“Let’s buy another restaurant,” I said one evening at dinner to my unsuspecting wife – the very same wife who had made me promise, on the day that we had sold our last restaurant, that the next time I got the urge to own a restaurant, I would lie down on the floor until it passed.
“No,” Lorrie responded. There was really nothing to discuss.
So be it.
Six weeks later we passed papers on a small Italian restaurant that was on its last legs.
“I wanna more money,” said Stephano, the none-too-talented chef we had inherited with the restaurant.
“Sorry, Stephano,” I said. “I’m not in a position to give you any more money.”
With that Stephano stormed out of my office and started hurling sauté pans against the walls of the kitchen. What Stephano lacked in talent, he sought to make up for in temperament. “Then I leave,” he screamed from the kitchen. “I leava right now, and you be screwed for Christmas.”
Hmmm. I suppose he had a point. But I’d be dammed if I was going to let the little prima donna push me around. “What did you say?” I asked, hunting him down in the kitchen.
“You hear me. I say you screwed.”
“Get out,” I said, herding Stephano out the kitchen door. “Just get out.”
And that was that. Eighty-six Stephano.
“Where’s Stephano?” Lorrie asked when she got to the restaurant and found me prepping for dinner.
“I threw him out.”
What else could she have said? It was three days until Christmas, Christmas week being one of the busiest weeks of the year. And while Stephano was not Emeril Lagasse, he was capable of putting out a lot of mediocre food in a short space of time.
“He wanted more money,” I explained.
“Oh.” She seemed stuck. “So who’s going to cook on the line?”
Stephano’s support cast had included two young kids who didn’t know a cucumber from a zucchini, and whose line cooking abilities were limited to loading and unloading the oven on command. “I guess I will.”
It’s hard to say if the look on Lorrie’s face was a smile, a smirk or a grimace. It wasn’t quite a pained expression, though it would be by the end of Christmas week.
The plan had been to get through the holidays before getting involved in the kitchen. We would take this time to get familiar with the front of the house; to see what the customers liked or didn’t like. The best laid plans …
I had always been a good home cook, but I had never cooked on the line in a busy restaurant kitchen. How hard could it be? Clad only in my chef’s whites and my native arrogance, I stepped behind the cooking line.
We fed only sixty-four people that first night. It would have been ninety had the other twenty-six decided to stay. I am told that some of those who stayed actually made it home in time to hear Letterman sign off.
“People said they loved the food,” said Katie, the bartender, when we all sat down at the end of service to have a staff drink. The wait staff looked as though they’d been horsewhipped.
“How bad was it out here?” I half wanted to know.
“It was mostly tourists,” said one of the waiters. “They’re pretty high maintenance anyway.”
“You didn’t answer my question.”
It was pretty bad, they all confessed.
The next night was decidedly worse – large parties with special orders and lots of substitutions. This was not fun. I got the food out faster; but the quality wasn’t there. No one complained.
We managed to survive Christmas week, a trial by fire if ever there was one; and I had the burn scars to prove it. We changed both the name of the restaurant and the menu right after the New Year. We toyed with the idea of new identities, but decided that not that many locals would have seen us during Christmas week.
Business slowed after the holidays; and if there was a list of restaurant owners who were disappointed by this turn of events, I was not on it. I used this down time to acclimate myself to the rhythms of what was to become my kitchen; and by the time the busy February vacation period arrived, I was able to execute my menu at a high standard and in a timely manner.
I spent the next five years of my life slicing and dicing, and braising and roasting, and grilling and baking in my kitchen at Olives Bistro. I was one happy cook; and if people in town started referring to me as a chef, I never corrected them. Somehow “chef-owned” on the sign read better than “cook-owned”.
Life, I am learning, is about making choices, even if we don’t necessarily know that we’re making them at the time. When I threw Stephano out of the kitchen that day, I knew where I was headed. And I guess I knew it even before that – when I decided to buy the place and somehow managed to bend Lorrie to my will.
We never earned much money operating Olives. You don’t open a small restaurant in a rural Vermont town as a get-rich-quick scheme. But we ate and drank really well. And we made a ton of friends. And we took great pride in what we did.
Me, I traded a hundred-odd days a year on the road and an apartment in Montreal for a twenty minute stroll to work across a field of corn and on along the bank of a pristine river. I saw my kids so much they stopped calling me Mr. Handwerger.
What price continuity?