Classic American Cooking in Asia with John Kunkel
Dedicated to classic American cooking and warm hospitality, The Bird Southern Table & Bar has given Asia a taste of how the art of sharing a meal is the same wherever guests are from.
The James Beard award nominated restaurant group 50 Eggs, who originated in the United States, has ventured out into the world with its first restaurant in Singapore with The Bird Southern Table & Bar at Marina Bay Sands in 2017. Guests who visit this casual and inviting atmosphere overlooking the Marina Bay waters can taste American classic such as the famous 100-year-old recipe Lewellyn’s Fine Fired Chicken, Shrimp ‘N’ Grits, Buttermilk Biscuits, Butter Lettuce and Grilled Mango Salad, and many more.
The mastermind behind this is restauranteur John Kunkel, creator and founder of one of Restaurant Hospitality Magazine’s “Coolest Multi-concept Companies in the Land”. John built 50 Eggs into a multi-faceted, full service culinary and hospitality firm focuses on developing cutting-edge brands with unparalleled dining experiences. With his years of experience, we got to chat with John and see how he finds inspiration, how does businesses stay relevant, and what The Bird is to him.
What inspired you to start your very first restaurant?
I started the restaurant business at a very young age kind of worked every job in the restaurant business. So I had gotten to design restaurant menus for other people for a couple of years and when I designed my very first restaurant on my own, it was a very casual bakery café and I did it because I knew that was what the neighbourhood needed and I got inspired to do something fun and bakery oriented. When I create a new restaurant, it starts with a couple things. It starts with what I get inspired by, what my particular neighbourhood or area where I’m developing the restaurant needs, and maybe what’s lacking in the industry or what people are responding to.
What is the thing that you love the most about being in this food business?
There is so many things to love, but I love the creative process. I love the process of creating new menus, new concepts, and just thinking of what’s next. Boredom is dangerous for me, so I kind of never stay in one place for too long and I like figuring out how to continue to evolve and make concepts relevant. There’s also eating and drinking and get inspired from all the different chefs from around the world.
What has been the most challenging situation you have faced throughout your career journey, and how did you tackle it?
The short answer would be everything is challenging in the restaurant business. I look at the business as “you are only as good as the ship before”, so if you had a bad dinner service, then that’s where you leave off. You never have a time or period where you are relaxed or you made it. I have had restaurants for 15 years and you still have to wake up with the same energy level and the same dedication every morning to make it a great restaurant and it’s a lot about the people too. I think the challenge of the restaurant business is to maintain consistency and continue to make the restaurant better. In most jobs, there’s a sense or level of rest of compliancy and if you did that at a restaurant, you wouldn’t be around for long.
What are your key points in running a successful business?
As mentioned before, consistency is key. As a consumer, I want to come back and if I fall in love with a dish or restaurant, I want to come back and have a similar experience and when I tell my friends about it, so service and food quality remaining consistent I think is one of the biggest challenges but it’s also one of the things we all appreciate about great restaurants. To go back to the question, making a successful restaurant is many things, such as the music, the lighting, the service, the food. It is everything from menu design to the chefs who interact with you.
What inspires you into creating new innovation?
I think I am inspired by seasonality and what’s going on, whether it’s a product that is peaking during the season and we want to be able to feature that on the menu or inspired by what the public is looking for and responding to. We are inspired by history and tradition. It really depends on the item of the day and who you are asking, we are constantly getting inspiration from many different places.
What was the idea behind The Bird Southern Table & Bar?
The Bird is really the ability to feature American flavours and showcase American cuisine in Singapore. We are very fortunate to being a small group of restaurants that are featuring American cuisine in Singapore and to be able to be on a world class proxy with all these amazing chefs plus its great venue to do that. There’s a lot of the food I grew up with, so it was very known to me. I’ve created all different types of restaurants, but obviously this is very near and dear to my heart because of all the family recipes and food I grew up with.
What is your most favourite dish? Why?
There’s so many to choose, but the shrimp and grits. The grits, obviously in the South, is very close to polenta, and it has a rich veal stock and fresh shrimp and tomatoes… it’s such a complex dish, but it’s also a comfort food, warming dish.
What is the worse meal you have ever had?
I am a pretty open-minded eater, I think the worst meal would revolve around terrible service. I mean I can deal with uninspiring recipes or ok food, but I think when somebody is rude to you and doesn’t make you feel welcome, that kind of ruins the whole experience. And that’s one of the things we talk about at The Bird, southern hospitality. We want you to feel like you are in our house and welcome and there are no bad questions and you can try or modify anything. We try to be very accommodating.
Who would you like to collaborate with in the future?
I guess… one of my favourite restaurants on property is called Adrift and it’s an amazing chef called David Myers and I would like to do a project with David. I love California cuisine and certainly his version of that. David is a long-time resident of Asia, as well as growing up in California, so I love his food and would love to collaborate.
What is one dish you want people to try at The Bird Southern Table & Bar?
One of my favourite things about Southern American cuisine is brunch. I think it’s such a fun time and when you come into The Bird for brunch, you can get waffles and pastries and mimosas and bloody mary and all the stuff. It’s just a really fun meal, but whether you come from lunch or dinner, at any time, it’s an old family recipe, but our shrimp and grits, our salads, our chicken… there’s just so many things to try, I don’t know where to begin.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
Well we have a lot of new restaurants opening up in the next 2 years. Different concepts as well as expanding The Yard Bird concept I the United States as well as abroad, so I will see myself much busier than now, which is already pretty crazy, but just to create things that I am proud of and that we believe in and just to continue to grow and evolve the company.