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.

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

Dinner with the Family

macayo                                       macayo2

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.

jerrysnugget

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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The beginning

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It was, as for most, my mother’s kitchen.

Classic 1970’s accouterments;  avocado-green stove, Formica counter-tops, rotary phone hanging on the wall.

We definitely didn’t speak in terms of “cuisine” in our house.  Meals were meat and potatoes meant for my blue-collar father who, after wrestling 10,000 pound semi-tractor/trailers all day at work, was not going to be satisfied with anything less than pot roast or roasted chicken, a giant mound of mashed potatoes and some common vegetable, typically green beans. This was rounded out by crescent rolls heated and held under a kitchen cup towel to stay warm, slathered with margarine out of a tub.

Fancy.

Long before the advent of molecular gastronomy and chef-driven recipe “labs”, mom’s cabinet contained a repertoire of basic spices with labels from Durkee’s, McCormicks, Schilling.  These versions would be laughed off as “primitive” by today’s sophisticated palates, but mom would wield them bravely in an effort to try and bring something new to her casseroles.

Since we were living the classic 70’s familial model of Dad-at-work and Mom-at-home, many were the days that found me in the kitchen with her after school.  She would have her arsenal of cheap spices at the ready and I would open each one and smell them, inhaling deeply.

The Christmas scent of cinnamon and allspice.

The Mediterranean scent of basil and garlic powder.

The herbal intoxication of tarragon and sage, of thyme and marjoram.

The subtle yet verdant green smell of rosemary, my favorite.  When we had fresh rosemary, my mom taught me how to bend the tiny leaves until they cracked open, releasing the oils inside which I would rub onto my palm to carry the amazing herbal scent around with me.  (Side note:  my dad taught me to do the same thing with pine needles while camping.  Crazy the things you remember from your youth..)

The smokiness of ground black pepper and the tang on my tongue of iodized salt from the blue canister of Morton salt, the one with the image of the girl carrying an umbrella while spilling salt behind her.

My mother’s other gift to me was a love of reading. I learned of spice routes and, while inhaling ancient smells, imagined caravans of camels with priceless satchels making their way to sultans to be presented and bartered.  While I had not yet left the safety and security of my parents house, in my mind I traveled far and away, aided only by my imagination and the fragrant tones of supermarket spices.  

Enjoy

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Life On Other Planets

Here is a little story about leaving Full Moon Cafe in Tulsa in 1994 and moving to company called Planet Hollywood.

As enamored as I was (and still am) of Tulsa’s charms, I longed to be part of a larger existence again.  I felt like I could make the “circuit” in such short order: from our place on Cherry Street to the shops of Utica Square, from the bars on Brookside and down on 18th street to the chain restaurants crowding 71st and Memorial.  Tulsa was closing in; I had run as ragged over a town as I ever have and I needed fresh looks, fresh experiences and a new story to tell.

My good friend Clint “Chewbacca” Chew from the Chili’s days called me out of the blue one day.  He said that he had just been hired as a kitchen manager for a place called Planet Hollywood and that I should look into it as they were on a hiring spree.

Planet Hollywood started as the movie-themed answer to Hard Rock Cafe.  I had heard about and seen the concept being blown up on TV, knew about the celebrity owners Ah-nold, Sly and Bruce.  Watched footage of the grand openings featuring Hollywood’s A-list and the blues band headliner fronted by none other than WIllis himself.

I sent them my resume, not believing that they would hire a kid living in Tulsa toiling away at an unknown bistro.  Yet, a phone call is what I got.  I was to fly to LA to meet with the Director of Operations.  The day before the flight I went sky-diving with some of the other workers at Full Moon, then closed the restaurant, not leaving until 3am.  My flight was at 7am and I didn’t dare miss it so I stayed up all night, rose, dressed in a suit and flew to LA.

Once I arrived in LA, I was instructed to go to the Admiral’s Club and meet up with John.  There were three other candidates there to meet John (one who would eventually become my GM); when John came out, we were told that we each had 15 minutes to interview.

As I entered the room, John gestured for me to have a seat at the table across from him.

“Tell me about the Full Moon Cafe”

“125 seat bistro concept, 3 full dayparts, live music, best place in town if you’re asking.”

“Why Planet Hollywood?”

“Tired of living in a small town – ready for the big time.”

“You seem awfully cocky.”

“John, yesterday I jumped out of an airplane, then worked a closing shift and didn’t sleep because I didn’t want to miss the plane.  If I’m cocky its only because I cheated death so there isn’t anything you can tell me to make me upset”  Then I disarmed him with a smile…

Somehow, I got the job.

A few days later I received a phone call from their HR department and was told that I would train in either Phoenix or NYC.  Ma’am, I politely told the HR person at the other end of the line, send me to NYC and you have me for life.  I had spent too many days camping in AZ as a young man, and was tired of rattlesnake wind and road runner sun.  I got my wish, and found myself on a flight to Manhattan, NYC, NY.

Once in NYC, I decamped from the plane and into the night air, plotting my next move. I hailed a cab. The cabbie placed my gear in the trunk and then sped toward our destination, clutching the radio mic to his mouth, speaking a mish-mash of Persian, Arabic and who-knows-what-else.  He would glance at me in the rear-view from time to time with a cock-eyed look, then back to the road as we barreled down the freeway.  Over the Brooklyn bridge.  Twisting down into the City.  Finally in front of Planet, at the old 57th Street location we found ourselves. The driver unloaded all of my bags in front of the restaurant.  I paid him and said hey man, thanks.  He looked at me, paused as if unaccustomed to polite behavior, then spun and entered his cab and sped off to parts unknown.

I stood here, finally, at the crossroads of the world.

I didn’t make a move to enter the restaurant, unsure of my next move.  I was parked on the sidewalk as a rube, waiting to be taken advantage of.  I glanced to either side, feeling the weight of being in this city, of arriving but perhaps not yet being worthy.

“Hey”.  I heard someone say.

I climbed down from the reverie in my head, and looked for the source of the sound.  It was a large man perched in front of the doorway to Planet.

“Hey man – I think I’m supposed to be training here,” I responded.

‘What’s your name?  I’ll check with the Manager.”

“David Lory”

“Ok…wait a sec”

I stood there as he went in to the building, hoping that he would come back at some point.  Soon, he did with a manager named Sean in tow.

“You’re late”.  I would soon recognize this as typical abrupt NY speak.

“Yeah, my plane was delayed and then it took forever to get here”.

Silence.

Finally:  “Ok follow me”.

We picked up my gear and then he took me on a walk a block over to an apartment building on 58th, across from Essex House.  He gave me instructions on how to get upstairs.  I carried my many bags of belongings upstairs to the corporate apartment and passed out.

The next day I reported as ordered for orientation.  The day was spent filling out new hire paperwork, receiving a training schedule and listening to the things I should and shouldn’t do. The following days were spent in the kitchen and we (my fellow trainees and I) followed a routine of learning recipes and prepping sauces, of learning how to portion chicken and cook burgers.  We then rotated to the front-of-house, moving through the different positions:  front door host (bouncer), front desk host, busboy, server, bartender.  It was at the front door host position that I encountered the great Samuel L. Jackson, who was about to blow up huge from his performance in Pulp Fiction but who I knew from his astonishing performance as Gator in Jungle Fever.  He was walking by, another famous face in NYC, while I gawked.  He smiled and said hi, then walked away and joined the masses who traveled by our front door every day.

The days rolled by, spent learning and reciting facts and figures learned with my nights spent  walking through the famed city, seeing landmarks only viewed 3000 miles away on television. Empire State Building to Central Park, from the World Trade Center to Times Square.

One day, the receiving manager came up to me and asked if I wanted to go to a clambake.  I didn’t know anything about what a clambake was (I just knew that it was an east coast thing) but was willing to extend my experiences in NYC as much as possible. There was to be 3 of us going to this thing but, come Sunday, as I waited in front of the restaurant, the receiving guy was the only one who showed.  He apologized, saying that the other person, his assistant, had to bow out.  He then mentioned that we should go pick up our ride.

I was confused, thinking he had a car but then remember that a lot of people in NYC did not.  Too expensive to own and park.  We walked around the corner and there it was, a battered red Ford Bronco.  We climbed inside.

“WTF is that smell?”, I asked.

He looked rather sheepish at me, then replied, “Oh that. Yeah. The meat company we buy from uses it as a hot shot delivery vehicle”.  “Hot shots” are last minute deliveries that the vendor hates because either they screwed up or the client screwed up.  Regardless it usually turns into the salesperson convincing a surly driver into a fast drop off across town.   I looked into the back where the rear seats would normally be.  Instead there was an expanse of flaked red and rusted silver metal coated in many spots with what looked to be dried dark red liquid.  I knew instantly what it was, but had to ask:

“Is that blood?!”

He shot a glance over his shoulder, shrugged and said “yep”. What we were smelling was the dried remnants of beef cuts, pork shoulder, sausages, offal that had leaked from bags or boxes.  Evidently refrigeration was not something they worried about for such short and fast deliveries

So there I was, a captive in this god awful smelling, rusty red beast barreling towards upstate New York.  Except we never made it there.  In these the days before GPS, smartphones, internet, we had to rely on his scribbled directions written on an old produce invoice.

Which were wrong.

We drove on.

And on.

“Pennsylvania State Line”  read the sign to my right.

Are you shitting me?!  Where the hell are we?  These were the thoughts going through my heads, but I said nothing.  Not being from here I didn’t want to make assumptions.

10 minutes later we pulled over into a gas station so he could call his friends.  Turns out we went about 90 miles out of our way and would not be making the clambake in time.  I just wanted out of the slaughterhouse-smelling red beast.  We decided to turn around and head back to Manhattan, stopping off at Hard Rock Cafe for a late lunch.  You would think that he would offer to pay for my meal after blowing my day off on a wild clam chase, but no.

Oh well, if you don’t have adventures I guess you have nothing to write about.

Stompin’ at the Savoia

One of my earliest gigs in the life was a “back-waiter’ position at Savoia, a French/Italian white tablecloth eatery east of the Strip.  It was owned by a man named Georges La Forge, whose other restaurant in town, Pamplemousse, was a local favorite specializing in classic French cooking.

Back-waiter is our life is essentially a busboy who, in addition to clearing tables and resetting tablecloths, also shares tasks such as clearing plates and refilling bread baskets.  It also serves as a type of internship for the back waiter to learn the intricacies of fine dining service from veteran servers.  While I didn’t think I would ever want to be one of the stuffy, career-waiter types who carried themselves haughtily through the dining room, I was indebted to my buddy and fraternity brother Jim who saved me from another penniless semester by vouching for me for the job.

The food was amazing at the Savoia, yet lost on a 21 year old kid raised on meatloaf smothered with tomato sauce or Kraft macaroni and cheese.  I remember a very tender osso bucco dish that, when brought back to the dish pit ½ eaten, would command the attention of the servers as they would grab the bone and rip into the tender beef as I watched thunderstruck that someone would eat discards from someone else’s plate!

Every Friday the chef would step back from one of his screaming matches with the owner (my high school French picking up only nouns and surely none of the swearing) and conduct a class in an aspect of cooking.  One week it was sauces:  bechamel, veloute, bernaise, et al.  The next week it was our famous profiteroles and the care put into baking with pate de choux.

One memorable week it was brandies and cognacs.  Grappa, stravecchio, armagnac, cognacs of different price points, quality and rareness.  Since my tastes at that time extended no further than cheap keg beer and the occasional shot of supermarket tequila, I had no understanding of the gift I was being given with the tiny samples.

The pinnacle of the tasting was Louis XIII, a cognac produced by Remy Martin that had a hallowed reputation as the best of the best. Presented in a handblown crystal decanter, this elixir was offered up for $125 per 2oz snifter to our guests. The all-knowing career servers slid forward in their seats to welcome this rare treat from the chef.  As we sipped the light-brown liquid, the room was silent as if we were Benedictine monks praying for absolution.

After tasting it, I only knew that the liquid going into my mouth, like the others that preceded it, was not to my liking, and would most likely come back up at some point.

It did.

Not long after the brandy class we were setting up the dining room for service and I suddenly felt the churn in my stomach and the water gushing into my cheeks.  I quickly turned to the bathroom and made it to the sink.  Priceless brandies came up and into the porcelain.  The chef would be absolutely pissed if he saw me I thought as I looked into the mirror.   Enough of this stuff for me.

My favorite part of working at Savoia was the bakery.  It’s where I learned about sorbet as a “palate-cleanser”.  It’s where I tasted chocolate dacquoise and apple mille-feuille.  I especially loved when the very cute pantry assistant would screw up an order of profiteroles with vanilla ice cream and offer them to me.  I fantasized that she did it out of some crazy affection for me but alas the slightly crusty baked pastry was the only treat offered.

The Savoia was a brief yet necessary stop for someone who would end up in the biz.  Fine-dining is something that I experienced but have never worked in since.  It gave me a look into a type of service that is increasingly rare, but still coveted by a small yet discerning group of people.