Starry Nights at Sterling’s

There I was pouring dollar drafts while watching drag queens strut their stuff.

They’re all here.

Anita Mann.  Gloria Hole.  Juan Nightstand and SoFonda Peters

Wait.  Waitwaitwait

Let me start at the beginning: I wound up at Sterling’s due to the urging of my roommate/best friend/frat brother, Chris.  We had made our way 1500 miles east, him for a job, me for a fresh start to a place called Tulsa.  I’d heard of the town, and listened to his pleas regarding a move eastward.  My Mom had died, and it seemed like as good a place as any to reevaluate my life.  We loaded memories, mine like devastation, into a U-Haul and counted ourselves lucky.

The first night at Sterling’s was just a swing-by. Chris would soon be producing a singer who was scheduled to perform at the club, so he wanted to check the place out.  A long L-shaped bar anchored the far end, with the DJ booth on the right and a dance floor in the middle of it all. House music blared over the speakers as we made our way inside.

On Halloween, we were invited to a party at the club.  If you’ve never been to a Halloween party at a gay club, put it on the bucket list. The rumor that I wore a kilt is true. That’s also when we met the owner.

His name was Jeff Lunsford.  A big bear of a man with a loud voice to match, Jeff held court over a ragtag group of bartenders and servers by sheer force of will. As we talked, Jeff found out that I had done some bartending in my past and wanted to know if I would come aboard.

“Wednesdays and Sundays to start…you’ll pour drafts for drag nights”, he demanded more than requested.

“Jeff, just so you know I’m straight. Everyone gonna be ok with that?”

“Hell yes!” he roared.  “They’re gonna love it!”

So began my stint as the new bartender at Sterling’s nightclub.

Drag nights were a cacophony of sight and sound. Situated at my vantage point behind the bar, I saw it all go down.  After forking over $5 for a special glass upon entry, attendees would get beer refills for $1.00 all night. They weren’t there, however, to drink cheap beer and try to score with the new, wide-eyed bartender.

Around 10pm, the music would pause and announcements regarding the upcoming show would begin.  Soon, a figure in a flowing dress would make their way to the dance floor to lip-sync to Whitney Houston or Donna Summer, Madonna or Liza.

Having been raised by very tolerant parents, who chose to bring up their two sons in a love-and-let-love atmosphere, I embraced the relationships I saw at Sterling’s that were as vital and important as any I’d been in or seen.  I watched as men kissed men, women kissed women and didn’t think anything negative of what I witnessed.

Eventually Sterling’s closed.  Done in by the forces of socio/political intolerance and the vagaries of running an independent business, Jeff decided to throw in the towel.  I was sad that it happened, as it was not only a lucrative gig but a bunch of fun as well.  I miss Jeff, and the bartenders Roland and Steve.  I miss the drag performers and their unapologetic exuberance.

In the conservative, Bible-Belt, bedroom community of Tulsa, Sterling’s stood out as a shiny place…somewhere where we had you and you and you beat every Wednesday and Sunday night.

Enjoy.   

Oakville Grocery, eatZi’s and the birth of a food guy

Oakville Grocery

In 1995 I was living in SF and decided to take a solo trip across the Golden Gate Bridge and up into Napa Valley.  Crossing the bridge and into the beauty of Marin County, the trip gave way to rolling hills and soon to long stretches of vineyards. The main drag through the Napa Valley is Highway 29.  This is where Oakville Grocery resides.

Oakville Grocery is a small jewel box of a market offering sandwiches, cheeses, wines and local/regional versions of jams and sauces.  OG’s claim to fame (besides being awesome) is that its the oldest continually operating grocery store in California, around since 1881.

(In the fall of 2003 I had the opportunity to “intern” at St. Francis Winery for a week. I would rouse myself a few minutes early to stop by the Grocery for fresh coffee and pain au chocolate before driving the Oakville Grade road over to St. Francis. Sold to winemaker Leslie Rudd in 2007, Oakville Grocery was renovated by its new owners while still retaining its very intimate charm.)

This small but much-loved place was a huge impetus for my career move to eatZi’s Market and Bakery, a larger and more complex version of Oakville Grocery located in Dallas.  I had recently moved back to Texas (after a temporary gig in Charlotte NC) and was looking for the next great adventure.  I found that adventure at eatZi’s.  I found out a lot more about myself as well.

eatZi’s is the brainchild of Phil Romano, restaurant-idea-man extraordinaire.  eatZi’s contains a central “Chef’s Case” with all sorts of prepared foods, from tabouleh and pasta salad to smoked tenderloin and cherry-glazed pork.  There is a grill area where the choices stretch from breakfast quiches to whole roasted chickens to ribs.  A deli section contains an amazing array of meats and over 100 different cheeses.  Across from the deli a full bakery and pastry shop where the options run from beautiful cakes and truffles, to cranberry-orange bread and crunchy ciabatta…all of these created and baked in-house.

One wall contains fresh produce for the picking (the chefs would come out and “shop” the wall for ingredients to take back for prep – a great visual and quality statement for the customers). Another wall holds prepackaged meals that we would create in-house. Those same meals would be sold “2-for-1” after 9pm in order to make room for the next day’s fresh offerings AND provide a great deal for our customers, the notification of which we would give through red lights switched on at the roof for all walking/driving by to see. There is a coffee corner and fresh flowers for the taking.  Finally, 200 labels of hand-picked wine and a cooler case of hard-to-find nonalcoholic beverages.

Sales at eatZi’s topped $17M annually ($3M of that was catering!), due in no small part to its location, its amazing variety, its uniqueness and the complete and total passion of its staff.

eatZi’s was hiring restaurant managers to run the market; supermarket guys had been their first go-to, but it was felt that those types didn’t have the customer-focused personality necessary to make eatZi’s successful.  If you go to most regular chain-driven supermarkets in America then you understand (Trader Joe’s being a rare exception).

eatZi’s was a performance every day, in the ultimate pull-back-the-curtain, what-you-see-is-what-you-get way. Browse long enough and you might hear the “Chicken Song”, which the grill guys would belt out at the top of their lungs, ending the performance by banging on metal pots with slotted soup spoons. Opera played over the speakers. Samples were laid out throughout the market, especially at the deli case where Dorothy held court, ready to slice some sopressata salami or an amazing cheese for you to try.  There was a microphone hanging on the wall which I would use to give announcements to everyone about a new wine offering or awesome addition to the Chef’s Case.

This place was were I truly learned the value of a regular guest to any business.  Lunches at eatZi’s would find a line 30-deep of folks waiting for a fresh-to-order sandwich or crisp salad.  Dinner-time would find many of those same folks back, ties loosened or high heels replaced with running shoes, for a pick at the ready-to-eat meals section or maybe some rosemary chicken breasts from the case paired with garlic new potatoes and some seasoned asparagus. Add a bottle of wine and the young professionals who made up a large part of our clientele left happy knowing they wouldn’t have to cook. Talented staffers in green deli aprons and white bakers caps served up recommendations with a smile.

eatZi’s was a market in another way:  a “meet market”…and I don’t mean we served great cuts of steak (which we did by the way).  Gather a bunch of young 20- or 30-something singles, surround them with a bounty of food, wine and flowers, and we became the best pickup place in town.  Not to mention we were just blocks away from Cedar Springs Road, the local hub for gay and lesbian bars, clubs and shops. You would often see introductions happening by the pastry case, or while in line for a roasted chicken, the two strangers warmed by a sample of wine and the fire from the rotisserie. Food and wine are erotic, and the intimate atmosphere of eatZi’s lent itself to these feelings.

I would say that my experience at eatZi’s (and the Oakville Grocery) are second only to being in the kitchen with my Mother in terms of turning me into a food guy.

Enjoy.

EatzisOaklawnMarket

Why Restaurants?? (a.k.a “So…that major in Comparative English has you doing what now, son??”)

Its been a goal of mine to make the career of restaurant-management-professional one that is not maligned but rather respected.  If you think about it, here is someone who leads a team of 50-125 people or more, depending on the size of the biz and their position in it. They are often charged with being marketers, salespeople, HR pros, emergency handymen, line cooks, therapists, you name it.  YOU try managing so many different personalities while anywhere from 300-1000 guests each with their own needs, idiosyncrasies, tastes and opinions come through your doors every day.

There are many reasons why I love what I do.  Here are a few in no particular order:

1.  One of the only businesses that make AND sell its product under one roof.  If you think about it, restaurants are almost unique in that respect.  The rise of fast-casual chains like Chipotle have taken this to the Nth degree, where you are seeing your food being constructed in front of you with a wide range of options to personalize your meal. If you buy a car, somewhere in Detroit or Ohio or Japan is a building you will never see, with auto workers you will never meet creating a product that you will only see weeks or months later once it arrives in the showroom.

In our thing, restaurants bring in raw materials and create the dishes in house.  Yes, some ingredients or even whole dishes may arrive frozen, depending on the quality of the concept or the philosophy of the owner, but the transformation from that to finished product occurs in house and then immediately to your table. What this gives me is the ability to receive AND give instant feedback regarding our efforts. You can’t call up the guy in Detroit who installed the bumper on your car and tell him “great job” or “WTF – this thing rattles like its full of gravel?!”. Don’t like how your steak is cooked, no problem.  No need to make an appointment to get it fixed.  I can get it done right then and there AND coach the cook on proper technique all in the span of minutes.

2.  The last meritocracy:  what I’ve found early on is that restaurants don’t care if you’re black, white, brown, thin, fat, tall, short, gay or straight.  Whatever.  If you can kick ass, turn out great food, handle up on your section, tackle the bar on a busy Friday night then you are one of the chosen.  I believe the reason for this is when the shit hits the fan, the guy next to you may be your only savior and who cares if he likes sex with guys while you prefer girls.  WHO GIVES A FUCK JUST HELP DIG ME OUT OF THE WEEDS!

Not to mention, the kind of diversity we have in restaurant life just makes it more exciting to be around.  Cultures and traditions and attitudes and preferences all get mixed together and shuffled, especially when you’re around your co-workers more than your own family.  And at the end of the night, when you’re sitting in a bar listening to a new coworker tell you how they recently came to America, are working two jobs to send money back home and you know they absolutely killed it at work next to you tonight, well, perhaps your life is enriched somewhat by sharing the experience.

3.  The people:  the reason I’ve stayed doing this for so long.  Restaurants attract a wide range of folks – young people in college, single parents, professionals that cooked or served during school who’ve decided that things like eating and having a roof over their head makes their ego irrelevant and they will gladly fall back on former experiences to survive (see recent recession..).  Some come for a while, some stay forever and most will tell you that it was some of the most fun they’ve had…ever. The long shifts, the late nights, the sex, drugs, rock and roll.  Its all real…and it happened.

I remember one episode early on in the relationship with Melissa, my ex and mother of my two boys. We met her mom Ellen and stepfather Richard at their house for dinner for my first time.   My soon to be brother- and sister-in-law were there as well.  As we sat around the table, Melissa’s mom asked everyone about work.  Maury and Laurinda both worked for Verizon at the time, so their stories were predictable tales of office and cubicle life.  Melissa at the time was herself a server in a restaurant so she had some type of exposure to the life but was going to school and wouldn’t be serving permanently..

When her mom Ellen turned her elegant gaze to me and asked about restaurant life and how I liked it, I was momentarily stuck. What do I tell them?  Hey folks did you know that after hours we have to get absolutely hammered to forget the shift we just had?  Can I tell you about the late night cleaning crew lady who, to make extra cash, performed blow jobs on her male co-workers in the bathrooms they were polishing?  Can I tell you about the star of an 80’s TV show set in Miami who, while publicly professing to be on the wagon, shuffled about at our opening grasping a coffee cup with a lemon precariously balanced on the edge as if he were drinking hot tea, all the while sneaking to the service well to have the bartender top him off with straight Patron? Can I tell you about the storage house behind Full Moon Cafe that was a tornado of drugs and other debauchery?  The Saturday nights at Chili’s in Tulsa where (due to the draconian liquor laws in that state) we would panic around 8:30, knowing the beer store was closing in 30 minutes AND not open until Monday.  Cash was immediately flashed and given to a poor busser or barback with demands and a list.  Since they couldn’t bring the purchases back into the restaurant, the next step would be to climb up and secure the booze on the roof of the building!  It being winter and all the liquid gold was perfectly kept chilled in the ever-present winter snow.

Do I tell them these episodes and more? Uh no..

I chose to take the high road and not frighten off my future in-laws.

“I love it Ellen.  Its decent money, every shift is different and my coworkers are a lot of fun”.

Coward.

I guess she’s reading this now and hopefully laughing about it.  Plus I did help give her two amazing grandsons so there’s that.

Enjoy.  And push the fish tonight…its about to turn.

waiting manager Dan

Amazing Dining Experiences

diningout

I’m not sure when it turned for me…when dining itself became the only destination and less the thing to do before a movie or after a show.  Where you could spend two or three hours trying new tastes in the company of someone special or a group of like-minded fools ready to drop the equivalent of a car payment on dinner.

I guess working at Savoia was a stab at seeing how people ate this way.  At that time in my life I couldn’t imagine dropping that much scratch on a dinner.  There I saw what I imagined to be rich folks being fawned over by our team, thinking that anyone who would drop $200 on a plate of goat cheese crostinis for an appetizer, a steak with some red potatoes and asparagus, maybe a roasted chicken for the lady and some wine had to be doing quite well.

In 1991, Bret Easton Ellis released American Psycho, his twisted black comedy that followed the life of Patrick Bateman, a wealthy young banker who spends his days “fitting in” and his nights in murderous insanity.  I was living in Tulsa at the time and made my way to the bookstore, being a fan of his other works.  As I read the novel what struck me as a restaurant guy was the attention paid to and focus on which restaurants they had reservations.  Many scenes in the book were set in restaurants, bars and clubs. Some of the restaurants were real places in the fictional New York of the time (mid-80’s).  While all of you were reading with horrified eyes the many scenes of hyper-violence and gore, I pored over the passages describing the different dishes being served, many of them the over-the-top, adjective filled, multi-syllabic cooking of the day.  I wanted to try the Swordfish Meat Loaf with Onion Marmalade and Wasabi Mashed Potatoes or the Red Snapper scented with Violets and Pine Nuts over a Sweet Potato Hash.  It just sounded so damn INTRIGUING.

I’ve had some great meals in my life, some at three star palaces with celebrity chefs and some at local dives where the only stars present (both celebrity and Michelin) were the ones in my head after too many whiskeys.  Maybe it was the food, the service, the company on my arm that made the experience what it was but they are as varied as can be.

I’ll start off with the one that many food writers have made to be their “have-to”:  The French Laundry.

The French Laundry came into being in 1994.  I moved to SF Bay area from Texas in 1995. My friend Michael Meadows mentioned the restaurant and how he and his wife couldn’t wait to go there.  Being pre-internet, I couldn’t just go online and check out the hype.  But people were buzzy about it so I thought that might be a place to see. Being located in Yountville only made it more attractive since I was a big fan of wine country.

Problem is, I didn’t make it to the French Laundry until 8 years later, having moved back to Texas.  We ventured to SF to try and recapture the romance of that time and place and then repaired to wine country for a few days.  Being a restaurant guy, I had cajoled lodging and some winery tours from some of our vendors back home.

On a clear night we made our way to the restaurant.  Arriving about 30 minutes early (such was my anticipation) we ventured inside and was told by the manager that our table would be ready at nine.  We retreated to a local bar for a drink then returned at the appointed hour.  The manager was again at the front and said, “Mr. Lory right this way please”.  I was blown away that she remembered my name from our brief encounter 30 minutes before, especially given the number of guests leaving from the early seating, the ones arriving for our seating, the ones trying to get a last minute walk-in table and the ones who just wanted to gawk at this the temple of haute cuisine.

We made our way to our table and ordered the 10-course tasting menu.  One by one amazing (and much-publicized) dishes came our way.  Some I loved, some I didn’t and some I didn’t get.  But the service was impeccable and the atmosphere intoxicating.  At the end, as we were trying to force ourselves to eat the hand wrapped chocolates and mignardise (petit fours) after so much rich food, I looked over at the large round table in the center of the dining room and noticed none other than Jacques Pepin, the famous chef who helped to introduce French cuisine to America.   He was holding court with 8 or 9 others.  I am not a person who is celebrity-struck, even back in the Planet Hollywood days.  But for a restaurant boy like me, this was the equivalent of dining next to culinary royalty.  Or meeting Thomas Keller.  Which was about to happen.

“Would you like to meet the Chef?”

Um…what?

My head was fogged from a day of wine tasting, driving all over the Napa Valley, 10 courses of rich decadence plus  more wine.  Perhaps I hadn’t heard him correctly.

To this day I don’t know if every table had the chance to go back and meet Chef Keller, if they picked me as a fellow restaurant dude or if they took pity on the one table who obviously had to save up many pennies to eat here.  Don’t know don’t care.  All I knew was that I was going to meet the master.

The server led us quietly to a hallway to the kitchen.  There a tall figure in white was fiddling with a towel.  He turned to us and said “hi, Thomas Keller”.  I shook his hand and introduced us in return.  He asked how the dinner was and I said it was great.  I’m sure my delivery was not very elegant and that I stammered my words.

We left and made our way outside.  There was a small garden to the right of the building and we went over there and looked inside through rectangular glass windows into the kitchen.  There was the cleanest kitchen I had ever seen and in the center was Chef Keller sweeping his floors among the cooks and sous-chefs. I was in awe.  Here was arguably the most exciting chef in America sweeping his own floors.  My own KM’s back home didn’t even sweep the floors, not deigning to do something that they felt the line cooks or dishers should do.

Chef Keller autographed a menu for us, and Melissa made up a special display as a present for me a few months later.

french laundry

But there have been other ones, experiences where the restaurant wasn’t so lauded, the chef not so well known.  Where there was a simple special touch, like a location or a server or a menu item or a companion that made it special.  Where it didn’t really cost a lot of money.  And isn’t that what dining out is about?  And isn’t that what we strive for as restaurant professionals?

The simple yet elevated cooking of Hattie’s in South Dallas.  Low country Southern fare not seen in the area for some time. Their bacon-wrapped blue-cheese stuffed figs are legendary.

The crispy garlic chicken wings at Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas, before it became known as the best Thai restaurant in the country.  In our time, Lotus was in a shambling strip mall on Sahara Avenue and every Wednesday a group of fellow fraternity brothers would jump into a car, classes be damned, for the all-you-can-eat buffet featuring these wings.

There was driving across the country, moving to San Francisco.  That night we planned to stay in Albuquerque but I knew that driving an extra hour north would reward us with Coyote Cafe and Mark Miller.  Miller once worked for the vaunted Alice Waters, then spread his wings and became a grandfather of Southwestern cuisine.  We changed clothes at a New Mexico gas station, then drove up to Santa Fe.  Amazing and worth the detour.

The dinner at Wink in Austin, where they put  “Happy Birthday, Laura” at the top of their daily-printed menus for my girlfriend of the time. Little touches like that make my restaurant lifer pants go crazy…

The 48 oz double-cut Porterhouse steak at Mastro’s in LA, served sizzling with butter and sides.  Drunk with bourbon and a day of revisiting old memories while hanging with old friend Kuehne, we devoured that steak then Ubered our way back to the hotel, stumbling inside to pass out sated and at peace.

There was the visit to Star Canyon prior to its sale to Carlson Restaurants.  Knowing it had a finite life span as an independent, we quickly made reservations after the news of its impending sale and reveled in what would soon not exist, preferring to be a dumbed down, corporate version of itself in upcoming days.  The Bone-In Cowboy Ribeye with Pinto-Wild Mushroom Ragout and Red Chile Onion Rings.  A now-classic dish that Chef Stephan Pyles should be proud of.  (As I was writing this passage, I went online and ordered his first cookbook, The New Texas Cuisine.  Sure, its rather dated now and Chef Stephan has moved on to other successes, but I had to have it…).

There was Mary’s Trattoria in the West Village in NYC.  Making our way up carpeted stairs to our table, the other diners having hushed intimate conversations wrapped like bubbles around them.  I don’t remember what we ordered but we were New Yorkers for 2 glorious hours.

The sandwiches at Gezellig.  This bar was the brainchild of a couple Dallas-area friends, who used a boozy trip to Europe to create a supercool Amsterdam-style watering hole.  Beers were good, better than most being served in Dallas and definitely ahead of the current craft beer craze.  BUT what I loved most about Gezellig were the sandwiches; big thick deli treats with corned beef or pastrami or roast beef.  Still the best deli sandwiches ever.

The tenderloin tamale at Reata in Fort Worth.  Instead of poor cuts of meat scraps being ground up and stuff into a corn husk, they used the trimmings from breaking down full tenderloins; rich, succulent meat.  Topped with a pecan mash, these things were melt-in-your-mouth.

There was the Short-Rib Foie Gras Burger at Paris Vendome in Dallas.  This thing was mind-blowing, and presaged the rise of gourmet, “better burgers” that followed 10 years later.

There have been so many that I could go on and on.  And probably will in postings to follow…

Enjoy