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The Joys Of A Casual Pandemic Restaurant Opening

After a career in high-end kitchens, chef James Tracey is happy to focus on comfort.

James Tracey worked in restaurant kitchens in Washington DC and later New York, where he trained under Tom Colicchio in various positions, including the opening team at Craft. After working on the corporate side of La Pecora Bianca, Tracey came on as partner and executive chef to open the new Isabelle’s Osteria in November 2020.

I came back to New York in May of 2019 as culinary director for La Pecora Bianca, and then by March 2020 I was shutting La Pecora Bianca down. After that I was just looking around for something new.

The companies I worked with in the past as a culinary director, upper-management roles—those dried up because of cutbacks. Frankly, when you’re in that role, you’re less on the ground and less involved in any one particular space. You’re managing different people in different restaurants, and you don’t see the day-to-day.

I was thinking about doing something on my own, but my now-partner Michael Schatzberg reached out to me randomly in August. I think he just looked at my LinkedIn account. He said he was looking around at people in different restaurants. They closed their space in April—formerly it was Farmer & the Fish—and they were trying to figure out what the next step for that space should be.

At first, he said, “Hey, would you be interested in overseeing a more casual restaurant?” I wasn’t too excited about that. But it didn’t hurt to talk. I had a little free time on my hands after all, so I was like, no problem. We started talking, and I threw out my ideas. I did a little tasting around thoughts we discussed. In the sense of opening new restaurants and doing new concepts, it was pretty quick. They had the space, they had a kitchen, they had a lot of the stuff already there that we would need.

Considering the situation we’ve been in over the past months, I wasn’t concerned about getting a review. No one’s coming in. So it was a little more casual than a lot of the openings I’ve done in the past.

I see a lot of people pivoting towards more casual, more comforting types of food. Doing fine dining in this situation—I mean, I was having lunch at Keens outside recently. It was a little chilly. But the steaks still smelled and tasted great. It’s still a great place.

So thinking about what I wanted to do, especially in this pandemic—opening a restaurant is about bringing a level of comfort. In the past couple of years, comfort for me is pasta. And I love fried calamari. I was like, why don’t we do that? Bring it to a point where people can enjoy it without breaking the bank. We can develop the concept as we go along. Comfort is also about great hospitality, great service, and a great environment. So the challenge is the ever-changing guidelines and regulations. How do we do that? My feet were very cold, sitting at Keens. That’s the challenge.

We built our own outdoor space at Isabelle’s about a month and a half ago. It’s pretty nice—seats about 20 or 22 people. It’s a sidewalk space shielded by overhead cover with heaters. But it’s tough when it gets below 40 degrees. You run out electrical power to get enough heat outside, and electrical is expensive. The structure’s pretty solid, thankfully. I saw some other places after a snowstorm, and they kind of got trashed from the wind and everything. We’ve got to close at that point, too.

One of the best things about opening in the pandemic has been bringing back people who have been unemployed—people that I’ve worked with in the past couple of years. I have a very small team right now, but the people I work with are great. We’re all trying to balance it out, making a business and trying to survive. And these are people who have families and weren’t working before this happened, so that’s been a very big positive.

Getting back into the kitchen and cooking food is another big positive. The reason why we all started doing this is because we enjoy cooking. Chefs may veer off into business or whatever agenda we have, but the basics of making a dish, of making people happy, are why we started doing this. So that’s rewarding.

If we’re not able to keep the outdoor space, it’s going to be tough. But in general, our staff and everyone that we’re working with is very positive. We just have to keep moving forward. We’re in hospitality, and we’re trying to build an environment to keep us going for a long time.

God bless the customers that come and sit on the sidewalk on Saturday night. It’s cold, and it’s windy, and they’re bundled up with parkas, and they’re spending money on beverages and food. The support of people like that—I absolutely appreciate it every day. I’ve had regulars that I’ve known—guys from Colicchio & Sons and Craft that used to come eat once a week, and I’d cook dinners specifically for them. Now they’re coming back to see me at Isabelle’s. It’s fun.