One year ago, John Kunkel, CEO of the 50 Eggs Restaurant Group added Khong River House to his mini-empire. The restaurant has since met with much success, receiving a four-star review from Miami.com soon after it launched and numerous other accolades over the following months. Eater spoke to Kunkel about Khong's past year, the many challenges that came with it and plans for the future (spoiler alert: Test Kitchen is officially on its way!). Here's what he had to say:
How's it been this past year at Khong?
It's been an amazing year. We're extremely proud of what we've accomplished. We set out to do something that Miami had never seen before and to bring a new type of cuisine to market and it's been well-received and we've been able to bring a ton of guest chefs in and have it be the Asian hub that we wanted it to be.
How did the opening go, anything surprising?
We took three-and-a-half weeks to train our staff on everything from history and geography to food and flavors and language. We really wanted our staff to understand the food they were serving and help guide our customers and help guide our customers through our menu and it served us well. We've had probably some of the longest staff members that have stayed at Khong, people that really believed in what we were doing, really supported each other as a family. And our customers really have some of the best service I think you'll find anywhere in Miami. It's a restaurant opening so it was as smooth as it could possibly be. We had some bumps in the road, but part of our success is we just kind of keep figuring out and put our head down and go to work.
What's it like running four spots at the same time?
Busy. We are doubling, actually tripling, the size of the company this year as we get ready to go out of state, as we introduce new concepts. We're almost nearing 500 employees and we'll be at almost 1,000 by this time next year, so we're experiencing enormous growth. It's a positive things and there's lots and lots of opportunities for people that have been with us and people that are coming on board, but along with growth comes lots of change and there's always bumps in the road. We have a great team and we look forward to the growth, but, you know, running four places and the new ones to come will continue to be challenging.
What are some of the challenges that you faced this past year at Khong?
Well, we had some very public challenges with what had gone on with our chef that we had hired, but other than that we've really just been challenged, I think, by finding a place for ourselves within the market and educating people on the food of the Mekong region. As we dabble into kind of the Chinese hill settlers of the North, which our chef de cuisine, Jules … her grandmother is from that region and Mama Pai and the rest of our Thai staff lead us through Burmese, Thai, and Vietnamese cuisine, introducing them in new menu items to our customers is the exciting thing that we enjoy to do, but always challenging as we look for new menu items and find new tastes that we think will be well received by our customers.
What's been your biggest success at the restaurant?
I think the biggest success at Khong has been the entire concept and food-type. We were really one of the first folks to do that style of food on that scale and certainly the first of its kind in South Florida, so being first has its set of rewards and disadvantages. It really took us a couple of months to really hit our stride with Khong even though we had fantastic reviews out of the gate, it took a while to build our following and to really expose people to what we were doing. We were coming off of one of the biggest weeks in the history of our company and the busiest week we've ever had at Khong and we're finding it's a different crown than Yardbird, it's a different crowd than Swine and it is a much more refined crowd, a much more foodie crowd. It really had to find its audience within Miami Beach not onlt for the locals but the tourists that were seeking out that type of dining experience. So obviously the restaurant itself has just been a great reward and challenge along the year, but we're just so proud of what we accomplished over there. It was a challenging feat to pull off and we kind of understand why nobody had done it in the past because it was challenging to pull off, but now that its open and running we can't wait to do more and continue to expand our menu.
What's the most difficult part about running Khong now?
We are always challenged because we have a shared crew in the kitchen, so I have certain crewmembers that really have very limited English skills and speak only Thai. I have traditionally western trained cooks, I have just a really interesting, diverse group of people and there are cultural and language challenges on a day-by-day basis. Finding ways to find consistency in recipes that really came out of people's homes has been a challenge for us from the kitchen side. And really just continuing to introduce new types of cuisine into that same staff. We really take a lot of time to roll out new menu items, to make sure everybody understands it because while our Thai staff certainly understands particular regions, as we roll out more Chinese-influenced items our Burmese, our Vietnamese, it takes time to kind of integrate that and let everybody truly learn and understand the preparation and technique behind those, so it's challenging to run that style of a kitchen where it really is a collaborative, family experience, but it's probably more rewarding than anything we've ever done because of the way it's run. So, again, setting new ground here is what we're doing and anything great always comes with some bumps in the road.
What has changed over the past year?
Well, lots. We opened the addition of Patpong Road above Khong, it really has it's own crowd up there, it's kind of our late-night, red light district lounge up there, which is certainly our tribute to the red light district of Bangkok. It's open on Friday, Saturday night, kind of goes late, has its own cocktail and food menu, so that was a new addition this year that was very exciting. Rolling out our guest chef series at Khong was incredibly exciting. We had Dale Talde, we had Jason Wang. We have a really exciting schedule of guest chef events and programs to keep local guests engaged and interested and really just continuing to build our following over there. I think right now we're probably one of the busiest Asian restaurants in all of Miami and swelling at the seams for business.
What's your focus at the restaurant right now?
Well our focus right now is just maintaining absolute stellar operations. We as a company really set out to have some of the best service in Miami, some of the best consistent dining experiences that you could find anywhere. We put a lot of time and effort into training and retraining and who we're hiring and that goes from the kitchen to the front of the house to the bar. Right now we're having a lot of fun with Patpong Road and programs and the DJs that are up there. And then downstairs with Khong, we really just hit our stride. We're just having so much wonderful recognition for the concept, we're just having a blast and doing what we like to do and happy that people are continuing to take notice.
Anything in store for the future?
We have lots going on, lots and lots. We have our new Test Kitchen facility after five and a half months of painful permitting with the city, we're finally nearing the end and getting our building permits, so we're going to start breaking ground on our new Test Kitchen finally, which is on Biscayne Boulevard, which we're very excited about and that's going to serve as a special dining venue as well as a continuing education center for the Miami culinary community. We're very excited about that. Johnson and Wales and James Beard and FIU have all lent their support to really make that a very special place. We are underway, in the middle of design in fact, at our new Yardbird in Las Vegas and that is going to be kind of like a bigger, better version of what you see here and some really special experiences that we're building that don't even exist at the one in South Beach. We have a brand new concept coming to market sometime next year and we are busy, busy on building all of the collateral and infrastructure for that restaurant. I just walked out of a meeting with our culinary director Clay Miller and working on the menu, so we have no shortage of things to do, but it's all very positive and an exciting time for us.
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