Cafe Barjot opened in north Capitol Hill last summer, attempting to breathe new life into the space formerly occupied by the shuttered Chico Madrid. Owner Wylie Bush snatched up Chef Nick Coffey from Sitka and Spruce to create an accessible, seasonal menu for a neighborhood crowd.
Coffey, who moved here from Milwaukee eight years ago, has also worked at Bastille and Molly Moon's. But before he stepped into a restaurant kitchen, he worked the deli at View Ridge's PCC. Eater caught up with the up-and-coming chef to learn more about his background and what inspired him to start a career in restaurants.
What was your role at Sitka and Spruce?
I ran the kitchen over there pretty much for the last two years but started at the bottom and just worked my way up. Originally I was going to go up to the new Bar Ferd'nand and that project is way delayed. I knew Wylie needed some help and it was just going to be temporary but I like it here so I'm going to stick it out as long as I want to be here.
How did you get started in restaurants?
I moved here from Milwaukee and I found it really hard to find a job and I originally studied photography and I didn't want to do photography and I didn't know what I wanted to do. I had worked in grocery stores when I was younger and I thought I would just do that temporarily, and I landed at PCC. I worked at the one in View Ridge in the deli and just started cooking a lot and realized that's what I wanted to do. From there it was just trying to find my way into kitchens and grow really fast. I made anything that's in the deli, the salads, the hot foods and all that stuff.
So you don't have any formal training?
No formal training. At Sitka, I grew a lot. There was a lot of freedom in the kitchen. I lived in Wallingford and the bus ride was pretty inconsistent so I'd always end up coming to work early and then I'd just sit at the coffee shop and read cookbooks. I'd read two cookbooks a day. And then I got to put that into practice at Sitka and that allowed me to grow really fast. My interests have always been at the process; that's what interested me about photography, was the process. And the process of photography has really been dumbed down, shortened, and made very accessible, so that's what led me to want to do something else. With cooking, it's a wide range. There is dumbed down, very accessible cooking, and there's things that involve a long, drawn-out process. So that's what interests me, is the process.
How have you put your touch on the menu at Barjot?
They already had a very established lunch and brunch menu, with a lot of regular customers. With talking to Wylie about the type of people that come here, we wanted to make it really accessible and something that people would come back to over and over again and not just for special occasions. So I don't think of the dishes as anything special but they're really well executed. The sausage dish is just sausage and potatoes and kraut and mustard, which is a really standard dish, but we make the sausage, we make the sauerkraut, we make mustard, we make the creme fraiche, and that's the same thing that I brought to the lunch menu. All the deli meats were not made here, so just trying to have our hand in the process a little bit more. To make it that much better — to make the simple food that we do here just better than what you'd get anywhere else.
The kitchen is tiny. How does that impact what you're able to do?
It's a very small kitchen. That's the most challenging part. There's no stove, just two induction burners and an oven. Sometimes space is a limitation and it limits the menu. A lot of the dishes are designed so they can be quickly thrown in a pan and then into the oven, because the oven is the most spacious cooking environment. So that's definitely shaped the menu. It is a lot to do but it's not very hard stuff, it's just not being lazy and putting in the work to come up with a better product. This kitchen staff is much smaller so that makes it kind of easy because three days out of the week I'm the only person in the kitchen all day long, morning and night, so I come in and I know where I left off. There's no one else screwing up what I'm trying to do.
How will seasonal availability affect the menu?
We will change the menu regularly. The idea was to have a more stationary menu so the regulars would find favorite things and come back. Things have changed a little bit as they've become unavailable during the winter. What is also great is Barjot is such a blank slate is even though I'm restricted by the space and equipment there'll be plenty of opportunities to do some of the things I'm really into, some of the more high-end cooking. It's like going to any restaurant in the city, and it's right in your backyard and it's at a good price point.
My interests with food are really wild foods, fermentation, and meat curing. So a lot of those things I've brought into the menu already but, especially as the season ramps up, there will be a lot more on the menu.
How do you keep up with space-intensive things like pickling and fermenting?
It's kind of a constant process. I do about 10 or 15 pounds of sauerkraut a week. There's some fermented carrots on another dish. Those are things I have to do but otherwise, it's whenever I see something that we have a lot of. We don't have a lot of space so I've really tried to simplify everything so that we maximize the space we do have.
Barjot is such a hybrid enterprise, combining the coffee shop model with a restaurant and bar. Does that add another challenge for you?
We don't have the sex appeal of Single Shot because they're a bar and a restaurant, full on, where we're just half of a bunch of different things. We kind of fulfill everyone's needs for sure, but that is a challenge. We don't have a full kitchen. We do have a full bar but people can't sit here and chat with their bartender so it's a little different situation than people are used to. But we're executing well and people are finding us, so it's growing.