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Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Opening Day, by Daniel Patterson

Coi_2Chez Pim has another special guest blogger today, my friend Daniel Patterson, the talented chef and owner of the restaurant Coi in San Francisco. Daniel is among the rare breed of chefs who can write. (He also contributes to the NYT and Food&Wine magazine.)

A few weeks ago, Coi celebrated its first anniversary, a milestone far too many restaurants sadly never reach. Here is Daniel's look back at Coi's opening day. His words afford us a rare glimpse behind the scenes at a real-world fine dining restaurant.

And, no, this is no 'Rocco', nor is it 'Kitchen Confidential', it's just a simple story well told. Enjoy. --Pim

Opening Day
by Daniel Patterson

When I first started working in restaurants, chefs ran with their own kind. For one thing, the pool of civilians looking for a misanthropic conversation in some dive bar between the hours of midnight and two am was small. For another, the profession was not exactly held in high esteem. Parents didn’t hope for their kids to grow up to be chefs, and the only “dinner parties” we were invited to involved pizzas and kegs of beer.

But times have changed. Now we not only find ourselves occasionally included in polite social events, but when conversations turn to the subject of vocation, few phrases elicit more energetic responses than, “I’m a chef.” This usually leads to a brief but vigorous interrogation, with a fairly predictable series of questions, like, “Have you read Kitchen Confidential?” (yes), and “How did you become a chef?” (by accident). This is generally followed by a lengthy recounting of the time they ate at the French Laundry/Masa/Other Name Brand restaurant, and how great/terrible/worth it/disappointing it was. At these moments I have learned to listen patiently. I smile. I answer their questions. I explain that cooking is an exercise in tedium interrupted by the occasional disaster. They look at me funny. I wonder how quickly I can find another drink.

Make the mistake of mentioning that you’re opening a restaurant, however, and the floodgates open in earnest. After a bit of prodding, you attempt to describe the décor and food in detail (and if you’re really lucky, the concept). You notice a dreamy look creeping across their face. Their eyes widen as they imagine the proverbial red carpet rolling out and the fabulous people crowding in, the glitz and glamour of Opening Night. You realize that the Food Network has some serious explaining to do.

Opening night is not something to look forward to. It marks a starting point, after which most restaurants begin losing money in earnest. At its worst, it is a series of unplanned and unwanted incidents (my own have been marked by various liquids evading their intended destinations and finding their way onto customers’ very expensive blouses and jackets). At it best, it’s uneventful. Yep, if there’s one word I would use to describe a really successful opening night, it’s B-O-R-I-N-G. No backstage dramas. No lawsuit-inducing falls down dimly lit stairways. No good stories.

Here, then, is a real-life account of an opening night. I omitted none of the allure, suspense or intrigue, mostly because there wasn’t any. If you find yourself nodding off half-way through, well, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Friday, April 14, 2006

6:30 AM
I wake up fifteen minutes before the alarm would have gone off, after three delicious hours of sleep. Sleep that more precisely resembled a mini-coma, a black hole devoid of dreams or relaxation. I roll over and turn off the alarm clock. I try to get up. I fail. I feel like my blood has been siphoned off and replaced with barely molten lead. I lie there for another minute, shake my head a few times, and force myself out of bed.

I had set out my work clothes the night before in a neat pile (anyone with small children will recognize the technique). Black pants, t-shirt, sweater, the same thing I have worn every working day for many years. I gather them up and take them with me as I leave the bedroom, patting my sleeping dog and kissing my sleeping fiancé on the way out. Shower, shave, brush teeth, dress, and I’m in the car and on my way.

My first hour of the day is spent dealing with air conditioning, or rather the lack thereof. The mechanical tech had failed to find the time yesterday to swing by and start up the system, and as a result, by the middle of the night the dining room reached a temperature usually associated with the tropics. This inspired me to leave a brief but colorful message with the contractor at the end of service, encouraging them to pay a visit in the morning to finish the job. Now there are excuses – I mean, reasons – to listen to from both the general contractor and the mechanical sub, which I finally break off when the tech arrives. We walk through the restaurant together talking about air balancing and other fascinating matters.

It is an immutable law of freestanding restaurants that there is always a bitchy neighbor. Ours is a Type A architect of indeterminate ability who owns a building in the back of the alley that abuts the restaurant. It’s a nice alley, which dead ends into a wooden door that leads, enchanted garden style, into a lovely yard, attached to an historic building where Lenny Bruce used to crash when he was playing the Hungry I in the 50’s. That was then. Now the alley is dominated by two residential hotel buildings whose living conditions are not exactly pristine. One houses our restaurant in the first floor, and the other is home to Centerfolds, whose alley wall sports a spray-painted mural depicting the pleasures to be found therein. But what is Mr. Architect most concerned about? Our garbage cans, which cannot remain outside during the day. It is a major obstacle in his grand scheme to turn the alley into the charming, tree-lined, streetlamp-lit lane of someone’s youth. Never mind that we replaced a stinking wreck of an abandoned space with the kind of clean, modern and innovative design that architects usually love. Our first sin had been interrupting easy access to his parking space in the back of the alley for months during construction, forcing him to sit on many occasions for minutes at a time in his baby blue BMW M3, cartoon smoke rising from his ears, while a worker moved his truck. He also could not understand why we had not built a room inside our space to house the garbage cans, which he discussed at length with our construction manager. I opted for stoves instead. I’m funny that way.

Mr. Architect, having just alighted in our soon-to-be-picturesque little alley, decided to stop by and express his interest in my immediately removing the cans from the sidewalk. Yes, of course. No, I have nothing better to do right now. So in they go. I spend the next twenty minutes scrubbing them with bleach inside and out, rinsing them and then drying them with a clean towel.

9:30 AM
Restaurant people are dreamers by nature. Those who maintain even a tenuous connection with reality are at the least relentlessly optimistic. The chimera of the Perfect Restaurant haunts every restaurant opening, almost palpably close in the time leading up to those first few days, until inevitably reality intervenes and the fantasy recedes, replaced by the familiarity of hard, repetitive work.

But now we’re still in the honeymoon phase, and as the cooks trickle in they’re all smiles and cheerful hellos. We start out by talking about the day ahead - since we had only one rehearsal dinner, there was much to be done, to put it mildly. (There are always plans for a lengthy training period in place, which are sooner or later dashed on the shoals of construction delays, permitting issues, and budget overruns, until the question evolves from “What is the ideal training period?” to “How little can we get away with?”)

In truth, I’m more concerned with the service than the food. Two of the cooks have worked with me for years, and they understand the little details that make the food taste that way it should. The other has worked with a friend for years doing a similar style, and he’s good enough that he’ll pick things up quickly.

Having learned the painful way that an overly ambitious opening menu is the root of most quality and timing disasters, this time I’m playing it safe. Most of the dishes I’ve done before, so we can focus on making the food delicious. This, as friends noted rather sharply the previous evening, leaves the “innovation” level a little light, but that too has its benefits. Since I have the impression that some people are expecting a voodoo-avant garde hybrid, in which we will ritually sacrifice innocent ingredients while invoking the devil of modernity, my naturally contrarian inclination is to start quietly and conservatively.

But the lamb on the menu is simple to the point of being boring, and needs more of an edge. It a dish whose raison d’etre would be buttressed by extraordinary ingredients, but for the moment I have only good ones at my disposal. While I wait for Cindy at Bellwether Farm to call me back to tell me when she is going to bring me her miraculously sweet and delicately flavored whole baby lamb, I need to find racks that come from younger animals - once a dressed lamb crosses the 30 pound threshold I lose interest. So we decide on a different source for the lamb rack for the next week, which we’ll coat in ras el hanout, a Moroccan spice blend, cook sous vide and then sear, and serve with spring onions and English peas.

10:00 AM
You would think that by opening day, if there were some last minute construction details to attend to, that someone other than me would be doing the attending. How is it possible that I had dragged my feet so completely as to leave a several hour project for opening day? Well, I could go down the list of excuses – I mean, reasons – but suffice it to say that by mid-morning I was in the front entryway with a ladder, tracing paper, scissors, matte medium, a brush and an exacto knife, settling in for a nice long spell of window treatment application.

Our building was built in 1912, part of the boom that followed the 1906 earthquake and subsequent devastation. (We found an electrical permit from that year attached to the wall when we were cleaning out the space, a hand written four by five inch piece of paper that simply said, “Electrical Work.” Ah, the good old days.) The building is classified as “historical”, which led to more headaches during the permitting process than I care to remember. One of the historical exterior features, semi-elaborately fragmented clerestory windows towards the top of the first floor, lent a view onto the framing that supported the dropped ceiling, so I needed something to cover the windows. Something opaque that was sheer enough as to permit light to pass through. Something that would glow at night, to highlight the windows and delight local preservationists and historians, who during the permit phase had required a lot of delighting.

The designer, an unusual combination of architect, artisan and artist, who actually knows how to build what he imagines, proposed a simple process that I adapted. Simple, but incredibly time consuming. Matte medium, an acrylic substance used by artists that is traditionally mixed with paint, is brushed onto the windows. Then a layer of tracing paper pressed by hand to the edge of the pane, more matte medium, another layer of tracing paper and press again. Use an exacto knife to trim the paper to the edges of the pane, and then matte medium again. The matte medium is essentially liquid plastic that dries clear, waterproof and sturdy, and it suffuses the tracing paper so that it becomes a unified whole. The pressing by hand, in the right way, give layers of texture and a vaguely antique look. It’s beautiful both day and night, close up and far away. And I have only 34 windows in varying shapes and sizes to cover. Yesterday I didn’t make it onto the line until 3:30. Today I’m hoping to do better.

Part II continues tomorrow.


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