Sometimes a chef’s best friend is someone who isn’t a fellow chef.
In the case of Bobby and Ysha Bass, owners of MESA: A Collaborative Kitchen, it’s actually two best friends; the couple doesn’t have prior restaurant experience, but they’re running one of the area’s hottest new dining spots in downtown New Albany. And it’s benefiting other restaurants.
Diners at MESA get to watch area chefs prepare their meal in the uniquely designed kitchen that is overlooked by a 24-seat bar. People in the “audience” can ask chefs as they work what type of ingredients they’re using, what type of cuisine it is. They can ask what the chef had for breakfast, if they want to.
“What we wanted to do is just bring the community together and build a platform for all these chefs,” Ysha says. “We wanted to have place where we can knock down that wall between the dining room and kitchen.”
Mission accomplished. Bobby estimates 100 different chefs have worked in the MESA (“mesa” is Spanish for “table”) kitchen since it opened just over a year ago, be it the private dinners or lunches or at other special events held in the space.
“We thought, with this platform, these chefs can really start to develop those relationships and pull people back to their restaurants,” he said.
Both Ysha and Bobby say that many of these chefs have reported meeting people during a MESA dinner, only to see those people in their restaurant later. Some of them become regulars. Regardless, it works not only as a fun, interactive meal in real time, but also something that has tentacles throughout the dining scene.
The Basses, interestingly, are in real estate. Neither one ever considered being a chef, and neither one has extensive restaurant experience. Bobby did spend a two-month stint as a server at Cheddar’s many years ago when the couple’s marriage was young. It was during the Christmas holiday rush.
“We were strapped, and my wife is big on ‘everyone gets a present,’ ” he says. “It was very difficult and I was possibly the worst server they ever had. It was very, very difficult work.”
Ysha, meanwhile, grew up cooking with her mother, who makes everything from scratch and always has. She knows how difficult and painstaking it can be to prepare food the right way. These experiences give both of the Basses plenty of appreciation for what chefs do.
“I have a lot of respect for all these chefs because they really have to have a lot of passion to do what they do,” Ysha says. “They put their life into their restaurants. It’s very competitive, too. There are just so many options.”
So, when someone comes in to dine at MESA, it’s almost like they’re having dinner with the chef. They are greeted at the door by MESA’s general manager, who also is Ysha’s father and a partner in the business.
The first portion of the evening is a cocktail hour during which they can socialize with other guests or shop in the adjoining retail space, which stocks everything from books on food to locally made food products to cookware, so you can try your hand at cooking like the chefs.
When dinner begins, the chef is announced, and the first course of the meal is served. While the chef prepares course two, he or she can talk to patrons about the ingredients, the flavors — whatever diners want to talk about, basically.
Taking a deeper dive, one notices that the kitchen is similar to, well, any kitchen you might see in any home. There are a pair of stainless steel ovens, a stainless steel fridge, cabinets with glassware, a counter top and a sink. That’s by design.
“We wanted to give chef a chance to cook in place where they feel comfortable,” Bobby says, “and to make the guests also feel at home. Commercial equipment is quite ugly compared to residential.”
When the couple aren’t running both of their businesses, they’re hanging out with their two kids or spending time with family. Of course, while they aren’t chefs, they are foodies, so they have their favorite spots around town. Ysha quickly mentions Israel’s Delicias de Mexico, while Bobby agrees that Mexican cuisine is a family favorite, particularly Con Huevos!, but adds, “We love Fat Lamb.”
Of course, their favorite restaurant has to be their own. It wouldn’t be surprising if a lot of chefs around town agree with them.
“These people are very kind people,” Ysha says of the chefs they work with. “The community has embraced us so much even though were not restaurateurs or chefs — but they treat us like we are. The chefs are so nice, it’s just a wonderful community. And it’s so much nicer going out to eat [at their restaurants], because you know the money is going to feed their families or help their business grow.”
“The whole beauty of this is really to help the local businesses,” Bobby says. “These guys are working their tails off and they’ve got families. That’s something special to us. It was the right thing to do, and it’s been a real honor to get to know the people in this industry.
“They’re the real stars of the show; we created the stage, if you will.”