It is perhaps the strangest news to hit the New York food world since the coronavirus. Mere hours after Pete Wells, the New York Times restaurant critic, raved that Outerspace was “the restaurant of the summer,” it closed its doors in East Williamsburg, with the general manager and a trio of chefs announcing they had quit.
It was a brief, strange ride for a restaurant that opened in the summer of 2020, just as the city was trying to claw its way out of the first wave of the pandemic. Molly McIver and Wells Stellberger, who had backgrounds in art and fashion, respectively (but none in food-and-beverage operations), decided to take advantage of their under-used outdoor event space called 99 Scott. They filled the patio with swaying potted plants, umbrellas, and bamboo-thatched booths.
The place had a pop-up feel—giving it, ironically, an exciting, fleeting atmosphere—driven by a chef-in-residence format that brought three virtuosic chefs into the kitchen: Anthony Ha and Sadie Mae Burns, who specialize in Vietnamese cooking, and Chinchakriya Un, who specializes in Cambodian cooking.
The trio, along with general manager Ross Warren (spouse to Un), set out to blend the flavors of Southeast Asia from a plywood kitchen. They churned out seafood masterpieces, painstakingly sourced Vietnamese and Cambodian herbs rare even to New York, and cooked it all over wood-fired grills that filled the space and food with a uniquely warm feel—not just at the tables but in the kitchen.
Instagram posts from the chefs show a jovial if scrappy vibe. On June 29, a week before the review appeared, Ha posted a series of photos of the smiling cook staff, piled over each other about the restaurant, alongside a caption reading, “Truly still in awe that y’all keep coming week after week, what a feeling!! This shit is haaaard (extremely hard!!!!)… Just so lucky to have a team filled with much love & joy.”
The restaurant so impressed Pete Wells that, in his July 6 review, he admitted to taking full advantage of the paper’s requirement (currently suspended due to the pandemic) that a restaurant cannot be reviewed until it has been operational for at least eight weeks. He also gave it a review any chef would kill for, citing dishes like an “exquisitely well-roasted chicken served with jus that tastes of pickled chiles and lime leaves.” When Wells’s assessment was published, the principal staff’s social feeds lit up with posts about it, writing, alongside comradely photos, a nearly universal chime of “So proud to be part of this team. Thank you.”
The New York Times restaurant critic raved that Outerspace was “the restaurant of the summer.”
But on July 7—a mere day later—their feeds struck a starkly different tone, saying they had “made the difficult decision to no longer continue our residency at 99 Scott,” and that “after a few days off, we were able to really think about our priorities and our urge to push this industry and ethos forward.”
Wells published a follow-up article in which he quoted owners McIver and Stellberger as saying about the chefs, “They’re extraordinary, talented people. There were things we just weren’t able to see eye to eye on,” and the chefs as saying that “they had known for some time that their residency at Outerspace was not ‘sustainable.’”
Something in Wells’s second report must have struck a nerve because, after it ran, Un posted a nearly 400-word tirade in which she ripped into McIver, Stellberger, and Wells. She mentioned “culture vultures dressed in normcore who move slowly through BK,” touched on “internalized misogyny,” “colonial narratives,” and “white saviorism,” and called white people “the crème de la crème at gaslighting!”
Un did not specify the ways in which she and her staff had been wronged but promised that she and her colleagues would share, “when we are ready.” It was as if she’d flipped open a cancellation handbook and grabbed a fistful of trigger words to throw at the reviewer and her former employers.
Her post garnered close to 400 comments, with nearly everybody praising the chef not only for defiantly speaking out about what many agreed is standard-issue treatment in the restaurant business but also thanking the team’s efforts to put Vietnamese and Cambodian food on the map.
Since that post, neither Un, Ha, Burns, nor Warren has provided any specifics to the press or public (and they did not respond to requests for comment from Air Mail), but a reporter for Eater spoke with a number of former Outerspace employees who were thrilled by Un’s post, claiming it “blew the lid off a shocking, stressful work experience that they thought would go unnoticed.”
A spokesperson for Outerspace issued a comment to Air Mail, saying in part, “As a first-time ‘pandemic restaurant’ it is unfair to characterize Outerspace as emblematic of the industry. Unlike many other restaurants, we gave our chefs substantial control over this project and their own compensation agreements, and any assertion to the contrary is not true. We always tried to hear our staff’s concerns and respond to them. Our goal was to operate a temporary restaurant in order to reinvigorate our struggling business and provide job opportunities in our community, and we are proud of the many employees that worked hard to make that a reality.”
The trio has promised to continue collaborating this summer, and this week they announced that they would be spending the weekend cooking at Grimm Artisanal Ales, also in East Williamsburg. So, if you want to know what all the fuss is about—food and fury both—throw on anything but your best normcore khakis and go find out.
Alex Oliveira is an Associate Editor for Air Mail