Books About The Biz

There are no shortages of books and other publications about (or taking place in/around) restaurants.  As someone who works in this business and is an absolute fanatic about the industry, I try to read whatever I can get my hands on; whether the weekly updates from Nation’s Restaurant News or the more esoteric reading of George Orwell’s turns working in hotels and restaurants in his 1933 classic Down and Out in Paris and London…I gain something from them all.

Below I’ve listed some of my favorites.  Check them out and see if they are some of yours as well.

The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen by Jacques Pepin

pepin

There are many reasons cooking in America has been elevated to an art form and a calling for many people, and Jacques Pepin is one of them.  He helped bring not only the passion of French cooking to this country, but the much harder to master technical skills as well.  Sat across the room from him at a perfect dinner in 2002 at The French Laundry.

Eat Me: The Food and Philosophy of Kenny Shopsin

eat me

Shopsin’s is a one-of-a-kind deli/market on the Lower East Side of New York. It’s owner, Kenny Shopsin, is famous for his surly demeanor, his promise to throw out any vegans who come in the door and his ability to not only memorize, but execute a menu that runs into the HUNDREDS of options.  Click below to see what I mean…

Click to access shopsinsmenu.pdf

A documentary about Shopsin’s titled I Like Killing Flies came out in 2004.  A must-see and you will laugh out loud at this curmudgeon with a heart (and spatula) of gold.

Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain

kitchen-confidential

For restaurant lifers like me, this was it…this was the inside joke, the wink across the room, the silent toast celebrating what only we knew.

Bourdain’s tome hit like a freight train for industry people, who upon reading for the first time, and the 2nd time and the 5th, would exclaim “YEAH MOTHERF#*&ER!” regarding the truths we found inside.

He wrote it as a love letter of sorts to the guys and gals who populate restaurant kitchens across this land of ours, and while he has moved on to different adventures on Food Network, etc, he remains on the bucket list of fellow inmates with whom I will drink a bourbon someday.

Comfort Me with Apples + Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl

Comfort me with apples                             tender_at_the_bone_reichl

The cool thing about Reichl’s work is not just the love affair she has with food and cooking but the INTIMACY with which she writes about them.  She makes you feel like you are right there, whether in her position as the editor-in chief of the now-defunct Gourmet magazine or in her anonymous, yet powerful, roles as food critic for the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times.

California Dish by Jeremiah Tower

california dish  

Jeremiah Tower was present at the dawn of what is now chef-driven dining in America.  A self-taught devotee of food, Jeremiah (after receiving a masters degree in architecture from Harvard), approached the temple of locavore cuisine Chez Panisse and its sorceress Alice Waters and began one of the famed culinary partnerships of all time.

This book is a great look back at the evolution of modern American cooking. Jeremiah eventually left Berkeley to chart his own course with the legendary Stars restaurant in San Francisco, a launching pad for many culinary superstars of the 90’s and into today:  Mario Batali, Mark Miller(Coyote Cafe), Brenden Walsh (Arizona 206) and Mark Franz(Farallon) to name a few.

Devil in the Kitchen: Sex, Pain, Madness and the Making of a Great Chef by Marco Pierre White

devil in the kitchen

If you want to know why Gordon Ramsey acts the way he does, look no further than this man.  Once one of the youngest chefs to earn three Michelin stars for culinary excellence, he ran roughshod over the competition and demanded total excellence from the people working for him. Ramsey and many other young turks grew up under his iron gaze.

While today kitchen’s are a tad more…civilized…Marco Pierre White in his heyday was someone with a singular vision and to hell with anyone who got in his way.

The Soul of a Chef / The Making of a Chef by Michael Ruhlman

the-soul-of-a-chef-138189l1                          making of a chef

I hate Michael Ruhlman.

Ok, I don’t really hate him.  I just covet his writing skills and his ability to make it all seem so effortless.  These two books did a great job of distilling down what it takes every day to be a great cook at the level successful restaurants demand.

The Making of a Chef found Ruhlman enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America to take us inside this country’s most prestigious cooking school.  His follow-up, The Soul of a Chef, details top chefs from around the globe vying for the Master Certified Chef designation. In the 2nd half of the book, Ruhlman compares and contrasts passionate cooking through the eyes of the vaunted Thomas Keller and then-newcomer Michael Symon.

Both are fascinating to read and well worth the time for a restaurant pro or “civilian” alike.

Enjoy.

Restaurant Term of the Day

“COUGAR WATER”

This is another name for Kendall Jackson Chardonnay, the many glasses of which are consumed by women over the age of 40 who may be on the hunt for fun and companionship.

Let’s use it in a sentence!

“Frank, do me a favor and grab me 4 extra bottles of Cougar Water out of the cooler.  Looks to get busy later”.

cougar

Dear Customer 11/4/2014

You’re the 45 year old man whose daughter date didn’t have her ID with her last night.  Hey, we all forget things at the house:  keys, wallet, dignity.  No worries.  But when you devolved into a total douche screaming at me about how she’s old enough and how you know the owner and how blahblahblah.  Sure, she looked “around” 21…but you can bet I won’t ever risk serving someone underage.  Nor will I allow my bartenders or servers to take that risk.  Threaten us all you want with unemployment or a plague of locusts…still not gonna happen.

Here’s some info for you, sir.  Section 25658(a)(b)(e) of the California Alcoholic Beverage Control Act states that “a minimum $1000 fine and 24 hours of community service” is the penalty for “a person who furnishes alcohol to a minor”.  It further states that if this minor consumes the alcohol and “causes great bodily injury or death to themselves or others, the furnisher faces a minimum 6-12 months in county jail and a $1000 fine”.

Yeah I see my employer being ok with holding on to my position for 6-12 months while I’m in jail after I let your giggle box on her teeter-totter heels drink Cosmos and then wrap “Daddy’s” Beemer around a 12-year old kid riding his bike home from a friend’s house.  I see my wife being ok with our financial status being shot to shit and having to take care of the kids by herself because I couldn’t say no to someone who couldn’t produce a valid ID to drink.

You know what?  Go out to the car and bring her ID back and I’ll buy your first round. It’s not in the car?  I’ll write you a rain check for those freebies for next time.  Meanwhile, go to the beer store, pick up some booze and take her back to your place, you old pimp you. Realize that in today’s world, there are rules and we have to follow them same as you.

kid drunkunderage-drinking-001

Looking Ahead

Since the start of my blog, I’ve been writing about my history in restaurants, often as a patron but more importantly as someone who has worked in the food industry for 25 years.  My goal has been to gain your confidence, loyal fan, in my opinions, perceptions and experience.

Now I am moving on to the next phase of this blog.  While I will still bore you with anecdotes and episodes from the past, I will also begin to write about current events, industry changes, trends and movements.  You might get a story about something that happened last night.  There may be a link to another blog or source that I respect. You will definitely get some of my impressions on customer interactions.

Maybe there is a question about restaurants/food/chefs/etc that you’ve always wanted to ask.  There is a greater than zero chance that I have a story that will help answer your question, one that will help enlighten and inform.  Maybe entertain as well.  Ask away.

Enjoy.  And here we go.

fork and knife

Pizza Guy

pizza hat

The white ‘78 Dodge Aspen with the blue Landau top is humming along I-15 on a warm summer night.  Windows are rolled down while on the radio, “Frampton Comes Alive” is playing for the 17th time today on a worn cassette.  On the passenger seat next to me is a red “hot bag” with a logo declaring “New York City Pizza!” to all who cared.  A piece of notebook paper is carefully taped to the storage console between the seats, offering directions to my next two stops.

The year was 1986.  I am a pizza delivery guy.

New York City Pizza was a small venture located in North Las Vegas, about a mile from my house. You could enter the place through doors on either side of a big bay window in front.  Once inside, pinball machines greeted you on the left while a row of four-top tables and red banquette booths spread out in front of and to the right of you.  An open kitchen lined the back wall, the scent of pizza sauce and baking dough wafting throughout.  Tchotchke hung on the walls and from the low ceiling.

I’d answered an ad in the local paper for a delivery guy, this being years before Internet career sites made it easy to job-surf in your underwear.  I dressed up in my best pair of jeans and button down shirt.

NYC Pizza was owned by a guy who’d been a former DJ in Vegas. At that time he’d worked under the moniker  “Jefferson Stone”. A tall bearded man, he chuckled when I reacted to his name.

“Holy crap, are you serious?!” I proclaimed when I met him.  I had spent several years hearing this guy’s voice over the area FM rock station a decade before.  This was like meeting royalty for a 20 year old raised when actual DJ’s spun actual records.

He said he had come up with the name at a funeral, where he glanced the guestbook and noticed someone with the name Jefferson Stone was in attendance.

“That’s kinda dirty…don’t you think?”, I asked.

“Yeah, but its not like I tried to pick up on the widow,” he responded matter-of-factly.

Good point.

The day I started he took me around the place, showing me the pizza oven, the table where the pizzas were created, the walk-in coolers, etc. Steve, the second-in-command of the joint, stretched pizza dough while watching us.  One wall was filled ceiling to floor with a giant laminated map of the Las Vegas valley.  A light film of King Arthur flour covered every horizontal surface.

I filled out the requisite new hire paperwork. Then Jeff led me to the giant map wall.

“This is it” he said…

“This is what?”, I asked.

“This is how you map out your deliveries.”

Ok.

For those of a certain age, Google Maps was 25 years in the future from this point in the story.  There was no Siri or other virtual assistant to help us along the way.  We used Rand McNally maps, Thomas Guides and AAA Trip-Tics to find our way on the roads.  My task from that day forward was to get the address and main cross streets of my destination, then look it up on the big map using the index (“A-4” or “G-6”) located on the left side.  I would then write down turn-by-turn directions to the delivery spot.

I don’t remember my first night at work but I do remember a few highlights of my time at NYC Pizza.

There was our “Monster” pizza which was essentially two large pizzas merged into one giant pie.  In order to transport the Monster, we had to tape two large pizza boxes together, into which we slid the 5-pound beast.  This crazy thing was a favorite among college kids/frat boys and always garnered an extra tip.

There was the cadre of fellow delivery drivers the names of which escape me, but whose faces I remember like yesterday. Between deliveries we were like cabbies at a taxi stand, relaxing under the summer moon sharing, cokes and stories and lies, waiting for the shout of an upcoming job.

There was the time I delivered a large pepperoni to a trailer park in the Northwest part of town.  My knocking on the cheap aluminum frame door resulted in a young guy with a white sheet wrapped around his waist…and nothing else.  20 feet behind this guy was a bed with a lone female figure sitting up against the headboard, waving “Hi!”, the sheets pulled over her breasts but revealing her naked shoulders.  Hendrix blared over hidden speakers.

“Thanks for the pizza…hey man you wanna come in for a beer?”, he asked hazily.

“No I’m good but thanks.”

“Ok, another time dude!”.

To this day I don’t know what would’ve happened had I taken him up on his invitation.  Maybe gone in, had a few beers and left.  Maybe taken part in a devil’s threesome with his girl.  Maybe ended up in his bathtub, packed in ice and missing a kidney. All in all probably made the wisest choice in leaving.

NYC Pizza was a fun place to work for a college kid at that time.  Driving around town, listening to the radio and getting easy tips truly had no equal at that point in my life.  Jefferson has since sold the place and its now a battered taqueria in a neighborhood that has seen better days.  I hope that everyone from that time has moved on to great things as they showed me a lot of camaraderie and love, the spirit of which I try to bring to any business I run.

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.

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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

Dinner with the Family

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Every Wednesday was payday.  Every payday was dinner at Macayo’s.

My dad was working at Wells Cargo, a trucking company whose name was a riff on the Old West overland mail delivery company.  Each week on that special day he and I would make our way to one of two places:  a worn-down North Vegas casino called Jerry’s Nugget or an equally dusty relic known as Joe’s Bar.  At Jerry’s, there was a wheel to spin for every blue-collar grunt who cashed their check there with a chance to win a free shrimp cocktail, a free beer, even the chance to double your paycheck.  I don’t remember my dad ever winning a thing, but it was fun to watch him go through the motions.

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Joe’s Bar was also a North Vegas phenomenon.  Here was a place a young man whose mom needed cigarettes or whose dad needed a beer could could ride his bike towards and venture into, age be damned, to procure those items.  As long as they recognized me, I was the errand boy for vice.  These were different times…

Joe’s was a dusty bar, package liquor store and tiny casino all in one.  There was a drive-thru where you could get booze, sodas whatever.  Inside, it was always nighttime, regardless of the afternoon sun beating down at 110 degrees outside. Cool, dark and thick with cigarette smoke, Joe’s Bar was the perfect spot for those too down-on-their-luck to make their way down to the luxurious Strip.  My father would make his way to the counter, paycheck in hand ready to be signed and handed over. Cigarette dangling from her lips the clerk would count out the bills back to my dad and we would leave. No wheel to spin at Joe’s but I’m sure we received an unhealthy dose of second-hand carcinogens in exchange.

Back to the house to pick up Mom and my little bro Mark.  A short 20 minute drive to the altar of Mexican-food-abduction-by-Americans:  Macayo’s.  Macayo’s was a small chain of restaurants that began in Arizona and spread to Las Vegas.  Our local outpost was a regular spot for those in the area and we kids loved going there.

Their claim to fame was the “TCT”, listed on the menu as the Toasted Cheese Tortilla.  Basically mixed cheddar and jack cheeses sprinkled onto an 18” tortilla and heated through on a hot flattop griddle.  This oily masterpiece was then sliced like a pizza into 8 pieces which we would hungrily grab for.

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The kid’s menu consisted of typical fare:  hot dogs, cheeseburgers, mini quesadillas.  None of these however were a match (in my 10 year old brain) for the taquitos:  corn tortillas filled with shredded beef or chicken and deep fried.  I loved plunging them into the cheap salsa always present at the table and devouring them.  The best part of the meal came at the end, however.  Dishes cleared and spoons at the ready, the waiter would bring a small dish of rainbow sherbet for each child, the scoop topped with a tiny pink or blue plastic donkey.  I don’t know why it made an impression, but I remember the donkey to this day and use it as a story device when I talk to my staff about that little something extra.

Enjoy

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