The callouses on my knife fingers are still bleeding. Every once in a while in the course of my work day–and always at the worst possible time–I have to re-bandage and re-glove. It’ll be a couple more weeks until they scab over and create the familiar hard patches that can withstand a few misdirected knife slashes. Now, there’s very little in way of padding. My Shun goes right through the supple layers of skin that formed in my year of unemployment. The back pain, burned fingerprints and tennis elbow I’d left in the Caritas kitchen have found me again, too.
As odd as it sounds though, I have missed this life. I’ve missed the fucked-up dishwashers, conspiratorial waitstaffs, the dysfunctional management, the pushy vendors, cynical cooks, interpersonal drama, the long hours and yes, even the callouses, salty cuts, forearm oven burns and sore muscles. We may be twelve hundred miles from home, but this is a cast of characters and set of circumstances that are both familiar and wonderful. Outside in the street there may be mayhem and fear, but inside the restaurant kitchen there is always entertainment and swashbuckling levity. That reminds me, I’ve got to re-up on Bandaids and Neosporin.
Christmas Eve, Ciao Italia had a record sales day. We had three days of manic prepping to get ready so when the wave of humanity finally reached our shore at four, we greeted it with equal and opposing force. Whole porchettas and beef tenderloins, lasagna Bolognese, lasagna Bianche, chicken piccata and Parmigiana, Umbrian lentil soup, wedding soup, tiramisu girondola, olive oil chocolate cake, apple crostata, angel food cake AND a full three page of menu of a la carte selections all departed the kitchen hot and on time. At the end of it all, my larder was as bare as a prison cell. I’d ordered within a micron of what we needed, and nothing was left to molder or get chucked into the freezer over the five-day reprieve. That’s always a satisfying feeling.
I know I’ve hammered on this a couple times already, but I can’t express how impressed I am with my kitchen staff. Usually—in Memphis, at least—there’s a dissenter on the line whose whole mission is to turn cooks against me. You chefs know who I’m talking about; that “underpaid and under-appreciated” talent who sees himself as better at every aspect of running your kitchen? That vibe is delightfully absent in the Ciao kitchen. Yeah, I’ve heard a couple of them mutter under their breath when I made them do things that didn’t square with their sense of right and wrong. But to me, that’s just background noise. I always get that. I guess I’m just a dick in the kitchen. Those mumbles are just part of my professional landscape.
Point is, we are already taking the restaurant to higher gastronomic places and bringing costs down. The local foodie chat board, Seacoast Eats, is buzzing about us. Could this be another Caritas situation? Meaning, will the foodies and media pay attention? It’s quite possible but far too soon to tell. I will tell you that the Big Boss is leaving us alone, an act that portends good things for the future. It means to me that he trusts his eyes.
On the flipside of the doughnut, knocking us down a few pegs last week, Kristin and I fielded a few irate online complaints. A couple of them were delivered in long, passionate emails and centered around the inconvenience of reheating our family meals. One customer called the restaurant livid and demanded that we give her two new chicken parmigiana entrees because “the chicken wasn’t fully cooked.” She failed to read the fancy label that Kristin created that stated the entrée “needed to be reheated for 25 minutes (in the takeout container) at 325 degrees.” Honestly, she could have just followed the directions and been fine. But instead, she stormed up to the restaurant demanding a fully cooked replacement. There’s a certain “expectation” I’ll say, to the New Englander. When they don’t get what they want, or what they anticipated, they aren’t afraid to let you know about it. I’d hate to see the lady react to a sudden breakdown on an escalator. She’d probably stand there griping as mall customers walked past her to their destination. I’ll admit, the cooks and I ranted about her for hours.
The menu for New Year’s Eve is a hybrid of new and old, regional and American Italian. I’m looking forward to recreating St. Leo’s (Oxford, MS) farinata dish. Then chef, TH Freeland was adamant that we try the restaurant’s charred chickpea crepes sprinkled with rosemary, olive oil and Parmigiano Reggiano. They’ve haunted me ever since. TH is now doing an admirable job at Donald Link’s Gianna in New Orleans, where a few months back, he slipped something similar into our chef’s tasting menu. There is no better opening bite on the planet next to a briny oyster with kimchi granite (today’s culinary revelation). TH, if you’re reading this, you’ve been a huge inspiration on my cooking, as of late. Thanks, brotha!
Kristin and I are currently in Portland, Maine, a heretofore unsung foodie mecca. But, despite calls to never speak of Portland, I’m telling you this is one of the most beautiful and progressive food cities on the East Coast. Fish so fresh that it nearly jumped onto the plate can be found treated thoughtfully (but minimally) at the exciting Eventide Oyster Company. Completely reminiscent of our mountaintop experience at Charleston’s The Ordinary, food epiphanies happened at a regular clip at our little outdoor picnic table. We were so blissed that we barely bitched about eating outside in the middle of the New England winter. The expensive gas torches the restaurant had in the makeshift tent did little to thaw my bones. At one point, I couldn’t feel my toes or the knuckles in hand. I kept shoveling food into my face regardless. We just dealt with it. I know for most of my Memphian friends it hard to hear but I don’t care; the cold, as long as you prepare for it, isn’t a big deal.
The black ice? Now that’s another thing entirely.