Last week started out with figurative tumbleweeds blowing across the dining room. As my stalwart cooks reported for duty Wednesday afternoon, a heavy blanket of snow was turning Main Street into a scene from It’s a Wonderful Life. In a beautifully choreographed urban ballet, pickups fitted with shovels and dump trucks with salt diffusers efficiently cleared the street as quickly as the snow fell. After a couple hours, their efforts had pushed a miniature Himalaya range into being on either side of the street and rendered the pavement free of frozen precipitation. Seizing on the opportunity to become the first nine-year old to climb Mount Main Street, our daughter Peyton took to the low hills like a frenetic Sir Edmund Hillary.
The snow killed our Wednesday business. Even takeout ground to a halt. Weren’t New Englanders supposed to be blasé about snowfall? Hell, the cooks showed up, and were on time. I thought that might portend well for the town’s people. But crickets.
All day Wednesday I had a lump in my throat thinking about how I was going to keep a high-end kitchen afloat in a town that is blizzard prone and surging with coronavirus. Neither scream come get some porchetta with pear mostarda. My nerves were on a hair trigger, making me a snappy little bitch.
The prior week, we started delivering within a five-mile radius. I created an affordable in house prix fixe menu, expanded the to go offerings, added family meal packs. But nothing on the menu was attractive to greater Durham Wednesday. We shut down a couple hours early and took a snow day.
Thursday was different. Either some new piece of Kristin’s marketing finally hit intended targets or word was spreading about the new and improved food, but we were busy. The dining room bristled with excitement. Plates of burrata salad, lamb with cannellini bean-farro ragu, Kristin’s crostata, her tiramisu girondola (think: yule log made of orange-flavored tiramisu), chocolate olive oil cake, baskets of fresh baked focaccia, all went flying out of the kitchen.
Takeout and delivery also showed promising improvement. Thursday was the first time since abandoning the Caritas kitchen in early April that I had a service buzz. Feed the Frontlines and the Phoenix Project were exciting and fun, but there is no thrill like being in the weeds with a restaurant full of customers. When I can’t get a fix, I tend to get depressed. The last eight months have been touch and go.
We got crushed Friday, Saturday and Sunday, too. It was a beautiful, three-day long blur spent dans le merde. Interpersonal issues mattered little. We struggled under the weight of the new attention in the kitchen. There was no time to worry about what the (still skeptical) waitstaff and general manager thought of the new Memphian transplants. We were killing it. The Big Boss was pleased with the turn around. That’s all that matters.
Well, mostly all that matters. The more I think about The Matriarch’s criticism of my food offerings, the more I want to send a polite but pointed response email that “clarifies” my culinary philosophy. In a couple thinly veiled comments, she intimated that I wasn’t coming from a Regional Italian perspective, but more of an Italian American one. This couldn’t be further from the truth. What red sauce joint serves porchetta with pear mostarda or white lasagna? Maybe a couple? Anyhow, it wouldn’t benefit me to try and refute her observations line by line. Any defense I could offer would end up falling on deaf ears. I can tell right now that this is not a collaborative endeavor as I earlier reported. This is a benevolent dictatorship. Anything I could offer in defense of my culinary ethos would come off like arguing with Julia Child. No one wants to go there. I certainly don’t.
Next week, my staff and I are going to get buried under a rock pile of Christmas takeout orders and a la carte, in house dining. And then, I’ll have a few days to breathe.
Oh, and I started writing my memoir again. I know. It sounds pretentious and ill-fated. Who gives a fuck about my climb on the culinary ladder of mediocrity? Probably no one? But twenty pages in, I think it’s going somewhere. At least, like this blog, it’s good therapy. I’m doing it for me.
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