Communal celebrated its tenth anniversary Wednesday night by inviting back the chefs that previously worked for the restaurant and preparing a special menu for patrons, with each of the four chefs preparing one of a four-course dinner.
Co-founder and original chef Colton Soelberg reflected on the past decade, along with current chef Adam Cold. Although Soelberg said he feels Communal and its food have become somewhat more refined over the years, it continues to be ingredient-driven and draws inspiration from a simple source: Sunday dinners.
Along with his old business partner, Soelberg said he knew he wanted to have a restaurant based on the idea of shared plates and shared food.
“Similar to what you’d have maybe Sunday dinner where everything just comes to the table and you’re sharing things around,” he said. “That was kind of like the basis of it.”
That kind of intimacy would require just a small space, and when Soelberg and his business partner found the space on the corner of University Ave and 100 North in Provo, they knew it was the right place.
“We’d seen this spot and decided that it seemed like the right, the right feel for it,” Soelberg said. “We like the idea of the kitchen being in the dining room.”
At the time, the landlord of the building was in negotiations to put a Subway in the spot Soelberg wanted. Soelberg and his business partner took the landlord out eat at Pizzeria 712, Communal’s sister restaurant, and somehow sweet talked him into taking a chance on their idea, Soelberg said.
Ironically, Soelberg said a Subway did open up down the street a little ways — and ultimately went out of business.
Besides its tradition of shared plates, the other thing that Soelberg and his partner were committed to from the beginning was fresh ingredients. Soelberg and the different chefs that have worked at Communal over the years have built relationships with local vendors and farmers, creating seasonal menus based around what produce and food is available locally.
“We wanted it to be fairly simple, kind of straightforward, and really more about the people we work with, in terms of like farmers and producers, and the ingredients we were getting,” Soelberg said.
Although that commitment to fresh ingredients has remained constant, Cold said Communal has seen some variations over the years when it comes to how the food is styled and served.
“I think right now we’re trying to get back to the most basic version of what Communal is, which is, (the food) just looks really nice on its own,” Cold said. “It’s not too over-prepared, basically. It just looks good as it’s prepared.”
The five or six cooks working at Communal, Cold explained, truly do everything when it comes to preparing the food — even killing and gutting live fish after it’s delivered, or breaking down whole chickens and other cuts of meat.
“I think that’s where we maybe focus more of the energy on — how can we take this thing that maybe you could buy ... from somebody else and make it our own way and make it better?” Soelberg said.
Although a constantly changing availability of ingredients and a constantly changing menu may lead to some experimentation, neither Cold nor Soelberg would label any of the food Communal makes as “experimental.”
“I don’t think there’s anything on the menu that you wouldn’t necessarily recognize ... I think we’ve gotten more refined over the years,” Soelberg said. “And I think part of that just comes with time, right? Like you’re doing this similar thing in the same space kind of over and over again. And I think you start to get a feel for what you like and what you don’t and what works and what doesn’t work. I think we’re at our best right now, really than we’ve ever been.”
The refinement has mostly come from execution, Soelberg said. One of his favorite things that he did admit he thinks has improved over the years is the house-made bread.
“Little tiny executions here and there, like making bread in-house and making it every day,” Cold said. “We’re trying to be as good as we can be.”
The food is part of what makes Communal special, but as the name suggests, it’s really the community that makes Communal a place people want to return to, like the past chefs that were present Wednesday night. Cold originally came up with the idea a few months ago to call back previous chefs to make a special menu for Wednesday’s celebration, and when he made the calls to Aldric Seeyouma and John Newman, he said they were both really excited about it.
“There is something special about Communal and the way I think people feel about it,” Soelberg said. “Basically (these chefs are) going to come work for free when they could go do something else. And that’s awesome. That says a lot about what we’re doing here.”
After all, opening Communal was about more than just opening another restaurant, Soelberg said. He and his business partner specifically chose the downtown Provo area because 10 years ago, there weren’t that many restaurants downtown and they wanted to help the area grow.
“There wasn’t a lot of people walking around downtown, there just wasn’t as much energy downtown as there is now,” Soelberg said. “I think that speaks to kind of original goal with Communal was that we love eating and eating well, and we felt like if we did it right, it could have an impact on the whole kind of area that we were in.”
Communal certainly has had an impact, and not just on the people who work there.
“I’ve worked at a lot of restaurants,” Cold said. But Communal and the community’s love for it is unique in his experience. “There are a lot more fans, a lot more people who appreciate the effort, appreciate the restaurant, appreciate the feel, the hospitality. So it feels great to be in Communal and have so many people come and enjoy it.”
While Communal’s execution and food may have become a bit more refined over the years, Soelberg hopes that the restaurant will always be a welcoming, approachable place. For now, he’s excited about what’s happening with Communal and the surrounding downtown Provo area.
“I think the past 10 years have been awesome. The next 10 are going to be better. I feel like we’re in a great place,” Soelberg said. “Good things are happening.”