I can smell the fresh wood and paint when I walk into the Broken Tulip Social Eatery (thebrokentulip.com), but dominating it all is the seductive, insinuating scent of roasting duck confit. I'm salivating throughout my interview with owners Sariann Lehrer and David Crabtree-Logan. The two chefs have started a different kind of restaurant than Richmonders are used to. You'll find three communal tables and two reserved seatings for a prix fixe menu Thursdays-Saturdays, plus brunch on Sundays. I was curious to see what the restaurant was all about, so I sat down with the two to find out.
Style: How did the opening weekend go?
David Crabtree-Logan: We had a little hiccup, just a little one, and had to push the opening to Friday. We discovered the entire gas line needed replacing three days before opening. The guys next door saved the day for us. It's really friendly community around here. We don't know anyone — we're starting from scratch. It was three days without heat, hot water and we couldn't cook. You read about chefs' opening nightmares and think, "Nah, they're exaggerating." But they're not.
Why did you choose Richmond to start a restaurant? (Crabtree-Logan is originally from Scotland, Lehrer is American, and the two were living in Connecticut before coming here.)
Crabtree-Logan: One of the reasons we moved to Richmond is it seems like a good time for small businesses, the food scene is taking off and it's getting national recognition as a food destination — and the city is on a kind of upsurge of regeneration.
Lehrer: We knew we wanted to move South because part of what we're doing is working directly with farmers. The growing season up north isn't as long as it is down here — it's quite short. This place (the former Amour Wine Bistro in Carytown) happened to be up for sale, and we fell in love with Richmond. We used to live in Portland, Oregon, and it really reminds us of what Portland must have been like 10 years ago.
And before that, you wrote "The Game of Thrones Cookbook." How did that come about?
Lehrer: While I was at an investment bank, my friend and I wrote it. It started as a blog and by the grace of ["Game of Thrones" author] George Martin himself, we got a book deal.
That's so amazing.
Lehrer: That was my introduction to how much I loved historical foods — and researching old foods and figuring out why we do or don't have them in our kitchens anymore. It's my passion, I would say — forgotten foods.
Why communal dining?
Crabtree-Logan: [In Portland], we started doing fortnightly suppers in our studio apartment [and] we started to see how much fun people were having seated around a big group table with people they knew and also people they hadn't met before. We started to notice a wonderful kind of break in the tension somewhere around the second glass of wine. It would become this bawdy, laughing party, which you don't find in too many restaurants. That's when we thought that maybe there's something to this.
Tell me about the kind of food you're going to be doing.
Crabtree-Logan: We're going to write the menu every week. But it's subject to change every night — we ran out of turnips on Friday and replaced them with carrots on Saturday. Our aim is to buy exclusively from local farmers and growers. It's challenging opening at the beginning of winter.
I know you guys are open from Thursdays to Sunday brunch. Is that how you anticipate going forward or do you want to do it more nights?
Crabtree-Logan: We don't really want to be serving more than that. We're a deliberately small restaurant — we didn't want more than 24 seats. We figured out that's the maximum number we can do and keep the quality. We're really aware that we only have one life, and I don't want to spend every hour of it chained to a stove.
I forgot the most important question of all — where does the name come from?
Lehrer: Broken tulips are tulips with a virus infecting the bulb that makes them bloom in beautiful colors and striations. During tulip mania in the 15th century, the bulbs sold for the equivalent of $1,500 each. However, the virus that makes them so beautiful also makes them very hard to propagate, and the virus spreads easily from bulb to bulb. So, they were — and are — highly restricted by tulip producers. Recently there has been a resurgence in interest in maintaining the remaining strains of broken tulips. We think the back story speaks to what we're trying to do here — use heritage varieties, reclaim forgotten foods and generally conduct our business in opposition to the mass production methods widely seen today.
This interview has been edited and condensed for space.