One of the first concerns I had about inheriting another chef’s staff was mutiny. The chef job at Ciao Italia wasn’t my first rodeo. I’d walked into war-bonded kitchens as the new guy many times before. If the fired previous chef was highly regarded by the kitchen crew my job was nearly impossible to execute effectively. A dour silence befalls a kitchen staff when their heroes are excommunicated. Everyone sizes each other up. Whispers can be heard on the hotline. “Are you stayin’?” “I don’t like this guy”. “I’m not going to smoke his fucking potatoes everyday”. “He seems like a dick”. A variation of this is usually what I deal with. So, I was a little gun shy taking over the kitchen at Ciao Italia after spending blissful months doing benefit dinners and relaxing on my father in law’s farm in Tennessee.
Kristin, Doug (the owner) and I met with the three cooks on an off day right after The Deed had been performed. They weren’t shocked that Chef Y had been let go and seemed amenable, if predictably skeptical, to the idea of me taking the wheel. Above all else, I promised them a fair and fun work environment with plenty of room for collaboration and appreciation for a hard day’s work.
It was clear that Josh Herlihy, the anorexically thin, tatted, L.A. expat with a high-profile chef job already under his belt, was going to be the one to sew any insurrection should my cooking chops and management style not be up to snuff. He knew all the big chefs, talked reverently about modern food preparation, had “butchered so many hogs that he was sick of doing it”, trained in North Italy, wasn’t impressed by white truffles, had the calm demeanor of a Thomas Keller protégé. He told me point blank that Ciao was just a gig and that he was looking for his next big project. I mean he was nice about it. But he basically said, ‘this food is way below my standards and, as soon as is humanly possible, I’m getting the fuck out of here.’ Why he was cooking in a fine dining red sauce joint in rural New Hampshire and not in L.A. was a question I wanted to ask but shied away from, lest I touch a nerve.
Charlie Gardner, a yes chef guy if there ever was one, said he loved fine dining, that he needed to make his forty hours, that he had to support a huge family. When he talked food, he talked about dishes that had long gone out of fashion in the high-end dining world like they were revelations. But his attitude was fantastic and showed no signs of wear. He just wanted to cook.
Kaitlyn Soucy, a stoic townie from the blue-collar town of Rochester, wasn’t impressed with my resume or promises. If anyone put one foot out the door after our meeting it was her. A well-respected breakfast cook looking to up her game, she was yet comfortable in the testosterone heavy world of expensive cooking. She hadn’t been around cooks who used terms like mise en place, remouillage or garde manger. My worldly, comfortable attitude didn’t play well with her.
However disparate their commitments to Ciao Italia, all three agreed to show up the next day and help me try to steer the ship into calm waters.
Fresh from a prolonged period of slowdown and nervousness, I took the helm of the failing Ciao Italia kitchen on November 30th. My first mission was to create a robust to go business out of thin air. The previous chef was reticent to spend energy on takeout and with the pandemic keeping in house customers at bay, Ciao Italia was weeks away from going under. From what I’d seen in Memphis, takeout was critical to survival. I put the team to the test, creating a huge menu of mostly scratch dishes that we could serve family style. With little marketing, the takeout program Kristin and I put together took off. Like way off. We went from zero to a hundred and eighty in six seconds flat. There was no time for us to acclimate to each other or work on the dishes we were sending out in expensive, golden takeout containers. We worked as fast and hard as we could to satisfy the new demand.
Then brave customers, perhaps hearing that there was a shake up, started to fill out the dining room. Before the end of my first month, it looked like we were going to rescue the operation. With Kristin’s expertise and easygoing attitude in the kitchen rounding things out, our staff of five had bonded like a frontline infantry unit. Everyone was all in, firing on all cylinders, creating, coming in early, deliberating, refining, discussing, respecting each other’s contribution. Knowing what I knew from previous takeovers, this came as quite a pleasant surprise. I remember during one such reimagining (River Terrace, 1999) the business came so fast and furiously that Leonard, the one dishwasher I had, had a nervous breakdown in the dish pit. “You fucking did this to us… Man, you fucking did this to us. I hate you.” He cried like a little baby unable to keep up with the dirty sauté pans we were chucking into his sink.
We lost Kaitlyn after the holidays when I had to cut payroll. But she found a better paying job at a hospital in Rochester. She never did warm to me but worked herself to the limit the entire time she was at Ciao. Her contribution got us through that crazy month. Without her dunking pasta at the right time, prepping in the middle of the endless rushes and showing me how to make the various salads on the menu, we would have definitely crashed and burned. But January in New England is when most high-end restaurant close for the winter. Trimming staff to the bare minimum was the only way I was going to be able to control costs. The least experienced cook had to go. That left me with Josh and Charlie.
Remembering Josh’s promise of imminent relocation, I focused on giving him plenty of creative freedom. He’s still in the making phase of his career. His creativity and cooking chops are strong, and he wants everyone to know it. He wants a kitchen of his own, preferably in a town that appreciates quality cooking. The gluten-free chicken parmesan zone of Southern New Hampshire, he sees, is a graveyard of fine cookery where he refuses to have his headstone placed. I told him early on that we are going to transition away from red sauce joint that buys its pasta from a distributor to a den of creativity and collaboration with fresh pastas, nice charcuterie and plenty of room for his name on the marquee. And for the past two and a half months, he’s giving me all he has in response. When I changed the menu and the way we were cooking, he didn’t give me a bunch of lip. I can tell some of my orthodoxy doesn’t mesh with his (I think using chicken base is perfectly acceptable for example), but he’s never complained or rolled his eyes. He cooks the dishes exactly the way I tell him to and when tasked with coming up with a plate of food, he always puts something world class and thought provoking together. His Tesa Salad with Bitter Italian Greens, Candied Pecans, Parmesan and Pancetta Vinaigrette is one of the best things Kristin and I have ever tasted. It’s just so perfect. Next month, we’re doing our first Chef’s Partnership Dinner at Ciao Trattoria. I am so impressed with this kid (he’s 35) that I’m letting him run it solo with Charlie, Kristin and I acting as supporting cast. I’m hoping this gesture gives him pause.
Charlie is that good soldier who, when told to take a difficult bridge, gathers the courage and equipment and storms in full bore regardless of the bullets whizzing by his head. He doesn’t question my decisions, even though some of them don’t pan out. If I tell him to “burn the bread”, he’ll ask “how dark?” I don’t think it’s blind trust that motivates Charlie as much as it’s learned behavior from past fuck ups. With all of the financial responsibility for his extended family falling squarely on Charlie’s shoulders, getting mouthy with the boss isn’t a sound investment in the future.
Kristin, my stalwart, confectionary assassin, has always held up her end. In addition to coming up with and prepping desserts like her soon-to-be-legendary Cannoli Cheesecake with Biscotti Crust, Pistachio-Chocolate Torte and Butterscotch Budino, she has been instrumental in the restaurant’s entire infrastructure redesign. She’s amazing, just simply amazing. The work she puts into everything she does is extraordinary and is paying dividends.
Spring is coming and with it a horde of hungry vaccinated customers to feed. I predict those restaurants that have survived the pandemic will experience a renaissance the likes of which our industry has never seen. I just hope everyone still standing has a team like I do here in New Hampshire. We’re ready for the inevitable Tsunami.