Listening to Peyton interact with her fourth-grade class at Newmarket Elementary on a Zoom call is pure delight for my weary soul. As I sit on the sofa nursing aching legs, Peyton’s teacher is forging through with a spirited lecture on muscle memory like an icebreaker through a dense field of icebergs. One of her classmates just randomly said, “I’m drinking straight lime juice,” which caused the whole group to lose it. Oh my gosh…that’s like so groooooss…Sean you have problems…I’ll admit to laughing out loud as well. Currently, they’re all in “typing class”. The computer-generated key clicks are punctuated by cute, mousey-voiced questions and quick authoritative responses. The innocence of it all surrounds me like a warm blanket.
Last week was predicted to be the slowest of the year by the owners of our restaurant. I was admonished to cut down on food purchases and labor dollars. The beginning of January is always a time of fear and worry in the restaurant business. The cooks fear a loss of hours and owners worry about revenue. And who’s in between trying to assuage both parties? That’s right, yours truly, the chef. It goes with the job, that heart rending conversation that every cook knows is coming after New Year’s Eve, the tedious once over the diligent chef must give to his order guide. Can we order cheaper chicken? Do we really need eight cured meats? Should I shrink the menu? Or dumb it down? Do I really need a dishwasher during the week? The game of dodge the iceberg is exhausting but necessary.
We lost one of our cooks, let’s call her Kate, to the reduction in hours. All through December she fought the frontline battles hard. I’d hired her in a second in any kitchen I run. But she just happened to be the least experienced cook in the kitchen. She’s going to work in a convalescent home and appears to be excited by the prospect.
The two remaining cooks, let’s call them Jason and Chucky, are warriors. With me rounding out things on garde manger and weekday dishes we are a tight fighting unit. My current labor is more in line with reality and we are about to change the entire concept of the restaurant to one that is more sustainable for my food costs. For now, insolvency has been averted and there’s a clear path forward.
Kristin and I have been marketing the hell out of our efforts at the restaurant on local Facebook groups in Durham and The Seacoast (the name given to the region of New Hampshire, Maine and Massachusetts where Durham is located). Like I did at Caritas, every time I create a new dish, I plaster photos of it everywhere in hopes of catching a few customers. We’ve gotten a lot of traction so far and with the huge change about to happen (more on that after the big blowup) I think we’ve got a very real shot at rescuing this operation.
It’s been increasingly difficult to write about successes we’re having here when most of my friends are suffering in Memphis. Hearing about the dumb fuck health department and their moronic decision to go 25% occupancy enrages me. I spoke with a couple of friends and they are getting dangerously close to giving up. The COVID be damned mentality pervasive when I left two months ago seems to be turning to defeat. I know going back would do little to help anyone at this point. But after spending thirty-one years as a member of the Memphis restaurant tribe I feel like I’m abandoning my brothers and sisters. If things pan out, I’ll be back in Memphis for a very special dinner in late winter. Hold on y’all. We have to keep on keeping on. I’m in this with you. See you soon.
There’s more to report but I’m about to be called into an emergency meeting with the restaurant owners. As alluded to, something big is about to go down that will change not only the trajectory of the restaurant but could quite possibly alter our plans to stick it out in New Hampshire. Next week, more details will be forthcoming. Until then, hang in there my restaurant family. And cook something good for people you love (and those you don’t). It’s the only way we’re going to get through all of this.