MANCHESTER, NH – Cornelis de Jong is remarkably tall and dapper, particularly in the context of a bustling construction site in mid-February. His camel-colored overcoat bears the dust of sheetrock residue, and his red loafers – which complement the bold plaid of his button-down shirt – exude the attention to detail and style he is building into his fine-dining project, Cabonnay urban wine house and emporium, at 55 Bridge St.
The three-story 11,000-square-foot “intimate” luxury dining experience is on track for a soft opening in April, says CEO de Jong – a little later than originally anticipated, but he’s a firm believer in the adage that you only get one chance to make a first impression, and he’s determined to get it right.
Although spacious, the plan is to have only about 150 seats open for dining, and 24 seats in the bar area, lending itself to an open yet intimate feel.
Sprinkler systems, electrical wiring and large front entry elevator are all in place, and the space has been gutted and reimagined as something unlike the city has ever seen before, he says. Mid-February the base flooring was installed and the top-of-the-line kitchen equipment was ready for delivery.
“This isn’t going to be sit down, eat, and go,” says de Jong. “We’re focused on being restful and elegant and chic. Our average dining time should be two hours. If you want a 45-minute meal and you need to go somewhere else after, it’s probably not the right place for you. We have several courses, coffee and tea service, you can be in here to look at art, sample wines – it’s a dining experience.”
For de Jong of Windham, born and raised in South Africa, the restaurant business is relatively new territory. His background is in tech business marketing and development [remember the AOL free discs that flooded your mailbox? That was him.]
From there he moved into digital marketing and sales for an online insurance business. But for all those years he’s carried the vision of a place like Cabonnay with him as he traveled the world, both in his mind’s eye and in his pocket. The first inklings of Cabonnay, an original trademarked amalgam of “cabernet” and “chardonnay” – began on a napkin at a South African restaurant, he says.
“From eating in some of the best restaurants around the world, I began to try and solve the problem of what was wrong with the experiences,” says de Jong.
In that way, Cabonnay is a return to the fine art of dining – and he means that quite literally, as Cabonnay will be both futuristic and original – three-story glass atrium, art and sculpture gallery and projection wall, high-tech wireless sound system for audio ambiance, a wine chiller and emporium, event space, and floating stairway leading to a rooftop chef’s garden/patio dining area, bringing “the essence of wine country” to downtown Manchester.
Cabonnay could fit easily into any metropolitan landscape, but from where he stands, it’s Manchester’s time; he sees a growing market for that kind of luxurious dining concept here, with Dean Kamen’s proposed biotech manufacturing project, and the continued growth around Dyn and the high-tech boom, the better question for him is “Why not Manchester?”
“You should never be defined by your place,” says de Jong. “When we started this project a lot of people asked, ‘Why Manchester?’ I never thought about it that way. I came here from Chicago and I see a beautiful landscape, beautiful buildings, and I see far lower cost of entry into a market like this. In Chicago this would be a $9 million project.”
Manchester and its entrepreneurial spirit has allowed de Jong, who is privately funding the project himself, to dream big.
Prior to launching the multi-million dollar undertaking, de Jong did his due diligence, running through all the risk analysis, and has prepared financially for whatever worst-case scenario might arise.
“It’s a sound operation. Our CFO sits on several boards, owns eInsurance.com, and the talent we have to keep us financially sound isn’t three people with a dream in a basement. It’s industry people, with a proven track record of business success, and our business goals are extremely conservative,” de Jong says.
“We calculated debt capacity, price points for menu items and wine, and who might drink what – the kind of financial analysis most restaurants don’t do, because frankly, we’re dorks – including calculating the average rainfall in the state of New Hampshire, and how that might impact patio deck closure,” de Jong says.
The original plan was for Cabonnay to be located on Mohawk Drive in Londonderry, but when they ran into logistical and construction conflicts with the town, creating delays and compromises, de Jong sought a larger location where he could create something from scratch. He found what he was looking for in Manchester, on the corner of opportunity and innovation, on the cutting edge of a revitalized downtown.
“Somehow in the last 20 years or so we’ve made eating a stand-alone activity. You eat and then you go and have fun with your family, or go and see something. It’s become very sterilized. Why not sit somewhere for two hours, share some memories, walk around, see things, smell things, touch things – that’s what we’re trying to accomplish here, a total sensory experience,” says de Jong.
Philosophically, de Jong sees the main function of the hospitality industry to be, quite simply, hospitable.
“We all have these tense and stressful lives, and whatever your life consists of – all the pressures and demands, the hospitality industry is supposed to relieve that. It’s the No. 1 job of being in the hospitality industry, allow people that ‘time out’ to take a minute to balance all that out, and to relax and unwind. Our primary focus is to deliver that,” says de Jong.
As far as the bricks and mortar of starting a business, de Jong says it’s never easy – there were some aspects of renovating the space that went faster than expected; others that took more time than originally scheduled.
“Our foreman was clear on saying that it would be possible to rush through the final stages of the project to meet a deadline, but that’s often when mistakes happen, so this building will open when it’s right, when we can showcase wine, and when we can entertain people – and when we can graciously host them, and not frustrate them,” says de Jong.
In addition to making sure the “wow factor” is on point, de Jong is also a stickler for staff training – working from a fresh, local menu means taking the time to hire and train a kitchen and waitstaff reflective of what’s most unique about the Cabonnay experience.
He has assembled what he refers to as his Dream Team to lead the way – head chef Chris Viaud, 26, who just won the regional Chaine des Rotisseurs young chef competition held in New York, and will go on to represent the northeast region in Washington, D.C., at the national finals in May; and pastry chef Aurélian Blick, also 26, born in the Champagne region of France and trained in several Michelin star restaurants, including Le Chateaubraind, ranked among the Top 50 restaurants in Paris.
The quest to deliver local cuisine couldn’t be more authentic, beginning with hiring Viaud, a New Hampshire native and Londonderry High School graduate, who trained at Johnson & Wales and then made his way to Boston, where he spent three years at Deuxave, known for its French modern cuisine, and then a stint at Papa Razzi Metro, in Burlington, Mass., as sous chef.
“There comes a time as a chef when you plateau, and I was looking for an opportunity to hone my skills,” Viaud says. “And my wife and I wanted to get back to New Hampshire – we both have family here, and so finding Cabonnay was pretty fateful.”
His personal dream of flexing his creative skills in a kitchen as head chef someplace closer to home has become an unexpected reality. After beating out the stiff competition for the position, Viaud began the task of traveling around regionally connecting with local farms to find the right fit for what he describes as his “simple and honest” contemporary American cuisine – using fresh, local ingredients to innovate dishes with various cultural influences.
Blick got his start in French pastry at 15, working his way up to apprentice and then moving to Paris for more classical training. Like Viaud, his pursuit of technical execution is balanced by the passion he has for the artistry of creating the perfect dish. Blick also found his way to the U.S. and Cabonnay after looking for something with room to grow in other fine-dining hubs, including New York and Chicago. Finding a place where he could take the lead was also a dream come true, says Blick.
“When I learned about the vision of this place, I was convinced that it was for me – I want to be part of bringing that experience, of creating art on a plate,” says Blick.
The young chefs won de Jong over with their passion, which he says lives up to his own.
“This is going to sound a little hocus-pocus, but I’ve always believed that good people who want to achieve good things in life, and want to have similar visions eventually find each other,” de Jong says.
“That sounds more romantic than hocus-pocus,” says Blick with the authority of one with a heavy French accent and a Parisian pedigree.
“I’m not a chef, and will never be, so you need to find chefs who can be part of that environment, and then you need to allow them to become themselves and to perform,” says de Jong, who has developed a musical analogy for what he’s orchestrating in Cabonnay.
“I’m sort of the guy who builds the concert hall, but that doesn’t mean I play violin on Sundays for people. I’ll be here to host, to entertain, to make sure the vision is realized. But I’ve also made it very clear to these guys that we won’t succeed because it’s somebody else’s vision that succeeds. We’ll succeed because their food succeeds, or we’ll fail because it fails,” de Jong says.
But failure is not on the menu.
“Chris’ food is so amazing. He’s been with us for six months, in a start-up restaurant, and I couldn’t be more excited to have him as our opening chef. He’s going to be amazing because I’ve seen his work,” de Jong says. “And the same with Aurélian. I’ve built the performing arts center, now they just have to do their thing. What’s the saying – to find out if someone is truly trustworthy, you have to trust them.”
If delivering the experience is a team effort, Jong is the maestro, and Cabonnay, his opus.
“A building isn’t held up by one post. Each of us is a pillar. Each of us has a supporting role, and if that person isn’t there, the concept is weaker. That’s what makes it so exciting for me. We’re all eager to be original and have our own voice, and allow good people who are incredibly talented to perform their jobs,” de Jong says.
Extending the musical metaphor a bit further, Blick says the mutual respect they have for one another is much like that of one virtuoso to another, each with his own professional mastery on a particular instrument.
“It’s not that any of us thinks we’re perfect, but we each have our specialty, we know exactly what each of us can do, and we respect one another’s talents greatly,” Blick says.
Adds Viaud, “For Aurélian and myself, it’s a pivotal moment in our careers because we’re given the opportunity to express ourselves and put our passion on the plate. To have this kind of creative freedom at such a young age is something we’ve been looking for, and it’s funny enough that we all found it here, in New Hampshire.”
“It’s the orchestra,” says de Jong. “One violin does not make an orchestra. Sometimes a cowbell or triangle makes sense. Chris and Aurélian are the lead musicians, but we will perform and showcase their work,” says de Jong, “and hopefully people appreciate our music.”
Watch for news and updates, including opening date – to be posted in about two weeks – on Cabonnay’s website.
⇒Cabonnay is now hiring for all positions. Click here.