It Wasn't Hell's Kitchen, It Was Kitchen From Hell
Let me warn you from the outset that this is a long, long story. And it must be read in its entirety to really be appreciated. The telling of it is something of a catharsis for me and the reading of it should be a cautionary tale for you. So go get a cup of coffee or a glass of wine or a nice cold beer or something and prepare to kick back.
It was about two years ago that I turned the key for the last time in the door of a restaurant with which I was involved. It had been a frustrating experience. The struggling owner had finally agreed to my help, but too late to save the business. I had agreed to a ninety-day arrangement to try to turn the operation around but once I was fully involved, it only took me about ninety minutes to realize it was all too far down the rat hole to save. Ultimately, all I could do was slow down the bleeding as we shuttered the place once and for all. I hate failure and, despite my best efforts and some nominal short-term successes, I felt like I had failed. And as I locked that door I vowed never to do it again: no more restaurants. I'm old and retired and the restaurant business is for the young and vigorous. I've got my personal chef gig to keep my hand in the game and that's enough for me.
What is it they say? Never say never?
It started again when a friend told me he was opening a brand new restaurant. He's never run a restaurant before, but he's got this great concept. After seriously questioning his sanity, I said, “Well, when you get ready to open, give me a call and I'll come look the place over.” That was it. The extent of my commitment. “I'll come look the place over,” meaning I would make sure the “i”s were dotted and the “t”s crossed when it came to health codes and licenses and such. I'd just be lending a hand to friend, that's all.
See, I have more than average restaurant experience in my family. My grandparents ran restaurants, my uncles and aunts ran restaurants, my wife and I have run restaurants, and one of my sons is in the restaurant business. And that's just the ownership and/or management end. That doesn't factor in numerous family members who have been cooks, servers, bartenders, bussers, dishwashers and the like, my own service and my wife's experience in those areas included. So I do know a thing or two about the industry and it's this knowledge that keeps getting me in trouble. That and the fact that the words “no” and “never” don't seem to exist in my otherwise extensive vocabulary.
Anyway, a few weeks go by and my friend calls me. I get an address and meet him at his new place. And it's really beautiful – from the outside. It's a grand old building in the historic district that he has spent a year-and-a-half and nearly a million dollars buying and renovating.
I found out he had sacrificed more than a quarter-million dollars in tax assistance for which he was eligible as the owner of a historic structure because he had fundamentally altered the exterior of the building by knocking out a window and a door and replacing them with a modern electric roll-up garage-style bay door. Why? Because he thought it was cool and “upscale.” He's going to open the door on nice evenings, he says. And invite in every flying, crawling, and hopping bug in the county, I thought.
Inside, it's a nightmare of ladders, construction equipment, building materials, dirt, dust, and large empty spaces. No water, no lights, no tables, chairs, stools or restaurant equipment. I ask him when he's planning to open this “upscale” palace of his and he smiles proudly and says, “Next month.” Next month? This place isn't ready to open next year! I feel weeds beginning to grow.
You might not be familiar with the term “in the weeds.” It's an idiomatic expression in the restaurant business that basically means overwhelmed or in over your head. It happens, for instance, when your dining room is slap full on a Saturday night and two of your three line cooks, one of your two prep cooks, your dishwasher, your bus person, and half your servers all call in sick. Get the idea?
My friend is Vietnamese. And he has as little taste for Italian food as I have for Asian cuisine. “Sauce too sour,” is what he tells me. I fixed a nice baked ziti one day. He took his portion back to the kitchen, chopped up a bunch of lettuce and cabbage and I don't know what all and – as my Italian grandmothers whirled like turbines in their graves – tossed it all in with the pasta. “No good,” he said. “Must have vegetable.” Anyway, I asked him what his specialty was going to be. I figured it would be something Asian and I was half right. He did indeed plan to feature Vietnamese food and some Japanese, specifically sushi. But he was also going to have Mexican food and American food on his menu. What's more, he planned to import Vietnamese cooks from Vietnam to cook the Vietnamese food, Japanese cooks were coming to cook the Japanese food, he'd find Mexican cooks to cook the Mexican food, and local American cooks would cook the American food. The weeds were now up to my ankles.
Before we go any further, let me explain that this is a very small, very rural Southern town, crippled by the declines of the tobacco and textile industries upon which it once depended. There are a couple of mom & pop diner and cafe-style operations, a couple of chain fast casual places, the usual coterie of fast food joints, and, of course, a Waffle House. To say that the local tastes are plain and unsophisticated would be a vast understatement. One of my Italian friends found this out when he opened a place in a similar town nearby. He can sell pizza and spaghetti and meatballs to the locals all day, but even the simplest Italian dishes like spaghetti aglio e olio or cacio e pepe go sailing right over their heads. I tried to caution my Vietnamese friend that his menu was too ambitious, but he remained convinced that his Vietnamese noodles and his pho were going to revolutionize the local culinary world. And the weeds grew.
They shot up another couple of inches when he asked me to recommend the names of some good-quality kitchen equipment. I went through a list: Viking, Blodgett, Vulcan, Vollrath, Globe, Garland.....several others. “Which is best?” I told him they were all good and that a lot depended on what he was looking for. I told him there were several area restaurant supply places that could help him choose and that many of them could set him up with some good used pieces for a decent price. “Oh, no! All must be new! Top quality and new! Must match!”
I went back a couple of weeks later and saw, for the first time in my life, a whole row of gleaming, brand new, still wrapped in industrial plastic top-of-the-line matching Vulcan restaurant equipment. A six-ring range with a convection oven, not one but two double fryers, a three-burner flattop, and a big honkin' charbroiler. There was also a commercial wok range and a two-burner stock pot stove especially for his soup. Throw in sandwich units and a reach-in freezer and lowboys and prep tables and......the eye-glazing list went on. I had never seen well in excess of fifty-thousand dollars worth of matching stainless steel all still wrapped in plastic. It was amazing.
Still more amazing was the little piece of equipment I saw him fiddling with at the bar. Oh, did I forget to mention his plan for a full bar with top shelf liquor, dozens of local wines, imported and domestic beer in bottles and twelve beer taps? All surrounded by seven huge flat screen TVs? And live music nightly? Anyway, he was attaching this device to the bar. I asked him what it was for. “To chill glasses,” was the response. I pointed to the bank of refrigerators and freezers already in place under the bar. “You can chill glasses in those,” I said. “This more upscale,” he replied. I inquired, “How much?” The weeds sprang higher at the reply, “Two thousand dollars.”
Then there were the custom-made tables he ordered from California at a cost in excess of $12K. With matching chairs, of course. And the banquettes; the white leather banquettes. Not faux-leather or vinyl. No. These were real textured top grain white leather, at a cost of which I am blissfully ignorant. Doesn't he realize what's going to happen to that white leather after a few butts in blue jeans slide across it and a bunch of shoes and boots start kicking it and kids start bouncing on it and spilling stuff on it? But he doesn't care: it's “upscale.” And the weeds continued skyward.
This was quite a departure for me. The last guy with whom I had worked didn't have two pennies to rub together and we had to do everything on the cheap. This guy had to be tied down and handcuffed to keep him from throwing money at everything in sight.
He began stocking his kitchen. He had more woks than I have ever seen. And he had ordered a butt-load of sizzle plates for fajitas. But there was not a single skillet or saucepan anywhere to be seen. I pointed out this obvious shortcoming and he responded by bringing in some stuff from somebody's home kitchen. He seemed genuinely surprised when I told him it all had to go. And so did the brand new Black and Decker non-commercial toaster oven he bought and set up on the line. And the dish sponges he was using to wash dishes. And about a dozen other health code violating elements I kept finding as I slogged through the growing weeds.
He began bringing in food. And the battles over properly arranging things in his walk-in cooler began. As did the constant fight to keep things off the floor. Every time I walked into the kitchen I found myself screaming, “You can't do that!” And the next day the raw food would be back above the cooked food in the walk-in and the bags of rice and sugar and what have you would be back on the floor. And the damn sponges would be back in the dish bay. And the mops would be leaned against the wall with their heads up so the dirty water could drip down the handles. And the waste baskets would be missing from the handwash sinks. And the ice scoops would be left in the ice bins. And there were always stacks of wet dishes everywhere I looked. “You have to let them dry,” I would plead. “It take too long,” was what I got in reply. I would shout, mi stai impazzire (you're driving me crazy) and he would say something in Vietnamese and the battle would rage on.
As he began to hire kitchen staff, he started listening to what everybody told him he needed to have. Some of it was stuff I had been hammering him about for weeks: pots and pans, tongs, spatulas, Cambro containers, hotel pans – basic stuff he should have had weeks ago. Now with everybody telling him to buy stuff, he went on another spending orgy and bought everything. But because his new staff had already figured out that their boss had more dollars than sense, they were convincing him to buy big ticket items like a $1,200 Robot Coupe. While those of you in the business are picking up your jaws, I'll explain to the uninitiated that this is a very expensive, very high-end commercial food processor. Did he need a food processor? Yeah. Did he need a frickin' Robot Coupe? No.
The tipping point was the menu. He had paid eight-thousand dollars to somebody who saw him coming for the design and printing of his menu. When the garish, poorly laid out but beautifully printed and spiral bound menus arrived, they were so riddled with errors that they had to be trashed and redesigned and reprinted. I handled that at a cost of less than a thousand dollars.
But it wasn't just the printed menu that was the problem. What was on that menu was the problem. Even the reps from the major food distributors were trying to tell him his eight-page menu was unsustainable. But he wouldn't listen. He plowed right ahead, buying tens of thousands of dollars worth of food that he predictably discovered overwhelmed his storage capacity.
But the best part of the debacle is yet to come. When he found – as I told him he would – that the local job pool was not neck-deep in ethnic cooks, he gave up on the idea of having a dozen chefs specializing in four specific cuisines and settled for hiring four or five local guys and gals who could cook a variety of things. But he insisted on doing the Vietnamese dishes himself. Which would have been fine had he ever spent even thirty seconds as a cook on the line and had he even known how to make the goddamn stuff himself! He hadn't a clue! He had put all this stuff on the menu based on what he liked and what he had seen in other restaurants, but he didn't know how to really make any of it!
His opening date of “next month” had long since gone by the wayside. For one thing, he had no tables or chairs: his California supplier had taken his money up front and then dragged out delivery for several weeks past the promised date. He hadn't hired any FOH staff, not the first server or host. Oh, he had a pile of applications, but no employees a week out from his new opening date. Which he planned to meet using old mismatched tables he dredged up from the basement and covered with white linen tablecloths. What he did have – besides a fractious and fractured skeleton of a kitchen staff – was his “management team.” This consisted of one semi-retired guy who had run his own country-style diner once and who had worked for a couple of chain places. And there were three young women who had been either waitresses or bartenders at local establishments. Mind you, they'd never managed a day in their young lives, but they had at least worked in restaurants. The fifth member of his team was my wife, whom he had prevailed upon at the last minute to join with and perhaps help balance out his merry band. But besides her involvement with our small personal chef business, she has a full-time job in the “big city” and had neither the time nor the interest in being anything more than a part-time “fill-in” wherever she might be needed. She made that clear at the outset.
The kicker was that none of these folks was “in charge.” There was no structure like a general manager with assistants to supervise various areas. Nope. Everybody was “equal.” Which meant everybody was running things the way they saw fit based on their own level of ineptitude and inexperience. Hiring and training staff, working out the seating, setting up the bar, learning how to operate the POS.......all this and a hundred other day-to-day details were left up to the “managers,” four of whom – including my wife – all had other full-time jobs and were only available at the restaurant on limited days and for limited hours. This left the bulk of the work to the older guy who quickly got snowed under. My wife tried to tell our friend from the get-go that this “management by committee” was doomed to failure, but he wasn't listening.
That's because he was busy back in the kitchen learning how to make the food he was advertising. As I told him, if I opened an Italian restaurant and featured bucatini al'Amatriciana or pasta puttanesca or even fettuccine Alfredo, I would damn sure know how to make the dishes before I put them on the menu! He just got pissed at me for pointing out yet another thing he didn't want to hear. And the weeds are now waist high.
Working with this guy was so maddening. There were times when even Jesus Christ would have thrown up his hands and shouted, “ME!”
There was a lot more. Like when several of us had to talk him down off the ledge because he wanted to call in the television stations for the grand opening which was to include a band and a full-fledged Chinese dragon parading around out in the street. But frankly, I'm as tired of writing about all the lunacy as you probably are of reading about it.
It all boils down to a dream. Here's a guy who has never owned, managed, or worked in a restaurant before. Hell, at this point, I'm not sure he's even been in a restaurant before. But he has a dream. And I found myself living in his dream, which – with a nod to Gordon Ramsay – was rapidly turning into my kitchen nightmare. But instead of “Hell's Kitchen,” this was kitchen from hell.
The problem with beautiful dreams is that they more often than not clash with harsh reality, and that's something I could never get my friend to see. Kenny Rogers and Kim Carnes had a big hit back in 1980 with a song called “Don't Fall In Love With A Dreamer.” Truer words were never spoken.....errr...sung. I might modify the lyric a bit; change it, perhaps, to “Don't go into the restaurant business with a dreamer.”
The beginning of the end of my ride on this treno pazzo actually came when I called out his dream. Fed up and fuming beyond the usual mi stai impazzire stage one day, I told him his dream was out of touch with reality. “I know you see yourself as the smiling, genial host, circulating among tables full of happy diners consuming your liquor while your staff glides smoothly around serving them plates of delicious food to rapt and effusive praise. I know you envision stepping through the kitchen doors, where your line of immaculate cooks will be singing songs as they effortlessly prepare your exotic dishes. Even the bussers and the dishwashers will be glad for the opportunity to work in such a wonderful place.” Then I hit him square between the eyes with reality. “After the initial grand opening blush, there will be days when you won't have enough customers to make it worth opening the doors. Your servers are going to quit because they can't make enough money.” I told him his kitchen staff would break down over stress and long hours and some of them would walk without notice. When they were slammed they would be hot, sweaty, dirty and short-tempered and when they were bored they would be worse. “And nobody will be singing.” “You wrong,” he shouted. “It not be that way ever! You go too far!” Yeah, well. The only far place I went was out the door.
Good friend and damn fool that I am, I came back and stayed on through the disastrously successful opening. As predicted, he made a ton of money in the first few days. He was slammed to the walls with a butt in nearly every seat. And I found myself making trips to Walmart on opening day to replenish stocks of food he kept running out of because he hadn't listened to anybody in advance. He had to 86 mashed potatoes because he ran out of spuds and he had to 86 french fries when the freezer ran out of those. And I was buying flour tortillas by the carload because he was selling the hell out of tacos.
Burgers and tacos were his biggest selling items. His sushi did okay but his Vietnamese dishes went nowhere. Can you say “I told you so?” He changed the menu three times in the first week. Of course, by then there were hundreds of take-out menus all over town with items that weren't on the actual menu anymore and the menus on the website and Facebook were in a constant state of flux. It became kind of a game to log in and see what the “menu of the day” was. My wife and I tried to tell him to introduce the community to the unfamiliar stuff by running dishes as specials to see what caught on. But......yeah, you guessed it. He wouldn't listen.
No, that's not quite right. As the pressures and consequences of his incompetence began coming home to roost, he went from a stance of listening to nobody to one of listening to everybody. Somebody would tell him something in the morning, he would implement it in the afternoon and ditch it by nightfall after somebody else told him something different. It was quite pathetic to watch. His wife said she couldn't even talk to him about the restaurant anymore because he would just get angry.
The head cook – or at least the one who knew the most about what the hell he was doing and tried the hardest – took me aside at one point and said, “I've been doing this a long time and I've never seen anybody have to learn every fuckin' thing the hardest fuckin' way possible.” All I could say was, “Yep.”
The reviews started coming in. The food was great but the service sucked. Maybe because when I tried to tell him he needed to set up actual training sessions for the servers at least two weeks before he opened, he ignored me and let his “managers” handle it. Basically, the servers were given a crash course in how to operate the POS and then handed menus and told, “Go forth and serve.” The most consistent complaint in the reviews? “The servers don't seem to know the menu.” Well, duh! And when you change the damn thing three times in a week, what do you expect?
That's where my wife began to lose it. Not only did she wear a “manager” nametag, she also donned the hat of webmaster and menu designer, something she offered free of charge because she felt so bad for the way he had already been screwed over. She has a degree in graphic design and more than twenty-five years experience operating and managing sign shops, print shops, and the graphics department of a fairly large newspaper conglomerate. But she simply couldn't keep up. He was making changes by the hour. He was watching his menu disintegrate before his eyes and there were days when the menu that was posted when the doors opened was not the same menu that closed out the day. Because she had another job and a life outside the bedlam, my wife couldn't make the changes rapidly enough to keep pace. Well, there was a girl in the kitchen who had taken a class at a community college and who had Adobe software on her computer. When she volunteered to take over managing the hourly menu updates, our “friend,” without a moment's consultation with or consideration for my wife and all her hard work to that point, let her do it.
The hosts and the servers and the bartenders started quitting. And so did the cooks. And the bussers and the dishwashers. And, finally the “consultant” and one of the “managers” called it a day. Yep. My wife and I walked for good after one of the so-called “managers meetings” where nothing was ever really managed. Between that and the menu insult, we'd had enough. We simply got tired of being ignored and superfluous. Abbastanza cazzate! Non me ne importa un cavolo! Non mi più essere il scemo, quindi vaffanculo! And that about says it all.
The day after I left, the health inspector dropped by: five critical violations and three non-critical ones. And every blessed one of them was for things I had stomped and shouted and fussed about day in and day out.
When my wife went down later that day to turn in her keys, it was a very contrite man who reluctantly accepted them. “I do things your way from now on. I listen to you. You see, I change. We talk soon.” Maybe. But next time he wants to talk, I'm not sure we'll listen.