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The Most Popular Restaurant that Doesn't Exist

Chef Sean O’Donnell and his virtual cuisine

Sean O’Donnell may have pulled the biggest fast-one in recent Rochester culinary memory. O’Donnell has established a new, niche restaurant that has piqued the hungry interest of hundreds in Rochester. But he’s never served a single patron. That’s because The Bistro at Hotel Normandie only exists on Instagram. For now.

“I started Flour City Foodcore—a failed food-blog-turned-video-showcase of the culinary arts in Rochester—with (creative partner and videographer) Alex Freeman. Whether it’s me cooking at home or showing a food truck that’s doing something kinda out-of-the-box, like the girls at Eat Me Ice Cream. It’s just something we thought people should see.

“Alex and I were roommates in an apartment in the old Hotel Normandie (Alexander and Tracy streets). After a couple episodes of Flour City Foodcore, I started tagging ‘The Bistro at the Hotel Normandie’ as the location in a few of my IG pics as a joke. Like, ‘I cooked this at the Bistro.’”

Before we go on, it’s important to know a bit about O’Donnell’s culinary background. With no formal training, he left a brief career in teaching and spent hours in the library researching and studying the art of food. He worked his way up from part-time cook to full-time, honing his craft at Max and then under the mentorship of chef Paul Vroman at Aunt Rosie’s, before making a stop at Char and then rejoining Vroman at Next Door as a Wegmans chef/line cook, where he is now.

It didn’t take long for people to take notice of O’Donnell’s food appearing at a new location, since many friends knew he was at Next Door and were surprised by the new gig.

“I decided to run with it, staying as a spoof of sorts, but stepping up our game with well-lit pictures and styled presentations as if my dishes were from a restaurant,” he says. “I would write fake menus or tease rough drafts that would be ‘going live at The Bistro.’” And the buzz just kept on growing.

But what’s interesting, beyond the beautifully prepared dishes, fantastic presentation, and bourgeoning following of food lovers, is that his fake restaurant has a ready-made history.

“The Hotel Normandie was really ritzy, and it did have a high-end restaurant downstairs, The Budapest. My girlfriend’s mother actually had dinner there in the ’60s. Between the history and what’s left of the actual physical architecture, it was the perfect combination to be able to perpetuate the Bistro story. Eventually, people started seeking out the building and restaurant inside.”

Looking to take it to the next level in the next couple months, O’Donnell’s idea is to post a menu and say “we have two seats left, or four seats left,” projecting the illusion of an extremely sought-after and exclusive dining experience. Those fortunate enough to reply in time would then be treated to a chef-prepared meal at the chef’s table in the chef’s home.

“My goal is to have my own kitchen or open my own restaurant.”

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To get there, beyond this intimate micro-restaurant foray, he is in talks with a couple established restaurants about starting a ramen pop-up—handmade ramen (from scratch, kids) being one of the staple dishes on his fake menus—as the next step in further introducing himself to the public and expanding his culinary reputation (much like Ugly Duck did with its coffee before hanging its shingle on Charlotte Street).

“My taste or style leans toward casual and rustic while still using fine-dining methods. I like simple food and traditional food and believe you can have one menu that has six or eight countries’ influence on it. I really like cooking vegetables, so the menus are very vegetable-driven. And, of course, I have gluten-free and vegan options.” While some items may be static, his menu would change a few times within a season, drawing on whichever cultural influence he’s enjoying at the time.

When the move from virtual to actual happens though, one other change will be the name. “Since this started, we’ve had to move. Unfortunately, we got beat-out for renewing our lease. So the name is changing to ‘The Treetop at the Crescent.’ Going from a more upscale environment at the Normandie, to a more relaxed bar/restaurant feel.” A move that seems to suit his brick-and-mortar vision much better.

“Ultimately, I want to meld the Japanese izakaya (or gastropub) feel with a Spanish tapas restaurant feel. The sort of place that you would go after work, have some beers, and eat really good food, whether you stay for snacks, a full dinner, or tasting menu.”