We live in a world of reinvention. “Extreme Makeover” houses, faces, bodies, relationships, lives. A different look for the latest album. Pull yourself up from your bootstraps. “Cut yourself out of stone,” as Henry Rollins says it. It’s not the exception, it’s the norm, and as a culture, we are fascinated by it. What will we do next? Who will we be next year? There’s a moment, I believe, where the absurdity of this reveals itself to a person, and a wonderful sense of calm and acceptance ensues. This seems to be one such moment for restaurateurs and chefs Jennifer James and Nelle Bauer as they set about their latest feat, Frenchish, set to open in early October in Nob Hill. “It feels to me like a coming into your own, like an understanding,” Jennifer carefully explains. After years of trying out various ideas as a new chef and young restaurateur and trying to please a lot of people, she’s at a point where she feels “comfortable in my own skin…knowing what’s come to be and knowing what I can do.”
This is Jennifer’s fourth go and Nelle’s second at opening a new space (the recently shuttered jennifer james 101 being her first), and the two are bringing every iota of experience, lessons learned and passion to Frenchish, a name, Bauer describes, with a deadpan expression and a penchant for compound sentences, that makes you giggle when you say it. “You sort of trip on it and then you have to say it again and it presents a lot of questions and then it answers those questions. Like, what is it? Oh, it’s French… (long pause) …ish.”
As the name might imply, it’s going to be more of a casual affair. “We want to have more fun at this restaurant,” Jennifer says, as Nelle nods in agreement. “I think sometimes we got caught in the little box of our restaurant––the beast that it is––and sometimes we were too serious about it.” Because Frenchish is larger than any of the other restaurants, (remember the tiny adobe house turned jennifer james on San Mateo with about 35 seats?) casual means more seating, and therefore no reservations. “At 101, it used to be strongly encouraged and almost required, that you have a reservation,” Nelle points out, “but not so much anymore, because we’re in a neighborhood that tells us we need to have that availability.” The larger space will be arranged to accommodate a greater diversity of eaters. For those who are inclined to come to Frenchish and take full advantage of James’ adeptness in the kitchen, there is dedicated dining space for say, a four-course meal paired with wine. For those who might not want to commit themselves to the to-do of a meal and only want—or have time for—a quick glass of wine and a snack, there is seating at the wine bar. There will also be seating along an open kitchen, because, as Nelle points out, “We are the show.” There will even be a section for pastry and dessert seating if perhaps you’d simply like to enjoy a sweet treat and a cup of coffee after a show at the Guild or a stroll down Central. “Options are the way to go,” Jennifer says, “and it’s the way we like to eat,” so it makes sense to take full advantage of the new location and offer those possibilities and diversify the patronage. The restaurant hours will stay the same (dinner only, Tuesday through Saturday), at first, but James notes that they are committed to adding more services by the New Year. So old favorites like the community table will be back, and beyond that, the customers and the neighborhood will indicate whether it makes sense to add lunch in addition to dinner, or open on Sunday and Monday.
And as far as the food goes, what will Frenchish look like in the kitchen? In her classic, self-deprecating manner, Jennifer explains, “I’m the white girl from the Midwest and you are not going to get me away from my meat and potatoes.” However, “if I had to do what I wanted to do, I would love to be in France. I love the culture, the lifestyle and the food.” But despite all of her talent, Jennifer does not have any formal training in the French culinary arts. “I don’t ever want to say, ‘I cook French cuisine,’ but that’s what I want to draw from––the Midwest and France. I wanted to hone in on what I like to do and how I like to eat––that’s why it’s ‘ish.’” Lest the die-hard Jennifer James fans start to panic, the essence that has been omnipresent in Jennifer’s cooking will remain, Nelle insists, and when you sit down to eat at Frenchish, you will eat food that is not far from the land; simple, quality ingredients that have not been fancified beyond the flavors that are meant to shine.
In addition to featuring a new food focus, Frenchish will have some new faces and the opportunity to capitalize on strengths and specialties. Jennifer will continue to work on the line with Sous Chef Raul Leal, who is in the kitchen full-time, as well as completing much of the daytime prep. Nelle, at this point, is neck deep into her second year of law school at the University of New Mexico, and is 100-percent out of the kitchen, but revels in her front-of-the-house position, loving “the rolodex of customers,” memorizing not only names, faces and numbers, but all the details about their patrons—like who needs a stemmed wine glass; or, this gentleman is left-handed; or what kind of water that person wants; or how was a trip you’ve just returned from? “They are guests in my home, again,” Nelle says, “so I will treat them like guests in my home again, and I love being able to give that information to the staff so that everybody knows, and it’s like this seamless ballet around the customers.” Frenchish will also have a dedicated sommelier, Julian Martinez, who’s worked in the Albuquerque fine-dining scene for years, as well as at Fiasco Fine Wine, Spirits and Beer in Santa Fe. Nelle and Jennifer also hired Pastry Chef Deirdre Lane, whom they think their customers will be particularly excited about (Jennifer has admitted, on numerous occasions, that she can’t bake her way out of a paper bag). And rounding out the new hires is Maynard Del Mar, who will be a one-man human resources and public relations department.
All of these changes, risks and acts of faith have contributed to the decision to leave Jennifer James’ name off of this venture. “People know me now.” James affirms. “They’ll know that I’m there, cooking, but there’s also an acknowledgement of, it’s not just me. And it never has been.”
Both Nelle and Jennifer have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support they’ve received during this transition; everything from financial support to help finding the new space on Central to “Hey, we’ve got a truck, can we help you move?”
“It almost seems crazy to me that all these people are like, ‘We want to help you!’ We know how blessed we are,” Jennifer says, clearly emotional. “It reminds us that we’re part of a community,” Nelle chimes in, “not just a business. We get to feed people. That’s one of the best things in the world to do.”
Story by Emily Beenen