Ok. I survived. And I actually don’t feel too bad, considering. Normally, a fifty-hour work week on hard cement floors would have me moaning around the house post-shift like a Monday morning linebacker. But, for now at least, I’m still moderately limber and ready to fight the oncoming battles.
Nothing went horribly awry in the restaurant, either. Sure, I under-ordered a little and had to run across the street to Hanaford’s a few times. And, holy shit, my weekend dishwasher wore me out with his violent verbal diarrhea and lack of filter during peak hours. But, apples to apples, I’ve had much rougher first weeks. To this day, my first week at Daily Grill (May 20-27, 2007) is my benchmark for how fucked up things can get in the restaurant business. Before week’s end, I had involuntarily surrendered command to my line crew, lost the respect of my sous chef, put my keepers in Beverly Hills on high alert and pissed off all of my vendors. I went to Baptist Minor Med at the end of it with a self-diagnosed panic attack that left me shivering, depressed and fearful of returning to my post.
I know it’s coming, though. The intense back pain, the tendonitis that won’t allow me to lift a sauté pan, the horrifying realizations that I missed ordering cutoffs, the closed-door counseling sessions when I fly off about minutiae, the deep-fried cooks, the doubting higher authority. Because I’ve done this for so long, I know the recurring pattern. Go in hungry and lean, fight, fight, fight, then slowly, as the pain ratchets up and staff recede from coachability, give up and slink back to perceived greener pastures. This time though, I can’t afford to let my ego or health get in the way. I just uprooted the family and took them halfway across the continent with promises of a better life. I feel a sense of great responsibility, as anyone in my shoes should. Back pain and recrimination may just have to be new (hopefully, temporary) friends. I will need to find a yin to counterbalance that yang if I hope to overcome either.
I say all that to say this; I was wrong about almost every prediction I made in my first post. My inherited staff—generally speaking—is wonderful. Talented, hardworking, jaded in the good way all line cooks should be, we got on thick as thieves. And when I pressed on the gas, the car flew faster down the road with only minor knocking or pinging.
I really put them through their paces; giving them two new menus to prep and pump out in addition to the one they were operating with before. Additionally, I cut staffing way back, leaving the three remaining cooks to divide and conquer. And they did, like a seasoned pit crew.
Maybe it was the lack of business the restaurant was experiencing before I arrived and now having something to do. Or perhaps, my spastic attempt to veer away from the iceberg before the hull rivets are popped off by a hail of icy javelins has sparked a renaissance of interest. Or maybe it’s the fact that jumping onto another ship isn’t as easy as it used to be. Cook jobs that pay what we’re paying almost don’t exist up here. The days of telling the chef to fuck himself when he tells you your food sucks are in the rearview. Thank you, COVID. Whatever it is, I’m excited by the kitchen staff’s capability, drive and willingness to allow me to steer their ship. Not only are they cool with bailing water and bouncing around the deck, but they seem to enjoy the ride. Thank God. I love me some fighters. I know if given the chance we can become the ‘it’ restaurant in this quiet hamlet that is Durham, New Hampshire.
Thankfully, staff and guests were excited by my focaccia, the fresh pizza dough, Kristin’s always tasty and creative desserts. But all were especially taken by the—almost certainly bound for signature dish immortality—Porchetta with Pear Mostarda, Braised Italian Lentils and Celery-Parsley Salad. Even the Matriarch was impressed, citing my version as good as her personal mountaintop memory of porchetta at Ristorante Da Ventura in Sansepolcro. As expected, she did throw me a few jabs after tasting my version of regional Italian food, but the porchetta as a stand-alone preparation was unassailable. She just thought the accompanying mostarda was too acidic. I’ll take it. I’m certainly NOT going to try and school the teacher. Half a cup of white balsamic vinegar per two and a half pounds of pear is now a quarter cup. Problem solved. And while I’m writing about this dish, I must give credit to inherited cook, Jason, for bringing the pear and lentil elements into play. A hungry spirit of collaboration is another perk of the gig.
The family to go meals and (borrowed) Sunday Family Supper concept both capitalized on “key opportunities” my bosses said the restaurant hadn’t been seizing and were well-received, as well. Last night, the inaugural Sunday Family Supper, with only scant social media marketing, drew almost as many curious New Hampshire residents as on a busy Saturday night. The Matriarch, upon Googling the menu, did find fault with calling my ragu of short rib, pork belly, beef, pancetta, prosciutto, Italian sausage and tomato sauce “Sunday Gravy” but that was the only complaint I heard. She correctly pointed out that “They only call it that in New Jersey.” I laughed too loudly in our silent apartment when I read that. It’s supposed to be called “Sunday Sauce”, she pointed out. I’d never heard that in my circles. The fancy Memphis guys call it “sugo” and the meatheads call it “gravy” and that was pretty much the extent of my Sunday meat sauce knowledge. Since I consider myself three quarters meathead and one quarter fancy guy, I went with what was comfortable. Next week, it’ll be called Sunday Sauce. No biggie.
This week, it’s more tastings with the Matriarch, Christmas Eve menus to write, cost and order for, bread and pizza dough to make, vendors to coddle and argue with, real time food cost to ascertain and more spinning of the Captain’s Wheel. We are far from safe waters and I need this job to pan out. If though, what I felt last week continues into this week, I’m pretty sure we will be able to point the bow toward warmer climes in a month or two.
That is, if the brain trust involved (Kristin, myself and the owners) can hold on through the surge.
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