With the launch of Ten Tables Louisville five months ago, few dining scene regulars were intimately familiar with the names Dustin Staggers, Griffin Paulin, Ethan Ray and Eric Morris.
Before that, all three logged time in lower-profile roles at The Oakroom, The Place Downstairs, 60 West and the Monkey Wrench. Morris cooked at Seviche, Hammerheads and Game before opening (the sadly now gone) Loop 22 last winter.
Despite absurdly busy work schedules, the four thought it would be fun to gather on Mondays — their only day off — to cook for about 60 guests eager for a culinary adventure. The concept would operate in a pop-up dinner format, alternating between Roux and Loop 22, and its menus would all be surprises.
Getting a seat at one of those tables required guests to enter a Facebook lottery in hopes their number would come up on a convenient date.
Yet despite those oddities, Ten Tables became an instant mini-phenomena that has created some of the most sought-after dinner seats in the city. Except for the Monday after Derby, when the Four Workhorsemen knew they’d need a break, Ten Tables has run for 20 consecutive weeks. And according to the group, there’s no end in sight.
According to Staggers, the exercise has lived up to their expectations of fun, freewheeling meals that send all thinking outside the cookbook to develop ideas rather than follow strict menus.
“It’s become as much about us having fun as us trying to please people who come and eat,” Staggers says. Referring to a one-off Sunday event, he added, “Seeing that we’ve done this 21 times and people are still signing up for the lottery, I’d say we’ve done what we wanted to do.”
When the May closure of Loop 22 sent the group looking for a new venue, they selected the brand-new Eggs Over Baxter (962 Baxter Ave.). Its rustic, spacious dining room is ideal for community tables that lead complete strangers to talk to each other, plus the brunch-centered spot is closed on Monday nights.
The Ten Tables Facebook page is plastered with images of beautiful food from past events, as well as pics of the four chefs looking, well, darn happy to be hanging with each other. In a trade known for egos and short tempers, these guys clearly like each other. And that’s what I wanted to see in action for myself.
June 1, 6 p.m.
About an hour before service, Staggers and Morris are in the kitchen and waiting to begin final preparations for eight total courses on the evening’s menu. Partners Paulin and Ray haven’t arrived, yet Morris and Staggers aren’t concerned.
“Griffin’s always the last to get here, but he’s never behind,” Morris says. “Same for Ethan. They know what to do.”
The men talk about the prior night’s Sunday Ten Tables, a vegan meal at which chef Anoosh Shariat (Anoosh Bistro) dined.
“As we’re getting ready, they tell us he’s out there, and we’re like, ‘No!’” Staggers says between tastes ladled from a large pot of cioppino. “The best vegetarian chef in Louisville is at our vegan meal. He’s out there! But he told us he loved it.”
In short order, Ray arrives bearing containers of cubed melon and thin, elastic sheets of agar-gelled balsamic vinaigrette, melon and grapes.
“Dude, do your dishes have like 64 components?” Staggers says, teasing Ray about his dishes’ ingredient demands.
Ray grins, and without responding begins plating ingredients for the evening’s first course: watermelon topped with a burgundy strip of agar-gelled balsamic vinaigrette and mint leaves — which he forgot to bring.
“I sat it next to everything else, told myself I’d get it before I left Roux … and I still left it,” the soft-spoken Ray says, rolling his eyes.
Knowing Paulin has yet to arrive, Staggers suggests he grabs the mint leaves since the restaurant is only several blocks away. Problem solved.
Fifteen minutes later, Paulin arrives cradling a stack of plastic containers filled with his prepped ingredients. After some hasty greetings, he wastes no time getting organized. That’s a good thing since Roux front-of-the-house manager and baker, Dara Staggers, reminds the chefs dinner service will begin at 7 p.m.
Before leaving the kitchen, she turns to Mike Lau, another Roux manager who helps out at Ten Tables, and asks, “Did you miss a four-top for (name withheld)? They said they had a reservation, but I don’t have them on the list.”
Lau says he’s certain he made reservations for everyone on the list, and then wonders aloud how he could have missed it.
“It’s just four people,” Dustin Staggers says. “We’ve got plenty of food. That’s $300 more. Let ’em in.”
Save for Ray, each chef requests an occasional tipple throughout the evening: red wine for Morris; a porter for Paulin; pilsner for Staggers. And just before the 7 p.m. start time, Paulin requests a group shot of tequila.
“Mr. Coomes, would you like to join us?” he asks.
Since I’d think it rude not to accept, I respond with equal formality, “Yes, sir, I would.”
Paulin goes to the bar and returns holding a deep blue bottle of Milagro silver and a half dozen pony glasses. He fills and passes glasses, toasts the group, and the tequila disappears. Immediately after, the 41 plates holding Ray’s first course begin moving to the dining room. As they’re removed by servers, empty plates for the second course, Paulin’s salad, replace them.
As he builds a demo plate for the chefs to duplicate, he tells them there are nine components to the dish.
“Nice, Captain Components!” Ray says, a term of faux-derision meaning Paulin’s dish is the evening’s most complicated. “Everybody is ‘Captain Components’ at some time or another.”
Staggers replies, “Not me tonight. My venison dish is simple: schmeer, venison, scallion, sell.”
“Well, what do you expect?” Paulin retorts. “You gave me salad tonight, so it needs detail.”
The course blends mixed greens, candied nuts, pickled candy-striped beets, tomatoes, blackberries, and a blackberry vinaigrette.
“Don’t eat the blackberries,” Paulin warns his peers, who’ve already consumed several. “There aren’t that many of them.”
“I guess we’ll not be borrowing any of those,” Ray says.
What seems like a throwaway line from Ray is actually significant in this context. Since the four don’t know the intricacies of every dish on the menu until they’re in the thick of meal service, they often gain inspiration from looking at the other ingredients.
With salads gone, soup bowls now cover two kitchen tables. Staggers and Lau add crab pieces to each bowl followed by ladles of hot cioppino, a seafood stew. Chefs not working on cioppino are hunched over a griddle at the rear of the kitchen, searing proteins for courses to come. Coming from the dining room is a stream of servers returning piles of dishes to the dishwasher.
The multiple near collisions between the team may appear chaotic, but they’re part of the delicate and unscripted dance of the back of the house: a constant twisting, turning and wriggling to maneuver by others with hot pans, sharp knives, racks of glasses and plated food.
Dressings, sauces, soups are constantly being tasted, re-tasted and seasoned. As ingredients are assembled on plates by some, others come behind and adjust components and wipe stray droplets clean with towels.
As a course of cornbread braised in cured ham fat is prepared, the chefs discuss the use of a raspberry vinaigrette as a color accent.
“Too circle-y,” Staggers says of the design drizzled onto a plate by Morris. “Go a little more Jackson Pollock.”
“The fanciness is in the flavor,” Morris replies, half serious, half sarcastic. “It’s cornbread. Let’s not overthink it.”
Clearly Staggers is el jefe among the quartet, always seeking others’ opinions but typically making the final decision on details. Yet all insist with near-Stepford Wives consistency that there are no egos, that Ten Tables is purely collaborative. Without the give and take, Morris says, “It wouldn’t be any fun.”
There’s less equanimity in the kitchens these men run the rest of the week, Staggers admits.
“Somebody has to be in charge,” he says. “But when you’re working with guys like these, pros, it’s easy to listen to a lot of opinions.”
Forty-one clean plates come to the table in preparation for a course of seared foie gras atop a carrot cake purée. A demo plate is built and each man takes a task in assembling the rest. Amid the hum of production, the discussion shifts to recent nights on the town, hangovers, business credit cards mistakenly used to buy drinks, whether shots of bourbon, tequila or vodka are better, and how the French digestive, Fernet Branca, settles an over-served stomach.
When the talk leads Morris to ask, “Who’s ready for round two?” a bottle of Milagro returns. Pour, toast, swallow. Assembly resumes.
Dara Staggers tells the chefs that two guests want pork-free entrées while another wants no shrimp. Dustin Staggers repeats the message aloud six times to remind himself to set aside three special plates.
Dara returns moments later with another special request: that the next three courses be boxed for one guest to take home. The idea yields wrinkled brows from all who hear it.
“Are they just going to sit it out and pile up their boxes?” Dustin Staggers asks his ex-wife.
She merely shrugs and returns to the dining room.
With the departure of the final savory course of seared venison loin served with a blackberry puree and scallions, Ray breaks out the components for dessert: nearly frozen chunks of cake, white grapes, honey dew melon and blackberry jam.
When asked how many cake chunks should land in each guest bowl, Ray replies, “I don’t know. Does it look like I counted?”
Indeed, the chunks are irregular and numerous, and the others assume they need further crumbling for consistency. Paulin and Morris finish the dish with savory sprigs of fresh thyme sprinkled over each dish.
Once dessert is served, the four chefs head to the dining room where they thank guests for attending. None wears a traditional white jacket, checked pants or tall toque. Instead, all wear short-sleeved T-shirts that display their tattooed arms. Ray’s hat is a knit toboggan, Paulin’s shoes are comfy but not OSHA-approved-for-the-kitchen Nike slides. The gang of four resembles a garage band more than a French kitchen brigade, yet their audience doesn’t seem to care.
When one suggests the group go “burn one,” they head outside for cigarettes and a discussion of where they’ll spend the rest of the evening. Despite another five to six days’ work ahead of them this week, the group weighs the virtues of visiting the Outlook Inn or the Monkey Wrench.
“Nah, we’re not going home yet,” says Staggers. “But I don’t know that it’ll be a late one. We still have to clean this place up.”