The only prerequisite for entry into the restaurant business is a level of insanity for which there is no cure or treatment, let alone a vaccine. The only thing that will hold the condition at bay is to get into the business and hope to develop a herd immunity as a protection from wanting to open a second or third restaurant.
At least that’s what Dr. Fauci says.
The hours are long, the work is brutal and, as Adam Gopnik noted in his 2011 book The Table Comes First (Vintage), “aside from the ventures of a handful of those entrepreneurs essentially indifferent to the food they serve, how tiny is the hope of profit.”
“Sale métier,” the cook says. Filthy occupation.
A restaurant is the product of a dream, usually that of one person but oftentimes shared with kindred souls. During the course of bringing that dream to fruition, the details are so meticulously planned that by the time financing is secured and a proper location is found, the owner(s) knows how he(they) wants the napkins folded.
Last week I met one of the three owners of Campione, which will soon open in the space where I had my restaurant, Adagio, for nearly 12 years. I chose not to offer any unsolicited advice, even after his telling me that the process was akin to giving birth to a teenager who wanted to kill you. Jeff Galli struck me as a personable young man with a sense of humor; he was wearing a mask. (Concern and caring for people are pretty much the cornerstones of the hospitality industry.) He and his partners, I assume, have grand plans for the corner space and I wouldn’t want to interfere.
Not everybody thinks like that. In fact, it seems that at times anybody who has actually eaten in a restaurant knows exactly how one of them should be run, what should be on the menu, how the place should be decorated, and how the staff should dress. Typically, they don’t hold back.
My first foray into food service began in 2000 at the long-gone Peterson’s Spirits & Eatery in the Murray Hotel. Scott Peterson was a decidedly talented chef who had trained at the New England Culinary Institute and had served an internship in Chamberry, France.
Scott had a precise vision of what he wanted his first restaurant to be. High-end fine dining with French-inspired cuisine; three courses from a limited menu that would change seasonally. Prix fixe.
That was his plan. He spent hours scribbling worm-like things on paper to inspire his plating.
“So,” said an acquaintance during what would turn out to be about a five-month build-out and remodel, “tell Scott that where he’ll make the most money is with lasagna. It’s cheap, it’s easy. Make a big tray every day.”
I answered that the restaurant would be serving French cuisine.
“So what?” he said as he rolled his eyes and shook his head. “You gotta make money.”
“This is Montana,” another acquaintance noted. “We like beef and you’d do well to put steak on the menu…you know, a big 24-ounce T-bone, ribeye, prime rib on the weekend.”
At the time, that list of steaks was on the menu of at least three or four other restaurants in town.
But the suggestions ran on to include fried shrimp, pork roast, ribs, lobster, crab legs. Macaroni-and-cheese was a popular suggestion, as was the creation of a kids’ menu that would, of course, offer hot dogs, grilled cheese, and tomato soup.
Most of these suggestions I never let get to Scott, who would not have reacted kindly to them.
I doubt that any of the suggestions would have offered any salvation. The restaurant lasted less than two years, which is not uncommon at all for start-up operations.
It is a tough business.
Somewhere along the line I had become infected with whatever disease it is that makes one fall head-over-heels in love with the restaurant business. There is an almost imperceptible energy that comes from the tasks of food preparation and service. The cast of characters is interesting at the least, as are the customers.
It’s exciting, and it’s a daily risk-taking endeavor to create a menu, execute it, and maintain an atmosphere that exists for the simple concept of making people happy.
And so I threw my hat into the ring and came out the owner of a corner pizza joint. I had big plans whose details I would work out on my off hours. Namely, I wanted Adagio to offer casual fine dining, with an emphasis on the cuisines of Northern Italy. I wanted as little as possible to do with red-sauce and checkered tablecloths of what was Italian-American cuisine. I was going to offer polenta and risotto, thick veal-chops and osso buco.
I got plenty of unsolicited menu advice, little of it much different from those ideas I had fielded at Peterson’s, right down to the lasagna.
To this day, people ask what I miss the most about the business. My answer is always, “The heat.” The heat generated on the cooking line is intense. So is the work. Five four-tops whose tickets come in at the same time with fourteen different menu items, three with no starters or salads. Six specials: four fish, two lamb.
“You’re killing me, here.”
The adrenaline is rushing at its peak. It will sustain us for another, three or four hours, until we have a shift wine and do the cleaning for tomorrow’s lunch service. And that adrenaline would frequently accompany me to bed, my head spinning with what went right and what went wrong and what tomorrow might bring.
“Chef, table four would like to speak with you about a wine suggestion.”
I was attending my sister’s sixtieth birthday in Bloomington, Indiana, in 2008. I drove downtown to get an espresso and picked up a copy of the New York Times. The failure of Lehman Brothers was front page news that signaled the beginning of one of the worst economic downturns in our history. The next day I was home, walking to the bank from my corner store. The little boutique next door had closed and there was a for rent sign in the window. I reached my landlord from my cell phone and made a deal for the space.
An economic downturn called for new approaches to business, new opportunities, I thought.
“A wine bar,” I told a disapproving Geri. “We can open the place days and make a really casual place for lunch. Soups, salads, sandwiches.” In contrast to Adagio, which was greatly modeled after the Slow-food movement, we named the bar an up-tempo Allegro.
Slow food fast © became both our premise and our promise.
Again, there was no shortage of nifty ideas for making the wine bar reflect someone else’s vision. I took it all in stride and moved forward.
Allegro didn’t last long, not quite three years. I don’t know why, but I suspect it was because I couldn’t provide the nurturing it needed. My heart was in Adagio, and I began to resent the time and efforts the place was demanding and, therefore, distracting me from what was most important—my executing Italian cuisine.
It also coincided with an illness that, in time, would prevent me from working in the business I had come to love. The needed energy was gone. And a third joint, Pronto, a tiny lunch place I opened a couple of years later, was just getting going when my health took another downturn.
And so to my new friend Jeff, I’ll not offer any advice, and I most sincerely wish you and your partners the best of luck in your new venture. I’d like to see that place become vibrant and successful once again. I’m eager to become a customer.
Oh, in case you need a great recipe for porchetta—so prevalent as street food throughout Rome—here it is.
Photography by Courtney A. Liska
As is true with all Italian cuisine, there is no one recipe for any dish. They vary from village to village, with fresh ingredients, not technique, driving the creative process. I’ve enjoyed porchetta in Rome, Florence, Rappalo, Asti, and Modena. Each was different; each was delicious.
Traditionally, the dish calls for a suckling pig, deboned, skin on. The carcass is then stuffed with herbs (sage, basil, thyme, oregano, parsley, fennel), lemon, bread, various ground meats, currants, pine nuts, cheese, wine, onions, garlic…you get the picture. I cook mine over a bed of carrots.
Few have access to young pigs. Some can find a pork loin with the belly attached, which is ideal—especially if the skin is still on the belly. Although the cracklings are wonderful, a pork loin without the belly will work. Last night, I made an improvised version of porchetta with a pork tenderloin. I butterflied it, like you would with any of the cuts, and seasoned it generously with salt and pepper. I took a single link of mild Italian sausage, uncased, and fried it with some onions and garlic. I deglazed the pan with white wine (vermouth, actually). Off heat, I added some fresh oregano and basil from Wendy’s garden, and a little olive oil. Add to that I added a little lemon zest, a dash of wine vinegar, and a handful of Asiago cheese.
I spread the mixture onto the pork, rolled it up, and tied it securely with butcher’s twine. I seared it in a hot skillet for a couple of minutes on each side and placed the whole thing in the oven at 425° for 15 minutes. It was delicious.