By Mary Yeung
From the minute it opened, Maison Premiere made a big splash with food critics. The New York Times says, it’s better than what it tries to imitate—an old seafood bar in New Orleans. Even hard-to-please New Yorker magazine was smitten, saying lovely things like “pitch perfect” and “Utopian.” Pretty impressive for a new barstaurant in South Williamsburg run by a 26-year-old, what with all the Williamsburg-hipster bashing going on of late.
So what is co-owner Joshua Boissy’s secret? Does he have a billionaire father writing him checks? Is he the son of a local celebrity with great media connections? Actually, neither. Boissy was raised by a single mother who worked all her life as a restaurant and hotel manager. After school, young Boissy, who spent his childhood in New Hampshire, would hang out where his mom worked. “I did little chores for the owners. They’d send me to the basement to get a bag of flour or they’d say, straighten out this shelf. And at the end of the week they might slip me a $20 bill, and that was a big deal for me,” Boissy recalls. He says he did every job in a restaurant. He washed dishes, mopped floors, made pizza dough, anything they asked. When he got a little older, he waited tables. When his mom took a position in Florida, he got a job waiting tables at Nikki Beach Club in Miami. “It’s where the rich and famous go to party. People drop a thousand dollars just on champagne. I’ve never seen anything like it,” he says.
One day he spotted Calvin Klein having dinner with friends, and he was determined to meet him. “Well, everybody always said I ought to be in the modeling business,” he says. “I heard people say if you want to meet a celebrity, you should quietly pay for his dinner and just go up and introduce yourself.”
Well, Boissy didn’t pay for Calvin Klein’s dinner, but he did walk up to the fashion icon as he was leaving the club and introduced himself. “I told him I would like to work for him.” According to Boissy, CK said a quick ‘Hi, how are you’ and walked on by. But one of his managers slipped him a business card and encouraged him to come to New York for a test shoot.
And that was how 18-year-old Boissy ended up in the Big Apple. He quickly found representation at the famed Wilhelmina Modeling Agency. He tried out the fashion modeling life for a couple of years, but decided it wasn’t for him and went back to waiting tables. “I got a job at the Buddha Bar, another amazing place. It had three kitchens and served 1,500 people a night. All kinds of dignitaries and movie stars came through there.”
Around then (2007), he was living in East Williamsburg. A new restaurant had opened on the ground floor of his apartment building, called Le Barricou. The restaurant wasn’t working, and the owner Jean-Pierre Marquet (Marquet Patisserie) was thinking about closing it down, but instead of selling, he offered Boissy a partnership in the business.
“I was like, I don’t have the money to invest in a restaurant, I’m a waiter,” recalls Boissy.
But Marquet said he wouldn’t need much money. The restaurant was already built, all he had to do was manage it—improve it and make it work. So what’s a 22-year-old kid to do when someone offers you a chance of a lifetime? He called his mom in Florida, of course. Mom said, “What have you got to lose? If it doesn’t work out, just go back to waiting on tables like you’re doing now.”
So young Boissy accepted the challenge. To save money, he continued to work as a waiter, but immediately set out to remake Le Barricou into a classic French bistro. “I visited all the French bistros in New York. I bought books on French bistros. I just immersed myself in the subject. He and Marquet flew to Paris to do their research, eating at dozens of French restaurants and visiting vineyards all over the South of France. “That was when I noticed all these absinthe houses in France. They call them Maisons. I knew we had just legalized absinthe in the U.S. and I was thinking we could build a theme bar around that.”
Boissy came back full of ideas. Every few months, he and Marquet spent another few thousand dollars to improve the space, until it had the look of an authentic French bistro. Boissy’s mom flew in to help. Business was picking up. Young professionals were moving into East Williamsburg in droves, enjoying their lovely weekend brunch with a complimentary flaky croissant at Le Barricou. Boissy later hired his friend Krystof Zizka to help manage the place. “Krystof selected bluesy music and micro beers that were appealing to young people. He kind of made the place hip,” says Boissy.
But no matter how many improvements they made at Le Barricou, they were never able to entice food critics to come do a review. “I think they saw it as an old restaurant. I wished we had changed the name,” he says.
“So Maison Premiere is a project born out of frustration. I said to myself, this time I’m going to build something so good that the critics can’t ignore us. I’m going to make it the most beautiful, most interesting bar in town, and they’ll have to come.”
Once the partners decided the theme was going to be New Orleans, they got right to work. Boissy flew to New Orleans to study their bars, while Krystof read everything he could about oysters and lobsters.
“We were pouring over two-dollar used books we got from Amazon, books with black-and-white pictures of old New Orleans bars.” Boissy designed the bar and garden and enlisted the interior design team of John & Kevin McCormick (Moto, Five Leaves) to help bring his vision to life.
The bar, with its bluish mottled walls, century-old sconces, balloon shaped chandeliers with tarnished chain netting, faded paintings, and old photographs, evokes a certain time and place. An etched glass panel serves as a tantalizing backdrop for the circular bar.
Since they knew the cocktail and absinthe program was going to be an important part of the concept, they went around town to sample cocktails from different bars. They found three bartenders they liked and invited them to join the team. Two came, saw the place, and declined. “When they were here, the place wasn’t finished yet. I had to explain to them what it was going to look like,” he says. But Maxwell Britten, from Freemans Restaurant, saw the possibilities and joined the team. Together, the trio came up with a strategy for success.
To get press attention, they decided to advertise as the bar that served the largest variety of oysters in New York. “We have somebody calling the Oyster Bar (Grand Central Station) every day. If they’re serving 31 varieties, we will buy 33; if they’re serving 22, we’ll order 23.” This way Maison Premiere can legitimately claim it has the largest selection. They also tell the press that they’re the bar with the largest selection of absinthe.
To get the public excited, they offer $1 oysters during happy hour (4 to 7). “One dollar for every variety of oysters listed on the menu, not just the cheap ones.” Boissy points out that the $1 oyster happy hour special is not just a grand opening gimmick, they plan to continue it long into the future. “It gets us the crowd and a lot of free press,” he explains.
The restaurant’s pricing structure is very smart, especially for these challenging economic times. You can spend 6 bucks on a beer, plus a few bucks more on oysters during happy hour, or you can spring for a three-tier seafood platter, filled to the brim with fresh lobster, crab legs, oysters, etc., for a mere $140.
Not an oyster fan? They also serve shrimp cocktails and ceviche. Come fall, there’ll be chowders and sandwiches, too.
The indoor space is not very large, but an expansive glass roof is now under construction for the garden, so you’ll be able to enjoy your absinthe and crab claws under a wintry sky.
I said, “Look Joshua, you’re too young, too good looking, too competitive, and too successful. People are going to hate you, so tell me something sad so people can relate.”
“I work 18 hours a day, seven days a week. Equipment is breaking down constantly; all that sand from the oysters is clogging up my drain. Between the two restaurants, I have to manage 70 employees, and the dollar oysters are not exactly making us rich. And all the antiques I have around the restaurant? They are fragile. People bump into them and things get loose. Every morning, I have to check on each piece of furniture and tighten up every loose screw.”
Still, he says, his story is one that can only be written in a city like New York. “One day I’m a waiter; the next day someone hands me the keys to a restaurant.” One day, Boissy is an obscure restaurant owner, the next day; he is reviewed in The New York Times, The New Yorker and Esquire. Maison Premiere was named one of the best bars in America by Esquire, and the world has come calling. Meanwhile, Joshua Boissy walks around town with a wrench and a screwdriver in his back pocket. Poor baby.
298 Bedford Avenue
Williamsburg, Brooklyn 11211