Julian Wright learned the art of opening restaurants the hard way. When he introduced La Bocca Urban Pizzeria + Wine Bar in 2008, food critics (including our own) offered lukewarm reviews.
A little more than a year later, he's back with a vengeance.
"La Bocca has been a challenge," he says, "but I think I'm pretty close to figuring it out and I think our food is a hell of a lot better than when we opened."
The pizzeria and wine bar is the ASU grad's seventh concept, and third on Mill Avenue (after the Library Bar and Grill and now-defunct Jax Thai Bar).
With a face lift, a new attitude and a wicked selection of bruschetta, La Bocca is now arguably one of the more popular and stable restaurants in Tempe (an area with its own fair share of closures and face lifts in the past year).
This week, Wright stops by to share a behind-the-scenes look at his restaurant, his open kitchen philosophy and his recent discovery of the watermelon radish.
This is your third location around here. Why Tempe?
How would you describe La Bocca's menu?
I would hate to rattle off all the generic words, but we spare no expense on ingredients; I don't give a shit how much something costs. Homemade would be a good word. We make the bread, the roast beef and all of our pizza dough in house, by hand.
How would you describe yourself?
Outgoing, persistent ... I don't think you can open a business -- let alone seven -- in 10 years and not be persistent. I just love what I do; I don't consider this a grind. I hear a lot of restaurant people say, "Ugh, I just work all the time." But what better job could you ask for than in a restaurant, even when it is difficult? People bitch about this industry so much; I think it's awesome.
How do you get started with a concept?
The music is my favorite part of the business. I find most of my restaurants' playlists in the wormhole ... I start with one song and find a related song and another. But everytime I open a place, the first thing I do is create a playlist. Then I get the visual of the place and everthing else comes together in my head.
What's your favorite ingredient to work with right now?
I was at the farmer's market yesterday and I saw this thing I had never seen before. It turned out to be a watermelon radish. They call it that because when you slice open this green rind the color inside is a hot fuchsia. It's one of the coolest looking vegetables I've ever seen. It's not as peppery as a radish, it's a little sweeter. So we came back here, the kitchen manager and I, and we just started mixing it with some goat cheese, olive oil, walnuts, heirloom tomatoes and bam, we created a killer summer salad with a base of watermelon radish. I guess it's not rocket science -- if you love it, you just play around and find things that work.
What's an ingredient that's overrated right now?
Pepperoni. People eat the crap out of that stuff; they're just pepperoni, pepperoni, pepperoni. I don't get it.
What was the hardest lesson you've learned in the kitchen?
I know now that if you're going to do anything food related beyond sloppy bar food, you need to take your time and make sure it's right before you open. If you open a bar and your music and your lighting and vibe and staff is good, you don't have to worry too much about food. But in the restaurant industry, if you're trying to do anything relatively gourmet, it has to be just right. Because if it doesn't pan out right away, which is kind of what happened here, it's almost unrecoverable. There's not a lot of room for error, which I definitely realize now.
Stay tuned for tomorrow's part two of Chef Chat with Julian Wright ...