drum up so much press. Our publicist, Nicole Albano, does an amazing job. She definitely markets us to a lot of her connections. But a lot of people also come to us directly. I feel like New Yorkers know their food and once there’s a buzz about something, it is just like an avalanche. One person will write about you and people feed off of those articles. We’ve had some great PR opportunities and they haven’t really slowed down. We’re constantly doing things for the restaurant and people keep wanting to come in and shoot our food and write about it. It’s really great. I can’t say exactly how it’s impacted our business, but we’re always busy. So it’s all working.
You’ve had a bunch of reviews from food critics, mostly positive but some critical. How does this affect you and your menu?
You have to take everything with a grain of salt, whether it’s good or bad. We’ve had some amazing reviews, but you’re only as good as the last plate you’ve put out. We have to make sure that even if someone loved the chicken that one time, it’s perfect every single time thereafter. The things people are really enjoying are obviously not going anywhere. If we see people are writing a lot about one particular dish that they don’t enjoy, then we’re definitely receptive to that. We’ll tweak it, change it, and if it’s still not up to scratch and where we want it to be, then we take it off completely. We have so many ideas for dishes and we’re constantly changing the menu to fit the season, so it’s really just a part of the process.
DRUNK DEVILED EGGS
a recipe from Chef Janine & Chef Jeff
You were on Season 11 of Top Chef. How were you scouted and how has it impacted your professional life?
They called me when I was working at a Southeast Asian restaurant in Miami. I did a number of phone and on-camera interviews. Then they flew me to L.A. to do more tests, including psychiatry exams to make sure I wasn’t crazy. It was a long process. It took about four months from the first interview to when I got the call that I was in the show. Professionally, I think it’s a really great platform to be able to jumpstart your career. It’s a good opportunity for young chefs to show their skills and go on and do other things afterwards. People will come in and say, “I watched you on Top Chef, I was rooting for you and I’m really excited to eat at your restaurant.” Knowing that I actually have fans is kind of cool. It’s nice to know that you have a following and people support you and what you’re doing.
Now that you’re part celebrity chef, real-life chef and business owner, how much of your day is spent doing each and what do you enjoy most?
Right now most of what I’m doing is as a business owner. I’m rarely able to actually get in the kitchen and work a full day. I go in for snippets and work on recipes here and there — some nights I’ll work a station, some days I’ll prep. That’s what I find fun. It’s the best part of my job. Cooking is more simple. Owning a business is not so simple. There’s so many moving parts to being a business owner, but it’s great because you’re not doing the same thing all the time. You’re working on different elements of the business. Then the celebrity chef part, not much. I get to do some cool PR things and people come in and film me cooking in the restaurant. It just depends week to week. This week there’s four things, but some weeks there’s nothing.
What’s been your greatest resource for learning how to build your business?
My greatest resource is my friends who have restaurants. Even people that I don’t know. I’ll go into a restaurant just to speak to the managers, the staff, and the owners if they’re around. Speaking to other people that have restaurants and getting advice from them — everything from permitting to construction to who picks up their garbage to what produce companies they use for which things. Really, the best resource is other restaurant owners, for sure.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to open their own restaurant?
You have to be prepared for what it is. It’s unlike any other business out there. It needs constant love and attention and you have to be committed to that and prepared for that. If you’re not ready, ultimately it’s not going to be successful and you’re going to waste a lot of time, money, energy, and love. Other than that, find a good location with a good rent. I think that’s one thing that kills businesses. If you can’t pay your rent, you’re in a lot of trouble. It’s hard to sort out a really good deal for a space, but if you can, that’s a great start. Make sure you’re ready for the finance side and the creative side. Having a few trustworthy connections within the industry is really helpful too.
More on Root & Bone
Loh, Anna. “New York: Root & Bone.” www.kinfolk.com. October 23, 2014.
Kaplan, Michael. “Meet the Chef Couple Behind NYC’s Hottest Fried Chicken.” www.nypost.com. August 31, 2014.
Sutton, Ryan. “Root & Bone Serves Manhattan’s Best New Fried Chicken.” www.ny.eater.com. August 26, 2014.
Feldman, Zachary. “Top Chef Paramours Escape to New York and Open Root & Bone in Alphabet City.” www.villagevoice.com. August 20, 2014.
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