Establishing a New Habit…Part 4
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.