Opening Day (Part II)
Ginger Rogers famously said of Fred Astaire, “I did everything he did, but backwards and in high heels,” which pretty much sums up the difference between chef and chef/owner. I pondered this as I stood on the top step of a ten foot ladder, reaching forward three feet while twisting to the left to apply another layer of matte medium to a corner pane. Around this time my phone rang, and I half-turned to pull it from my back pocket. I felt like a contortionist. My back would be unhappy with me later.
(Chefs, more than any profession except perhaps athletes, tend to ignore the effects of the passage of time on their bodies’ capabilities, until the evidence, a carefully collected assortment of nagging injuries and aching joints, becomes too overwhelming. Because they start so young, they become accustomed to their bodies being loyal, obedient and indefatigable employees, which is largely how they’re treated. Somewhere around the mid-thirties there evolves a lengthy and bitter fight between spirit and corporal body, which sooner or later the body inevitably wins. After that the interaction between mind and flesh becomes a series of terse exchanges between two distrustful and occasionally vengeful equals.)
“Daniel. It’s Dick. I hope I didn’t catch you at a bad time.”
Normally I would lie and say not at all, but the fact that I have no health insurance is weighing heavily on my mind at this moment. The clipped and cleanly enunciated greeting comes from the project manager for the construction company. Careful and precise to a fault, he is remarkable mixture of erudition and carpentry skills, with whom I could discuss both etymology and drill bit sizes. He came from a generation where the name “Dick” had no negative connotations, and he reminds me a bit of an elementary school teacher, dispensing both sage advice and admonitions with weighty authority. He was not, however, the soul of brevity, and I was pressed for time.
“Actually, Dick, I’m hanging from a tall ladder with an Exacto knife in one hand and my phone in the other, breaking about sixteen different OSHA regulations. What’s up?”
“Well, I just wanted to bring you up to date on the situation with the door pull.” I’d gotten used to his style of construction-speak. “But since you’re in a tight spot, I’ll let you go. Have a good night. And be careful on that ladder.”
I check my watch as I finish up the last window and climb down from the ladder. Better than yesterday, but not by much. I go to change downstairs, where our manager is struggling to format and print our one-page opening night wine list. He seems quite frustrated, so I change quickly, grab an apron and towel and head upstairs.
Cooking in a new kitchen requires adjustment. The same equipment acts differently in different locations. Pots and pans float around. Spoons and whisks disappear for long stretches. What makes great food is time – time of preparation of course, but also time in a specific place, working with certain equipment and certain ingredients, doing the same things over and over until the rhythm of a kitchen becomes subsumed into a cook’s being, freeing the mind to focus on details, to refine and perfect.
But we are a long way away from that point. For one thing, I need to make asparagus soup, and our stoves are not properly adjusted yet, and putting out a fraction of the heat that they should. Yesterday I made a large batch of soup, which came to a boil too slowly and lost some of its color and vibrancy. Today I will do it in very small batches.
The next few hours pass quickly, although I feel like I’m moving at a glacial pace. I am interrupted every few minutes with questions from cooks about dishes, and servers, about linen and glassware. And even without the distractions I notice that I don’t move as fast as I used to.
My fiancée stops by to inquire if there’s anything she can do. Why, yes, in fact, there is. I need some hooks and eyes to keep the front doors that lead onto the exterior vestibule open. Seeing as we have no signage, it will provide at least some indication that we’re open. Which we will be in an hour. I explain and she takes off for the nearest hardware store. Oh, and silver polish. The servers ran the silver-plated flatware through the wrong dishwasher last night, and now we had a wealth of tarnished silver, but no polish.
The hooks for the doors arrive, so I grab the drill and an extension cord and head outside to install them. I finish up right around 5:30, when the lounge officially opens. Unsurprisingly, we’re not instantly inundated.
As I gather up my stuff and head back I have the feeling that the public part of the restaurant is not quite shipshape. I check. I’m right. I put my OCD fiancée on straightening out the lounge. This works marvelously well, except for her attempt to clean some oily smudges on a wall with Windex, which connects the barely noticeable spots into a long, conspicuous, discolored streak. I make a note to give the painter a call.
Showtime. And what an anticlimactic showtime it is. No Knute Rockne speeches. No good luck handshake with the manager. Not even a pre-opening service meeting, as everyone is too busy getting ready. I finish setting up my station – the easiest one in the kitchen - at 6:04.
It bears repeating that opening a restaurant with cooks you’ve worked with for years is an almost indescribable relief, especially when most of the food is familiar. Absent is the panic of realizing a second too late that a dish was sent out horribly over- or under-seasoned, or that moment of making Solomon-like decisions in the heat of service about which of two simultaneous catastrophes to fix. Instead, service bordered on boring, and it was wonderful. There would be plenty of time for trying new things, for growing and evolving. Right now I just wanted the food on the plate to taste good.
Over the next few hours I put out my dishes while drifting from station to station, tasting sauces and salads, adjusting presentations. I make a horrible line cook now, pulled in a dozen directions, peripatetically moving around the kitchen in an attempt to see and taste everything. I would hate working with me.
The flow is slow but steady, with the emphasis on slow. The servers don’t exactly have all of their systems in place, and are tripping over each other in an attempt to get basic tasks accomplished, like polishing glassware or finding silverware with which to set the tables.
When it comes to service details, opening a restaurant requires more than a little patience. Anyone who expects perfection from the beginning is either a fool or a masochist. But even though the staff is making mistakes right and left, my only concern for right now is that they’re kind. Technique can be taught. Human warmth and caring can’t.
One of the servers, who had never been involved in a restaurant opening before, and is used to more corporate environs, is becoming increasingly enraged by the chaos. He insists on keeping a list that he titles – I kid not – “Mental Notes,” of all of the things that are going wrong around him, everything from clutter in the service station to the other servers who jostle him as he works. Midway through the night there are two pages of increasingly scrawling and disjointed handwriting posted in the service station, which by the last line looks to be the work of either an anguished six year old or a long-term resident in a psychiatric ward. He decides to leave mid-service. With our blessing.
There’s a lull in the action, and I head into the dining room to say hi to our first guests, who are just finishing up their meal. I normally hate, hate, hate visiting the dining room, unless it’s someone that I know well. I feel nervous and out of place, standing awkwardly in front of the table muttering inanities. But it’s opening night and I feel obligated, so I trudge out.
Our first guests are from Sonoma, where I opened my first restaurant, Babette’s. Ironically, they came in because of an article by a local food writer there, who was the first person to write about Babette’s, and became an incredible supporter and later a friend. I thank them for coming in, say hi to a few of my fiancées co-workers and head back to the kitchen.
The action hits another speed bump for the servers as they try to close out their tickets on the cash register system. I am called over to help, in spite of the fact that I know little more about the computer system than they do. I think one customer in the lounge is charged and credited four times in succession, after which we refunded his meal while apologizing for being idiots.
I take one more tour of the dining room, talking to all of the guests. People seem to be happy, which is a relief. Mostly quick thank yous, a little longer of a visit at the investor’s table. He is surprised that the food is better than the pre-opening meal yesterday. I explain, again, that it will keep improving at a rapid pace for months, and then slow to small incremental improvements – it will take at least a year until it achieves a level of performance I find remotely satisfactory. Great restaurants aren’t born, they’re made over time, through hard work, desire, and more than a little luck.
I return to the kitchen and start putting things away and cleaning up. I move on to the ordering for the next day. This takes longer than it should. My brain is losing traction by the minute, and I keep rereading the same lists over and over, trying to figure out what I missed.
I pick up the car and head home. I’m exhausted and a little numb. I am daunted by the amount of work that lies ahead, and annoyed that I allowed myself to become so run down during pre-opening. The next few months are going to make the last three feel like a vacation. Still, it was a pretty good start. Perfect? Not close. But for opening night, I’ll take it.