In Soho, a pink neon sign asks passersby half a question — “What Happens When?” — and dares you to finish it. A glance at the simple black and white space behind it would lead you to believe this was just another sleek Soho restaurant full of sleek Soho people. In reality, What Happens When, a temporary, metamorphosing, and half-mad dining experience, is so much more.
The team behind What Happens When are completely out of their minds, especially the chef, John Fraser. I mean that in the nicest possible way. Fraser, along with artist Emille Baltz, musician Micah Silver, and designer Elle Kunnos de Voss, opened this restaurant in late January with the intent of closing it nine months later, and they had the very un-New York expectation of making no money on the venture. These two facts alone make What Happens When an anomaly in the restaurant business, where profits and staying power are the ultimate goals. But Fraser and his team decided to push their project further. Every thirty days for the nine months of the restaurant’s existence, they’ll redesign the space, re-write the menu, and compose a new piece of music to create a new experience — or movement, as they’re being called. To fund the project and to get ideas for the months’ themes, they turned to Kickstarter, a fundraising platform used primarily to crowd-source money for artists in need. The campaign succeeded quickly. By their January 25th opening, they had $20,000 to spend, no strings attached
What Happens When’s first movement was inspired, in part, by the brutal winter we’ve had this year: the jarring bite of opening your front door, the woolen mugginess of a subway car or an overheated building. When I stepped into What Happens When’s closet-sized atrium on a particularly windy and unpleasant February night , where I was inundated by a minimal but bold wall of sound, I could quickly see the winter theme at work in the extreme and sudden temperature shift. Thus, the first question of the night was formed and answered: What happens when you step into What Happens When?
The wait staff had a sparkle in their eyes, as if this wasn’t a job but a very strange and exclusive party they’d been invited to. Soon, our waiter brought a complimentary prosecco cocktail and an amuse bouche trio: a shot of split pea soup, an onion dip with spring onions and croutons, and what was referred to as ‘a grown-up ants-on-a-log.’ (What happens when a restaurant decides they don’t care about making money? Bubbly all around, that’s what.)
The dishes were bold and complicated without being pretentious. A standout first course was a half dozen tiny oysters served in a cool puddle of beet mignonette, and garnished with sunchokes and bits of arugula. Roasted cauliflower, a familiar standard on winter menus, was served in a tumble of buttery mushrooms, with wisps of heritage ham and slow-roasted grapes. After deciding against the arctic char at the last minute, we were struck by regret when we saw the otherworldly concoction on the table next to ours, a glistening pink cylinder. No less thought had been put into the main courses; The guinea hen was a succulent comfort served with a buckwheat crepe that was actually more like a savory cake. The cod was crisp, both from the expertly seared skin and the dill floating in the clam and squid broth.
The dessert course, while quite good, didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the menu. Choices seemed less deliberate and more conventional, like something you’d find at the end of any menu. (What happens when you throw a handful of berries atop some crème brulee? Not much.)
In the black and white blue-print inspired space, the food stole the entire show in a landslide, which begged another question: What happens when you have to create a whole new menu every month, each one needing to be of this caliber? Adding even a few dishes to a restaurant’s menu can be a trial. There are sous chefs and line cooks to train, and once they’ve been trained it still might take the kitchen some time to turn out the dishes quickly and accurately. Also, the wait staff will need to relearn the menu and be able to talk intelligently about the food.
While the project seems to embrace the here today, gone tomorrow nature of restaurants in New York City, it also seems to tempt that same adage, so I caught up with John Fraser a few days later. He dashed in, having spent the day at Dovetail, and after a few minutes checking in with his three sous chefs in the kitchen, we left to grab an afternoon coffee across the street. The following morning, Fraser was going to cook French toast on the CBS Early Show because, “that’s what monkeys do. When you open a restaurant, you had to do stupid monkey things, like juggle and ride a unicycle.” From the minute we entered the cafe, Fraser seemed to immensely enjoy being in a restaurant that wasn’t his.
“People keep calling it a pop-up,” he said, “ and I really want to rail against the idea of this being a pop-up.” What would he rather it be called? Temporary restaurant seemed fair, he thought, but it was maybe even something more than that. “This was kind of an attempt to bring some of what Soho used to be back to Soho,” he said, talking about the spontaneity and grittiness of the art scene that existed south of Houston in the 70’s and early 80’s.
Sure, there is something spontaneous about jumping into a temporary restaurant-meets-art-installation. But, to be clear, a prix-fixe menu can only be so ‘gritty,’ even if it is a bargain compared to the rest of the New York dining scene. After the waiter told us that our silverwear was located in a small drawer under our table to save time for the staff and add to the DIY aesthetic, my dining companion, Brad Dececco, joked, “at home we have the butler do this.” At least a few of our fellow diners could have said the same in seriousness, because there’s only so much old Soho that the current Soho can handle.
But What Happens When is still pushing the status quo of the restaurant industry, daring others to do two things: Take more creative risks, and dare to collaborate (something a lot of meglomanic chefs seem allergic to.) When asked about how the collaboration process goes, Fraser seemed a little apologetic. “You know, it sounds really kumbaya, very treehugger-ish but, Ella starts to draw, and I start talking about words, and Micah starts making sounds…” These creative meetings could last many hours, and Fraser admitted that at times they get “a little nasty. I mean, there’s a certain amount of joy involved with it, because we’re doing something that’s important to us, collectively, as a foursome. But also, every person is used to driving the bus.” Ultimately the struggle has been worth it. “Yeah, it is a fucking mess, but I can feel the personal growth. Every day it seems like I’m thinking, ‘Oh what did I get myself into,’ but at the same time… it’s a bit like a rite of passage.”
As rites of passage go, this one is a bit more of a trial by fire than say, a sweet sixteen party. Fraser’s goal that “Money shouldn’t rule creativity,” is an admirable one, but one that’s brave to be serving up to New York’s deep-pocketed diners. In the restaurant industry, money rules with a gold fist and that’s especially true in the Manhattan. Space is a commodity. Audiences are discriminating. A critic can lurk in, (not to mention yelpers) and make or mangle a new restaurant overnight. So, certainly, with less than two weeks before the What Happens When’s first transition, Fraser had a menu ready to go. “No,” he said calmly. “I could write a menu right now, but it’s not about that. The menu has to reflect the collaboration between four people. There has to be a thread running through all the pieces—space, music, food.” Money (and it seems time) isn’t ruling their creative process. The collaboration is. “Have you ever heard of a restaurant that charges for coffee refills?” Fraser looks at me, incredulous, as we leave. “This place actually charges for coffee refills.” He laughs as if this is a prank he’s enjoying. “I love it! It’s just so awesome.”
Photos by Brad DeCecco