St. Valentine’s Day Meltdown

Every chef has a story about one particular day that stands out in his or her career as being the most catastrophic day they ever experienced. I suspect in fact that everyone recalls such an event in their life—that one time that absolutely everything went wrong and everyone knew it.

Well, I’ve had many of those days and unfortunately I can’t remember one of them. Maybe it’s not so unfortunate. But I do remember the biggest train wreck of a job I had, and a series of events and circumstances that led up to the day that might be referred to as the Valentine’s Day Meltdown.

This wasn’t the worst job I had, oh no. I’ll tell you about that one later. This one was actually so chaotic and so well misorchestrated that it was actually a bright spot in my career. [Notice I just created a new word back there. ] One of those opportunities that hurts like a bad tooth, but you keep showing up to see what’s going to happen next.

I was out of work—a common thread in my story. I had a friend and colleague who was French and had worked for a couple of the hottest names in American gastronomy. He had just closed what once one of Charlotte’s best restaurants until he lost interest, and was consulting for a would be restaurateur north of the city aside a beautiful lake marina.

The owner who we shall call Mortie has his professional roots firmly planted in marketing. He owned a seemingly successful marketing firm and the land that it stood on. His areas of expertise were NASCAR and the competition sailing industry. I don’t know exactly where all of Mortie’s money came from, but it was unmistakably plentiful. Why people with money always want to open restaurants with it I’ll never understand. I think one would do better investing in Band-Aid stock and slitting one’s own wrists regularly. Speaking of marketing.

So Frenchie had suckered this guy into paying him an exorbitant salary and he hired me to take over when he got bored or the well ran dry—whichever came first. Turns out they both happened about the same time. I’ll call him Butch, because it doesn’t sound French, and I don’t like the French.

Butch called me up one afternoon knowing I needed to work and told me that this guy, Mortie, owned a building in which a restaurant had recently closed. He wanted to bring some life and some traffic to the marina and he wanted a restaurant, but he didn’t want a series of failing businesses screwing up his vision. So despite his lack of knowledge about the food biz he decided to open it up himself. Bad Fucking Idea #1.

He hired a crack team of consultants, and they hired a guy to be the Chef and Manager of the place. Bad Idea #3. Now this cozy little place had once seated about 80 people on a good day and had a tiny little kitchen that could probably keep up fine with the 30 or 40 meals they actually put out from day to day. Mortie, under the expert guidance of Larry and Curly, expanded the seating to about 250 and was projecting sales of $3 million his first year, which was actually Bad Idea #2. A place doing that kind of business serving 14 meals a week (lunch and dinner everyday) needs a Chef, perhaps two Sous Chefs, a General Manager, and likely two Assistant Managers and a Bar Manager.

That guy didn’t last and no one else wanted the job. What they failed to do when they tripled the dining room is to enlarge and upgrade the kitchen. It was still ill-equipped to service fifty or so. They did gut it, painted it, and outfitted it with all new equipment. I could have made a really nice hot dog stand with all the stuff they bought. Pity. They had decided to split up the managerial responsibilities between Chef and Manager, and no chef they talked to called them back after seeing the kitchen plans. They were four weeks from opening and without a Chef.

That’s when my broke, desperate ass showed up thinking I was the damned cavalry or something. That was the final bad idea. Everything that happened next was merely the inevitable continuum of shit that happens when ‘shit happens’.

They sat me down in front of a set of blueprints and asked, “What do you think?”

I studied the well-thought-out layout of equipment, walk-in coolers, storage, prep space, and aisle space. I looked for practicality, efficiency, thoroughness, and “flow”.

“Well”, I said, “I’m not sure this is going to work.”

“You’re not the first person that has told us that and we need to get going here. We open in four weeks. Why won’t it work?”

“For one thing, where do you plan to put a trash can in the kitchen?”

“What? A trash can?”

“Well, yeah…you’re going to produce trash aren’t you? Where are you going to put it? Every inch is accounted for here and I don’t see a trash can or a place to put one.”

“Ummm”, they muttered quietly.

“Are you going to have carpet in the dining room?”

“Yes”

“Where are you going to store the vacuum cleaner? I don’t see a closet. Where are you going to store linen? Where is the staff going to hang their coats in the wintertime? State law requires that liquor and wine be stored in a securely locked location. Where is that going to be? I don’t see a liquor room here.” The list went on and on.

“My god”, they exclaimed, “We don’t know what to say. You’re absolutely right. What will it take to get you on-board today?”

I gave them a minimum figure and a list of things that needed to change in the infrastructure before I even considered the challenge. We sat down with the owner and within 20 minutes the contractor was tearing down walls at my request. I was on-board.

When all the smoke cleared about three weeks later we had a kitchen about twice the size of an average walk-in closet. In it was one 10-burner gas stove with two attached ovens and a 12-inch wide griddle—standard equipment, one deep fryer, two sandwich station countertop coolers, a 24-inch char grill with the spacious capacity to simultaneously grill off about 4 hamburgers and a banana , two six-foot prep tables, and a 4-well steam table. We managed to fit in a slim-line trashcan at one end of the hot line.

At this point I had made enemies with all of the consultants and about two-thirds of the owner. They were the guys that had made this mess that they were underpaying me to straighten out, and I couldn’t resist letting them know it. I had made pretty good friends with the boss’ secretary, but that’s another story!

The menu was coming along. Butch had written a menu with the help of the guy that I replaced but I wanted my food on it. After all, I was gonna be the one doing it. He was going to be out of the picture in a few weeks and I didn’t want to be left with someone else’s legacy. Chef ego thing mainly. Mortie wanted everything that he had ever enjoyed in a restaurant on his menu. One of my favorite comedians, Steven Wright, once said, “You can’t have everything. Where would you put it?” Exactly!

The restaurant manager was Mortie’s next door neighbor, and he had managed a Steak & Egg Kitchen about 12 years previous. His name was Sammy and he was a hopeless but amiable drunk. He connected quickly with my disdain for Butch, and allied with me often in battles of gastronomic theoretics against the Parisian rapscallion. Unfortunately Sammy knew about as much about restaurants of this type as I do about quantum physics—which ain’t much.

My staff was comprised of local folks from up around the lake. The lake is much deeper than the vicinity’s labor pool. I picked up a Sous Chef from a reputable place a couple towns over. He knew food and we clicked pretty well. The rest of them were very nice people and I was lucky to have them, but the lot of them combined knew fuck-all about good food. The one smart move I made was hiring one Mexican dishwasher that spoke good English. If you’ve got one of those you can get through most anything in this business because he’ll have an endless supply of kitchen help. Some of them will work hard, some won’t. Just gotta be careful not to get their Social Security cards wet.

We had a meeting to decide when we should open. Mortie had pretty much committed himself to Valentine’s Day, which was on a Friday that year. The consultants all agreed, mainly because that’s what they were being paid for.

If you’re in the restaurant business, which Mortie wasn’t, you know that there are 3 days that stand out above all others as the busiest days of the year. No one I know looks forward to Mothers’ Day, New Year’s Eve, and Valentine’s Day. Of all of the 365 days available to open a new place, Friday and Saturday be damned, February 14th is not a winning number. He wouldn’t hear anything else. He wouldn’t let me run a limited menu. He wouldn’t hold off a few weeks on lunch and Sunday brunch. Full menu—full on. Valentine’s Day!

“Don’t worry,” Mortie says. “It will be a soft opening. We won’t advertise. Just a little word-of-mouth, family and friends.”

The next weekend there was a half-page ad in the newspaper with a full length picture of me and Butch in chefs’ whites. “Join us for Valentine’s Day”. Priceless.

About ten days out the place started filling up with staff, food, beer & wine, and problems. No one had thought of a separate cooler for beer. My walk-in cooler was 2/3 full of beer and 1/3 food and I hadn’t gotten in half of what I needed yet. The nightmares I warned them of were coming true faster than anyone could count them. My primary food vendor was getting rich off of the smallwares that I kept adding on every day. There was nowhere to prep the food, nothing to store it in, nowhere to put it once it got prepped, nowhere for the necessary staff to stand to do the work, and not nearly enough hours in the day. We started buying precut steaks, fish, and vegetables because we didn’t have time or space to cut them ourselves. It seemed like the kitchen was getting smaller and my staff was getting stupider every day.

Butch told me that he’d rather he’d broken his own arm than to have brought me into this deal. I just smiled—kind of like the guy in the movies that’s about to have his lights put out by a thug twice his size, and he knows that there’s nothing he can do. The only thing going for me was that I had three gorgeous waitresses hitting on me and everyone loved the samples that were slowly starting to materialize. The excitement was building as if something really amazing were about to happen, but I knew better.

The last piece of equipment got put into place at the eleventh hour. The last food delivery came. The last storage container we had got filled up with something. At 11:00 am on Friday February 14th, 2003 the doors of the Lake Café opened wide. The next 36 hours were about the most intense moments of my life.

For lunch we served a hundred people. I remember Butch trying the soup just before the curtain went up and saying, “The kid can cook after all.” The consultants were no where to be found. It was pretty ugly. Jesus, how hard can it be to cook a hundred burgers & fries, chicken wrap sandwiches and Caesar salads in 3 hours? Are you kidding me? Would you want to show up on an unfamiliar battlefield with the enemy 40 yards out, your rifle isn’t loaded, and you’ve never worked with the guys on either side of you? That was lunch.

I had worked for the last week and a half without a day off. I had ordered roses from the produce company to hand out to all of the ladies. I took a break between shifts to ride 30 minutes into town and deliver a dozen roses to my girlfriend’s doorstep. I stuffed them in a milk carton that I found in her trashcan and cut in half. I stopped by my favorite cigar store and picked up a half box of Cuban Partagas’, and headed back for the evening onslaught.

I don’t have the words for what happened next. 50’s comedian Dave Gardner portrayed it best in a story about a motorcycle crash where there were, “teeth, hair, and eyeballs all over the highway.” To be honest I blacked out. I remember people waiting an hour-and-a-half for their dinner. Why they waited I’ll never know, but they did and they loved it. I remember Mortie wondering what was taking so long, and why he and his charming devil wife had not gotten special preference. There were tickets hanging everywhere and pans of food lying on the floor under the coolers. I don’t think we ran out of anything, but it all had to be re-prepped for Saturday. We served 200 people the hard way.

Apparently the bar and the waitstaff had worse problems than we did. Saturday morning saw new beer coolers being brought in—the bar redesigned “on-the-fly”. Kegs were booted out to make room for another service area. My stable of foxy waitresses had all gone home with someone else, and my girlfriend hated me for getting her produce company roses. Mortie was pissed. I was disheartened and wounded in every sense imaginable, and my staff had that look that you see on a dog when you raise your hand and he thinks you’re going to smack him. One of my dishwashers didn’t even show up for Day 2.

A couple weeks before there had been a massive snow storm. Just outside on the highway on-ramp that led away from our place there had been an accident. A car had lost control and hit the guard rail. A paramedic was kneeling beside the open car to help the driver to safety when a truck swerved too close and took off his legs. I was starting to feel like he was the lucky one compared to me.

Saturday night was a little better than Friday. The numbers were the same but it went much smoother. Mortie had insisted on having stone crab claws on the menu. I had gotten a ton of them, but he had two or three and found them too hard to extract from their shells and a bit flavorless. I had my dish staff lined up for three hours ripping and plucking the meat from the shells with cocktail forks and paring knives. What a disaster. We turned it all in to Florida Stone Crab Spring Rolls. Not bad but not popular.

We finished up late, having depleted our supplies once again, and readied ourselves to show up the next morning for brunch. Sunday brunch has got to be the thing I enjoy least in the world of food. I would rather have my eyes gnawed out by goldfish than cook Sunday brunch.

Due to a sudden ice storm we served something like 18 people. Two of them were Mortie and his devil wife. He came back to the kitchen to complain about how fatty the bacon was. I was serving the most expensive and best applewood smoked bacon I’ve ever had. It comes from a small family-owned smokehouse in Wisconsin, and costs more than twice what any other bacon costs. I had heard about as many of Mortie’s criticisms as I cared for and I let him know it was time to stop that crap. Actually what I said was that I would be happy to cut the fat out of the bacon, but I would have to triple the price of it to compensate for the loss in volume. He called me a “smartass”, and that was the last conversation we ever had.

Monday morning I was not nearly interested in driving across town on frozen roads. The restaurant would be closed anyway, so I took the day off. Much needed! Tuesday morning I was met at the door by Sammy. I’d seen that look in a man’s face many times before and since. I knew it like the back of my hand. I was about to be set free from a bondage of which I knew no equal. Hallelujah! Sammy himself proclaimed me “the lucky one”.

Over the next couple of months I kept in touch with the Lake Café vicariously through my vendors. As soon as I left they hired 3 people to replace me. They promptly began construction on all of the projects that I had recommended. One day I stopped by during lunch. Less than three months into operation they were replacing the carpet throughout the dining room during the lunch rush! The original floor covering, though elegant, was designed for residential use and was worn out within a few weeks.

A month or so later the consultants were let go, and a couple months after that Butch was let go and got screwed out of some of the money they owed him. As far as I know the place is still doing well. I ride by in the summertime and see the patio full of people. I guess they found a way to make it work. Good for them!