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Erasing The Front- And Back-Of-House Border At TLK

Michelle Morgan is owner of TLK (aka Tigerlily Kitchen) in New York’s East Village. A veteran of many restaurants as a front-of-house manager, Morgan was working at Paris Cafe when the pandemic shut it down. She decided to try her hand at cooking for a ghost kitchen predecessor of TLK, which was successful enough to launch a permanent location in December 2021.

When Paris Cafe closed, I was like, “Oh, what are we supposed to do?” I actually went and visited my friend up in Newport, Rhode Island. I did the rest of the summer there. And I had this idea. I’ve always wanted to do a healthy-ish to-go business. Before the pandemic, I was thinking of using Paris Cafe’s kitchen. I had the time to do that before we opened for service.

I wanted to do this whole concept with Asian food because I’m half Chinese. I started doing some recipes when I was up at Newport. And then it just so happened that Bluebell Cafe was closed because of COVID. They had a fire hydrant in front of them, so they couldn’t do outdoor seating. They gave me the opportunity to take over their kitchen space and launch the ghost kitchen version of Tigerlily.

That was definitely my first time doing anything back of house. Originally, I was envisioning somebody else doing the cooking. But when it happened, I said, “You know, I kind of want to try my own recipes.” At first, I was thinking more about straightforward, healthy food—nothing that had to do with an Asian background. Then I wanted to add my own flair to it.

The whole thing was a little bit weird at first. With a ghost kitchen, you don’t have a storefront. But on the other hand, so many places were closed during lockdown that we popped up a little bit more on all the delivery sites. We were seen as something new.

The local neighborhood people, once they started trying out my food, they had a whole word-of-mouth thing with their Stuyvesant crew on whatever Facebook page they have. So that was great. I had a friend who was a cook at Mission Ceviche then—Cesar Taboada, he has his own restaurant in Williamsburg now, Koko’s—and I was like, “Hey, I need some help with spec’ing these recipes out and stuff like that.”

Michelle Morgan at TLK. Photo: Dane Isaac.

I basically had all my recipes, but I was like, if I get people to work for me, how do I train them? I had no knowledge of back of house. But it’s the same exact thing as when bartenders give the recipes to the new employees. Cesar was telling me little things like, “Make sure that they use a spatula when they’re doing all your sauces. That’s money there.” He was also all about keeping the storage area clean and everything. He was great to help me out like that.

Then I went looking for my own space. Originally, I was looking to continue as a quick-serve location, a grab-and-go thing. But I found this space, and it was a lot larger and less money, and I was like, “Okay, I’ll just take it.” And so we decided to do a dine-in. It took about six months to get the place together. The opening aspect of a restaurant is always easy for me, but the construction side and dealing with the landlord—I had no idea how to do that stuff. Thankfully, Peter O’Connell, who owns Bluebell Café, helped me out with that.

I’m very hands-on. I’m actually working the floor, or I’m working in the kitchen, or I’m going in between the two. Because it’s so new, I want to make sure everybody’s trained right. It’s an entirely different concept for the food—it’s pan-Asian, but it’s got my own twist to it. Like the Chinese broccoli—it’s got celery root and fermented black beans in there. It’s the exact hodgepodge that I am—half Asian, half Irish. So we’re trying to teach staff the basics of Cantonese stuff that they’re not used to, especially cooks that have a background in Italian or French food.

I’ve been extremely lucky when it comes to hiring. It’s still very hard to find cooks right now, but I’ve been able to grab people from all my previous restaurants. I have a little mini-family that works for me. I’ve got one person from one bar I used to work at, and another person from the very first restaurant I ever worked at. He was a cook, and I was a waitress. They like working for me because my management style has always been … you have your own rope. To piss me off, you have to go grab the rope and hang yourself. I’m not a micromanager. I’m very chill, but I get my point across.

I’m one of those people who thinks that everybody should be able to do everybody else’s job. I don’t like that there’s a divide between front of house and back of house. For example, one of my cooks in the kitchen, she’s been having a shift or two coming out on the floor. I actively cross-train everybody. My cooks who are in at night, they’re like, “What are the table numbers?” They’re interested in knowing. It’s such a small place that it’s so much easier when everybody’s capable of doing something.

When I first thought of the concept for Tigerlily, I was used to that traditional divide. But after working in the kitchen and doing all the stuff, I was like, “This is the same thing as front of the house!” It’s the same exact thing.

Slowly but steadily we’ve been getting busier. I wanted to change gears, so I started doing some pop-ups to try to get more customers into the place. I did a pop-up in Sunnyside, Queens, and then we’re planning on doing some pop-ups in Brooklyn. It just brings more awareness about your business. I love telling people at the pop-ups, “We’re in the East Village, we’re right off the L train!”