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Chefs Will Preisch and Joel Stocks on How Holdfast Became a Pop-Up Sensation

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Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one-year anniversary.

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[Avila, EPDX]

When chefs Will Preisch, 30, and Joel Stocks, 27, parted ways with the Bent Brick in early 2012, they charted distinct courses — Preisch headed overseas to stage in some of Europe's best kitchens, while Stocks went to Chicago to cook at esteemed restaurant Graham Elliot. When Preisch returned to Portland and opened Holdfast Dining, a 14-seat underground restaurant operating out of KitchenCru's community kitchen, his hopes of bringing Stocks on board were thwarted by their opposing geography. But when Graham Elliot shuttered this past New Year's Eve, Stocks was PDX-bound faster than you can say "cornbread madeleine" (the one dish that's made an appearance on each and every Holdfast menu this past year). Reunited, the two have proceeded to make Holdfast a dining experience so compelling it earned a weighty mention last month in The Oregonian's Restaurant of the Year 2014 write-up, which pronounced the duo "two young chefs poised to become Portland's next culinary stars."

Eater met up with Preisch and Stocks inside the buzzing KitchenCru hive and talked seven-minute sellouts, proving themselves post-Bent Brick, the polarizing effect of fried spot prawn heads, and why, if they could go back in time a year, they'd choose pop-up over brick-and-mortar all over again.

You helped open a brick and mortar restaurant, the Bent Brick, and you've opened a pop-up — what has been the biggest difference between those two experiences?
WP
: With Holdfast, it's been great to have ultimate control. There are a lot of times in other settings where decisions are made and you're consulted but you're not really heard, and it's nice for the two of us to be making the end-all, be-all decisions.
JS: The best thing is how quickly things go. It's just the two of us, and we'll meet, we'll talk about an idea, and it's like, "All right, we're doing that this week." There are no hoops to jump through to get what we want done. It just happens.

How did you advertise early on? Considering your unconventional structure, were you ever worried about filling seats?
WP
: Yeah. We did not fill seats consistently until the Portland Monthly review came out [in October 2013]. So for three months or so, it was spotty. We didn't do much advertising of any kind, it was all word of mouth and a little bit of social media, and that was about it. And then the mailing list kind of exploded after the article came out. Which was glorious. Before that, it was like, is this going to work?

In that Portland Monthly review, Karen Brooks reminisced on your tenure at the Bent Brick and said, "If you would have told me the same chef would go on to create Portland's next great underground food experience, with a fresh vision of fine dining, I would have eaten my shoe with crushed cheese curds on top." [Ed note: Brooks later named Preisch "Rising Star Chef 2013" in PoMo's Best Restaurants issue.]

Considering how hard people were on your food at the Bent Brick, did you feel like you had something to prove with Holdfast?
WP
: Absolutely, yeah. Both to myself and the community at large. But I mean, we felt good about what we did at the Bent Brick…
JS: We felt really good about it, but what we were trying to do was misunderstood or something. We offered a tasting menu there, it's just that a lot of people didn't know about it.
WP: The whole image surrounding the Bent Brick was very complicated. At Holdfast we do one thing — it's streamlined for the diner and streamlined for us — and that makes sense to people.

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Photo courtesy Avila/EPDX

Your menus run anywhere from six to 19 courses, how do you develop them?
JS
: On Wednesdays, we meet and write the menu for the weekend. We don't know the menu ahead of time at all. But on Mondays and Tuesdays, we'll send texts back and forth, getting a very rough sketch of what we're going to do. It's heavily ingredient driven, we're at the farmers' market twice a week. What's nice about being such a small format is that we can utilize things other people can't. If we want flowering spring onions, we only need 42 of them, so we can actually do that. For a real restaurant, there aren't enough flowering spring onions.
WP: It's way easier having someone to bounce ideas off of. We change the menu every week now, but before Joel came on, I was lucky to get a complete changeover every three weeks. It's so much less stressful. There were so many times when, on my weekend, for three days, I'd be there with pen and paper in hand, trying to force creativity, and that never works.

Diners can watch your every move from the bar as you cook, is that intimidating?
JS
: We like the interaction a lot, that's probably one of our favorite things about Holdfast: getting to actually talk to people while they eat your food. You never get that when you're stuck in the back of a kitchen and all you see is plates coming from the dining room half eaten. You don't get that feedback. It takes a little bit to get used to it, but once you do, it's easier. It's a unique skill set though, because not all cooks necessarily have the social skills. You have to be a friendly waiter and bartender as well a cook, and that's not usually a combination of skills that exists.
WP: The guests can certainly be distracting too, but we've both worked in open kitchens long enough to balance that. If someone asks you a really long question, you might have to be like, "We'll get back to you right after we finish plating this dish." They can sense and see that you're doing something, so it's not too hard to break away in a time of need.

Working so closely, do you guys get on each other's nerves? Have you ever had a fight?
WP
: We've never had a fight. But of course we get on each other's nerves. We're human. Nothing serious, but I'd say we're more like siblings than anything.
JS: Usually in a kitchen, it's a very joking, hazing, horsing around environment, and for whatever reason, we've never been that way with each other, we've always been very professional.
WP: At other restaurants we've worked at, if someone messed something up, you'd go over and rip them for it, and Joel and I would never do that to each other. It's just like, "Do you know how to fix that? Ok, cool."

You put tickets up for sale once a month, and sales are notoriously short lived. What's your fastest sellout been?
JS
: Seven minutes. That was February. But it's kind of biting us in the ass a little bit, because it's so notoriously hard to get tickets that I feel like maybe people aren't trying anymore, because sales have slowed down. You can absolutely get tickets to Holdfast. When we open them up, you have a full day.
WP: It was almost a little too quick for awhile, people were complaining that getting tickets was too prohibitive, so they'd skip a couple months before they'd try again. On the other hand, we've had people come in over nine times, that don't have any problem getting reservations. They're just really fast at clicking.

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Photo courtesy Avila/EPDX

Who has been your most loyal regular?
WP
: Gary the Foodie and the Madigans [Michael and Lynn, KitchenCru owners].
JS: My grandma is competing. She comes every month and brings a different person each time. She used to come every month to the Bent Brick, and whenever we had a new dish, she'd come eat the new dish. Will was joking he's probably cooked for her more than anybody else.

What have been some of your biggest challenges in this first year?
WP
: Learning the front-of-the-house side of the business has been interesting. Not necessarily elements of service, but how to develop a style of service for Holdfast. Learning to be a bit of a public speaker has been difficult, I really didn't enjoy it but I'm comfortable with it now. And since Joel has come on, getting people to understand, especially with all the press I received solo, that it's no longer a one-man show. It's been difficult getting people to recognize that Joel is a co-chef, a partner in Holdfast: It's a 50-50 deal, I'm not the chef of Holdfast, I'm not Joel's boss, we collaborate on all of this. That's been tricky, but as time has gone on he's been getting press without me mentioned and that's awesome.

If you could go back in time, and had the choice between a pop-up or a brick and mortar restaurant, would you still choose to do a pop-up?
WP
: Absolutely, without a doubt. It's one of the things that's continuing to set us apart. A lot of pop-ups that have sprung up in town since we started, most of them have a mission statement that they are pursuing a brick and mortar and that's great but…
JS: It changes the mindset, the mentality of it, because it's like, we're doing the pop-up to get somewhere else. We're content to be a pop-up.

What are your most significant pop-up opening hindsights, for someone else thinking about doing this?
WP
: Create a mailing list. It transcends all age and generational boundaries when trying to promote yourself. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, they all have a limited scope and range, but email is comfortable for everyone. We have customers in their 70s and 80s that come into Holdfast, and they're reading our emails, they're not following us on Twitter or Instagram. And be prepared to stick it out. It may seem like we had an overnight success story, but it was hard for a long time. Just like a normal restaurant, you have to be ready to accept a loss for a few months.
JS: It was great for me because when I showed up, everything was already up and going, I didn't have to deal with the struggle. But I thank Will for dealing with that.

Is there a favorite dish you've served at Holdfast?
JS
: There are too many.

Okay, then what's been your biggest flop?
JS
: Well, according to Gary, the beef [and beet] tartare.
WP: Yeah, he really didn't like that. I don't think we've had a biggest flop but we do have a dish that's polarizing…
JS: The fried spot prawn head. A lot of people are like, "It's looking at me and I do not want to eat that." But that's the nice thing about a tasting menu, you're allowed to have a dish that's polarizing, because people are going to have a bunch of other stuff, so they won't hate you for that dish.
WP: Maybe just a little resentment. But that's a part of our food, we're introducing people to new experiences and pushing their boundaries.

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Photo of the controversial prawn dish courtesy Facebook

Last month, you were featured prominently in The Oregonian's Restaurant of the Year write-up, which named Portland's hot pop-up dining scene as the collective restaurant of the year. What was your reaction?
WP
: We were blown away. We did not expect that. We knew they were photographing us for The Oregonian but we thought…
JS: We were just going to be a mention in the dining guide. And when that happened Monday morning, the phone was blowing up. We had a pop-up dinner that night, and it was like. "Let's try and not think about this all day or we'll be totally distracted and not able to work." But as soon as dinner was over, we called up Earl [Ninsom] from Langbaan, who also got a major mention in that article, and we were like, "Earl, you're meeting us at Rum Club, we're doing shots."
WP: We were super excited and flattered, but it was also like, "What's going to happen now?" But we didn't get much pushback from the community or other restaurateurs, nobody gave us very much flak.
JS: We heard there was a lot of flak about it online, but we didn't follow much of it. We figure any of the people complaining are never going to eat with us anyway.
WP: And really, to get mad at a concept that serves less than 50 people a week? We feed as many customers in a month as a busy restaurant feeds in a night.
JS: All the industry people seemed really happy for us and supportive.

There are so many pop-ups now, do you think there's such a thing as too many pop-ups?
WP
: Yeah, for sure. I think the pop-up market can get saturated just like the market for normal restaurants can get saturated. But I'm more than happy to see even more pop-ups start up, if anyone has the gumption and initiative to strike out on their own, then more power to them.

Will, does it feel like it's been a year?
WP
: Yeah, I would say it does feel like it's been a year, and that's not good or bad. We've accomplished a lot in a year, I feel really good about where we started and about how much progress we've made in the last six months, and how quickly we've evolved since Joel joined up. It's been great.

Joel, does it feel like it's been six months?
JS
: It does not feel like it's been six months. So much has happened. But it also doesn't feel like it's been six months because it doesn't feel like stressful work, it's happy work, which…
WP: Which I've never experienced before.
JS: Yeah, I've never had happy work in a kitchen, it's always a lot more stress.
WP: A lot of decisions we make about the business are happiness and life-related. We could add another day a week, we're busy enough that we could fill it, but if we do that and special events each week, we're going to do a six-day work week. And that feels like work. So, nope, we'll skip it.
· All Previous Holdfast Coverage [Eater PDX]
· All Previous One Year In Coverage [Eater PDX]

KitchenCru

337 Northwest Broadway, , OR 97209 (503) 226-1400 Visit Website

Holdfast Dining @ KitchenCru

337 NW Broadway, Portland, OR

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