For the most part, our leaving Memphis was a non-story. And frankly we planned it that way. It was tempting to make a big announcement, of course; maybe stretch out our impending exodus like a Kiss Farewell Tour into an eons-long ego massage full of sappy shoutouts, hazy recollections and broken Champagne bottles in the hopes of creating a feedback loop of adulation. But slipping quietly out the back door seemed the more mature way to handle things. Maybe all of that dignified English crap Kristin watches on Netflix has worn off on me. Or maybe time has. The me of 2010 would definitely have drawn some attention to the situation. This time though, we melted out onto I-40 Eastbound headed for New Hampshire like we were sneaking out of our parent’s house at midnight for a clandestine meeting with friends.
We had already done the whole ‘we’re moving’ declaration thing last year, anyhow. After falling in love with Asheville, North Carolina in the spring, we spent the summer and fall looking at houses and networking in Asheville’s restaurants. In October, we even put earnest money down on a cute A-frame in the hills of Maggie Valley, a shaded enclave created in the 70’s by easy listening hero John Denver. It turned out to be a death trap upon inspection, so the hunt continued. Well, that is until March of 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic fucked things up. Point is, we’d already done the see y’all later thing. It was time to just go or quit the posturing.
So here we are, eight months later, sitting in a well-designed kitchen in a small apartment in the quaint New Hampshire town of Newmarket, twelve hundred miles from our home of the last thirty-one years, with new high- profile jobs, impending New England winter to deal with and moving boxes and bags to unpack and stow. We still don’t have beds, a laundry dryer, a sofa (or anywhere else to sit) and I’m sore from tossing and turning on an air mattress. As I write this, one thought is front and center.
Have we lost our minds?
The answer isn’t clear. Of course, one could make the argument. I mean, is it rational to leave family and friends behind to cut across the country by caravan, a ton and a half U-Haul trailing a 4-cylinder Outback, heading unprepared into a New England winter at the height of the second, and purportedly more deadly coronavirus surge? Furthermore, do I really want to weed through another inherited staff at another failing restaurant? I wrote the Caritas Cookbook to get out of restaurant kitchens. The idea of attending to the needs of another group of sensitive artistes who most likely won’t give a fuck about my long, mostly accurate resume is at first blush, depressing. I’m supposed to be transitioning into a writing career, not holding court with sniffly cooks who don’t like to be told to season their food.
As my father just told me in a (mostly) supportive email, ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained’. The ‘I guess’ he tacked on at the end stung a little, but it’s definitely appropriate. This impromptu relocation could be disastrous, I guess. One of us could careen off an icy road to our death or be left holding the bag when the restaurant we are trying to rescue closes before the six-month lease on our apartment is up, I guess. The long, bitterly cold, snowdrift months of January, February and March could kill any dreams of summering on Cape Cod, I guess.
Sure, I could spend another rent-free year kicking gravel, reading and writing books and petting my cat Zeus on my father-in-law’s farm whiling remaining socially distant and financially solvent. God knows, we loved our time there. The Restaurant Phoenix Dinner we threw on Alamo Farm in October will go down as one of the great moments in my culinary life. And cooking family meals from my father-in-law’s well-tended garden was a delight. There was even an open invitation to build a small house on his hundred acres. I can see myself circling back in a few years and doing just that. But I’ve got an annoying travel addiction that won’t let me sit still. Thank God I have a wife who shares it.
It was actually Kristin who suggested New England. A year earlier, when I proposed Vermont as the next stop on our culinary tour of the states, she stopped me dead with the rote Southerner’s response to winter living above the Mason-Dixon Line.
“Fuuuuck that. I hate the cold.”
Southerners, regardless if queried in the winter or not, consider New England a frozen wasteland. As I put this on the page, I’m staring out at a parking lot full of abandoned looking snow and ice crusted cars so there’s something to be said for this perspective. Dig a little deeper however, and you’ll realize that New England is a wonderful place to live. With its low crime rate (unless you’re masochistic enough to live in Boston), quaint little river towns, covered bridges, four distinct seasons, stunning foliage, demonstrably lower COVID rates and proximity to both ocean and mountains, not forgetting the cannabis friendly laws and lack of sales and payroll taxes (here in New Hampshire), you could do worse. I grew up here. I knew. I’d been pushing for New England and getting pushed back. A smart husband, I’d given up and was focusing my relocation search on the warmer Carolina coast. Maybe Charleston, maybe a little further north. So, for Kristin to casually offer up my childhood home a few months later like she was asking me to pass the ketchup I was terribly, joyfully confused. Her rationale, without getting into a political row with readers, centered around escaping the rosy red south before a second term was gifted to our bridge burning, reality denying cabbage of a president. She wanted to be closer to the Canadian border should the south erupt into civil disobedience. Hell, that was good enough for me.
I took to Indeed.com within the hour to start the job search.
Two weeks into casting my line toward New Hampshire and Vermont I had my first nibble. After a zoom meeting with a couple struggling to keep their new restaurants open in the college town of Durham, New Hampshire, Kristin and I agreed to fly up and explore the possibility of taking over the operations. Things went well, Kristin and Peyton fell in love with the cozy, fall vibes and before we knew it, we were giving gentlemen’s handshakes and looking at U-Haul options.
Flash forward a couple weeks….
We are currently locked into a small family-run restaurant group that is inches from falling off the cliff. There are employees who don’t trust us, new vendors to meet and greet (and haggle with) and a customer base to pull back into the restaurant despite the surge. My kitchen staff at the Italian restaurant, thankfully, has welcomed me with hard work and at least feigning respect and we are about to roll out new menus that better reflect what people are looking for in a pandemic. The once lucrative but now stale fine dining service style is being transitioned out in favor of a more informal and takeout friendly trattoria aesthetic. Resistance weighs heavily on our every move and unraveling the bulwark of screwy financials, odd, lumbering food offerings is proving to be more difficult than detangling a pair of iPhone earbuds.
And I forgot to mention the most interesting part. The restaurant, while owned by a wonderfully relatable and eager couple who have given Kristin and I carte blanche to rescue their operation, is overseen from afar by Durham resident and Italian food television deity, Mary Ann Esposito. The food offerings, as we have been told many times, must reflect her vision of regional Italian food. Mrs. Esposito has been a hero of mine since her show Ciao Italia came on air back in 1989. Running a kitchen that more than nods to her passion and life’s work is thrilling. I can’t believe my luck.
But I also know that everything that goes on the menu must be tested and approved by The Matriarch. My cooks have put more than one bug in my ear about what to expect when she arrives, fork in hand, Saturday for our first “collaboration”. Should I ever venture away from Mary Ann’s true north—which inadvertently happened already–I will get thrown under the bus by the disapproving current GM. Emails and phone calls will ensue. I will embarrassingly be put in my place like a scolded waiter who grabs a couple roasted potatoes off an outgoing dinner plate.
An hour from now I will be making focaccia, white lasagna, arguing with opinionated Yankee vendors, trying to figure out where to get better cured meats, cheeses, locating an inexpensive pasta machine (so we don’t have to stain The Matriarch’s legend with the bullshit, pre-made raviolis the last administration was serving), inputting figures into an inventory spreadsheet from the few invoices I can find and dancing around the auditorium sized kitchen I’ve been bequeathed. I’m back at the restaurant bump and grind. And, for now, it feels fucking great.
Things could turn south at any time, however. I have been in this situation too many times in my career to rest easy. In fact, almost every time. The simplicity and fun of Caritas was a fluke. I’m pretty sure there’s drama ahead. Stay tuned.