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The Refectory Celebrates 40th Anniversary

Rebecca Wagner Rebecca Wagner The Refectory Celebrates 40th AnniversaryPhoto by Walker Evans.
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Implore a seasoned Columbus bon vivant what comes to mind when they think ‘fine dining’ – The Refectory will likely be their hair-trigger response.

From the exterior, The Refectory is unassuming; tucked off of Bethel Road in an 1840s-era church. Make no mistake though – the restaurant has been a staple in Columbus’s upscale dining scene for the past four decades. Manning the kitchen helm is Lyon-born Chef Richard Blondin, who studied under renowned French chef Paul Bocuse. Blondin has distinguished The Refectory with his signature blend of classic French cooking and contemporary American cuisine over the years.

A refectory is by definition a dining hall in a religious or educational institution, stemming from the Latin word ‘reficere’ – a place one goes to be restored or renewed. Fitting, for a restaurant that aims to gastronomically renew guests with impeccable service, wild game menus, and an award-winning 700+ bottle wine cellar.

I sat down with longtime Refectory Owner and CEO Kamal Boulos for a glimpse into the history and future of The Refectory and its role in the Columbus dining scene.

Q: Give me a brief rundown of the history of The Refectory.

A: We’ve been open for 40 years this year, and I’ve been here 39 of those years. I managed it for two different partnership entities, one for three years and one for ten, then became the owner 25 years ago. During that time, it’s evolved from a 60-seat restaurant to a 150-seat restaurant with two banquet rooms and an outdoor patio. It’s evolved quite a bit in terms of size, and the evolution of the wine program – I think we were the first and only restaurant in Ohio to receive the Wine Spectator Grand Award in 1991. We’re the only restaurant in Columbus to have received the AAA Four Diamond award for the last 22 years. The last several years, were were rated among the top 100 restaurants in the country by OpenTable, and the top 25 restaurants in the country by Zagat for service.

The thing that’s made this entire journey evolution possible has been really the continuity of key staff. Our business manager Sandra Losco has been here since 1979. Our general manager, excluding a five-year hiatus, has also been here since 1979. He’s the architect of our wine list. Our chef, Richard Blondin, has been with us since 1992. He’s from Lyon, France. We’ve been very fortunate to have key staff stay in this role for a long time – it’s really sort of evolved as a restaurant not just in terms of our cuisine, which our chef elevated to a really high level that’s unmatched, but also to elevate and evolve in terms of our service and wine program.

Q: How do you think Columbus’s culinary scene has evolved over the years, and how has The Refectory responded to that change? 

A: Well, we’re a fine dining restaurant, and when I think when we first opened, there were very few menus in the city that were really interesting and above the tradition of a ‘meat and potatoes’ type of menu. Today, Columbus is much more culinarily diverse than ever. There’s a lot of really great restaurants doing amazing things, or, I should say, really interesting things.

Refectory has responded in a number of different ways. We put in place a bistro menu some years ago, a three-course menu for $25 that changes every week or two. It’s quicker, lighter fare that’s been very popular. I think we were one of the first restaurants to really develop a network of local farmers, though we’re not necessarily known for that in the same way that other restaurants sort of trumpet ‘local.’ We have a lot of local farmers and local produce and a network of people who supply the chef. We’ve always been very proud of that.

Today, one of our more popular events is a wine tasting where you get to sample 10 wines for $10. We’ve also over the years developed a dinner music series, where we have a four-course dinner and a show, either jazz or a ProMusica string quartet Columbus symphony, or even an Opera Columbus event. We’ve created reduced prices for happy hour at the bar, small plates menu for $6 at the bar, so those kinds of things are clearly a nod to a sort of causal aspect of dining out that maybe are different than a traditional sit-down multi-course dinner. Other ways the chef has kept the menu interesting for our guests and staff is creating what we call the First Friday menu. where each month he cooks a four-course set menu in honor of a historic French chef.

Q: Do you think the shift has been more towards casual fine dining over the years versus sitting down for multiple courses at a time?

A: Well, I think the number of courses is totally up to the guest. It’s not something we mandate by any means. You can go to a fine dining restaurant and have an experience that doesn’t dictate as many courses as you might often think, it just depends what you’re in the mood for. I think for us, the casual bent, if you will, is more geared towards the bistro menu. That’s what we do to create more casual fare. But I think our dining room menu it a bit more elaborate in its presentation, takes a lot of attention to detail in terms of just the way the plate is orchestrated, the different flavors, the techniques that go into a dish like that – there’s really no shortcuts.

Q: Tell me about the process that goes into developing seasonal menus, creating and selecting what you’re going to serve?

A: The chef networks with the vendors, and then begins the process of seeing what he thinks is good for the season – availability, stability of availability sometimes is a factor. It’s a process he goes through several times a year. Even though Richard been working here for 24 years, with all the multiple menus that we put out, he’ll do something I’ve never seen him do before. He did a lot of his training with Paul Bocuse in Lyon.

Q: Have there been any dishes that have been on the menu steadily since you’ve opened?

A: Not all 40 years, but once a year we bring dishes back from our very beginnings in 1976 and present those for people to enjoy. There’ve been items that’ve been on the menu since our chef’s been here, and some of those we can’t take off. One is the creme brulee, which is the original Paul Bocuse presentation; when he first re-introduced creme brulee to the world in 1983, our chef was his pastry chef. It’s the original. The other’s the warm pear tart – that we couldn’t possibly take off. Other dishes might be the Dover sole that we bone at the table, the rack of lamb, things like that.

Q: Who have been some of the chefs featured on the First Friday menus?

A: Oh my. Some are well-known, some are pretty obscure. I can’t even begin to name them all, to be honest with you. There’s probably not a French chef you can name that hasn’t been featured at one point in time – we’ve been doing it maybe seven or eight years.

Business Development Director, David Cotter: What we’ve seen grow, to touch back on your former question, is the private dining aspect. It doesn’t have to be a corporate event. We had maybe six people that wanted private space, so they went down to my wine room and it was a special chef-created menu. Those are experiences we offer here that aren’t really advertised, but it’s the subtleties and the guest relations-type thing we do here at Refectory. You can have  a stand-up reception in our choir loft for 50 people. Kamal does a wonderful wine presentation that includes what happens when you include salt and apples, and how does it change the wine. There’s many things we do beyond regular dining.

Q: So you try to introduce more of an educational aspect, if it’s what the guest wants? 

A: With private events, we’re very creative. That can go from a more traditional sit-down dinner working from our banquet menu, to creating a menu specifically for you. It could be a surprise menu,  stand-up hors d’ouvres selection, or a wine and food pairing presentation. It all depends what you’re trying to accomplish. We do that in-house, we do that at people’s homes, the chef will go to someone’s home and personally prepare dinner. There’s a wide variety of things we do that are beyond just coming into the restaurant and having dinner. Sometimes, people come into the dining room and they’ll ask the server or myself in advance or on the spot to surprise them with a three- or five-course menu based on their tastes and preferences.

Q: What do you think have been the largest changes you’ve seen over the years at The Refectory? You’ve been here since the beginning and have gone through different roles. What role did you have when you first started?

A: I was an assistant manager for about 9 months, then I became the general manager for the next 13 years. After that, I became the owner for the last 25 years. In terms of evolving, the largest change has been the ability of us to evolve and be very creative with the types of events we do, as well as creative with respect to the menus and the way we serve our guests. That’s been different than just staying in the same path, if you will, that we were doing when we first started out. I think the other thing is that we try to be really very sensitive and understanding to what the theme or occasion is here when you’re dining with us, and really try to create an experience that accomplishes what someone’s trying to accomplish with respect to an event, or exceeding expectations.

Over the years, the single biggest thing that sort of made our business different was technology.  Years ago we’d write down those reservations we took by phone in a notebook for that day, now that’s on a table management system that can tell us when you last dined and where you were seated. We can enter data into that that may let us know what you liked about that experience. You know, technology certainly has had it’s pluses for us. But on the other hand, it also beckons us to be much more responsive, quickly, to when people want information. The pluses far outweigh the minuses, in terms of information we can extend to our guests, information we can gather, and the way we communicate and connect with our guests.

Q: What’s it been like seeing the development of a Yelp! page for The Refectory?

A: Well, you know, everybody is now a critic. That can be positive or negative – like a double-edged sword, I suppose. It can certainly impact the business. We don’t walk on water, and we’re going to make mistakes. When we make them, it would be nice for us to be given the opportunity to rectify and make it right.  We’re very grateful to have a great reputation on most of those sites, but it does take lots of time for us to respond, and to do our best to communicate in a manner that hopefully restores the relationship. Ultimately, it’s a relationship that we, as a business, care about your dining experience.

Q: What do you think sets The Refectory apart the most from other fine dining restaurants in Columbus?

A: I think without question, with all due respect to others in the community, we have the best chef in the city. I think we have the most talented chef I’ll ever work with in my entire life. His food is amazing – I would say that to you if I didn’t work here. I’ve dined in some of the best restaurants in the country and the world, and his food is just unbelievable.

We really try to create a sanctuary, a place where you can dine, relax. You can hear one another, you can have conversation, and you can enjoy an unhurried sense of the experience at a pace of dining that’s different than anywhere else. I think we bring also a certain level of attentive service that’s unlike other places. Our service training is very, very lengthy. It’s six to eight weeks, and not everyone that we hire that goes through training will be assured a job. We have a pretty serious investment in our service staff. I think we have the most knowledgable staff in the city when it comes to food and wine. We’re very excited to be able to orchestrate and present everything to the guests that come here that hopefully exceeds their expectations.

Q: Do you have any staff that’s been here for over a decade with how lengthy the training process is?

A: Well, from 1981 until 2000, half of our dining room staff had been here an average of 15 years. Today, we still have someone on staff who’s been here since 1981. During that time, he’s gotten a master’s degree, taught school, gotten married, raised a family, retired from his school job, and is still here one or two days a week. The reason that we have that type of longevity with some of our staff is there’s two things that we’re looking for when we hire someone. Firstly, a real desire and passion to pursue excellence in what they do. They’re going to learn more about food, and they’re going to learn more about wine than we’ll ever teach them. More important than the knowledge is how you apply it — either in a manner that elevates the experience for the guests and people you’re working with, or in a way that wreaks havoc. The other sort of magical ingredient, if you will, is aligned values. Those values suggest to us as a business that we want to approach our relationships with our guests and one another with ‘what can we give to those relationships?’ Not ‘what’s in it for me?’

If we have aligned values and people that care, then we find a way to work through the seasons of life. If you were on our staff and wanted to cut down to one day a month from a full-time position, we would say yes. The people that do a great job are the people that we work through those different cycles, different phases in our life. We continue to work together, and that’s why this gentleman’s been here since 1981, because he reflects those things. We have aligned values, he pursues excellence, he applies his excellence in a way that elevates the experience. That’s what keeps people here, hopefully, for a long period of time.

Q: Tell me a little more about the development of the wine cellar over the past forty years.

A: It all started out in 1982, with a metal locker of 12 bottles. We had 40 wines on our wine list, and I said to Jeff Elasky, our manager who’s been here since that time who’s shared the journey with us, “this is the beginning of our wine cellar.” We began to build it, little by little, and we’d be here until one or two in the morning many nights talking about wine, thinking about wine, researching and learning about wine, and I started off knowing a lot more than he did. Now he knows a lot more than I do. I took the wine cellar to a certain level, and he took it to the next. He’s the one who really won us the grand award – the one who really put the thought and effort into understanding the breadth and depth and scope of what it took.

We were frankly shocked that we won that award, but it was really a confirmation of what we were doing. You start with the white wines, then move into the reds, then into different regions of the world, then you look at your list and recognize it’s a bit disjointed. Over time, you bring a certain sort of depth and breadth to this list. We were submitting the list every year, and the year we won it we were just incredibly shocked that here we were – this restaurant in Ohio and Columbus that had a world-class wine list and wine cellar.

We didn’t start off as if we knew what we were doing. In fact, I came back from visiting a restaurant in Cincinnati, the Maisonette. They’d buy a huge position in a few wines, and they never had a large number of selections (maybe 100, maybe less), but they had these gems they would always pull out of their cellar. They’d buy 150 cases of one wine, and have it on the list for years. I came back with that vision in my mind and though ‘yeah, that’s a great idea, I’ll do that.” We only had 40 wines on our entire list, and I bought 60 cases of wine. I mean, that’s crazy! I should’ve bought 60 cases of 60 different wines. Diversify, right? It turned out if was this sort of tour de force, because what happened is as we were building the wine cellar, we put that bottle of wine on our list for $22 a bottle. It was retailing for $18, so it was a great value. We held it back one or two years in the cellar. By the time we put it on our wine list, you couldn’t find it in any more retail stores. By the time we got to the end of those 60 cases, we were selling it for $110 a bottle while the winery was selling it for $125 a bottle. We were the lowest price in the country. It was sort of dumb luck, but it taught me a very important lesson in the value of selling wines and how they can appreciate like crazy. You don’t plan for that. It’s one of those things you sort of back into and discover, and as you learn more, you realize okay, there are some things that I can purchase, and I don’t have to be concerned about devaluing that product over time. In fact, it will likely increase in value over time. There’s very few things I can buy in the restaurant I can say that about. In fact, there’s nothing I can say that about! So that makes you encouraged to not be afraid of taking the path of offering a much greater number of selections. It does take a huge amount of time, energy, and resources to manage and build it. But again, that’s one of those things that sets us apart.

Q: How many bottles do you have in the cellar right now?

A: At our crest in this journey, we probably had 20,000 – 25,000 bottles in inventory, and probably over 1,100 in the selection. Now we probably have less than half of that, because we couldn’t continue to sustain and build it. We still have a large number of selections — 700 to 800 — but not nearly as many bottles in inventory.

Q: What’s the oldest selection you have right now?

A: I think we have a 1955 or ’59 Chateau Mouton.

Q: How many regions does your cellar usually represent? Does it fluctuate, or do you have certain ones you focus on?

A: I think we have a good depth in the French and domestic selections. Beyond that, we’ll always have a few things from certain wine regions of the world that are significant. We’ll have some Italy, some from South America. Whatever Jeff finds that’s noteworthy from a particular region, we’ll typically represent it in one capacity or another.

Q: What do you see for The Refectory going forward?

A: We’re continuing to evolve our dinner music series and our catering. The ability for the chef and myself to create a special menu for somebody in their home, that sort of thing. We’re continuing to evolve our patio, and the types of menus and events we can get out there. Our wine programs are constantly evolving to incorporate different types of wine tastings. We try to do things in a very creative way that makes them as cost-effective as we can make it. The chef is always exploring with respect to pushing the parameters of this cuisine. I think The Refectory is going to continue to be a destination and a place that’s integrating itself into the community, supporting the community with non-profits. Hopefully the way we present fine dining and set ourselves apart will continue to be a very integral part of the Columbus dining scene.

Q: How long was the original church here before The Refectory came in?

A: The church in actual physical structure was built in the 1850s. It was a church until the 1960s. It sat vacant for a few years before becoming a restaurant in 1976.

Q: Have you had to do many renovation updates in these years?

A: Most of what the guests will see is part of the historical structure. We added an upstairs banquet room that seats about 50. That was added in 1983, but we tried to give it sort of the same architectural feel that the rest of the building has. We physically added a kitchen, as well.

Q: Are you doing anything special to celebrate the 40th anniversary?

A: We’re doing a number of different initiatives that are still in the working stages right now. We’re getting the word out, as well as planning different events in the next few months, and we’re also evolving our email guest list because all of the events are exclusively through our email guest list. If guests are not on our email guest list and they join for the first time, we send them a gift certificate to come in and enjoy the restaurant. That is going to be very soon, and reflective of our 40th anniversary.

For more information, visit www.refectory.com.

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