Indiana native Allison C. Cooke didn't necessarily plan to move to Washington, D.C. after graduating, but her husband, whom she met as a college student at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, was from the area, so it seemed like a natural fit for them to move back. Her first job out of school was at a large international firm, where she did corporate interiors and government work, but yearning for a smaller office—"where I could have more input and affect change a little bit more"—she joined the D.C.-based design firm CORE at the tail end of 2007.
Cooke, 34, is now CORE's director of hospitality design, a role that catapults her from marketing brainstorms and client meetings to concepting sessions with her team and "sitting down to just sketch and draw myself." "A lot of what I'm doing now is finding myself mentoring some of the even younger staff and bringing them up, and that's really gratifying," Cooke says, mentioning CORE's "very egalitarian, collaborative atmosphere."
With nearly a dozen projects under her belt so far, Cooke has already made quite an impact on the city's restaurant scene. "Allison has designed a number of high-profile projects in D.C., and her spaces are all very unique and different from each other," says Eater DC editor Missy Frederick. "I'm always interested to hear the backstory on how she approaches a particular project—she clearly does her research and looks for historical inspiration; for example, how Del Campo's design relates to the estancia homes of South America. Restaurants like Minibar/Barmini, with its cactus couch and gold accents, as well as older places like Founding Farmers, are talked about as much for their interiors as they are for their cuisine, and that's a testament to the impact of Allison's work."
Q&A With Allison C. Cooke
Obviously one can decide to become a residential designer, or work on institutions or commercial spaces. What appeals to you about hospitality design?
I just love that every project is so vastly different. You learn so much on each job—the personality of the owner, or the operator, or the chef, really comes through. Also, being able to go there after it's open, as opposed to the corporate interiors projects I was doing earlier in my career, when you're creating a great office but you can't really take your friends back and watch them enjoy it or appreciate the environment you've created. I also really like the technical aspect of hospitality design. With restaurant design specifically, there's so much that needs to go into the flow of the operation of the restaurant and how much the guest is involved in that interaction—how much they see and how much the chef doesn't want them to see really needs to be orchestrated.
Can you talk about a few specific technical challenges?
I'll use one of my favorite projects I've worked on as an example: Pearl Dive Oyster Palace and Black Jack bourbon bar (below). It was a dual concept within one building and there were a lot of technical challenges related to that project. It was an old, dilapidated building on the 14th Street corridor of D.C., where all the restaurants are opening up, and it used to be an old [Ford] Model T warehouse back in the day. The chef/owner [Jeff Black] purchased the building, so we had to completely rehabilitate the building, and think in particular how you get the kitchen flow to work on a two-story concept, especially two different concepts or brands that are owned by the same chef. Pearl Dive was an oyster concept where you wanted to see the oyster bar and have that be in the front-of-house, but then it was a question of: how would you expedite the food from the kitchen and give them a connection to the upstairs space in order to get food up to guests on the second level?
The flow of expediting and kitchen placement isn't something every diner will think about. When you go to restaurants for fun now, are bad design decisions always sticking out to you?
That biggest thing I notice is that connection to the kitchen. If the chef wants you to see them on stage, it's great, but you have to control the view. It's really bad when you look back and you see the back-of-house and it's, like, fluorescent lighting. Lighting is one of those huge, huge things for restaurant design. If you want to see the cooking, you want to make the cooking look sexy, not completely sterile. For the Founding Farmers location in D.C. (below), the client hammered it home that there needs to be no bad seat in the restaurant. So you would go through and say, OK, if i'm sitting here, what am I seeeing, what's the activity, who's passing me, how are things getting expedited from the kitchen, what's the guest experience going to be like? So when you put yourself in the space as a diner from every angle, that's what helps me focus and imagine what the experience is going to be like.
So you actually went and sat in every seat?
No! But when you're doing the space planning, you sit there and you visualize. You say, OK, I'm looking at the bar but I'm also seeing the entrance into the bar, and I'm staring at the floor mats in the back bar. At that point, we'll have to put in a flip door or a gate or something. It's all about imagining yourself in that spot and addressing all these little things down to the details that would add to a guest's experience and not detract from it.
Assuming that "there needs to be no bad seat in the restaurant" is not every chef or restaurateur's credo, are there other principles that guide all of your work—rules of hospitality design, if you will—regardless of location, size, or aesthetic?
Yeah, I think so: you want to create a memorable experience for everyone who walks through the door. Our process is the same, no matter the client's goals, tastes, or concepts. Stylistically you see such a range among all our projects, but they all start out the same way. We'll have a visioning session with the client and whomever they want involved in creating what they want this concept to be; we'll sit down and talk about what inspired them to open this resturant concept, what images or places they've seen that they want to share. It's a dialogue back and forth for the first couple of weeks to get on the same page. From there we're taking them through the next steps, like drawings and floor plans. I would say the process is what holds everything together and creates a strong restaurant design, even though the concepts are different.
Given how varied restaurants can be, what kind of design are you personally drawn to?
Things that get me really excited about design are getting into beautiful, old historic spaces and thinking about how one can design around that. That always gives me a lot of inspiration. With Potenza, that was really inspiring to work in this historic D.C. building; with Pearl Dive and Black Jack, as I said earlier, it was this dilapidated old building and it was inspiring to peel away that layer.
Also, I personally draw inspiration from the people I work with and I get excited about the process as part of collaborating with them. So much of our office has this young energy and we collaborate so well together. It's always all of us seeing what's out there and keeping tabs on different projects opening up and reporting back, even if it's on, like, the detail on the leg of a chair.
Chair legs! What other details like that have you geeked out about?
Oh my gosh, there are so many random little things. I'll give you a couple of examples, because every concept is so different. When we did this [recently shuttered] Irish gastropub called Againn, we were modernizing the idea of a gastropub and making it look very clean and sleek with some nod to historic detailing. One of the things we wanted to represent was the idea of a fox hunt, so we actually did these custom molded acrylic fox heads. They were black and very modern, but it was still the idea of these little fox heads on the wall. We worked for a couple of months with an artist to get these things perfect and they cast them. At Founding Farmers—it's never a dull moment here at CORE!—during construction administration we had cloud light fixtures, and the lighting installer couldn't figure how to install them. So I was literally on a 30-foot ladder fluffing clouds, I was like, this is my job. On Pearl Dive, I'm finding myself searching for cast-iron mermaids to put on a shelf. Actually, the graphic designer whom we worked with for Pearl Dive and Black Jack: we came up with this notion of a tatooed lady that was going onto the barfront (below), so it was a question figuring out how to take what was a digital graphic and apply it to the front of the bar, how to take a print method but make it look like it was hand-drawn. Also in that same project, at the bottom of the stairs there's a medallion in the floor (below)—that's their bar icon—which is a monkey holding a cocktail. That was kind of the same thing: how do we get this printed on the floor and make it look like it's been there forever. So it's like: monkeys, mermaids, clouds. You just never know.
I know Founding Farmers earned LEED recognition. Do you think the idea of green building is something you're going to do more and more?
Both of the Founding Projects projects we did—the D.C. location was the first LEED-gold certified restaurant in the city, and one of the first in the country, and that was one of the first restaurant projects I ever designed when I came to CORE. And then we did the second location in Potomac, Md., that is also LEED-certified. We've got a restaurant we're working on now where the landlord is requiring it to be LEED-certified. It's going to be another interesting one: a Swiss Alps-themed restaurant very close to the Washington Nationals ballpark.
So yes, I think people are very aware of it now, even if they don't know what it means to be LEED-certified, they're like, Oh yes, LEED. But for us it's just a smarter way of designing. Of course, a lot of our restaurant clients in particular don't have the budget to apply for the certification, but we're doing a lot of high-efficiency lighting and Energy Star equipment in the kitchen. So there are a lot of factors that we'll pursue even if they're not pursuing LEED, just as a responsible design approach. In D.C., a lot of new government office projects are required to meet LEED certification, so I think there's a higher awarenes of it, in our city at least, from a design standpoint.
What trends in D.C. restaurant design have you seen emerge during your years at CORE, whether that's from a size/layout/capacity or decor/furnishings perspective, or all of the above?
Before the economic downturn, we saw much larger projects around 8,000 square feet. Then the focus shifted to casual and quick-service concepts that were around 3,000 square feet. Now the size and scale are increasing again, with the smaller projects still holding strong. We are also seeing huge interest from hotel brands that want to create a chef-driven identity for their in-house restaurants. Authenticity is a common thread among all of these. I think the aesthetic will start to shift from the rustic industrial to something more contemporary and organic.
The D.C. scene has changed so much in the last 10 years. Our city's cosmopolitan food culture was really nurtured by chefs like José Andrés. We recently collaborated with his team to complete Minibar (above) and Barmini, which are sister molecular gastronomy concepts. He still sees D.C. as his home base, even though he is a food leader worldwide. Likewise, Jeff Black is a leading D.C. restaurateur who continues to create new concepts that adapt to changing appetites. So, Jose Andrés and Jeff Black have paved the way for younger local and celebrity chefs who are emerging with new concepts in our city, like Chef Victor Albisu, whose new South American grill concept [Del Campo, (below)] I recently completed. It's thrilling to see someone so young and passionate start something so new and exciting. I really enjoy working with up-and-coming chefs because I hope that our careers grow in parallel and turn into long-term partnerships.
After doing all these restaurants and bars do you have any desire to do residential work?
It's funny that you ask that; my husband is a residental architect and he's just recently started his own firm. It's really cool to watch him starting his own thing, and the personalities of the clientele is similar to that of the restaurant world—it is so much of them and that needs to reflect in the design. But yeah, we're actually doing a residential project right now for a chef—I can't say who it is—but he is actually doing in the backyard a big grilling/smoking outdoor kitchen. For us that was an interesting twist to take this restaurant knowledge and merge it with a residential scale. So we're in the midst of designing that right now.
What's it like for you as a young person in this industry? Are there older-generation hospitality designers whose work you particularly admire?
I look for inspiration everywhere, rather than trying to emulate one established designer or trend. Trends change so quickly that it's all about adapting and staying ahead of what clients can find themselves. Right now, I'm very inspired by the idea of warm-but-austere spaces that are super clean—just a touch above minimalism—but have richness and texture. I admire Joseph Dirand's Monsieur Bleu as a strong example of that. I also take a lot of inspiration from furniture and product-design details that can inspire an entire project language.
What's your dream project?
A boutique hotel would be really amazing. If we got our hands on this ground-up, smaller-scale hotel, you could really touch every detail. And even if it wasn't a ground-up project, taking an old thing and rehabilitating it and translating that into a boutique hotel would be really incredible. That's what I would like to do next, and if we got that opportunity that would be pretty fantastic.