I’ve unexpectedly had the opportunity lately to spend a lot more time in the French Quarter, since I’ve been helping a friend during JazzFest. This gave me the chance earlier this week to pop into the Louisiana Music Factory to see Beausoleil and Zachary Richard, as well as wander around aimlessly. I think that’s the best way to see the oldest part of our city – without a schedule or plan. Tours are fine to get a sense of how things are laid out, but I also think a completely unstructured day is a lot more fun.
I mentioned in last week’s column some of my ideas about pairing various beers, wines and foods together, and already I’ve gotten a few questions. They mainly involve how someone knows certain things go together before they spend a fair amount of money during a trip to the store. Pretty much anyone who cooks even semi-regularly is willing to experiment and improve, and I’m one who has been lucky enough to make a fair living doing so.
I’ll finally be getting an opportunity in the coming month or so to do what I enjoy most – coming up with menu items to pair with beer at a dinner or other special event. While I never think of myself of actually going “to work,” it is at times like these that I really feel like I’m being paid for something I’d be doing anyway. It’s one of the ways in which the culinary, art and musical worlds are very similar to each other.
I’ve got to give a tip of the hat to my fellow columnist Jean-Paul Villere for his recent piece about real estate and which neighborhoods around the city are next in line for gentrification.
Restaurants and other food operations usually follow but can sometimes lead the redevelopment of neighborhoods. Indeed, New Orleans East and some other areas are still sadly lacking in full-service grocery operations. But this summer’s planned reopening of the Circle Food Store will be a beacon in Treme, and the original Juan’s Flying Burrito on Magazine was one of the landmarks in the comeback of the Lower Garden District.
One of the things we’re still working out in the new shop is staffing – how many people to bring in at what times of the day and how long they’ll be there. It’s a difficult balance, since you want professional, experienced folks – and those kinds of employees want and deserve a reasonable wage. But when some parts of the day are stronger than others, some have to be sent home and that makes no one happy. If good staffers don’t get enough hours, they go elsewhere in a hurry.
One of the main issues faced by any budding restaurant operation can be the most challenging, controversial and oft-criticized or loved aspect of the entire business. It is the pride or bane of the place, often within the same day, and it is the post on which the entire hat of the business rests.
It is, of course, The Menu.
Any of us who have lived in a really small town are usually the first to speak up when some urban type starts talking about how they’d like to try the bucolic experience of small-town life. “Oh, I think it would be so wonderful to really get to know my neighbors,” they say. “It’s so quiet and peaceful – away from the rat race,” they conjecture.
Those of us who have been there know how much unfair judging and rumor there is, as well as how much it’s a hassle to have someone up in your grill all the time. You can’t hide anything. But I can guarantee there’s one environment that’s even tougher in the same kinds of ways – and it’s the New Orleans service industry.
As we get ready to open a new venture, we’re loading up the place with all the groceries and various other supplies needed to begin operations. We’re also hiring staff, assembling furniture, arranging shelves and working with various placements of things to make them as ergonomic as possible. At least we think so. But you can be sure we’re also forgetting plenty, and whatever it is will come quickly into sharp focus once paying customers start walking in the door.
Of course, this type of activity means lots of deliveries of various items from dry goods to produce to liquor to stainless steel tables. One of the unspoken truths about such deliveries is they show up when they show up. As much as we might want certain items delivered, say, “mid-morning,” the timing is usually no more specific than the cable company asking you to be home “between 8 a.m. and noon.” This is a sure clue they will show up at 2 p.m.
We’ve been doing a little grocery shopping over the past week or so, getting product samples from some suppliers and putting them through the various tests in the kitchen and comparing prices and quality like anyone would at home. Except it’s on a larger scale.
I’m in a unique position these days, working at a major regional grocery operation while also setting up a commercial kitchen. Really, except for the tonnage of things being ordered, it’s no different than what any of us do when it’s time to make groceries. You have in mind the amount you want to spend and you try to squeeze the most you can out of it, while keeping in mind various limitations of available equipment and how long everything has to last until you can make another trip.
Though much work remains to be done, we’re finally getting to that happiest of all points in restaurant operations – the arrival of the new toys.
Grand openings, or even soft openings, come with pressure. But before that, there is the day (or days) when new stuff you’ve ordered actually arrives. Kitchen equipment, gadgets, machines, tables, chairs, product samples, etc. New inventory either never show up or all arrives at once. When it finally does, there is a Christmas-type atmosphere made better because there is no that-day deadline. Even if it’s stuff you’ve used a million times before and will soon tire of cleaning, washing or using, for a brief few days it is new, untried, and fresh.
If you’ve ever built a house or otherwise been involved in construction or extensive remodeling of a building, you know any contractor’s standard answer is “two weeks.” You also know only too well how, particularly in this city, the wheels of the public utilities and their regulatory minions in city government grind v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y –- unless, of course, you’re late paying a bill.
One of the things I enjoy so much about where I’m working these days is the fair amount of freedom I get to produce what I want instead of being held to a list of prescribed recipes and procedures. Once a chef has spent a certain amount of time in self-employment, it is extremely difficult to go into someone else’s kitchen and do their thing their way – just as it would be for anyone in any industry to similarly adapt.
During the Great Job Searches of that dismal year 2012, I purposely avoided applying for employment in any kitchen run by, say, John Besh, Emeril Lagasse or any of the Brennans (among others). There were several reasons, but the chief among them was respect. These folks have excellent reputations and proven track records, and it would be an insult for me to try to “improve” on what they do. Given my junior status in the food industry and my lack of a culinary degree, it would be doubly stupid of me to think I could make their operations better by saying anything more than “yessir” when given a task.
Now that the Super Bowl has passed and the temporary Disneyfication of our city has been taken down, we’re back to the normal seasonal crazy through Fat Tuesday next week. In our household, it means even more than in most years because we’ll have family staying with us through the entire time. By “family,” I mean my daughter and her boyfriend and a childhood friend of my daughter, so it’ll be a bon temp indeed around here.
As mentioned last week, I’m these days helping some friends do the groundwork for a new bar and restaurant in the Warehouse District. With most of the heavy lifting accomplished, we’re now in the dusty work of arranging things in certain locations while the workers around us install wiring, do the plumbing, put up insulation and do a lot of sanding. LOTS of sanding. A simple walk through the kitchen can sometimes leave one looking somewhat Mt. St. Helenish.
These days I’ve been helping some friends put together a new restaurant/bar operation in the Warehouse District. The principals involved are veterans of the local restaurant/bar scene, so there aren’t a whole lot of surprises being thrown at any of us. But, as with any new operation, there’s a lot of “one step forward, two steps back” thing when you’re waiting on construction crews to assemble the plumbing, electrical stuff and hand-mill a new bar on-site.
The most frustrating thing about putting together such a new business is all the hurry-up-and-wait stuff involved in licensing and permitting. Things are particularly messy this time of year, as health inspectors want to make sure they’re gotten around to as many places as possible before the big Carnival crowds arrive. Throw the Super Bowl on top of it and you’ve got, well, a task more difficult than a left turn off Tulane Avenue.