For his first foray into the Miami restaurant scene, chef Rocco Carulli opened R House, a spot that blends restaurant, bar, lounge and art gallery into one. Carulli spoke to Eater about how he got his start in the restaurant industry, what inspired R House, his love for Wynwood, future plans and some cool-sounding movable walls.
Tell me a little bit about yourself. How did you get into the restaurant industry?
I started in the restaurant industry, when I was 19, as a waiter. For some reason, I just wanted to be a server so bad [he laughs]. I was in college and I was like, "I want to be a server," and at this one restaurant, I had gone back like six times to get the job and finally they were like, "okay kid, we'll hire you," and I was the worst server they ever had.
But I wound up being the head server there and stayed for three years and wound up being really great at it. I loved it because my personality was just being utilized in the best way. I went to school for accounting and wound up working for a bank and I hated it. I hated the hours, I hated just sitting at a desk. And I thought to myself, at 25, when was I ever happy with a job? And it was as a server, but, do I want to be a server for the rest of my life? And I was like, I love to cook, my father was a butcher in Italy and he just threw these grand parties. Both my parents are from Italy and my whole family is all about food, food, food, food. So I thought, maybe I'll go to culinary school. So I did. I went to Culinary School of America and I graduated in '93 and then I just started. I worked in New York for a year and it was hard, I was being yelled at by chefs all day. And then a friend of mine was living in Provence Town and said, "live here, it's great, it's amazing" and I went there and I met a chef and got hired as a sous chef and was as happy as I could ever be and I loved it. It was a seasonal job, I worked for three years, and then I went to San Fransisco for two years because I was like, I can't do this seasonal thing anymore, it's time to grow up and live somewhere year round. And I went to cook in San Fransisco and they were paying so little, I was like how does anybody live off of this? So I got a bartending job. And then I never bartended again. But I tried it and faked it for a while, told them I used to do it and became a great bartender. Then the woman who owned the restaurant I used to work at in Provence Town, she bought the space – she used to lease- and asked me and the chef I was working with to lease the dinner space and we said yeah. Him and I worked together for six years and then I bought him out and I did the next seven by myself. It was quick, culinary school, this that and that and boom, I own a restaurant. And I did it for 13 years and I loved it, but seasonal business … you can't really pay all the bills. I had been coming down to Miami in the winters and I was working as a server, which is something I thought I never could do for the rest of my life, but I did. I had been working as a Server at Wish for the Goldmans and I worked with great management there; it was just a great experience and a great way for me to really complement my… I was at the back of the house in the restaurant I owned and to be in the front of the house and just learn everything and learn Miami, it was just a great balance for me. For me to be the owner and the employee was great. Now I can say to any of my servers, "don't tell me, I've been in your shoes, I know," I've done it all and I always say, "I've done your job, so don't pretend I don't know what you're going through right now because I do." The last couple of years of doing the restaurant I kept feeling I need to do more and I decided I wanted to go down to Miami and try to open a restaurant down there. The last season I told everybody and they were all congratulating me and saying, "how great!", and "we're so proud of you!" and I'm like, "I haven't opened the restaurant yet!" So I'm like, "Oh my god, the pressure is on now!" I thought, I have to make this happen. But the only place I wanted to make it happen was in Wynwood.
Why did you choose Wynwood for the location?
I had known about Wynwood because of the Goldmans and I had seen the creation of the Wynwood Walls and Joey's from the beginning because it was always talked about and we would go visit and see. And when Wynwood changed a bit, I was like, "this is it. I know this is going to happen here." The Goldmans are, you know Tony Goldman… such a visionary, I know whatever he touches is going to turn to gold, he can sneeze and this is going to be a great neighborhood and every time I drove through I would just get this feeling inside me that I love this place. So, I held out until I found the space that I found and it's much bigger than I ever thought I would have a restaurant. It's like 4,300 square feet and I was looking for the most 2,500 square feet. Maybe a 100-seat restaurant, but now I have 168-seat restaurant. My dream restaurant, I always thought I would love to have a restaurant where a DJ plays during the night and there's a bar and a lounge and I have an after hour scene and I have bands playing and now I have it, this is my dream restaurant, in my dream neighborhood.
How was opening day?
It was great. It was absolutely wonderful. We opened the doors our liquor license was released, so it was a celebration and then another celebration. The friends and family went fantastic because everybody just loved it and opening day went great because it was just like, "wow." You know, it's two years since I had a restaurant and I got a little nervous. I was wondering, are people going to like this, is this still stuff tht people are going to love? I brought a lot of my recipes from Provence Town. And their reaction was just amazing, people love the food, they love the space, I just can't… all positive, positive, positive. Anything that was said to me, I just took it in and it was just … I know we can do it. Now I know that this is going to be a really important restaurant in Miami and we're going to be very successful.
How did the rest of the week go?
Well it was quieter. We opened Friday and Art Walk was Saturday and it was crazy. They just kept flooding in. We didn't even mention we were opening. People just came in and they were like, "oh we've been wanting to see what's been going on here, everyone's dying for you to open." And then it quieted down. I see it building up though and we already booked two big events, so people are already booking events with us, which is great. We even have a book signing today. People just love the space and want to use it and utilize it in any way they can.
Wynwood spots have a pretty solid following, what do you think is setting R House apart from them?
Well, I'm the owner and the chef and the other two restaurants are not owned by the chef and the other two restaurants, the owners are not as available as I am. I'm there every night, I'm working as hard or harder than any employee that I have that. So, I think you're doing to feel that. You can feel a restaurant owner-run restaurant than a restaurant that's run by other people. And I try to make my presence known, I'm trying to work my way out of the kitchen more and more. So, when you come to the restaurant, it's more of an experience, you get to meet the owner, you get to meet the chef, you get to feel like you're part of the whole experience. On Saturday I was there and I had this table of six be like, "oh please take a picture with us," and I thought this was great. I get to know who my customers are.
Also, we're not only a restaurant/bar/lounge with music, but we have an integrated art gallery. All the pieces are for sale, the gallery is run by Tom Shirk and it's called White Porch Gallery at R House. We are going to be integrating more local artists once this show is done.
What have been people's responses to that aspect of the restaurant?
They are blown away because they've never seen it. I mean it honestly feels like you're in an art gallery in a restaurant. We really were able to integrate the whole feeling. There's spotlights on the paintings and the walls are all these metal art frames that are movable so we can change the dynamic of the room, we could make it feel a little bit more private. When you're in the bar you could see right through to all the other rooms, so there's no solid wall, they're just these frames. Hard to picture unless you see it. When we were discussing it, I was like, "ugh I wish I knew what it looks like" and then when it all came together I was like, "oh my god, it's exactly what I wanted it to look like and feel like!" So it worked out perfectly.
What was the biggest challenge you faced this week?
Well, some of them were … The thing is right now, I don't have all the staff in line, so I'm wearing a couple different hats that I shouldn't be wearing, so that's the biggest challenge, to try to get some other people to wear these hats themselves. I'm basically the front of the house manager right now and the back of the house manager and I just need to work that out so that I'm not so stretched. I just want the perfect person to be there with me, so until I find that person, I'm not going to give up that hat yet.
What was the best thing that happened so far?
It's just the fact that we … opened (he laughs). That's a huge success for me and just the response. I keep hearing from people, "this other place used to be my spot, but this is going to be my spot now," I keep hearing that people are going to make my place their spot now because they love it so much and that to me is a huge success. My thing is, it's great that Miami is so tourist-based, but Wynwood is not, it's local-based and I want to reach out to the local community and if I'm being accepted by the local community and they're coming back again and again, that's a huge success. Honestly, I've already had people come back 2 or 3 times, already! That's a huge success.
If you could go back in time and give yourself one piece of advice before opening, what would it be?
Well, as far as building a restaurant … Not the restaurant part, but the architectural part of it – more due diligence on what is needed from me from the city. The city was really hard to deal with with permitting and all. I've learned a lot of lessons that way because I didn't know things that I should have known that would have sped up the process. I think doing my due diligence as far as licensing, permitting and all that before I went through and did it. I know so many things now that would make the process go so much quicker.
Anything in store for the future?
Ah the future, already. Well, for the restaurant – we're only doing dinner right now- soon I will be doing brunch for Saturdays and Sundays and then after that we'll open for lunch. We're going to do it in stages so that we get each stage right. And we're going to try to do different types of events, wine tastings, charitable events, events for the community, things like that to really utilize the whole space.
· All Coverage of R House on Eater Miami [EMIA]
[Photo Courtesy of R House]