Jonny Boyle is testing out Sticks, his Omakase concept, through a series of acclaimed pop-ups. Inspired by Japanese skewer culture such as yakatori and kushikatsu, he shares his journey to this personal jump-off moment.
“The only way people can experience it, and the only you can learn how to make it better, is to make it and let people in.”
What’s the story of Sticks so far? How did it come about? How long has it been in your brain?
My first job was washing dishes in a tiny kitchen. Ever since then I’ve had a desire to open a restaurant. There was many, welcome, detours outside of food on the journey and, indeed, continue to be, but that feeling never went away. What stopped it was I didn’t have the idea. What could I offer in terms of a menu that felt unique? To be fair, I never worked that hard on the idea, I worked hard at getting better and better in the kitchen and learning all the time from trips, down the road or around the world, whilst waiting for that idea to appear. When the idea hit me after a trip to Japan, I quickly got to work.
I approached it as a culmination of my professional experience and a way to learn new skills. I want to create a globally respected brand (you got to aim big right?), considering every detail from start to finish. The name came first, inspired by how I wanted to both cook and present the food. I sat down with a pencil and some paper and just starting sketching ideas for the sticks and in one go had enough to really feel like there was enough in it. Before I knew it, I had a logo and was doing a test night in our backyard to see what people thought.
You started in a kitchen before going to work for an experiential agency, yet you’ve decided to return to the heat of the kitchen. What was the allure?
To be honest it’s not so much the allure of the kitchen. What I mean by that is I have realised I prefer entertaining people than cooking for them. Don’t get me wrong, I love cooking, but I love restaurants more. It’s the full package. The entire experience: the brand, the design, the hospitality, the learning, the digital and social side of things. All of it.
What makes cooking for crowds so interesting and magnetic for you?
Two things jump to mind straight away. First, the very instant and live reaction to something that began as a thought and you work so hard to make delicious and deliver to the plate. The feedback is instant. On people’s faces and the noises they make individually and collectively.
The second might sound strange, but it’s the calmness and focus of the pressure of being in the kitchen and having 154 plates to bring out. I have a mind that tends to wander, but when you are in a kitchen with the orders coming in, you can really do nothing but focus on that and think of nothing else.
Which came first, Japan or Sticks?
Well Japan definitely came first. The East always had an allure to me, and Japan in particular. I’ll always remember Olan in All City telling me before my first trip back in 2009 that ‘whatever you are into, there is someone in Japan way more into it than you are.’ And it is so incredibly true. Sticks was a culmination of experiences, but it struck me after a meal down on Pontocho in Kyoto when, all of a sudden, the dots joined together. It wasn’t to re-create what I had just eaten. Not at all. What I wanted to do was what the Japanese do so very well. They have taken aspects of western culture and made them better. I wanted to do the reverse of that and take something Japanese, or some things to be more precise, and elevate them to another level.
You have created and designed every element of this from the name and branding to menu to experience people enjoy and more. What have you learned through the process? How have you been as a client?
One thing is that you just have to make it real. And I don’t mean that in some hip-hop street talk kind a way. I mean you actually have to make it. It’s no good as just an idea. The only way people can experience it, and the only way you can learn how to make it better, is to make it and let people in.
A lot of the time you are not sure what decision to make, but you have to make it. And whatever happens, good or bad, just like in the heat of a service in a kitchen, you keep moving forward all the time.
Realising perfection isn’t attainable happens quite quickly. That is quite a Japanese thing, I think. Even the shokunuin, essentially masters of their trade, take someone like Jiro (Jiro Dreams of Sushi), he is still getting up every day pushing on because he knows it’s not perfect and it can be better. So, I guess, the point I’m trying to make is don’t wait for it to be perfect.
In terms of being a client, it’s great to have the same level of ambition and I certainly continue to respect and appreciate that the budget is the budget, and try to work that as hard as possible.
Can you tell us about the evolution and process behind the logo design. There are a number of early iterations on your instagram page.
I wanted the insta page to tell the story of the evolution of sticks. Step one, after the idea itself, was to get about designing the logo. Chris, my brother, and I started to just sketch some out. We both kind of took almost literal takes on it. Or, at least, versions that really took on the form of skewers in their design. Or, things being skewered, as you can see on the insta page. I started researching tall fonts. Then realised using a font like that limited applying it to other elements. So, I ended up just elongating out the t and the k to give the feeling.
I had always been a fan of logos like FedEx, Amazon and Tour de France. And that’s where the final piece of the puzzle came from. Skewered on the k, the two generic rectangles, actually form the Japanese symbol for kushi, which translates as skewers. The end result (after playing around with weights, character spacings, and running it through some basic application tests to see how it looked) was, I think, quite an iconic, almost mnemonic logo that I certainly won’t get tired of seeing.
There are also numerous sketches of the Konro Grill you use on instagram. Which elements were purpose-built for it?
The grill is Japanese and was imported from New York city. They are in incredible product. As is the Japanese way, so much thought and skill goes into making them. You could really get into another article alone on that, but the key thing is the ceramic fabrication; it leaves you with a grill that is easy to start charcoal in, allows the charcoal to burn longer, and gives you a very intense heat if you need it. They are becoming more and more popular in professional kitchens, especially at the Michelin level.
The stands were purpose built for the grill. On the insta you see sketches of this from my brother Chris Boyle, an architect by trade. Not surprisingly then, Chris took the lead on this and ended up steering me down a path, or to be more precise, putting a system in place we can stick to as we grow. No pun intended.
We looked at a lot of designs based on discussions around how we would serve people. Chris ultimately reduced that thinking down so we were left with a design inspired by the classic iron bars used by yakitori chefs that could be easily transported in our current car, so we didn’t need to rent out vans to do our pop ups, keeping our costs down. The key for me though was how he informed the thinking around how everything we make should be something that could ultimately be used in a permanent space. When that happens, there is only one man getting the call to design it for us.
You recently held a number of (sold out) events. What did you learn from the experience? How did it feel to be at the helm? How was it all received?
It felt great to be back in the kitchen for a start. Not to sound like I’m repeating myself, but the biggest learning is that you can always get better, and you have to focus on all the details. A simple example, if you focus too much on the food, you can lose out on the drink experience. That happened to us on the first night. We worked with an incredible supplier, Retrovino & Retrosake, who gave a lot of his time in working with us to create pairings of each course, and we didn’t take people on that journey with us that night. Although, they all enjoyed the drinks, which probably helped the quite amazing feedback we had that night. It’s back to loving restaurants, not just cooking. It’s a joy to see 20 people walk into a space mostly not knowing one another, and leave as mates, even if it’s for one night only, hugging one another saying goodbye.
Your top three dining experiences ever…
Restaurant Sat Bains (Nottingham)
Cignale Enoteca (Tokyo)
What’s next? More pop-ups? Something more permanent? Something completely different?
We have a couple of different iterations of Sticks we’d like to try out in this incubation phase. So, expect more omakase style tasting menus like we have been doing. But also expect to see us turning up with more of a street food offering, and different plays on menu and drinks formats.
The ultimate aim is a place we can call our own, but our model is to very much take baby steps to get there so that we have a solid foundation to begin with.
Then, we can open you up to what else you have planned in our long-term vision; Stones, Plates… but that’s for another day.
Your death row dinner, served with a drink…
Chateaubriand with Bearnaise, skinny fries and a neat glass of 20yo Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve.
Words: Richard Seabrooke
Photos: Phil Boyle