The series premiere of Opening Night aired Sunday, September 1, and we’re already huge fans.
Check out our review below and you’ll see why Opening Night is must-watch television!
Chef Brian Duffy has helped open nearly 100 restaurants. He understands as well as any other industry veteran that the week leading up to opening night is crucial and the stakes can’t be any higher. People risk their livelihoods and reputations when they decide to open a restaurant.
Every element—money, time, sweat equity, and more—leads up to a single moment: Throwing the doors open for the first time to the public, press and competition.
In episode one of season one of Opening Night, titled “Italian Served Family Style,” Chef Duffy traveled to Boston’s North End of Boston, also known as Little Italy. There, he helped sports-reporter-turned-chef Jen Royle realize her dream of owning and operating an Italian restaurant.
Little Italy spans only about a half-mile and yet there are nearly 90 restaurants there. Half of those restaurants are Italian. That means one thing for anyone who dreams of opening an Italian restaurant in the North End: You’re in for some serious competition, so you had better bring it.
Royle left a 13-year career as a major sports reporter to pursue her dream of being a chef five years ago. She has worked as a private chef and done corporate events, but she has never operated a restaurant. Royle attended some culinary school but didn’t finish, and she admitted to having concerns about creating a successful menu.
She began her journey to restaurant ownership with Table by Jen Royle on the right foot: She came up with a concept for an Italian restaurant that, surprisingly, hadn’t been done before in Boston’s Little Italy.
Table is a family-style Italian restaurant concept. Guests are seated at communal tables to enjoy a single menu. Family-style concepts are very challenging: all the guests arrive and are seated the same time, all the food must be prepared on a tight timeline, each course must be fully served at once, and any mistake can result in courses coming out behind schedule. It’s a difficult type of service for even veteran chefs to execute.
When Chef Duffy arrived in Boston, the restaurant was a mere six days from opening. The first thing he wanted to do when arriving at Table was review the menu. Your menu, explained Chef Duffy, is the billboard for your entire business.
As he tasted through Royle’s menu, Chef Duff noticed the shrimp scampi tasted of “a boatload of salt.” But the shrimp were caramelized on the outside and “beautiful.” Royle’s chicken parmesan tasted “awesome,” but Chef Duffy felt the serving size was too large for a single person in a family-style setting.
The meatballs, made with beef, pork and veal and served with parmesan and marinara sauce weren’t anything special in Chef Duffy’s opinion. Royle wouldn’t set her restaurant apart from the 45 or so Italian concept competitors she was facing with Table’s meatballs in their original form. Chef Duffy explained what he likes in a meatball: various items visible on the inside, like a pocket cheese, garlic, and onion. A meatball, he said, should be springy and hold together well. He suggested more bread crumbs and doing something different with her meatballs to stand out.
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For dessert, Royle had created zeppole: fried dough balls. Her version was made with hazelnut spread and served with raspberry sauce on the side. Viewers were only shown a portion of the menu tasting and review process but Chef Duffy shared great information even with this segment truncated.
The tasting naturally led to pricing. Royle told Chef Duffy that pricing was one of the things that had been keeping her up each night. She was using her friends as a sounding board and they had told her that $68 was too low for her five-course family-style Italian menu, but $75 was too high. Chef Duffy asked Royle what she would pay for the menu, to which she answered $72. Her sous chef Matt said he would pay even more than that.
Chef Duffy revealed what he would pay for Table’s menu: $36. He explained himself, stating that Royle simply couldn’t open an Italian restaurant in the North End with the menu she had created. If a potential guest checked the menu before going inside and saw five courses for $75, they would certainly go somewhere else.
It’s imperative, as Chef Duffy explained, for owners to do their research when determining pricing. To prove that point, he took Royle down the street to a well-known, well-respected, and well-reviewed Italian restaurant down the street from Table. He knew he couldn’t just tell Royle she was wrong about her pricing because she truly believed her menu was worth $75—he needed to show her why her pricing wasn’t right for what she was offering.
The bill for the two of them for a four-course meal in one of the best Italian restaurants in Boston was $86, or $43 per person. Royle would either have to elevate her menu or lower her price. Luckily, the dinner gave Royle some ideas for Table’s menu. She would have to make adjustments to compete against the many restaurants she was up against.
Royle revisited her menu to ensure she would provide guests with value for their money and make a lasting, positive impression from opening night and beyond. She refused to lower her price, so Chef Duffy said Royle would have to step things up if guests were going to be happy to part with $75 per person. Table would need to give guests more than five courses. In Chef Duffy’s estimation, Royle would need a nine-course menu.
Royle initially seemed shocked by the suggestion, and who could blame her? On first hearing the suggestion of adding four courses to a menu, anyone owner would likely think they had a lot more work cut out for themselves and their team. But Chef Duffy explained that it didn’t have to be overly challenging.
Placing the bread course (housemade bread served with oil, garlic and housemade ricotta) on the table before guests were seated would be a slick way to handle the first course with ease. Making the portions smaller for the subsequent courses would give guests a memorable dining and social experience within a reasonable two-hour window, and they would leave satisfied.
Also, as Chef Duffy explained, Royle and her team control the flow of the experience. Royle and her servers could greet guests, welcoming and thanking them for coming. Before heading to the kitchen, Royle could announce that her guests were in for an incredible nine-course, family-style meal.
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Rather than push back, Royle had a self-described “aha moment” and decided to go big on her menu with Chef Duffy. With that, the pair got to do what chefs love to do—go to the kitchen and play.
The Menu, Revisited
Chef Duff elevated the Table meatball, making it a large portion that could serve four guests. He piled pecorino and housemade ricotta on top. Stuffed with mozzarella, when a server cut it open tableside the meatball would be a memorable experience.
Chef Duffy then introduced Royle to panzetta, a pork roast stuffed with sausage, egg and pepperoni. It’s robust, great for family-style service, and Table would get several servings from one prepared portion. The panzetta is where Royle first really disagreed with Chef Duffy. In her opinion, nobody visited restaurants in Little Italy to order pork. Chef Duffy saw things differently.
Pork, he explained, cost less than other meats. And while Royle may have perceived that as pork being cheap and therefore undesired by restaurant guests, Chef Duffy believes that guests want to be educated, and they want to try new things. Royle would differentiate Table from the competition by serving something unexpected, something other restaurants weren’t serving. Royle tasted the panzetta and conceded that it was a tasty dish.
Chef Duffy then came up with a one-per-person serving ravioli consisting of Table’s housemade ricotta, duck confit, and of caponata (stewed eggplant with tomato). The ravioli would be served six on one plate, inviting guests to dig in.
Royle had mentioned at dinner with Chef Duffy that she wanted to feature octopus on Table’s menu but had been unable to come up with a dish to fit it in. Chef Duffy came up with an octopus salad. Menu set, Royle and her team would be heading into a big step before opening night: a friends and family service.
Friends, Family and Lessons Learned
For those who have never utilized a friends and family service, it’s just what it seems like: friends and family are treated as paying guests. This service tests the back- and front-of-house teams, providing great intel regarding what works and what needs work.
Royle invited 26 family members and friends to experience (and test) Table. Sous chef Matt, however, hadn’t prepared enough shrimp for the 26 guests. That was bad, but perhaps more unacceptable was his attitude about it—he seemed to expect the guests to just share the amount of shrimp that he had prepared. With a big of urging from Chef Duffy, Royle put her foot down and demanded more shrimp be prepared. Table is, after all, her restaurant.
That wasn’t the only prep mistake the kitchen team had made. It turns out that there weren’t enough meatballs for the guests. This wasn’t because they were short, it was because none had been prepared—the kitchen team had forgotten to make the meatballs entirely.
Kitchen teams are going to make mistakes. Every team that makes up a restaurant’s overall team is going to have errors. The key is to adapt quickly and solve problems as they arise. In this case, Royle and the kitchen team made smaller meatballs so they could cook them quickly.
That solution was smart. But, unfortunately, the mistake led to the fifth course arriving almost 30 minutes behind schedule. Worse, around 75 percent of the meatballs were undercooked. The sixth course, panzetta, was 20 minutes behind schedule, showing that the team had been able to recover a bit. The seventh course, eggplant, saw the kitchen still 20 minutes behind. Course number eight, Table’s bolognese dish, came out to the guests 15 minutes behind schedule.
All the guests seemed to enjoy the food, snapping photos and giving positive feedback. All in all, for a first service, being a total of 15 minutes behind schedule for nine courses hadn’t meant abject failure. The friends and family service had given Chef Duffy and Royle valuable insight into two elements of Table’s level of readiness.
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First, Royle and her team would need to work on the timing of the dishes. And second, the stumbles and recoveries put Royle’s leadership on display. Chef Duffy was complimentary of Royle’s ability to lead the team at Table.
After friends and family, adjustments were made. There was just one thing left to do: open Table officially and introduce it to Little Italy and the world.
One of the adjustments made involved the meatball. Royle decided she didn’t want the big meatball on the menu. She explained that it was slowing down the back of house, and that the friends and family guests had said they could get a big meatball anywhere. Ched Duffy didn’t fight Royle on her decision. Table is, after all, her restaurant.
Before opening night, Chef Duffy shared four keys tailored for Royle and Table’s success:
- Food and proper portioning would need to be prepped in advance.
- Timing would be crucial to Table’s success because it’s a family-dining concept.
- Royle would have to establish herself as the boss of the kitchen.
- Pairing down the menu would be fine, but then pricing would need to be revisited to ensure value for guest dollar.
On opening night, Royle and the Table team welcomed 36 guests, ten more than they had served during friends and family. The menu was the following:
- Course 1: Bread & Dips
- Course 2: Shrimp Scampi
- Course 3: Octopus Salad
- Course 4: Meatball (made it back on the menu!)
- Course 5: Ravioli
- Course 6: Eggplant
- Course 7: Panzetta
- Course 8: Bolognese
- Course 9: Zeppole
The evening started off five minutes behind. As of the second course, bolognese, they were still five minutes behind. But the octopus dish, course number three, came out from the kitchen just three minutes late. By course number four, eggplant, the team was back on schedule.
The fifth course, shrimp scampi, was on schedule but portion sizes were incorrect. Again, not enough shrimp had been prepared, the same mistake that had been made during friends and family. Serving size was supposed to be three shrimp per person but some guests received just one. The only shrimp available was frozen, so sous chef Matt dropped them—the most expensive item on the menu—into the fryer.
Royle refused to allow the fried shrimp to be served. Royle had finally had it with Matt’s attitude and poor prep, so she understandably lashed out. As she rightfully pointed out, any mistakes would fall on her shoulders, and she feared someone would take to social media to complain.
While Royle’s outburst in the kitchen was understandable, shouting at team members in the middle of service and when faced with a problem isn’t a productive way to solve anything. Chef Duffy stepped in gently to give Royle a chance to recover, explaining that she had brought strangers together in a dining room and given them a great experience. Every kitchen makes mistakes—how they’re overcome dictates success or failure.
Even with the shrimp error, course seven, panzetta, was only three minutes late. The dessert course featuring zeppole was on time. Chef Duffy was very proud of Royle, saying she’s a leader and owner, owning opening night. Feedback from the guests was incredibly positive. Everyone was eating, socializing and happy.
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A couple of mistakes had been made, but the guests hadn’t really noticed because their experience had been so positive. One guest said to the camera that the amount of food and courses was great value. People wanted to take photos with Royle, the sign of a great opening night. The comment cards were overwhelmingly positive, with opening night guests praising the atmosphere and the experience of sharing a meal with the people next to which they had been seated. Guests said they couldn’t wait to return with friends and to meet new people. “Unbelievable,” said one guest.
The Return Visit
Chef Duffy returned to the North End eight weeks after Table’s opening night. The kitchen, noted Ched Duffy, looked great. But there was a big change that had been made: sous chef Matt had been replaced because Royle felt he wasn’t a good fit.
Other big changes included the return of the big meatball to the menu; the shrimp scampi being replaced with mussels Italiano; and pork paillard (pork cutlet with arugula, crisp kale, and lemon-honey vinaigrette) replaced panzetta.
Table has adjusted courses, received great reviews and press attention, and Royle seems like a more confident and happy business owner already.