25 Questions for Restaurant Design Guru Scott Kester

25 Questions for Restaurant Design Guru Scott Kester

What happens when an innocent game of 20 Questions turns into 25 Questions...#longreads

July 14, 2015

WHEN YOU SET OUT TO DO THESE SORTS OF RAPID-FIRE QUESTIONNAIRES, YOU HOPE THAT YOUR SUBJECT ANSWERS WITH A MODICUM OF PASSING INTEREST, AND SAYS AT LEAST ONE WITTY THING.


It usually works out pretty well, but it's a gargantuan undertaking, attempting to capture the make-up of a single soul in under a few minutes, so your expectations remain low and you bank on a little glimmer. And then, on occasion, someone takes it and runs with it so fiercely they surprise you. Designer Scott Kester, a frequent collaborator of restaurant groups in New York, San Francisco, and Tokyo, is that someone. Fresh off the completion of Aster, the shiny new collaboration from chef Brett Cooper and the Daniel Patterson Group in San Francisco, Kester represents the creatives we tend to forget about amidst the hoopla surrounding the things we get to eat—the ones who are responsible for your first impressions, and give the talent a physical stage to stand on. 

__________

WHAT IS THE NUMBER ONE MISCONCEPTION PEOPLE HAVE ABOUT YOUR JOB? 

I have no idea what people think a designer does so I’m not sure I know what the misconceptions might be. I would guess people think designers actually do a lot of design.  That is very far from the truth. The part of the job where we create something is a very small percentage of the work. Creating something new is not even that enjoyable. It is more an uncomfortable feeling that accompanies an idea that we can’t shake from our head. Finally, after the idea is so persistent and devilish, we put it down and share it with others. Most of our job is holding on to the idea while the project gets developed. The real work is getting the idea built. It takes a year or more to go from the idea we propose to opening for our guests. Along the way the idea gets challenged by everyone on the project for whatever reason they have—for their own convenience or mere laziness. Doing something new or different is difficult, especially if it has not been done before. For me, the hope is to produce something unexpected and memorable. So most of the work is keeping all involved in the project, and all their competing interests, aligned with bringing the idea to our future guests. Sometimes everyone involved makes the idea stronger and better—my real job is to motivate that collective effort. 

DO YOU BELIEVE IN FATE? 

Absolutely. But this is not a religious belief. Fate. Luck. Destiny. All these ideas sort of blend together. It is comforting to think there is a reason things happen that is beyond our control.  It is also natural to be skeptical that there is something bigger than ourselves. I don’t know where my ideas come from. I don’t relate to a divine inspiration, or muse, or illumination. I feel like looking at something backwards or opposite makes space for insight and ideas. The fate I have is to look at situations sideways and trust the results.

WHAT KIND OF PEOPLE ARE YOU ATTRACTED TO? 

People who are confident they don’t know everything.

DOES A SPACE DESIGN ITSELF, OR IS EACH A BLANK SLATE?

Nothing designs itself. There are always issues to contend with in each space. I’m not sure there could ever be a perfect space to receive a design. The imperfections make opportunities that can be highlighted. When I was an architect, and in architecture school, I was perturbed by the desire architects had to make a building. This was the blank slate thinking. There was deep desire to place a lone building in a landscape. That was the ideal project. Or build the most unique skyscraper, it was the same impulse. It’s like there was a friction in architecture and architects to differentiate themselves from the environment. To me the goal is create a visceral experience for the guest. To make a place we want to visit again and again, create memories, and to live with—to live inside. I admire great buildings but I appreciate a place that calms me more than impresses me. The best designs seem to take things away from the world instead of add to the world.


Cary Grant (left) and Jimmy Stewart, The Philadelphia Story, 1940.

WHAT'S YOUR GO-TO MOVE IN AWKWARD SILENCES?

The Philadelphia Story. There is a scene where Jimmy Stewart barges in on Cary Grant after a party. Jimmy Stewart’s character is supposed to be drunk and Grant’s is supposed to be sober. There is a point in the dialogue where both actors fall out of character and just spark a laugh at each other. They are professionals, and they turn this split second of unscripted facial expressions into part of the scene. Every time I watch, even knowing when the gaff will happen, Stewart making Grant crack-up is a marvel of delight. It just lifts your spirit out of your body. I have to believe George Cukor saw it and just decided to keep the magic—that’s fate.

IF YOU WERE TO DEFINE YOUR AESTHETIC IN FIVE WORDS OR LESS...

I don’t know the words for this feeling. When you see something that is familiar but you know you have never seen it before. Can serendipity be an aesthetic?

THE FIRST PLACE THAT MADE ME WANT TO DO WHAT I DO WAS...

I grew up in Lansing, Michigan. Lansing has the state capital. It’s a typical neoclassical, symmetrical, columniated stuffy thing with a high central dome and all the trimmings. I remember taking a tour there as part of the a school field-trip. I was pretty blown away by the dome and the feeling inside the space. I did not know then that I wanted to be an architect, but I did know the feeling that happens when your breath is taken away by something man-made.

YOUR BIGGEST FEAR?

Having to live through childhood again. I like the idea of karma, but if I have to come back as a kid and do what I’m told for another 18 years that would suck.

BIGGEST TRIUMPH?

Growing up, and doing what I want.

ARE YOU THE LIFE OF A PARTY OR A WALLFLOWER?

That all depends on how many cocktails I’ve had.

COCKTAIL OF CHOICE?

That seems to change every few years. I like the classics. When I first moved to Manhattan I was obsessed with having a Martini in the great hotel lobby bars. Then I only drank Gimlets, with tequila. Then the perfect Manhattan. Now a very dry Negroni. When it is made just right the ingredients leave a faint dark chocolate note. I am going to mix another right now. My favorite bartender has recently developed a new Sazerac that to me tastes nothing like a Sazerac, which might be why I like it so much. He is frustrated that the drink only works when he gets the balance right, and I am frustrated that he is traveling right now so I can’t have his perfectly-balanced-not-quite-a-Sazerac-Sazerac.

STAR TREK OR STAR WARS?

Neither. 

WHO WAS THE LAST PERSON YOU HAD A DEEP CONVERSATION WITH ABOUT SOMETHING OTHER THAN WORK?

I was on a train recently along the Hudson River coming back from Albany. It was a late afternoon train, and as the train got closer to Manhattan the light got closer to dusk, it started snowing lightly. As we got closer to Manhattan the light dropped, more snow, and the atmosphere was practically a white fog. As the train moved along the river landscape, the winter trees slowly disappeared into the white-out. The conversation about our choices in life, and choices we still have to make, kept getting softer and quieter. By the time the train went under the George Washington Bridge it looked like something from the nineteenth century or gothic or a fantasy. It was as if all technology was gone and we were going back in time. 

DESIGNING A RESTAURANT VS. DESIGNING ANYTHING ELSE:

They are both the same to me. Discover what was missed, so the discovery defines the new design. And if possible, make it look easy.

A TYPICAL DAY LOOKS LIKE...

Be thankful for waking up.Be thankful for having clients who want my work, do the work.Be thankful for having my family and a warm bed, and maybe a Negroni.


Aster's interior, via Patricia Chang.

WHICH IS THE BIGGER RUSH: BRAINSTORMING WITH A CHEF ABOUT THEIR VISION OR WATCHING PEOPLE INTERACT WITH THE SPACE AFTER OPENING?

These are two totally different experiences. The brainstorming is always great. It happens months or years before the opening. Moving ideas around is a delicate bubble, and the opening pops that bubble. The opening is always frightening—all our hopes, desires, and intentions will be mashed up into blogs and tweets. My job is to always think about how the guest will perceive the space when it opens, how they will use the space and how they will respond to our clues and contributions. I do like watching people after the opening. We learn from what we did not predict. When the customers take it over like it is theirs, when they own it, all is good.

DESERT ISLAND FOOD?

Uni. That’s the one thing I have in common with seagulls. If there are more please don’t tell me.

HAPPINESS FACTOR?

The strangest things make me happy. I call it reverse archaeology. I love looking at a building or space or person, and pondering how and what choices were made to get that place or person to what or who they are. Once in a while I will see someone, and feel like I can tell you their entire life story. Sometimes I even go up to a stranger and check. Most of the time I am hilariously wrong, which is very reassuring.


IF THERE'S ONE PAINTING I COULD STAND IN FRONT OF FOR HOURS, IT'D BE...

Camille Pissarro, The Banks of the Marne in Winter, 1866. When I lived Chicago, and taught Architecture studio, I would go every week to see this painting. It literally takes hours to see the painting. I liked that Pissarro was basically thumbing the salon and his masters by painting a drab, winter landscape. It looks like a muddy field on an overcast afternoon, the sun has just gone down behind some hills casting a long winter shadow across the entire landscape. There is a dumpy farmhouse in the distance. At first glance it really stands out for being so grey and dank amongst the regular impressionist offerings. Maybe this is why I was attracted to the painting in the first place. I wondered why this subject and this negativity in the painting.  After many weeks of studying the painting I had an epiphany—not an idea, but a true visual epiphany; it takes a while but eventually you notice how colorful the painting really is. Just like magic, all of a sudden I could see color under the damp green field and in the hills beyond. Pissarro used heavy brush strokes and a palette knife to build up a dense layered surface. Up close, it is almost impossible to see the subject, but from a little distance it comes into focus. And with time the color from below starts to emerge. It is essentially a painting of early spring, with the new grass and seeds just beginning to sprout brightly from under the tired grubby snow and mud. It is bloody revelation when it hits you, and it takes time to see. I love it. I would take my students to see it and they would get the same experience. They would let out a gasp when it finally hits. This is all anyone can ask of their art.

MY NEIGHBORHOOD SOUNDS LIKE:

I live in Manhattan. Fifth floor walk-up. Tonight they are re-paving Sixth Avenue, which is around the corner from me. Two days ago, the machine the grinds up the asphalt ran all night. Tonight the machine that puts down new asphalt will run all night. There is a light rain so the sound of cars going down Eleventh Street is amplified. I find the mechanized drone really relaxing. I especially like the wee hours of 3am to 5am when most of the sounds have trailed off. This is when this neighborhood resets itself. I like thinking about design in these hours.

THE FIRST THING I DO UPON ARRIVING IN A NEW COUNTRY:

I remember some notes from a travel guide I read before my first trip to Europe. The writer was sharing notes from other seasoned travelers. One guy said that he never bothered to figure out the exchange rate. He just ordered a beer in the new country, found out how much it cost in the new currency, and then translated all his purchases in to multiples of the cost of a beer. While I don’t actually recall doing this in a new country I do practice the basic premise of life according to the new country. Why else are we traveling?



A BOOK YOU'VE READ MORE THAN FIVE TIMES?

Factotum, by Charles Bukowski.

Truth comes from hard places. At one point in grad school I gave up living in an apartment and bought a VW mini-bus. I spent all my time in the studio or in libraries so instead of paying rent for an empty apartment I decided to use that money to eat at cafes and sleep in my bus.  Some people thought I was nuts—I didn’t like those people. Some people did not think I was nuts, and we had a great time. Often I would wake up early, and before going to class I would take a short drive, find a nice spot with good view, park, and read Bukowski.  This kept everything in perspective. I also had a stuffed parrot hanging inside the mini-bus just behind the driver’s seat.  Don’t ask me why, because I don’t remember and I was a little bit nuts. I can’t tell you how many times I came back to my mini-bus with a few people staring through the windshield trying to get the stuffed parrot to talk.  That was a happy sight.

THE TRICKIEST PART ABOUT DESIGNING ASTER WAS...

I was thinking, let’s use the classic barbershop infinity mirror effect to make the room become more spacious. The problem was the proposal is also really sort of tacky.  I criticize a lot of lighting design that produces the “limo light effect”—when a series of lights are reflected in a shiny surface so you can see the reflection of the fixture.  The mood gets broken.  It’s like seeing behind the curtain.  And then add to that, the typical use of a string of lights, dotting a stage, is usually a little too tawdry for the vision Brett and Daniel described for the restaurant. The idea was to be a comfortable and calm neighborhood location. My idea was to break your expectations as you enter the door. To immediately whet your appetite for more than the familiar. These intimate restaurants dot the corners all around SF so I was searching for a way to change the intimacy. So why not do the thing I hate: Limo Lights!  I think the tricky part was to get Brett and Daniel excited about a restaurant design feature that is more at home in a strip club. When I was explaining the idea I talked about William Hogarth’s Line of Beauty. He is often considered to be the founder of Art History so his writing was the pinnacle of taste in the 1750s. It goes without saying that the subtle S curve that makes the line of beauty, and the light feature at Aster, is a very popular curve in strip clubs too. Universal taste might not be taste at all.

SAN FRANCISCO VS. NEW YORK?

There’s no comparison because to me both places are essential.  It’s like two sides of the same coin.  Or the face-vase figure ground drawing. The way I live in the two places make the perfect dichotomy and a perfect compliment. It is either fate or luck or destiny that I get to make places in both. What you can see in one you cannot see in the other but you need the other to show you what is missing. I am always excited to arrive and excited to leave, both cities. I cannot chose between the two. I don’t feel like a New Yorker, but I am perfectly happy here not going to museums, art galleries, exhibits, parks, theatre, bookstores, shopping, and all the other reasons I moved to this city but now no longer think about. I love so many places and things to do in San Francisco that I am afraid if I move there I will then stop doing all those things, just like what happened to me here. And then I will want to go to New York to relax like I do now when I come to San Francisco. This is not really a dilemma, it is a privilege—no complaints.

THE CUISINE I FEEL MOST IN TUNE WITH IS: 

Japanese. I taught myself to cook Mediterranean, but then became obsessed with Japanese cuisine, so much so that I met my wife when I was a regular at a Japanese restaurant. Even though she is a very good Japanese cook, she is obsessed with Mediterranean food, so in the beginning of our relationship I would cook Italian for her, and she would correct my Japanese cooking efforts. Now in our family, I make the chashu and the traditional dashi. She makes the best pesto and carbonara. It’s a pleasant confluence. When her mom visits from Japan, she approves of my cooking, so I actually like my mother-in-law—and it helps that we don’t speak the same language. 



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