Hospitality as Habit
I sing out loud on my way to work. As loud as I can. And I want people to know.
It’s usually Zeppelin, although it’s not uncommon for me to dip into the vault of the 80s music of which I am slightly ashamed, to include Kenny Loggins or Van Halen. But I do it with reckless abandon, as loud as I can, and with no regard for what Susie in the Volvo next to me may say to her mom.
I was asked recently about advice for someone who was getting back in to restaurants: what should they focus on? The music from the “Sunscreen” song, fabled to have been the words uttered by Kurt Vonnegut at a commencement (which he denies), came to mind, and I started thinking about all the things that I do in order to accomplish the day at TVH. Many of the practices come from some of the greats in the business, such as Thomas Keller, Tyler Anderson, Garret Harker or Don Strunk, and my current friend and Chef Chris Wilcox – but some of them are simple things that have made my days easier. As we’ve kicked off the restaurant with the grand opening and are now a few months in, it seemed like a good time to share. I’m no doctor, expert, or astronaut, but these things have worked for me.
Never present a problem without a solution, and argue with yourself about the solution you have. Make it bulletproof, but have an answer for your own problem.
Don’t whine. It never helps, and it’s a slippery slope.
Making your bed every morning is such a rewarding thing. It’s so completely basic, but starts the day with an accomplishment, and readies you for when you get to climb into it at night.
Cleaning out your car is as much of a practice for sanitation as it is for sanity. In fact, those words seem awfully similar for a reason.
Demand hospitality. From everyone around you, but also from yourself in everything you do in and out of work.
Of paramount importance is the welfare of the kitchen staff. They’re paid less and work harder than those of us who have moved to the front – so they should eat family meal first, never pay for a beer, and always have a seat at any table. That’s our job.
It’s tremendously important to be as goofy as you want, but only until service starts. Once the candles are lit, focus is entirely devoted to the people paying your bills.
Working as deliberately as possible, with as few steps as possible, creates a better server. To see ten tables from one vantage point, none of whom see you looking, is to understand a room.
Know the last names of your colleagues. Few people ever pay attention to that in restaurants, but it makes a world of difference.
Understanding booze, food, and wine as intimately as possible is important, but not as important as being as unassuming about it as possible. While I take pride in the fact that I have studied extensively, I do it for me; though I can name grand crus vineyards, stylistic differences between beers and identify mash bills of bourbons, the Doctor at my table that operates on hearts is far more impressive.
On the same note, don’t correct your guests unless they ask for your input. Largely because you look like a jerk, but also because they didn’t ask.
Be very particular about who you talk shit with. Definitely talk shit, but just choose your audience wisely.
Though these days I wear the same type of outfit every day during service, I make certain that it and anything else I wear is better cleaned, creased, and ironed than what is expected. And I polish my own shoes – it makes me pay attention to what I do a little more, and tends to speak to the type of food that we’re holding in such high regard.
Demand the world from your staff, but only to help them grow. Defend them to your guests like family; trust them until you have a reason not to. Never allow them to be mistreated, no matter how rich or “important” the guest. Mistakes happen – but no person should be subjected to insults or disrespect because of them.
Empower your people more than they’ve been before.
Make certain that the staff is involved in hiring – a manager’s inout on a new-hire is nothing compared to the staff with whom they have to work. There isn’t time for people to “eventually get along.” It’s a battle on the floor every night, and the team needs strength as quickly as is possible.
Find a mentor that’s smarter and better at everything than you. Learn all that you can, then find them again later and thank them for making you (Thank you, Jim Solomon).
Get fired up to be at work, and help others to feel the same.
Mean it when you ask how your guests are.
Critique everything you do every day. For every minute we don’t spend doing that, some other restaurant is – and they’re getting more business for it.
Get dirty in your restaurant at least twice per day.
Bring a six-pack for the kitchen of other restaurants you visit. It matters.
Most importantly, enjoy what you do. Your livelihood, and the enjoyment of the people that you are hosting, depends upon it.
Otherwise, find another job. We’ll all be better off, especially you.
It’s close to 2AM.
It’s been 154 days since we started the farmhouse ‘adventure.’ 3,969 hours. We open the restaurant to the first event later this afternoon.
I’ll admit that I’m a little buzzed right now; I have the euphoria of a Christmas-Eve four year old, and perhaps with precisely the same naiveté, in that I can’t sit still for the excitement. Then again, I shouldn’t sit still – we’re opening a restaurant today.
We’re ahead of schedule. There is plenty left that needs to be tended to, to be sure – light bulbs that aren’t in yet, dust that needs to be cleared…and the list goes on for quite a while, but we’re ready. The service staff is ready. The kitchen is and has been producing menus and food that will rival anything our guests have seen. We’ve managed construction and all of our permitting such that the licenses, permits, and inspections have all been completed on time, and we’re not going to be running around like chickens with our heads cut off. It’s a strong team here, and we feel good about that. This is the 5th restaurant opening I’ve been a part of, and I’m starting to think that I’m at least getting the hang of it.
A little more thought, though, and it’s not hard to figure out that the future success will lean very heavily on our shoulders. We are going to make The Velveteen Habit what it will be, not what it is in order to open, and for that to have been possible, there had to be a tremendous amount of people that made us look good.
There’s Adam and Todd with Plumondon Electric. Both of these absolute professionals showed up on time or earlier, and worked from the minute they got there to the minute they left. We exchanged tons and tons of banter, busting their chops and throwing literal snowballs back and forth (Todd buzzed my ear once like the tower in ‘Top Gun,’ for which retribution is still forthcoming), but for every project we thought they were finishing, we came up with four more little side jobs. Every time, they made it happen. Working the wires of an 18th century house is a task, to say the least, and these guys made it look easy. Busted things are fixed, lights are on, and this is why we’re ready to open.
We’d be remiss to not talk about Jeremy Drobish, who runs his own painting business here in town. He was a hard guy to figure out at first, but as time went on, and things were being done with Cistene-esque precision, it became very clear that the pride in craft bled out of him, and was miraculous to watch in transformation from the first coat on the main dining room all the way through the last hanging door having been painted. When we’ve run close to deadlines, he shows up with more people and gets things done. So far, completely on time – which is relatively unheard of in the world of painting. His colleagues are all professionals, too – picking up little side favors that we’ve asked of their expertise, all in the name of getting us open. These guys are why we’re ready to open.
There’s this amazing staff, too – people hired from all over the scope of talent pools. Some have very little training in restaurants, and some have a great deal. All have a common ideal though, and a vision that makes me remember why I stay in this sometimes very unthankful business. The very first day of training, every one of them parked as far from the building as they could – where employees normally would park in a restaurant out of respect for their guests – without being prompted. This is the core of what we do, and it’s based on them. A forty-hour training class, for which they receive only a minimal wage (since no gratuities are coming in yet), with dusty and dirty additional side-projects haven’t deterred even one of them. They are why we’re ready to open.
Our community, neighbors, and local governing volunteers who set the standards for the town that are sometimes so difficult to follow, have been nothing short of miraculous. Where the letter of the law so regularly reigns, and so just because of ‘principle,’ these folks have educated and guided us to the place where right now, the night before we welcome our first guests into the restaurant, we have everything that we need in order to start making money back into the restaurant. Without them and their gracious, professional help, we would not be opening – they are certainly why we’re ready.
There’s our restorationist, Jode Murray, and there isn’t enough space to talk about him in a single writing. If ‘The Dude’ from the Big Lebowski was a woodworker, this would be Jode – a giant spirit and presence in the house, with a laugh for any joke and a shout for any Allman Brothers song that came on to Pandora. Jode crafted some of the most amazing pieces I have seen in my time not only in restaurants, but in my life, to include our trademark red door with logo built in and all, tearing out the old. All from solid wood, all very matter-of-factly. I once told Jode that when we first started the project, I was convinced that he talked to the wood, based on how he would just stare at it for so much time. His answer was simple: “Naw, man,” he said. “The wood talks to me.” I believe him, and know for a fact that he’s why we’re ready to open.
We had some pipes burst as the first few freezes came through Maine. Our friends Walter and Troy, plumbers with Performance Plumbing, had someone out in what seemed like moments, when a thing like this would normally take much longer, because he knew how serious an issue it would be in such an old building in the dead of winter. In addition, there were a tremendous number of other fixes that Walter advised us on and helped us with that went well beyond the scope of not only his job while here, but our own knowledge; he is the reason that we’re opening on time.
It seems as though no matter what hospitality we preach, which wines we pick, or which food we serve, we have very little to do with opening the restaurant. Rather, it’s the support team that allows us to get there, and the same ladies and gentlemen that prevent us for languishing in the building and awaiting the ok to unlock the front door. Our bar builders, the copper workers, Libby Slader’s selections for a dream that we’ve thought about for decades – these are all reasons that we’re opening. Collectively, every one of these people is truly part of what we are, not just workers that are doing what we tell them to do; doing instead what they feel is right, and sharing in what we see.
They’ve become our family, and we are The Velveteen Habit; that’s why we’re ready to open.
There is no such thing as “bad hospitality.”
There’s bad service. Lots of it, actually, and it’s generally a remnant of crap leadership in the restaurant, whether for reasons of ineptitude, lack of desire, no empowerment of the staff – and of course, the list goes on. The fish rots from the head, as they say. There’s bad food, too. Bad cooks or bad “chefs.” There are bad environments, bad designs, bad lighting…but there’s no bad hospitality, because when it works, it’s always good.
Hospitality is defined as “the quality or disposition of receiving and treating guests and strangers in a warm, friendly, generous way.” Whether a quality or disposition, there is no antonym for “hospitable” other than “inhospitable.” One either is – or is not – hospitable, and it’s far more than simply providing good service. Hospitality runs deep in people, and in certain types of people. We tend to use the term as ours exclusively in the “Hospitality Business,” but it goes far beyond. Being welcomed in a place where no one knows you, your name, or what may normally make you feel welcome, is hospitality defined. Making sure that those around you are comforted in any way that you can make them feel that way is hospitable, and this goes far beyond just the claim that we are in the hospitality business.
And as it turns out, experience is not needed. It’s an inherent thing for people to have or not have the mechanisms that make them that way – it exists in bankers, furniture store clerks, grocery checkouts, and even with other drivers. It happens when someone goes out of their way to help someone get their coat on or off, and when another holds a door open for the person after them. However, it’s regularly and frighteningly absent in people that should do and know better. All too often, too much pressure is put on staff to treat a room as all the same, and modicums are put in place that consider too much of the bottom line instead of the folks that provide the money to get there.
On the other hand, hospitality is a humbling thing for some. With myself as an example, it can take time to realize what the principle truly is, and even longer to execute it. The point at which I came to understand the same was much later in my front-of-the-house-career than I care to admit, but I can assure any reader that the moment it happened was not unlike Neo’s realization that he could, in fact, control the Matrix in the movie of the same name. It was the final piece in a puzzle of understanding how to get better in restaurants, and changed not only my career, but my success, in an instant.
Hospitality is a contagious thing, and it starts with those entrusted to create the environment in which it can thrive – the management, for starters – is the staff made to feel like the equals that they are, or are they treated like children? Does a manager lord over them as an emperor or act as a leader and teacher, bettering not only their environment but their abilities to excel? Are they the types that talk down to their colleagues, and point out what needs to be done, or are they in the trenches, sharing the pains instead of only taking credit for the successes? These tend to turn into the same that will “go get the server” when a guest has a need. Do the managers push in their chairs, or clean up after themselves in the restaurant, or get others to do the same? A little thinking goes a long way, and consideration turns in to hospitality quickly. Management owes hospitality to its staff, and not only because its proper, but because without showing the same the staff has no model to follow.
Turning the staff, then; these people hold the singular responsibility to provide hospitality to the folks coming through the doors to pay the bills. That includes the people with what seem to be strange questions, the ones that show up late, and yes – even the ones that come fifteen minutes after they had a reservation at closing time. It’s knowing what on your wine list is similar to the cheap pink wine that grandma loves, and understanding that even though Mr. Smith isn’t truly allergic to salt, he’d like very little of it. It’s not questioning the validity of the feelings of your guest, but making certain to accommodate what they are. It’s not telling a mother that asks to heat up the baby’s bottle in the microwave that you’re “not the kind of restaurant that has microwaves,” but heating the damn bottle. It’s not rolling one’s eyes when asked for what the server considers “inferior” or “cheap” product, but providing the same (or better if asked) and so with the spirit of hospitality, which passes no judgement on preference. It’s having all of the ability to answer questions, but not flaunting or strutting the knowledge.
Wondering what else we could have done at the end of service is what defines us as a restaurant. Taking notes on what we did right, and what we could have done better, is the best way to get ready for service the next day. Had I only realized that earlier in my career when Jim Solomon, owner of the Fireplace Restaurant in Boston, told me the same – but alas! To steal the words from a mentor’s mouth, Jim made it clear that the minute you walk out of a service thinking you’ve got it all figured out is the minute that you should hang it up, because there are better mistakes to make the following day. How very true this is, and how wonderfully it applies to the principle of “hospitality” – since each time a guest joins us, and we learn more about their preferences, we have to try harder to dazzle them the next time they come in. This is hospitality – cooking for every table like it’s a first date, treating each guest in service like parents of the first date, and hoping they’re begging for the next reservation on the way out the door. Pause and consider – how proud are you of the local restaurant where you take all of your friends, and the owners and managers know who you are, as well as everyone in the room? The food in these restaurants could be here or there, but the dining room personalities can bring you back – so why not create the same feeling with the kitchen, bar, and dining room? To have every element make you want to come back again and again…to feel cared for. To be treated hospitably.
There is simply nothing better in the world, and it is absolutely simple to create. A reputation for hospitality quickly becomes a successful restaurant, no matter the level of press or accolades, and this business element of course is a priority – bills have to be paid. First, though, restaurant teams must surrender to hospitality. Not “good” hospitality. Not “warm” hospitality.
Not a full week after the opening Per Sé, Thomas Keller’s Michelin-Starred Manhattan sister to his The French Laundry, smoke had started to pour out of one of the tile walls in the kitchen.
This was a restaurant of both triumphant return and historic acclaim. Ten years after starting what had become one of the most important and famous restaurants in the country, if not the world, Chef Keller had returned to the city he left a decade before to showcase what he has learned and become. Every detail was planned, and every element of the restaurant was a cosmopolitan version of the same finesse that he exuded in Yountville. Even still, with each minute factor accounted for, an electrical short had not made its way in, and a firefighter’s pick-axe then made it into the perfectly laid tile of the kitchen wall – a wall which the Chef had redone more than once because it just wasn’t perfect enough. It would be several weeks before the east coast would experience his plan, and Chef Keller himself would have to sit on his hands until then. There was no element of control in this case, and for a profession that so relishes having control of an experience, it was a pain difficult to put into words.
We moved into our new home the first week of November of this year, and with dreams and ideas bigger than the thousands of square feet underneath our feet. With those came dozens of hours weekly talking about the vision and the execution. Our training manual was mostly written, but for the room that allows the subjectivity of the space to take form, and we had a rough idea of the menu feel. We knew that we wanted to create a family that would host other families, and with that, a sense of hospitality to rival the best.
Peeling back and cosmetically renovating the property was important for a few reasons: first, we weren’t going to take a quarter of a century’s work by our predecessors as our own – the feel and design of the restaurant as it was should remain uniquely theirs, both because of the work they put into their dream, and also because (second) we wanted very much to create our own vision within the space. Change of colors here, shifting smallwares there, and making some modifications to the landscape around the restaurant would herald a new day on the property. These not-so-drastic but utterly different ideas would be something that, under the watchful and particular eye of design by Ben, would create something new and exciting. Exactly how we wanted it.
As that peeling began, so too did the realization that time and weather, as well as a number of other factors, had taken their toll on the property since its closure over eighteen months prior to us taking the lighthouse watch. It wasn’t long before the elements of the house and its pieces started to reveal their age – starting with moisture that had accumulated in the kitchen during the months between our predecessor’s closing and our move-in – somehow, seepage into the kitchen equipment had caused a bend in the heating element of the french flattop stove. This had also caused a rust-rot of the sub panel, and the entire eight thousand dollar piece of equipment was completely useless. The same type of moisture outside, we were already aware, had all but destroyed our grill frame and wood box smoker, which now needed to be entirely replaced. Another one bites the dust, indeed – and we hadn’t planned on it.
The next shock came when we cut back a wisteria plant, a natural weather break over the main entrance. This was a move that, while hard to pull the trigger on (indeed, Google searches reveal this plant as iconic to the restaurant), turned out to be necessary. Aside from the creeping tendency, which had allowed the plant to work its way into the windows, attic, and block the gutters, the roots of the plant had bored under the stairs and into the basement, actually creating holes in the eighteenth century foundation that allowed access for water and critters. With the damage only cured by cutting roots, the entire plant had to be removed. Along with the plants and flowers that surrounded the wisteria came moisture – and with moisture came the destruction of a good bit of the paneling around the building, as well – which resulted in the rotting of a hefty amount of the paint, wood and latticework that wrapped around the foundation. What was more, because the wisteria had taken over the gutters, little of the water flowed through the storm drain – and in fact simply spilled over the edges, splashing up the side of the wall – resulting of course in more of the same rot, as far as 10 feet high in some places.
After our first snow here, several trees (that had gone to tree heaven some time ago) just gave up and lay down, littering the landscape with their tired bodies, and prompting a serious look at making the move to take down the other trees that had passed their day. Some were actually strapped together because they were too weak to hold their own weight, and too valuable to sacrifice as part of the view from the main dining room.
As one morning started, I waited for almost 30 minutes for hot water to run in order to shave and shower. It didn’t, and while I presumed that this had to do with the long run of the pipes and the fact that we weren’t running all of them at the time, it was also chilly enough in the house for me to consider that maybe there was a real issue in the boiler room – so it’s off to there I went, sockless in workbooks and with my Snoopy pajama pants on. Even as I started in that direction, an extension room built off the main dining room for which I need to exit the building to access, I heard a loud rattling and vibrating sound that turned out to be air in the pipes. This, coupled with the pilot out and the furnace off, seemed to be the culprit – as that first snow melted, it had dripped down into the old non-seal of the boiler room and put out the pilot, creating the scenario with which I was now faced. We live in an age, fortunately, where this won’t result in an exploding house – but I’m still no boiler repairman, so I did what I could with what I knew, re-lit the pilot, purged a line or two, then prayed that I did the right thing.
The temporary fix worked (as my writing would indicate, nothing exploded), but our technician that came out a few days later explained that the servicing required the re-addition of glycol, having been left unattended for some time.
We came upon the paint disruption in the kitchen, too, that showed a flaw in the roofing – which, as it turned out, was a flashing issue because of a freeze the previous year (during the closure and without heat) had opened access for liquid to seep in – which needed to be repaired immediately, lest we suffer more leaks into the kitchen. We noticed that leak while simultaneously repairing the dish machine’s booster, which had somehow been disconnected – preventing the machine from getting to the temperature that would allow it to clean and sanitize. Later that day, heading down to the basement to make sure the heater for the pipes is still working, as well as looking at the rot we had discovered under the bar floor needing repair before the installation of the new one, I come upon the twelve inches of water that has accumulated because the sump pump stopped working. It would seem that the float switch had come to the conclusion that it was going on strike, but failed to alert anyone. A new pump solved the problem, but not before my work boots need to be put up on the shelf to dry out a little bit.
We’re told on a regular basis by non-restaurant people that “it’s the hardest business” and that we must be crazy for doing it. Certainly, there’s a truth to it that’s hard to deny, but it’s a different truth than most expect, I believe. We are both perfectionists, Ben and I, and it’s difficult to triage all the parts that need to be done before we host our guests. We haven’t picked plateware still, and there’s still discussion about which glasses will be used for cocktails and which will be used for straight liquor. As I write this, I look at over a dozen renditions of the menu, still not quite sure which format we’ll use, nor which of the fifty or so menu covers we’ll select. I’m learning which pipes stand to be the most likely to freeze, though, and I can point out which of the switches in the pump room needs to be shut off if ever again I hear the shuddering that indicates air in the dining room flow, or if the coin valve needs to be adjusted on the baseboards. I know that we won’t have pest issues in the greenhouse or the restaurant, and I know that all of the stories and repairs result (while now completely out of my control) in better stories down the road, a better property for our guests, and a continuation and betterment of the legacy we’ve taken on. Daily, there’s frustration, whether a new problem uncovered or any of the standard unforeseen events that throw so many into such a tailspin.
This is exactly why it’s as exciting as it is, though, and I am absolutely certain that I love what we get to do.
In accepting an opportunity, you also accept the risks. It’s true, too, that restaurants have more of them; all of them must be accepted. And, fun or not, it has to be something that you really want and want to do. “The Fun Part” of tasting wine, receiving good feedback, or meeting nice people is so much less fun without the rest. Thomas Haynes Bayly famously wrote that “absence makes the heart grow fonder,” but Thomas Paine wrote more applicably that “what we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; it is dearness only that gives everything its value.” It seems to me that the non-monetary price of this project is patience, and that patience extends beyond the frustrations of things out of reach and that we can’t repair immediately.
After Per Sé opened, Chef Keller gave an interview for a story in the New York Times. In talking about the elements in and out of his control, he shed light on his desire to return to the city for a multi-million dollar project, with all the variables, rather than staying at home and playing it safe. In the final quote of the article, I’m given insight into how he most likely would have handled the wisteria:
“Maybe we just need to have fun with it. At the end of the day, it’s just food and wine. It’s entertainment. It’s not brain surgery. At a certain point, you have no control.”
D’accord, Chef. We can’t wait to entertain.
There have been many a night when I have sat with chefs, obviously and imminently more talented than I in more areas than just the kitchen, and simply jawed away. We’ve talked about philosophies, projects and ambitions such as the ones I mentioned in my first entry into this log. I’ve marveled at the way that real chefs look at the world, and how they define themselves. More important to the nature of practicality, I’ve been continuously enchanted by how different chefs are relative to their personalities, artistry, and drive.
The most obvious difference between one and another that needs no particular skill set or experience (though fiercely subjective) is the manner in which chefs cook – that is to say, whether their food is good or not. Even more on display is this series of differences when cooks are vying for jobs, one after another and day after day, in a new restaurant’s kitchen. That’s this week. Out of two hundred eighty-seven applications we received for this amazing property, I interviewed one hundred forty-two on the phone. Of that, I made second calls to seventy-eight, and asked eight of them to come cook. Two of them found other jobs in the mean time, so we are left with six. Going into the week, we know that it’s not just the fun part – and there will be five utterly awful calls to make at the end of the week (hopefully not six!), but we’re as ready as we can be. The biggest challenge is that I’ve almost always worked for chef-owners, and never really had to hire a chef – it’s always been a part of the origin. My struggle is only partly eased when Ben utters the delightfully simple phrase, almost as though it’s implicit: “We’ll know when it happens.” I wasn’t entirely sold on that philosophy – we don’t share everything in common relative to tastes, so I’m not entirely buying in to his belief in the ease of process.
I get teased a little by some of my non-restaurant friends, and in a way those that work inside might expect – “Oh, what a tough life” and “Must be nice to eat all that food all day,” but it’s not just that. Anyone who says the things about which I will speak here make the process unpleasant is lying, of course, but there are things that need to be considered before so quick a judgment is placed on the process. There’s a whole lot to look at with these candidates that show up to try to take this helm – starting with just that: when they show up says a great deal. We make no rule about a start time, but ask that each candidate pick one, show up when they say, and then cook until they’re ready, normally having them go to plate at 530. Since I live in the property, and am usually up by 430, there’s not a time that’s too early, really – but when a candidate shows up after the time they scheduled themselves, it’s curious. Even more curious is the inability in some (of the same ones, incidentally) to follow the very basic cooking instructions we’ve laid out, whether a minor detail or a blatant disregard. It seems to me that both speak either to hypocrisy or lackadaisical attitude – if I have a Chef that’s late, he’ll either ride his staff for the same (hypocrisy) or allow it (lackadaisical). Neither is acceptable. Nor is it acceptable for a cook to not follow instructions. Ever. These are the slow starts in my book. The process continues with some, and starts with others, in how the kitchen is approached for the first time that these cooks will work in them. Again, this approach continues to shape my opinion of the candidate – are they cleaning their work surfaces and moving unnecessary things out of the way, or are they working under the assumption that cleaning was done for them, and all mis en place are stocked? Are they taking inventory of what they have and need as they start, or are they running around like chickens sans tête, looking frantically for an ingredient the moment that it’s needed?
It’s almost unfair to judge too much during the actual cooking, since the candidates are working alone, but there is something to be said for the brilliance of pacing at prep. Not just in service, during tasting menus, when the timing needs to slide along with a whisper barely noticed, but also in a kitchen alone, a chef is defined by his movement – hands and arms rather than feet. A good chef is prepared with his or her ingredients and tools, and spends much less time moving around than a young cook trying to find the microplaner while the soup is already at boil. Items are cleaned as they are used, and even while the cleaning happens, there exists a symphony in only this person when it is the right person. Therein lies the challenge.
We witnessed all levels of this, from the worst to the best, over the last few weeks. Ultimately, these are all pointers over anything else, and mostly forgiven if the quality of the product, combined with the attitude of the leadership element, is consistently growing and bettering within itself. This is where we bring you to the table, and have you enjoy food with us.
We asked each candidate to prepare four courses, minimum: one fish dish and another protein of their choice. We also asked that preservation techniques be used in at least two of the dishes. Beyond that, it was up to them. And we just waited.
The day came for the first candidate, and he cooked for the entire day starting at 4:45 in the morning. His comfort in the kitchen was obvious, as was his comfort in his own skin. He knew the direction he wanted to go, and took us there – he wandered through preservation techniques in roulade and pickling, and served turkey and scallop for the fish and other protein courses. Aside from having a malfunctioning torch that prevented the precise execution of his cheese course (no doubt the extraction of certain flavors with flame would have been extraordinary), his menu was very interesting, and tasted quite good. Except the scallop, which I could not eat because of a rather nasty gastric allergy that, unfortunately, this candidate forgot to ask. That said, I do love scallops, as does Ben, and these were perfectly cooked.
Another candidate cooked and exceptional fish of local halibut, cut perfectly and seared with a deftness that could only be achieved by a tremendous amount of learning and patience. It was preceded by his own home-made pasta that he had tossed with blanched brussels sprouts and a little butter sauce, topped with breadcrumbs – which were cross-mis for the fish as well, adding a texture that could only be described, even if the term is over-used, as sublime. There were scallops in this menu, too.
Still another candidate was an obviously strong cook – knife skills that people usually pretend to have, he wielded unaware, and his movement from one side of the line to the other with very few wasted steps made for a fascinating show. On top of it all, he delivered a series of comfortably elegant dishes that forced pause; truly, this was not just a cook, but a chef. Even though he also served scallops.
Then there was this one guy.
From the moment he arrived, there was a unspoken ease between all three of us that was unrivaled by the other candidates. A flow and cooperation that was implicit. His interview was not only good, but great, and he managed to corner several characteristics of the philosophy Ben wants, coupled with everything operationally additional that I needed. He was confident, but not cocky, and engaging throughout. He answered tough questions, but had tough questions of his own. We were both looking forward to seeing how well he could cook – at the ripe old age of 28 – and for his potential first ever executive position.
He showed up around 830, a little earlier than the 9:00 time he had planned, simply to look around and “see if [he] needed any last minute things.” As it turned out, he did not; he brought a good number of his own tools, just in case. He then started to work his menu, which he had typed out using our logo, taping it to the pass that he had completely cleared of all extra pans, trays, and utensils. He tested all his refrigeration and outlets, and then went to work. He was completely ready to serve at 2:00 in the afternoon, a “mere” 5 hours after he started.
He started by bringing out bread and butter that he made. Not bread that he made with butter, mind you, but bread that he made. And butter that he made. Cultured butter, with a tang and simultaneous richness that blended rusticity with elegance in a perfectly nuanced dance. For good measure, he had yanked some radish out of the ground – also not awful, and also quite nice with the butter.
Our first course was a perfectly colored salad with an exotic array of greens, beets, white carrots, heirloom carrots, and squash. When he came to the table, he simply explained it as “some vinegar that I made, tossed with a bunch of things I found in your garden” (not vinaigrette he made, mind you, but vinegar). Indeed it was, said our gardener Garrett, who had joined us for the lunch. It seems this candidate had walked outside and asked for a tour, pulling anything that Garrett said he could. Then he just made a salad with it – and it was tremendous. Garrett pointed out each of his individual plant offspring, telling us just what to expect from each thing, and how it was grown. He was beaming, as if the mustard greens had just scored their first goal at junior soccer camp.
The chef’s next dish was a combination of Honey Crisp apples out of Vermont with kohlrabi and an apple glaze, finished with large pieces of grated sharp cheddar. I can’t really talk too much more about this, because it made me feel…naughty.
Then there were smoked mussels that had been so cooked in our outdoor smoker. Perfectly. Astonishingly. They were served in the bowl, and then a pitcher of buttermilk & fennel was poured over it. The first bite of this dish made me ready to climb a wall – the flavors were so perfectly aligned, and the ingredients provided such ramp upward, that I forgot for a moment that my two friends were even at the table. Apparently I forgot etiquette as well, running my finger through the bowl for the last drops. That was seafood.
A strip steak came next, purchased at the local grocery store (no doubt, in retrospect, to prove a point). To tell you that the steak was cooked perfectly would be to say that Einstein was pretty good at physics. To say that Julius Caesar had a small plot of land. It would be grossly understating. Salted perfectly, the steak was served with little baby boiled and fried potatoes, crisped to stunning perfection; this was the part of the meal when I forgot, in fact, that we were auditioning chefs. I forgot that I was in a new restaurant, but felt instead like I was in the restaurant of a well-establish, highly and classically trained chef, capable of making me feel right at home in his farmhouse. But it was a twenty-eight year old sous chef. “Man,” Ben said simply, “this kid brought his whole game.”
I thought we were done, and was beyond pleased. I felt confident that, barring something rather extraordinary, we had found our guy in one of the last interviews. Of course, wanting to be impartial to the end, we took our notes and prepared to thank him, ask a few questions, then have him go on his way home. He returned to the table, but wasn’t done: a caramel. Whipped caramel, served with beer nuts he had made from dry-roasted unsalted peanuts, as well as mulled cider granita. It was pretty, and I love dessert, so I was in regardless.
I was absolutely astounded by what I was tasting and feeling all at the same time. This was a near mastery of the element, both aesthetically and scientifically. This was a fellow that considered what he was doing to be the most important thing that a person could do, in giving a piece of himself, indeed a large piece of himself in his art, to us. The flavor, texture, and sensory explosion that I had was so tremendously unexpected that I actually started to well up, even though I was slightly chuckling uncontrollably. I was teary-eyed over caramel, cider, and peanuts – and perhaps it’s because of the fact that, as Benjamin said, “He’s made Cracker Jack’s without even trying.”
Oh dear god, yes. The same feeling that the critic felt in Ratatouille, whisked away back home to his mother’s cooking on the summer afternoon in the french countryside. It was the only thing I could think about: raw, unadulterated joy for this experience in this business to which I have dedicated my life. Not only had I forgotten about the critical part of my responsibility in note-taking and critical diagnosis, I had forgotten I was an adult. I couldn’t savor the item, I could only get it in my face.
Since I already had also forgotten about Ben and Garrett, I had to wait until after the meal to hear them say how utterly delicious the dish was, too. I just couldn’t stop. Most amazing about this meal was not the components, but the progression of flavors, both in each dish and from one to the other. Up to the very last second, everything has it’s place and line, and it worked brilliantly, but the caramel was the rounded edge, the finishing move. It was the culmination of perfect dishes in the perfect order. And most importantly, every time he came to the table, he was just a cook that wanted to make good food.
For a person so full of words, and so full of what I consider knowledge, I had was a single truth in my head at this moment: It happened. And Ben was right – we knew it.
It’s 48 degrees, and my breath is visible, but not in an oppressive way. Aside from that of the very gentle rain, there is quite literally no sound at all. There is no power, no running water, no cable, and nothing else to list – except for the splendid perfection of an 18th century farmhouse in Maine and the iceless Sazerac cocktail I just finished making (which is very different, of course, when not chilled or diluted, but I’m pretending that it’s what the 18th century owner of this home would have made, even though the house predates the cocktail). It’s the first night in our new home.
I just sent a message to Benjamin, who arrives in just a few days, telling him that it’s dark as hell in here right now. “On a scale of 1-10 for darkness,” I wrote, “this place is a 14.” But it’s different. It’s not scary or creepy the way that a farmhouse, in which a restaurant was named for the shutters that prevented attacks from the natives of the area, should be. Years and years of nurturing from our predecessors have made this a home, and not one in which you could feel threatened – even if you actually believe in ghosts.
The clock says 1130 right now in Cape Neddick and I’m reminded, as I sit here in this magnificent space, of every single letter that Chris Kimble ever wrote to his readers – to me – and every single breakfast that I cooked with my father. I’m reminded of every time that I considered the idea of doing something when I grew up that involved cooking the way that my dad did, and so for the way it felt. I think of the times that he took me to random pancake houses, and assorted barbecue places throughout New England – places that smell like what this place smells like now: residual smoke, wood from centuries ago, and the thought that you couldn’t be more comfortable if you tried. This is something for which Ben and I both are eternally grateful to the past, and for which we could never thank Mark and Clark enough.
This feeling is what we want to give to our guests at TVH, and one that I think will take more work than any other component of what we have going on in the space. How do you take a legacy, and combine it with a dream to create a perfect experience? How do you do that same thing with the same people night in and night out? It’s not unfamiliar, of course, because every restaurant worth it’s salt is striving for the same. Here, though, we have the advantage of being handed the house that can make the dream come true. It’s a leg up, so to speak, and we simply must make what we do here that much more special and important.
It will certainly start with our colleagues. The staff we hire, and the exhaustive 3-week training program. The purveyors with whom we partner, and the fierce diligence with which our chef demands only the best. The sense of community that we want to create within the building, theoretically, in rubbing elbows with our local community as well as those who come to visit from a little farther away, specifically in the “on-season” that the town hosts. Small updates here and there, finally, to wake up the restaurant that has been sleeping for a full season, should round that right out.
It will end with what every restaurateur hopes for: guests that want to play. Guests who are willing to give us their deservedly hard-to-earn trust, and take chances where we ask them to do so. Guests that want to run back through the front door, like a child headed to daycare, because there is nowhere else they’d rather be. It’s the setup for one of the best lines I’ve ever heard since I started in the restaurant world: “We’re not in the restaurant business to make money; we make money so that we can stay in the restaurant business.” Everything that we’re dreaming of right now is simply to put enough in the bank so that we can do it better, and make better mistakes, each subsequent service that we’re open – with the singular hope that people will come back as soon as they possibly can. Everything we do is for our guests – and it’s already starting, months before the first of you get here.
But enough of that for now, I suppose. I don’t want my Sazerac to get too much colder.
Rarely am I excitable.
Know this: I am a passionate person. My friends and enemies, for better or worse, will tell you the same. I get fired up about things that I needn’t, and emotional over things that deserve no such attention. I like history, and enjoy stories of presidents that weren’t afraid to take chances. Music sways me, no matter the genre, to imagine that there actually are people with bigger issues than my own. Art in any media, my most recent love of which is painting, is unmatched in our existence as humanity revealed.
But I really, really love restaurants.
I love the way that restaurants feel when they’re empty, right before the staff arrives in the morning. In my time, I’ve been privy to opening and closing many times on the same day, when the kitchen still smells like the cleaning solution from the night before had a baby with the chicken stock that has become foamy in the giant rondeau on the side burner through to after every last cook has had their PBR and the servers have finished complaining about guests over their shift drink. In most restaurants I’ve been, I’ve slept on the floor of every dining space before we opened, at least once, to try and become a part of the room. I love the gossip, true or false, and the way it flies around me. I love staff meals, prepared by the newest pigeons in the kitchen and containing most of the pieces that aren’t going to the paying diners, and I love the sticky coffee in the bottom of pots at the end of the night that ensures I won’t fall asleep within the first two hours after I close the doors.
During my last opening, my Chef (and the owner of the restaurant) lived in the same cramped little apartment as I, not wanting to move his family until after the school year that had only a few months left. We’d generally come back to the apartment 18 hours after we left it, not tired at all, and watch food movies or talk about what was next. We’d cook (meaning I’d occasionally join in to the event of HIM cooking) the standard late-night fare of restaurant folks: whatever the hell we craved at 3AM. Then we’d keep talking until 6. Cookbooks were everywhere, opened and marked, and theories of service and satisfaction abounded. When we finally headed to our respective rooms, you could hear both of us, were you in the hall, clicking away and flipping pages asking ourselves, now alone, what was next.
Although I’ve been in restaurants around the world, and worked for and with some of the best, the experience he gave me in that time was the best I’d ever had. It was the best restaurant experience of my life.
I’ve spent years learning from great people that will always be better than I in this business. Chefs Thomas Keller, Michael Mina, Charlie Trotter, Ferran Adriá, Tyler Anderson and Tory McPhail are only a few. Mark Neubert, Don Strunk, and Jim Dietz were influential in creating in me what was the life-force that makes me get up every day now. Mark Gaier and Clark Frasier, some of my very first inspirations, have for over two decades been a source of fire and motivation. And now, as the time comes for my dream of creating the perfect restaurant comes to full realization, I’m remiss to not talk of my friend and business partner, Benjamin Goldman, who continues to remind me of the perspective beyond the walls, and has in the first few months of this journey become one my great confidant and friend.
It’s with this long introduction that I begin my journaling of The Velveteen Habit, of Ogunquit Maine, from the closing this past week until the day that we open. We were simply blessed to be given such an opportunity by the former Arrows Restaurant owners Mark and Clark, and I am more than lucky to have Benjamin give me the chance to help create the vision. It’s not a manual on how to open a restaurant, nor is it a story designed for humor or enlightenment: simply, it is precisely what Ben and I want The Velveteen Habit to be – our experience, brought to you, in a way that makes you feel as good about it as we do. I want to share this next best experience of my life with anyone who wants to hear about it.
I hope you’ll enjoy the next few months, and come shake hands with us over a glass of Jura as soon as we unlock the front door to the public.
This time, I’m excitable.