Lucy Aiken-Johnson and Dave Heimbuch are two masterminds behind ai3, Inc., the design firm that's helping create Kevin Gillespie's new restaurant and already has places like Holeman & Finch, Seed Kitchen & Bar, and Miller Union under its belt. Gunshow should open in early- to mid-April in Glenwood Park and is primed to become what might just be the most innovative eatery Atlanta has ever seen (for starters, it's not going to have servers or a set menu). Below, the two designers talk about what makes Gunshow different and the challenges they're facing trying to turn Gillespie's dreams into a brick and mortar reality.
It won't have typical fine-dining design elements.
LAJ: We've known Kevin since before Top Chef days, way back when they wanted to do a little refresh work at Woodfire. We've kept in touch as his popularity built and everyone found out how wonderful and likeable he is. We got buzz that he was interested in doing something and called him to talk about it. When we first approached him, he was unsure about how to work with a design group because he didn't want [Gunshow] to look designed. He wants to be very honest about who he is and where he's from and the way he wants to cook, so he wasn't quite sure how we were going to work together.
Gillespie wants to "remove the show" from a dining experience.
DH: His philosophy is that he wants to remove the show from eating, and I think that a lot of people perceive what we do as adding the show, so he was questioning how we might be able to help. People have the tendency to think of the designing of a space as purely a beautifying exercise rather than thinking about experience and service and flow and how to actually accommodate things. We started to talk about those things with him and it really sparked his interest, he started realizing that we could work well together.
The value of a vision session.
LAJ: We were definitely inspired by how much he wanted to push things. He was like, "I'm at a place in my life where people are paying attention to what I'm doing and I really want to explore," and that got us thinking about how we could work with Kevin differently and how we could have a process that's an ongoing exploration of this restaurant and what he's going to do. We did a vision session, where Kevin could say 'this feels right, this is appropriate, this is what I don't want it to look like.' It's the big inspiration of why you would even do something like this in the first place. This very informal conversation that the vision session allows gives us a way to let the space and the design be the client and not us.
DH: It keeps them from being overly subjective. If someone says they like a light wood table, the idea is that there's a foundation during that vision session conversation that informs why the client likes the table. I think it's often perceived that when someone hires a design firm, it becomes a situation where the restauranteur has all these ideas but they're also piggybacking on all the ideals of a design firm to do a quote-unquote ai3 project. These vision sessions are an act of listening rather than telling, so we're trying to help Kevin make his next restaurant rather than an ai3 restaurant. Because it isn't our restaurant, it's his.
Open kitchen; cooks serving the food.
LAJ: When Kevin came in, he really wanted to do things differently, so we thought it would be great if our whole process through this project felt like one big vision session, so we never stop covering the walls and putting post-its up and talking and exploring what this is. We talked about the logistics of what a kitchen should be and the challenge that we saw with what Kevin wants to do is how flexible he wants it to be. He's kind of defined, "I need these pieces of equipment so that no matter what I decide to do here I'm covered," but he wants it to be truly open kitchen where he's yelling out to everyone, where these dishes are coming out and people can see and look and order one— they don't necessarily have to sit and be so formal in front of a menu. He wants the cooks to serve the food. He's doing half reservations, half walk-in, he's not doing a bar.
On not having a bar.
LAJ: It's just wine and beer at this time. There is a space for a bar, but there's still a discussion about how exactly it'll be used, if you really need to have a bar. Right now, it's just part of the kitchen line, right at the end. It's where the cash drawer is going to be, so it's not really a place where you can stand and have a drink, but it might be the place where you pick up a beer.
How to make a nontraditional dining experience work.
LAJ: He's mixing up everything and from a service point we were worried because it's a tight little space— how is circulation going to work? How do you record the order and get it to the kitchen, how do people walk in and even know what on earth to do? So we got a set of drawings together so that they could get a permit to start construction on the kitchen and then what we're going to do is make a full-scale mock up in the space. We're going to mock up all the counters, the prep tables, the communal seating, the whole thing so that we can do a walk through and profile every person who's going to come: the servers, the person from the 'burbs who's just coming in to see Kevin, the person who walks by and decides to come in— that way we can figure out all the kinks.
DH: It's almost like creating a journey map. We're going to ask all the questions: Who's greeting me, how are you greeting me, what's the potential wait, is there a place to sit while I'm waiting, all the way down to who's refilling my water or how do I get another fork? Because in a normal situation, these things are pretty standard, but here, there are no servers, it's not a traditional dining experience. Kevin wants to mix things up, so we had to ask how things were going to work— how can it work for the line cook to be the one bringing out the dishes. He was thinking about it from a food standpoint— the best way to treat the food and get the food out— and we're helping him figure out the other questions from a patronage perspective that need to be asked to make sure that this thing is workable. Part of the energy is going to be that of a controlled chaos, so our responsibility is to keep that a positive controlled chaos, not an annoyance. This is already going to be disruptive to the standard dining procedure. It's either going to be really fun or it has the potential to not work, so we have to make sure that we figure out what could go wrong before Gunshow opens. That's why the walk-throughs are important.
The future of Gunshow.
DH: When we asked Kevin where he saw the restaurant in three to five years, he said he didn't know. It's going to take the first two or three years to figure out what in the world he wants to do. That's the beauty of it— he wants to make it so nondescript that it can actually become whatever it wants to become at any time. He might do a month where it's all seafood, and that's okay. You don't have to have fish on the wall to have a seafood restaurant. That's why we're going to keep doing vision sessions as the restaurant grows. To keep it strong. This is going to be a three or four year experience of constantly analyzing, shifting, making changes.
How to handle not having servers.
DH: I believe there's going to be a managerial/host role that is going to own the floor. The one who not only only gets people seated when they come in, that kind of thing, but also who will be able to check the floor and make sure everyone's okay. It's only about 55 seats, and the good thing about that is that it's small enough to pull that off. Someone can lean over and ask another guest how they like the lamb without it being rude. Kevin and Blake [Morely, the general manager] literally want guests to be able to say, 'Hey, I saw someone else got the lamb, and I want one of those too.'
Not having a bar and embracing the neighborhood.
LAJ: The bar is really just a service bar. Kevin has really embraced the neighborhood, so he would rather say, "Hey, if you want to have a couple drinks, go hang out over at the Shed and give us your number so we can call you when your table is ready." He wants to be that casual and open about being a neighborhood joint. They're really excited about what they can do together for the neighborhood, and Kevin wants to stay focused on the food. He's hoping for a pretty minimal space.
It'll be minimal, but not truly casual.
DH: One way to look at this project is that it's outrageously casual, but it really isn't. He's going to be pulling out some extremely sophisticated dishes and the dining level will be relatively high in this very different environment, so you can't treat it as a hyper-casual restaurant and let people fend for themselves. People have to still be accommodated and feel welcome and feel like they're comfortable in certain aspects. We've also thought about some fun ways to even do things like taking reservations besides just having someone standing behind a book.
LAJ: We'll have visible things like menu boards, but also seeing where there are open reservations for the night because they're up on a chalkboard real casually. There will be minimal design moves, but every one will have a purpose. It's a machine.
DH: It's not a restaurant to look at. We're programmed to be like, 'Oh wow, look at that great wall,' but those aren't things that Kevin wants. There's obviously going to be a character to it, but there's not a visual focus.
The chef's table.
LAJ: He does have a chef's table— he already has the chairs, actually, which he found at a garage sale from some old courthouse. It's six seats, and since it's the chef's table, it'll only have people sitting at it when he's there. He wants people to call and reserve it for him to cook anything they want him to, whether its fried chicken and mashed potatoes or foie gras.
DH: It's not just a chef's table— it's Kevin's table, it's going to be his office. He'll be doing paperwork at that table when it's not reserved. That'll be his home base, from where he can pop into the kitchen. It's not a dining table, it's a working table.
About the open kitchen.
LAJ: This place should feel very personal; it's under 2000 square feet. The way it's laid out, the kitchen and the walk-in cooler— dining room is right in the middle of everything. Everything is exposed, nothing is hidden. He really describes that he wants to be able to be yelling out all the time from the kitchen, talking to the guests.
DH: It's not even an open kitchen, it's just a kitchen with some tables in it. There's not technically a division between the kitchen and the seats.
What the menu will be like.
LAJ: Whatever they feel like cooking that week. I think he's trying to keep it very affordable.
DH: He doesn't want there to necessarily be signature dishes. He might have a chicken nugget for $5 and a $40 Kobe steak.
On managing expectations.
LAJ: We're talking a lot about how the website and social media will play a role. They have to let people know before they come, 'Hey, this is what it is.' They'll see how the food is cooked, and it might not come out in a silver dome, but it's going to taste great.
Believing in Gunshow.
DH: It's nice to work with someone whose not just willing to take a risk but who has such an understanding of the risk he's taking and the fact that there are going to be a lot of people who don't like this. It's just refreshing to hear Kevin— you just melt into his philosophy so quickly. You just believe him, because he believes in Gunshow.