Monday, May 11, 2009

That's why

I take a look back at the reasons and expectations I had for the restaurant before it opened and laugh at how different it all is now.   Not just what I thought it was going to be like but how different the things that I want out of it are now.   What was supposed to be something to do has become every thought in my head.  What was to be someone else's show is now my circus to sell.  I am such a different person now with such different wants and directions.  And with every new thing I learn comes an equal and a seemingly more difficult obstacle to overcome.   The day ends with almost certainty that I will say to myself just before I lock up...   "Why am I doing this?"

My passion has become this restaurant life.   I want to do it better than anyone else.  I spend any free time I have trying to learn a little bit more, a little bit more, a little bit more.    And the more I learn the further away I feel.  The knowledge needed is endless and the motivation is not.  

I can write about the long hours and other hardships but much better writers have done that much better than I ever will.  

What I will say is that I'm in the Spaghetti and Meatball business.  A "red sauce joint" it's called.  It is what it is,  a restaurant that people are slowly but surely are coming to love.   It is what I and many other people in this world know Italian restaurants to be.  Pasta, red checkered table clothes, "That's Amore" playing in the dining room.  I am told that the food is great but I can't help but want to push it a little more.  To show the people what they're missing.  You see I love what I've learned and I want to show this to the people I've met.  But there is a one small problem,  not everyone wants to learn.    What they want is their fucking Fettuccine Alfredo.     What I have established is a good thing that I, at times, get pretty tired of.

I travel to San Francisco as often as possible to see my girlfriend and there I get to see these places packed with young people interested in food.  Excited about that new ingredient or by some chef's concept they line up to have a taste.   I see people that care on both sides of the counter.  In a hurry I come home and run to blank stares at the local produce store when I ask them if they have ramps.  "Handicapped parking is on the end of the building" the clerk tells me.  That's when I know I'm home.  There's no food culture here.  There's dining out.  There's good food.  There's no food culture.  And I am stuck in the middle of it.  

Imagine knowing that The Beatles exist but you can only get your hands on the Dave Clark Five.  That's where I live in the food world.  

Which leads me to ask myself,  "What am I doing here?"   I've thought about leaving for Italy for a while to learn.  Or maybe I'll move to San Francisco and work my way up in a good kitchen.  Really put myself into the scene head first.

Then yesterday something happened.  
Mother's Day.  People are all dining out yet not thrilled that they have to do it with their families.   A young couple with two small children came in for dinner.   As kids do they grabbed the forks and knives and began banging them on the table.   So I go over there to see if there's a way to defuse this bomb and when I get to the table the mother tells me that her child is Autistic.  My inner monologue tells me, "You know what, Guy,  let this one slide."  I listen.

I call in the order to chef with instructions to get the food out fast.  Front of the line.   They eat, I check on them once or twice and all are happy.    They all get up and we wave goodbye, "Happy Mother's Day!" I say with a smile.   Before he can reach the door the father comes back and puts out his hand,  "My kid never eats.  He's never eaten like this before.  Your food is really good."   Then they left.  

 So I guess that's why I do this.    

My restaurant might not be everything I want it to be but I can be confident that what I do is good.  I know that my food however simple it may be is good.  I know it when my regulars sit at the bar and share their day with me.  I know it when people choose my place to celebrate a birthday.  

I can't make my place all of the things that I want it to be, but you know what,  it couldn't be anything else.   A meal is 10% what's on the plate and 90% who's in the seats around you.   

I do this because it's my job and I have to.  I push myself to learn because I want to.   And in doing the things you have to do you find the things you want to do.


  1. I can't really speak for everyone out there, but I am noticing that a lot of people these days are trying to cope positively during shit economic times by asking themselves - Why? and How?

    I met a large group of people a couple days ago who had gathered specifically to reach out a little bit beyond the edge of what their current daily career surroundings were to see if there was something relevant they were missing.

    Growth is really important to success and there is no time like the present. I don't think it can be done with out some stage of internal evaluation. Your post here is really great. I think sizing up what you have is the first step to pushing yourself forward, even if you look around and your not entirely enthusiastic with what you see.

    A handful, if not a room full, of credit is to be handed to you Guy. I know what your daily workload looks like. You do what you do very well.

    PS. The family bit was a tearjerker. You got me on that one.

  2. Nice post Guy. I can relate to the "Spaghetti and Meatball business". You see, before I moved to San Francisco, I lived in Redondo Beach. I had a family member that ran a restaurant and it was the go to spot my family would gather to eat, dine and be merry.

    The food were great; large portions of glazed ribs, garlic crab, dumplings, and they even serve you dessert as part of the meal! It's a bit of mismatched mashed up of Chinese cuisines but that's what the families in South Bay craved and that's what they served.

    My extended family still visits that restaurant, and each trip brings them tremendous joy and allows for great bonding experience for the Chou's.

    However I do remember the first time re-visiting the restaurant after being away for a while. The ribs were too oily, the garlic overwhelmed the flavor of the crab, the dumpling didn't have the exquisite texture other specialized dumpling houses had. I remember having tears in my eye when I realized the restaurant didn't live up to my expectation anymore, much like the first time you outran your old man, or beat him in arm wrestling.

    Since then, I've covered stories on food justice; visited top end restaurant kitchen, local organic farms, Charcuterie in Paris, even interviewed the Godfather Michael Pollan himself. And I thought I found it, to be so lucky to be in the midst of San Francisco, the gastronomical movement of the west coast, blah blah blah.

    Yet yesterday while working at NOPA (my favorite restaurant in SF). I had craving for those way too oily ribs, and the wok fried garlic noodle from my home town (even though I was offered pastured roasted chicken with fresh made pesto and flat bread). It was a humbling slap in the face that at the end of the day, food is food, and it's the experience that counts.