Sunday, June 28, 2009

It's in your blood, now what?

It's 3:45 am and I'm awake. My mind is racing. I can't stop thinking about salami, sausage, and panchetta. I try to roll over, get more comfortable, but the thoughts just go from tasting it to making it, from cooking it to selling it, from people enjoying it to the colors of the walls in which a dream Salumeria would be. Yeah, it's official. "It" has occurred. It's in my blood now.

I was talking about the change with my girlfriend a while back and she asked a very good question, "When did 'It' happen?"

The "It" as I call it is hard to describe but those who have experienced "It" know exactly what I'm talking about. I picture something like a werewolf morphing from man to beast or a vampire taking in his last sunrise before entering into the world of the night. Too extreme?

Now I'm not referring to just being in the restaurant business. Many of us work or have at one time worked in a restaurant, be it front or back of the house, and almost all of us have some kind of affinity for the restaurant life. Some of us will be referred to as "Lifers", a jail like term referring to those who spend their entire working life moving from one establishment to another, flipping the eternal burger or serving the immortal A-hole customer. While I don't like the term "Lifer" I use it because there are those people whom it fits perfectly.

What I'm talking about is the It
IT noun- the change that happens to some of us who at one time had perfectly good goals, dreams, and direction but instead chose something we found to be much more important and rewarding.

For me there wasn't one moment that I can pinpoint the change happening. For me it seemed more like adolescence. One day you have a few zits, a couple of heartbreaks, five or six fashion mistakes, and then one sunny afternoon you're an adult and you don't remember how you got there.

I was well into the restaurant business and enjoying it. I had worked in many both in the kitchen and on the floor and was now running my own with my name on the sign outside and everything. The family restaurant my father and I had talked about for years was a reality and now we would take shit from no one. Not a bad little thing I had going for me.

It wasn't long before the worry set in. Did they like their meal? Would they come back? Will I be able to sell enough to pay the invoice? What if someone calls in sick? What if everyone calls in sick? Do I really know what I'm doing? I had cooked before but for survival and not enjoyment.

Then it happened. Friday night, getting ready for a dinner service. I check the reservations, nothing scary. Just the usual deuces and four-tops with a couple of sixes and sevens and a big table for my cousins and grandmother. In came the first couple of tables and soon we weren't just in the weeds but the entire restaurant was in the shit big time. Every table full with a wait outside. Orders coming out slow, the soda machine just ran out of ice, customers tired of waiting are leaving, and it's attack of the relatives at table twelve.

The servers were getting their stride back and the ice had found it's way back into the glasses. The only thing backing up was the dessert station. Imagine looking at a table of four, wine glasses almost empty, napkins over one leg, table clean with everyone happy except for the one house wife with a sweet tooth waiting for her dessert. Got the picture in your head? Now picture that table next to a window with four more hungry people standing outside looking at you, then at them, then back to you. I look over to the kid on the dessert line and he's just looking at the tickets with his head cocked to the side like a puppy.

Not having the time to explain the economics behind turning the tables I decided to go into the kitchen and help out. I approached the cold station then took a step back and looked at myself. I was wearing slacks, beautiful shoes, and nice dress shirt. "Shit!" Not wanting to ruin my new shirt I stepped back and grabbed one of Chef's coats, an apron, and apologized to my shoes for what I was about to put them through. Within minutes I had made a dozen Canolli, plated half a dozen tiramisu, and scooped some screaming kid's spumoni. With the dessert rush over it was time to start making appetizers for the next turn. I turned to Chef whom I had know for years at this point but never cooked with. He gave me a simple nod and a smirk as if to say, "There's no getting out of here now. Buckle up, get through service, and welcome to YOUR restaurant".

That was the turning point. This was my restaurant and I needed to know it all. The next morning I was in extra early. I had taken the chef's coat home, washed it, and claimed it as my own. I was first in that morning and began asking the questions. Poor Chef. Honestly, I knew when I put the chef's coat on it wasn't coming off. I've been the first one in every morning almost every day since.

Fast forward a year or so and I've got the menu down. I've been in the weeds and clawed my way out. I was feeling pretty comfortable. Then the voices start in. What's next? What else is out there? How could this be better? How can I change something for the better that isn't broken?

That's the "It" I'm talking about. It was too late. It was in my blood stream and I was pissed!

For a little while "It" sent me into a depression. Here I had a restaurant that people truly enjoyed but I felt held back. I knew my potential and there wasn't much I could do to improve. Maybe I had made a huge mistake?

I felt very isolated until I stumbled across other people with the same enthusiasm on a grander scale. Young Chefs, working hard, taking chances, making mistakes, and talking about it. Chefs like Richie Nakano(Linecook415) and Corey Nead of Nopa in SF. They're doing great things in the kitchen (I've eaten their food. Go there) and they talk about what keeps them pushing forward. Now a chef talking about himself is nothing new but it's guys like them and countless other chefs and cooks that I've met through social networks that prove that the "It" exists. They're not afraid to tell you how they did something. No attitude or temper tantrums. No ego.

This is "It". There are others out there that believe in what they're doing besides a paycheck or a photo op and it excites me. So now instead of kicking the can over the same menu that people love, I'll make it better. Make myself better. That's how you know "It" has happened and there's no going back now.

Chef Richie Nakano and Corey Nead cook at NOPA in San Francisco.
Check them and other cool food industry people by finding me on twitter at @Guyarnone and check out my list of people I am following. There are some great Chef's, Food Photographers, Foodies, and other industry people out there just like me and you.