Food = joy…guilt…anger…pain…nurturing… friendship…hatred…the way you look and feel.… Food = everything you can imagine. — Susan Powter
Tim Klepeis, the chef at Adams Avenue Grill, spoke hesitatingly at first. “I think the greatest reward is the food.” Then the tempo picked up. “Oh my God, I can’t believe it. I think it really is the food. Because you know what, I can make whatever I want, I can eat whatever I want.”
Klepeis, who is also the restaurant’s owner, and I talked one day last February about the work lives of those who prepared and served food in his restaurant. I’d hoped to sit down with the crew at a staff meal, a tradition in which employees gather once or twice a day to eat as a family. But Adams Avenue Grill did not have staff meals. Klepeis said most San Diego restaurants did not. Like other local chefs, Klepeis offered his front-of-the-house staff — the servers, hosts/hostesses — any meal on the menu for half the price. The back-of-the-house staff — cooks, preparation help, dishwashers — were provided a free meal, but they didn’t sit down together to eat.
Some words and phrases might be helpful to introduce. The “line” is where the food is prepared and plated for service. The “pass,” or “window,” is where the dishes ready to be delivered to the dining room are placed. A “sous chef” is second in command in the kitchen. An “expeditor,” or “runner,” coordinates the food orders brought to the kitchen and gets them out to the dining room in a timely manner. A “slam” is when it’s busy.
In between slams, eight San Diego County restaurant staffs allowed a visitor to join them in a meal. Each restaurant also provided a recipe.
910 Prospect Street, La Jolla
When I arrived at Nine-Ten, in the Grande Colonial Hotel in La Jolla, everyone was in a frenzy of preparation for the evening ahead. Michael Stebner, the executive chef, had arranged to meet with me in the kitchen. I don’t know if it was the high gloss of the stainless steel, the array of sharp and long knives, the handsome men in white starched chef’s jackets, or the realization that my elbow was resting on an open crate of expensive porcini mushrooms just flown in from France, but I felt light-headed.
Anyma Kleinsorge, an expeditor and bartender, folded whiter-than-kosher-salt towels into squares. An enormous number of towels are used in kitchens as makeshift pot holders and to clean the rims of plates just before serving. Jack Fisher, the pastry chef, breezed in and out. Fisher oversaw all the baking for the hotel and restaurant, from bread to croissants to desserts. Chris Bellini, a line cook, was chopping ingredients for appetizers and cleaning lobsters.
Travis Murphy, also a cook, planned the staff’s daily dinner. At Nine-Ten, he said, the hardest part of arranging the staff meal, also called the “family meal,” was “to find something to use. The biggest challenge is protein. I have to improvise with what’s extra. Basically, we have to scavenge around. The family meal is…what’s the word I want? Spontaneous.” Traditionally, staff meals are many times improvisational works. “The restaurant doesn’t serve chicken,” he continued, “but we use chicken for making stock, so often I use chicken for the protein. Or extra fish. Sometimes I make a meal that doesn’t have any protein. Occasionally I’ll do a big pasta dish.”
Another consideration was staff members’ food preferences. “I’m a vegetarian,” said Kleinsorge, “and he always remembers to fix something that I can have.”
Murphy was trained at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. When I quizzed him on his biggest challenge as a chef, he immediately responded, “Patience. My biggest challenge is with myself and with the people around me. I need to be patient.”
Michael Stebner, the executive chef, was immersed in last-minute details before the staff meal, but we talked as he stirred a large bowl of saffron-laced risotto on the stovetop. (Stebner has since left to open Region, in Hillcrest.)
He grew up in Scottsdale, Arizona, spending much time in the kitchen helping his mother. He remembered pictures of himself as a little boy sporting a chef’s hat. Although he had an innate love of food preparation, he wasn’t thinking of making food his career. Ironically, his father’s business failed at the time Stebner was beginning to hunt for his first job. “If my dad’s business had not gone under at that time,” he said, “I would have probably followed in his footsteps.” Instead, at 15H years old he got his first restaurant job. All it took was “one step in the kitchen, and I knew this was it.” Stebner went on to train for three years at the Phoenician, a resort in Scottsdale. He’d worked in San Diego for the past nine years and was at Loews Coronado Bay Resort prior to the opening of Nine-Ten.
Stebner removed the risotto from the stove and spooned it into a wide, shallow pan. He said this was a trick of the trade. Chefs cook risotto ahead of time, until it’s halfway done. Then they transfer it to baking pans. They finish cooking it just before the restaurant opens for dinner. He spread the risotto, then ran a crisscross design through the golden pearls. Next, he pulled large pots of braising lamb shanks out of the oven and assessed their progress.
I mentioned to Stebner the difficulty of finding restaurants that offered staff meals and asked why he keeps the staff-meal policy. “It doesn’t make sense not to,” he said. “It’s a soft cost.”
As for problems with personnel, he replied that his key to success was “retaining a staff that’s retention-worthy.” He added that relationships in restaurants can be riddled with friction. “We’re a little bit out of the box.”
It was now time for the staff meal with this out-of-the-box crew. We sat down at tables at the back of the dining room.
I asked what topics they threw around for discussion at their meals. Stebner said, “Well, we have all the political analysts here tonight. Usually we get into really deep conversations about politics and religion, and what’s the other thing? Sports.”
Tiffany Girvin, a buser, said, “And vegetarianism.”
“Yeah, we talk about that a lot,” Kleinsorge said.
“We’ve been talking lately about war and the possibility of war,” Girvin said.
Shane Rilling, a server, said, “Yeah, what’s your views on war? We’ve got to get some of the Republicans out here.”
“We talk about the school systems,” Amanda Dowd, also a server, said. “We talk about things we read in the paper. We’re all very dynamic individuals, so there’s a lot going on.”
“And we spend about three minutes talking about the menu,” said Stebner. “And we spend about 30 seconds talking about any important people that are coming in for dinner, but we usually wait till the last minute to do that.”
Almost everyone at the table, with the exception of Kleinsorge, had worked at the restaurant for the past year and a half.
I asked what was the best thing about working at Nine-Ten.
“Food!” said Kleinsorge.
“The people we work with,” said Dowd.
“I think what makes it different is that we learn a lot about the business and food,” Girvin said. “That’s the biggest thing I noticed when I started here. You just learn something new every day.”
All had worked in restaurants before. Johnson mumbled, “Unfortunately, yes.” He said he was just kidding, but Dowd said, “There aren’t many restaurant jobs that are as good as this.”
Kleinsorge concurred: “That’s true. Turnover in most of the restaurants is high. Here it seems like everyone comes to stay. They like their jobs.”
Rilling said, “I think the coolest thing, like she [pointing to Girvin] was saying, is that you’re always learning. Everyone here is dedicated to one’s progress. ’Cause a lot of places, you can come in on a set menu, learn the menu, learn the wines by the glass, stay there, and never progress at all. But it seems like we switch the wine list pretty frequently, and it seems like everyone has a passion for learning about the wine and food. Like when I started, I could go up to almost anyone above me and ask them, ‘What does this taste like? What’s it good with? Where’s it come from?’ So I was able to learn from a lot of people and just keep on learning, and everyone kind of helps each other. It’s cool. It makes it fun, instead of just coming to work and doing the same thing.”
I inquired about the hours they work.
“Thirty-five,” said Johnson.
“Twenty,” said Girvin.
“During the day, I bartend, and a couple of nights a week, I expedite,” said Kleinsorge.
“Thirty-five,” said Dowd.
“I take two days off a week,” Stebner said. “I try to work under 12 hours a day, which is not a lot for a chef.” Stebner said he lived with his wife and one-and-a-half-year-old son.
Everyone at the table, other than Stebner, had come to San Diego to attend college. I asked the students if they planned to work in the restaurant business in the future.
“I will definitely own a restaurant,” said Johnson.
Rilling said he didn’t want to own a restaurant, and Kleinsorge said, “I don’t know if I would want to own a restaurant either. Unless it was international; then I would.”
Johnson continued, “I’ve been working in restaurants since I was 16 years old. It’s all I really know. Even though I want to go further, the restaurant’s where I can make my money. Then I can eventually graduate on to other things.”
“It’s definitely good money,” Kleinsorge said. “None of us are really studying culinary aspects. I study economics, Scott’s political science, Shane’s biology.”
How did they get along when it was busy and stressful?
“Just make sure you don’t make the chef mad,” Johnson said.
“Just do whatever you have to do,” Rilling added.
“In the four months that I’ve been here, it’s never really gotten to the point where it’s escalated to extreme high-stress level,” Kleinsorge said. “I mean, I think that everything is run very well here. I haven’t seen anything yet, but I’m sure you have stories.”
“There are very definitely tiffs and issues and stress-related problems,” said Girvin, “but you have to finally realize that’s what you’re being paid for.”
“In everyday stress,” said Rilling, “when you do have an argument with somebody, you just have to say it’s just another day and you have a job to do, execute it, and that’s that.”
On the flip side, they went on and on about the positive aspects of their jobs.
“I like it that the chefs make it known when you’re appreciated,” said Dowd. “Like, I’ve worked in other places where appreciation’s never shown, and it’s just really obvious here.”
“I’ll second that,” Kleinsorge said.
“Along those lines,” said Rilling, “I felt at other restaurants, managers were trying to run the place by fear and punishment. ‘You better do a good job or else.’ Whereas here: ‘We want you to do a good job, and we’ll help you if you can’t. We’ll help you learn.’ So it’s more respectful between people, as opposed to treating someone like a subordinate, which is really nice.”
“I think we are the best restaurant serving the best food in Southern California,” said Johnson.
“People ask us, ‘What’s good tonight? What’s the best thing here?’ ” Dowd said. “It’s funny, because you sound like a broken record, but everything is phenomenal. Truly, everything is delicious. And I say to my table, ‘I know it sounds like a cliché to sit here and tell you that everything is delicious, but I feel the utmost pride in what I am going to serve to each person.’ I’m never afraid that they’re not going to like it. I’m never afraid that they’re going to send it back. Or that it’s going to have a hair in it, or that it’s going to be undercooked. None of that is an issue. And I’ve been working in restaurants since I was, like, 17, serving, and people would ask you, ‘What’s good?’ and you’d be, like, ‘Nothing.’ Truly. You try to pick and choose from the worst. Here there’ll be things on the menu that are brand new, and I tell them, ‘You have to try this. You will cry it’s so good.’ And people will get it and say, ‘Oh my God, you’re right.’ ”
“I have to agree with almost everything that’s been said at the table, and then I have to add that I love the staff I work with too,” Kleinsorge said. “It seems for some reason they’ve hired everyone that just absolutely gets along. You come into work, and everybody’s really cheery, ready to work, and happy. And no drama. In most restaurants there is a lot of tension.”
They had definite ideas about what they liked to eat.
Kleinsorge said, “I personally love to cook. I grew up on very organic, very, very fresh foods all the time, so I keep that.”
Rilling said, “Me too. I eat all organic, all that good stuff. Also, as a server, ultimately you’re just trying to make everyone at the table happy. The ultimate thing is the food, so if we’re confident that the food’s going to be good, that makes the rest of the job a lot easier.”
Dowd shared how difficult it was in San Diego to find fresh organic food served in restaurants. She had lived in San Francisco, where organic food is more of a mainstay.
Stebner said that after work, he went home and ate crackers and cheese and had a glass of wine. “My wife is a vegetarian, so at home I eat vegetarian. We have a lot of pasta and salad.”
Stebner, bringing the troops back to the evening ahead, asked, “Do you guys want to hear about the menu?”
“It’s a little early, isn’t it?” Johnson said.
“We might spark other conversation, I think,” Stebner said. “For fish tonight, we have char and cod. The cod is with cauliflower puree, roasted turnips, beets, and kohlrabi. The sauce is a brown chicken reduction with a little bit of butter. The char we’re serving with chanterelles, braised cabbage, cranberry mousse. Let’s see, what else do we have? Michel mussels tonight. The pasta is a little different. We’re serving it with mushrooms, snow peas, pea shoots, Parmesan.
“The special arugula salad, we’re doing with fresh cèpes — porcinis — very rare. Everybody’s had cèpes, right? It’s porcini; it’s the same mushroom. These are from France, so I’m calling them cèpes. It’s kind of the king of all mushrooms. Very expensive. They’re about $35 a pound. We’re going to serve ’em raw tonight, sliced really thin with the special arugula, a little balsamic. A real simple setup. Just accentuate the freshness. Cèpes are, even though they’re really expensive, really rare, they’re really prone to mushroom worm. So a lot of times you get a box in — you spend $160 on the box — and they are just riddled with worms. These are really very clean, so it’s nice. A lot of the ones that come from the northwest can be pretty wormy. So since these are so pretty and nice, we are going to serve them raw.”
Johnson asked if they had morels.
“We don’t have any more morels,” Stebner responded. “They’re not out of season, but I don’t want to have $700 worth of mushrooms in the kitchen at any given time. I want to keep one special mushroom at a time.
“We do have a party of 50 tonight. They’re getting, believe it or not, caprese salad, which you guys are enjoying the secondary trimmings of. These are the first tomatoes we have used in, like, six months. We try not to use things that are not in season. We’re doing caprese salad tonight because they insisted on it. The tomatoes are from Holland. They’re greenhouse-grown, so they’re as good of a tomato as you can get right now. So we’re doing that special for them. We’re also having braised lamb shank.
“On top of that, we have the owners coming in — a party of 16. They are going to sit here on the banquette. They are having a limited menu. Whoever has got them, talk to Sean about the wine, and talk to me about the menu. The limited menu is a first-course salad with mozzarella, Italian vegetables. They actually have canapés from 6:30 to 7:30 at the bar. Choice of potato or pasta and a choice of three entrées — king salmon, beef, or lamb shank. The lamb shank is not on the à la carte menu tonight. I just have enough for the two parties.
“So, very high profile. They’ve been here all day. They had a meeting starting at 7:30 this morning in the sunroom. They went off-site for lunch. Of course, Mr. Spogli, I’m assuming, being a foodie, has probably told everyone how great the restaurant is, so hopefully we want to show ’em what we’re made of. I don’t think anybody else in the party has eaten dinner here. That’s good. That’s all of the ID we have for tonight.”
“It was good last night,” said Johnson.
“A hundred and thirty,” said Stebner. “That’s really busy for us.”
“Especially for a Wednesday night,” said Johnson.
“We have 54 seats in the restaurant,” said Stebner, “so that’s keeping the restaurant full all night. We’ll be busy tonight. I think that’s it. Any questions about the menu?
“We have a meeting every Saturday,” Stebner told me. “We try and touch base for half an hour or so on product knowledge. The main thing is that these guys are willing and able to ask questions. And we’re all willing to answer them. The knowledge in the kitchen is pretty deep. It’s not just me. Everybody back there knows a lot, so as far as product knowledge goes with the food, they can ask any kind of question and get a pretty good answer. So that’s the important thing in the restaurant here is that everybody that works out here has an interest in food, and this isn’t really a nine-to-five kind of punch-the-clock sort of job. They take it as seriously as we do, so we capitalize on that as much as we can.
“I’ve never worked in a place that has as much positive, I guess, energy as this place,” Stebner continued, “and you know, I don’t take credit for that. I credit everybody that we hire. That’s how we screen people. We don’t say, ‘Oh, this guy’s been doing it for 15 years so let’s hire him.’ We hire people that we know are going to fit into a team. And if they’ve never worked in a restaurant, then that’s fine, ’cause we know we can teach them. And everybody around the table, everybody in the restaurant, may have goals outside the restaurant business, but hopefully they’re learning things that are going to help them get to those goals. Like, if they’re going to be a psychologist, or if they want to be a lawyer, they’re going to learn things from this experience that are going to help them. Not necessarily just from me and the management, but from each other. There’s just a lot of intelligence here, and there’s a lot of respect. That’s the best part.”
3709 Convoy Street #101, Kearny Mesa
As I entered the Emerald Chinese Seafood Restaurant, I was greeted by a beaming gentleman. I told him I had an appointment with Chuck.
“Chuck, the manager.”
“Oh, you mean Check.”
“Check? How do you spell that?”
“C -h - e - c - k. Please have a seat, and I’ll go get Check for you.”
The spacious restaurant seated 400. A bank of fish tanks filled with crabs, lobsters, and fish that diners can select for their meals covered one wall.
Check Ng welcomed me and directed me to the far end of the restaurant, where a bustle of activity was underway. People, all Chinese, were flinging fresh linens onto tables and setting down plates, napkins, chopsticks, and soup spoons. Others brought bowls of soup and large platters of food for the staff meal. Five or six tables filled with hungry employees.
Ng entreated me to join him at a table with five other men. The men were chefs, and none spoke English well.
From Ng I learned that the restaurant had been in business for 11 years. “The location is, uh, okay,” he said. “The major owner of the restaurant also owned the property too. And first they bought the land and built the building in ’92. At that time, they had the space for it, and they had a really nice chef, but the chef is already passed away. So they think it is a good idea to open a Hong Kong–style restaurant, because at that time there weren’t many good dim sum restaurants. So everything just happened. We had the space, we had the people.”
The restaurant employed between 60 and 70 people. Half of these were women, who primarily worked the front of the house. “We, most of us, are middle-aged,” Ng said, “about 40 or 50 years old.” They gathered as a staff twice a day for meals, once for each shift.
Ng described our meal. “The soup is our vegetable soup. That’s supposed to be good for your body. You know, Chinese is healthy, believe in balance. So if you have a fever or…you know, this soup can cool you down. Things like that. Once in a while you can drink it to balance your body. It’s a very good, a very popular soup. This is a roast duck left over from the lunch. You know, if we have a couple of ducks left over, we cannot sell them. And here is fish, flounder fish. Steamed beef.” There was also a large platter heaped with “pork, Napa, carrots, potatoes.” One of the gentlemen who didn’t speak Chinese told me it was called Fiery Feast.
Generally the staff meal consisted of “basically three dishes and one soup,” Ng said. “We have a couple of chefs sponsor the employees’ lunch and dinner. They have to figure out the menu for that day. That’s part of their job.” Responsibility for staff meals rotated among chefs.
“Usually we don’t eat dessert during our dinner,” Ng said. “Occasionally, some of the employees go to get dessert to share with everybody, but it’s extra, not provided. Some employees, maybe they have a special day, they like to treat the other coworkers. Very often when we have dessert, somebody brings it.”
I asked if any women employees cooked. Ng said that the women who worked the back of the house mostly helped the cooks by prepping food and cleaning. “We have a couple women do the cooking for dim sum,” Ng said. “Usually, there are not many women in the kitchen. It’s a pretty physical job. Lots of lifting. Things like that. Some women can do it, but not often. It’s a tough job.”
All the chefs agreed that their job could be stressful. Ng said, “I have to explain. At lunchtime we have another group of chefs. We have dim sum,” and he jumped up to find the dim sum head chef.
Dim sum are artfully prepared dishes often cooked in bamboo steamers. They are served in snack-size portions, so a diner may combine several to make a meal. “Dim sum” means “touches of the heart” or “small choices of the heart.” Served from 11:00 to 3:00 weekdays and 9:00 to 3:00 weekends, the dim sum menu at Emerald offered 120 small choices of the heart.
Ng returned with Mr. Young, the dim sum chef, and also introduced me to the head à la carte chef, Mr. Tam. Mr. Young had been working there 8 years. “Mr. Young came here for working,” Ng said. “He used to work in Hong Kong for 20 years in a restaurant, so he came here as a chef.”
Mr. Young had “only a sister in Hong Kong. He is single, he’s by himself.”
Mr. Tam had lived in the United States since 1988. “Because his family lived here” they found a job for him before he arrived. “Mr. Tam’s family is here — the wife, the children are here,” Ng said. “Only one brother of Mr. Tam is in China.
“When Mr. Tam tried to apply for a visa to come to the United States,” Ng continued, “he wanted to get some kind of skill, you know, for living, so he decided to go to the restaurant business. Because at that time, as an Asian, this was the easiest way to get in and make the most money instantly. So he went to some school and went to a restaurant.
“Basically, the chefs work eight-hour days,” Ng said. “Sometime they might stay a little longer to oversee. They work five days a week.”
Mr. Young said he usually worked from 8:00 till 3:00, when dim sum is over.
Mr. Tam worked from 2:00 p.m. until midnight.
Ng worked both shifts. “I come at the morning shift, so I come here at 11:00, and I end at 3:00. And then I go home for a little nap. Then I come back at 6:00 until whenever. We are open till midnight.
“We have a special menu, a late-night menu — a special setup for the light dinner. It starts at 9:00. The dishes are about $4 or $5 a dish and are basically some noodles, some little dish, rice, soup, things like that. We attract lots of students. Like college students, young people.”
Ng asked the men to share the most difficult aspects of their jobs. After Mr. Tam, who looked like a young Asian version of Marlon Brando, heard the question in Chinese, he spoke with intensity for several long minutes. When he stopped, I turned and said, “Help me, Check.” To my surprise, Ng said, “I’m trying to figure out what he’s talking about.”
Mr. Tam spoke again. Ng said, “I think that what he is trying to say is that because of our style, for example, the meat, it comes here frozen. From frozen to ready to cook it takes a real long time to defrost and marinate and everything. So this wastes a lot of manpower. The food preparation is very time-consuming.”
Now it was Mr. Young’s turn. He got right to the point, causing Ng to laugh. “I think actually he says that everything is pretty good, except that he would like to have more of the preparation area because he needs more room. We have so many dishes. Lots of preparation and, especially with our style, there are lots of ingredients involved. So for Mr. Tam, it’s the same too. He needs a lot of space to prepare.”
I asked what their favorite dishes were to prepare. Mr. Tam said, “Seafood.”
Ng chimed in with “I think this is a tough question. Which dish he likes to make most? He has to make whatever the customer orders. But actually, in the departments we have lots of others help to make each dish. Some get the ingredients ready. Some give them to the chef to cook. So I think it’s kind of like everybody works together to make one dish.”
About 20 people worked in the kitchen. “So each department has about 8 or 9 people in the dinner section. Dim sum has about 7 or 8. Then we have a barbecue department, like the roaster and things like that.” Only one cook worked in the barbecue department.
Regarding employee relations, Ng said, “I would say good, very, very good. I mean, compared with other restaurants. I’m proud of them. Yeah. We don’t hardly have any fighting during the busy times. Occasionally, but usually it’s over after the rush is gone. Usually they do real good.
“We have a very minimum turnover,” Ng said. “Most of our employees have been working for, oh, at least five or six years, or longer. We still have probably almost half of our employees who started from the very beginning.
“Basically, regarding the food, they are very familiar with it. They been in this business for a long time. The biggest challenge is the personnel. Sometimes you have some employee quit the job because of some reason and you need to get somebody else. And because in San Diego, in this kind of style, you know, it’s really hard to find some replacement. We are different from Szechwan style or Peking style or any kind of style. So if we need some replacement for the kitchen, sometimes we have to go as far as to New York or San Francisco.”
I asked them what they normally talked about during their staff meals. “Anything from family to meals to gambling to sports and anything at all. Just the normal, you know, people talking. I can tell you because I have joined them.”
At home, Ng said, they all ate Chinese food. Mr. Tam said, “Sometimes myself cook, sometimes my wife.”
Concerning the best part of the restaurant life, Ng responded immediately, “Good comments from the customers. I have to say something.” The rest of the staff at the table had finished their meals and left. Ng pointed to Mr. Young and Mr. Tam. “They are part owners of the restaurant. There are several owners. Mr. Tam says, every time he sees the business growing, that makes him happy. That’s why I have to explain that he’s part owner.
“When we first opened this restaurant, we were mostly targeting Asian people. But for the last five or six years it seems kind of mixed. We have lots of Asians, we have Caucasian, Filipino, Mexican, Japanese, so it’s kind of mixed now. I would say it’s pretty balanced. On dim sum on Saturday and Sunday, usually we have waiting. On dinners Friday and Saturday, it is usually the most busy.”
When they realized I had not eaten anything, they insisted on cooking me fresh food. Mr. Young returned with four different dim sum items: har gau, their most popular dim sum dish, is a shrimp dumpling; he also made egg rolls, rice rolls, and barbecue pork bun. Mr. Tam whipped up a fresh batch of honey walnut shrimp. He did this in only minutes.
I reminded Ng that I needed a recipe for the article. Mr. Tam struggled to think of something that wasn’t complicated. Then he wrestled with reducing the ingredients to small portions. He wanted to give the recipe for the honey walnut shrimp, but evidently the process of caramelizing the walnuts was difficult. First they soaked the walnuts in water. Then by hand they peeled the skin from each nut. The caramelizing was tricky because the nuts can’t be too sticky. To attain the right result without burning them was the issue.
In the end, I came away with a recipe for Mr. Tam’s lemon shrimp.
514 Via de la Valle, Solana Beach
At two o’clock at the Pamplemousse Grille, most of the staff was seated at the bar, talking and eating oven-baked chicken, fresh corn tortillas, and Caesar salad.
Jeffrey Strauss, the owner and executive chef, greeted me and encouraged me to help myself.
Strauss launched in with his light New York accent. “We’ve been here seven years. I own the place, so I have to be here the whole time.
“Felix, down there at the very end, has been here since we opened, before we opened. Brian has been here almost three years, which is kind of long in the kitchen. Natalie, his future wife, has been here almost a year. Scott’s our newest guy. He came from Thee Bungalow. Then Maureen is kind of like a mother hen around here. She keeps everybody in line. She’s our bookkeeper and office administrator.”
“I’ve been here over a year,” Maureen said.
“Her husband works with my brother at proflowers.com, so we have to keep her busy during the daytime,” Strauss explained. “Arthur’s the new guy. And then Jalime. Quantos años now?”
“Seis,” said Jalime.
“Jesús is a sous chef,” Strauss continued. “He opened up the restaurant with me. And James is the chef de cuisine, and he’s been here, well, this is his second stint here.”
“It’s going on three years,” James Montejano said. (Montejano and Brian Brown have since left.)
Strauss introduced the general manager: “Roy opened up the restaurant. James and Jesús both co-run the kitchen. Jesús does more daily operations. All the guys, he’s pretty much responsible for. All the catering, he’s responsible for. James is more responsible for the restaurant. They make my life pretty easy.”
There were five Latino employees present, more than I’d seen at other staff meals. They were so quiet, sitting at the far end of the bar, that I asked if they spoke English.
Strauss answered, “They pretty much all speak English. The amount of time they speak is another story. Abel has been here four years, and I think he understands a lot more than he speaks. Felix does a pretty good job with it. If I was to tell anyone here, ‘I’m going to have to pay you less money next week,’ they would understand.”
“If I wasn’t visiting, what would you all be talking about?” I asked.
“What’s for dessert,” said Brian Brown.
I asked where they had learned to cook.
Montejano offered, “I graduated from the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. I graduated in ’93.” The academy had a 19-month program, which Montejano said is shorter than most, but he also had ten years of restaurant experience before he enrolled.
Montejano continued, “We have some who graduated from CIA [Culinary Institute of America], the New England Culinary Institute, some are self-taught. Not everyone has to go to cooking school to become a good chef.”
“Our last pastry chef studied in Paris,” said Strauss. “Felix worked under her for three years, and now Felix obviously knows everything. Sarah, our pastry chef, is off today.”
“She went to the Arizona school,” said Montejano.
“She does breads,” said Strauss. “We get regular baguettes from a place here in Del Mar, O’Brien’s. Jalapeño corn muffins and lemon-thyme biscuits, we make all that; Felix or Sarah will make that. The only other things we don’t make here are most of the ice creams or sorbets and the baguette. Everything else comes from within our little borders here.”
The menu at Pamplemousse changed frequently, and Strauss and Montejano regularly updated the staff on new menu items and how to serve them.
“They see the plate — the presentation,” said Strauss. “I mean, every plate has to be put down in a cerain fashion. So if you come here, you’ll always hear me on the other end of the line going, ‘Quail at twelve o’clock, truffled mashed at one o’clock.’ Putting things down incorrectly on a table drives me up a wall. And it should anyone.”
“Then we break down the dish,” said Montejano, “and tell them all the ingredients that are in it. Let ’em know, ‘Okay, this has peanut oil in it’ or ‘This has garlic,’ because a lot of people have allergic — you know, they can’t have certain things. ‘This takes so much time’ — like this dish will take 25 minutes to prepare, as opposed to something else that will take 10, so they know in their head when they’re taking the order what it’s going to take.”
We talked about the restaurant’s most popular dishes.
“I think lobster ravioli was the signature dish for a long time,” said Strauss.
Brian Brown put in his two cents’ worth. “Right now, it’s been replaced by an abalone dish.”
Strauss said, “Abalone’s out of control. We sell so much abalone. James did this great dish with honey and the fat from the foie gras blended together, and he brushes it on troll king salmon and then oven-roasts the salmon and serves it on braised artichokes and potatoes with a beurre rouge sauce. That’s been a big hit. And, believe it or not, meat. Cowboy rib-eye steak with our truffle-Parmesan french fries. We can’t get enough. We have a $12 french fry on our menu, and we can’t keep it in the house. We’ll be on the line, there’ll be guys out there peeling potatoes — they can’t keep up with the pace.”
“People don’t even flinch about the price, ’cause they’re so good,” Montejano said.
Roy Metcalf, the general manager: “Once they’ve tasted them once, it’s the thing they come back for more than any other thing right now.”
Strauss: “I think what works well for us: we don’t care about the cost. People don’t want to spend money on truffles. I remember when we first opened, the accountant said, ‘You can’t get truffles. It’s too expensive. You can’t make money in truffles.’ I decided it’s easier to get another accountant than not to work with truffles. We love foie gras, we love truffles, we love high-end items.”
“Caviar,” said Montejano.
“Caviar,” said Strauss. “We go through so much of that stuff. And we’re not scared. We’re not scared to charge a fair price to make it profitable for us. The customers don’t mind. Now, what I don’t think you need to do is charge $90 an ounce for caviar when you’re paying $40 an ounce. You don’t have to make $50, $60 on a little appetizer. You can make less. Then, we’re reasonably priced. But again, fresh Reggiano-Parmigiana cheese shaved into the fries; truffles that are lightly chopped, mixed with the fries — that stuff costs money, but no one’s going to do it. No one wants to justify spending $5 to make an order of french fries. We don’t mind.”
Asked the most difficult parts of their respective jobs, Brian Brown, a chef, was the first to respond. “Standing on your feet all day.”
For Montejano, it was “anticipating what Jeffrey’s next move is. That’s the hardest.”
Strauss’s biggest challenge was “taking care of the people. See, it’s more than just a restaurant. We have a private room that’s booked five and six nights a week. We also have a catering company that’s 40 percent of our business. We need to be always on our toes. When we’re doing parties, sometimes we do three and four parties a day. Those get challenging.”
Did things always go smoothly between staff members?
“No,” Strauss said. “Most of the time. There’s no animosity here. I’ve never seen anyone throw a fist in the kitchen. I’ve never seen any fisticuffs here. Nah.”
What if there was a problem with a grumpy customer?
Strauss said, “James and I, two biggest guys in the restaurant, we go to the table and throw ’em out. We toss ’em out. You got a problem, you’re out. You know what? You’re always going to get a few grumpy people.”
Brown added, “We know our customers. Every customer has a way they like something. Somebody likes just plain mashed potatoes. We have a gentleman comes in every Sunday, he likes none of his food touching each other. Plain mashed potatoes, a certain vegetable, cooked a certain way, a certain chicken. But he’s a great guy, you know? He’ll come by in the kitchen. He says hello to everybody. Walks in the back, knows everybody by their first names.”
Strauss said, “Christmas season comes by, he gives everyone more money.”
“At this restaurant,” said Brown, “we cater to everyone. If someone calls in and says, ‘Hey, we want chocolate soufflé,’ we’ll make it if we can do it. Just give us the time.”
“We have a policy,” Strauss added. “The servers will never say no to someone. They’ll come back and ask if we can do it first. If we can’t do it, we can’t do it. But there’s been some customers in the restaurant watch me run across the lawn going next door to get spareribs ’cause a little kid wants spareribs. I don’t have it here, I’ll buy it from Red Tracton’s.”
“You’re going to get people unhappy,” said Montejano, “but we try to alleviate the problem. Send them something else out. Or give them a gift certificate to come back and try us again if we fail. Buy them dessert or a cocktail. Say we miss a reservation or someone’s waiting — right, Brian? — we do something like that.”
“Right,” said Brian Brown, “but it hardly ever happens. It’s rare that that happens.”
Did any of the staff have dreams of owning a restaurant?
“Hopefully not,” said Strauss.
“Tommy really wants to start a deli,” said Brown. Tommy, a chef who wasn’t working that day, had at one time wanted to open a deli/golfing range.
“I think most chefs have a dream that they’d like to open up their own restaurant,” Strauss said. “I just make it real difficult because they all love working for me so much. I’m lucky.”
I was curious about what kind of food this bunch liked to eat when they were away from the restaurant.
Scotty, a line cook: “I eat out a lot.” He eats fine food when he can afford it.
Montejano: “I like sushi. I go out for sushi a lot.”
Strauss: “I like sushi.”
Montejano: “Thai food. I like Asian food, Chinese.”
Strauss: “I don’t know how chefs cook at home.”
Montejano: “Unless you’re going to someone’s house and cooking for them, you’re rarely cooking. Or all getting together for a barbecue or something like that, like Super Bowl or Fourth of July.”
Strauss: “The amount of time we use our ovens in our own homes, you could buy…”
Arthur interrupted: “Me, I cook at home all the time.”
Strauss: “He’s domesticated. The rest of us aren’t.”
Arthur: “It’s cheaper to eat at home than to go out all the time.”
Strauss: “I have no desire to cook at home. I have zero desire to cook at home.”
I asked if they had any crazy stories to tell.
“We had a guy electrocute himself,” Strauss said.
I interrupted: “Wait, wait, you mean electrocute, as in died?”
“No, no,” said Strauss. “There was a short in a wire, and he hit it with a metal screen, and he shorted the whole restaurant. We lost power in the restaurant.”
“We lost power when the guy was working,” Brown said, “when Juan was scrubbing behind the oven. And some water got behind the oven, that’s when the power went out.”
Fortunately, this occurred before customers had filled the restaurant.
“We do a lot of joking around, talking, but there’s not really a lot of practical jokes going on,” said Montejano. “The kitchen’s kind of a dangerous place; sometimes people take things wrong. There’s not a lot of tomfoolery going on.”
“We’ll do more practical jokes to the customers than we will to ourselves,” said Strauss. “We have a few clients that, umm…”
Montejano interrupted: “His clientele plays more practical jokes on Jeffrey.”
“We have a pig bench in the front of the restaurant,” said Strauss. “It was missing for three months. One day I came home, and I found rose petals leading from the front door to my bedroom, and I found the head of my pig in my bed.”
“Hostage notes,” added Montejano.
“And we suspected somebody who we thought did it,” said Strauss. “and we sent two police cars up to the house. The guy just got his American citizenship here; he’s from England. It all started the day he got his American citizenship. Chris Rivers, one of our servers, and I went to his house and had a banner made and pinned it to his front door. It said, ‘Limey, go home.’ So I think that was the start of it. Then he arranged for the kidnapping, or pignapping, of the pig out there. There’s been a few things.”
Everyone said that the staff got along at work and enjoyed each other’s company away from work as well.
“We just got through this morning with basketball,” said Montejano. “A lot of the guys surf together, you know, since we’re right by the beach. We have a softball team. Every year we have a restaurant league with the local restaurants. We play on Tuesdays. We get some camaraderie going that way. A lot of people get together and go out after work and go to a bar and play pool.”
“It’s a family here,” said Strauss.
“But most restaurants are like that,” said Montejano.
The scarcity of restaurants in San Diego that offer meals to staff was mentioned.
“Not many in San Diego,” said Montejano, “but in the Bay Area…”
“How can you not, though?” asked Strauss.
“When I was in San Francisco, every restaurant I worked at had a staff meal,” said Montejano.
“We don’t feed the waiters,” said Strauss. “My feeling is, the waiters come in for a four- or five-hour shift, max, but these guys are here ten — it’s a ten-hour shift. So we feed them lunch and dinner every night.”
“But if there’s anything left over,” said Montejano, “we are more than happy…”
“Yeah,” said Strauss, “we feed the bartenders, ’cause their shift’s a little bit longer, and the runners. We have guys called expeditors/runners. We consider those guys as kitchen guys, so they get to eat. And then the waiters — after everyone has eaten their food, whatever’s there, if the waiters want it, that’s fine.”
Montejano: “And I feel, too, when you feed your staff, you’re going to have fewer people who are going to try to get something for free or try to take something from the restaurant. We’ve never had a problem with that here.”
Strauss shared one more story, about a charity event.
“We get 30 to 40 requests a week,” he said. “We’ll pick something out once a month. The most memorable — although we weren’t even there — was UCSD Cardiovascular. They asked me to donate a dinner for eight people, where I go to someone’s home. We’ll do it every once in a while, where I’ll donate a dinner for eight and go to the house with the beverages and the food and make dinner for the guests. That dinner went for $61,000. Which was fun, you know, when I heard about it. But then everyone and his uncle said, ‘Wow. If we can get half of that. If we can even get 10 percent of that,’ you know? So we had everyone calling us up.”
India Palace — La Jolla
Ram Pathak, the manager of India Palace in La Jolla, greeted me and invited me to join him and three other Indian men for the staff meal. Pathak appeared a self-assured young man. His three coworkers seemed humble and shy, yet friendly. Their large dark eyes shone with curiosity and warmth as they assessed this woman who had invited herself to dinner.
According to Pathak, India Palace had been open “two years and a couple months.” (Pathak has since moved to the India Palace in Hillcrest.) There were 10 to 12 full-time and a couple of part-time employees. It was an all-male staff with the exception of the hostess. The staff ate between lunch and dinner and was welcome to eat again at night after the dinner business was finished. Often workers ate something quickly and left to do errands or go home. This day some of the staff had already eaten and left.
Luis Esteavo Pereira was a waiter. Gopi Singh and Francisco Bacheco were both cooks.
Pereira studied food-and-beverage management for one year in India. “Before that,” he said, “I used to work as a waiter. I spent nine years in the Middle East, in Kuwait. I was in Kuwait after the war” — the Gulf War, in 1991. After moving to the United States, he said, “One of my friends sent me here, so I come to this owner and he likes me. And the way he speak, I like him. And I come here, and I like this atmosphere. I used to work in a restaurant like this, only in India, so here we are.”
Bacheco said, “I used to work long time before in India. I had a little experience in other kinds of food, but I didn’t have experience in Indian food. I used to work in a hotel in India. I worked for five years in the Pizza Hut. Then Wendy’s. Waiter as well as a cook.” He learned to cook on the job.
Gopi Singh had been in the United States for two years and spoke fragmented English, so the others translated.
Pereira spoke for him, “Somebody told the manager about him. He was working somewhere else.”
Singh interrupted with “7-Eleven.”
Pereira continued, “7-Eleven, in the store. But before, he trained as a cook, so if he had no job, if something goes wrong, he can cook. He came here and started.”
Pathak, who had been here six years, offered a blanket explanation for why all of them came to the United States. “To be honest with you, people who come from India, like Asia, poor country, they don’t come here to have fun, you know. They come here to make money and go back to their country and live their life. So what we did is, my parents pay for me when I came here, and their parents pay for them too. Everything your parents provide at first. Now we are here, and we send them money.”
Pereira added, “For living, we have to.”
“It’s too expensive in our place,” Pathak explained. “Our place is like a tourism place. Goa is a tourism place.”
“We are on the west coast of India,” said Pereira. “Before, it was a Portuguese colony. That’s why the living standard is higher than other places.”
I inquired if they had families. They all answered, “In India.”
Thinking they’d misunderstood, I said, “I mean here.”
Bacheco said, “None of us have families here.”
Only one of them said he “kind of” had family here, because he was living with someone but “not getting married.”
All sent money to their families in India. They conferred briefly, with Pathak reporting, “It’s $1 equals $45. So if we send $100, it’s like $4500. A lot of money.”
Pereira said, “In some places, the living standard is very high. It’s not all the places in India. Some places it’s very high.”
They all made trips home to visit when they could.
“I’m planning to go this coming year,” said Bacheco. “My parents, my brothers, my sister, my wife, my son is there. He is one year four months.” Bacheco had seen his son only in photos.
Singh also planned to visit India in 2004.
Pereira visited as often as possible. “I have a big family. Every week I call them, and they miss me.”
Between the restaurant’s downstairs and upstairs dining rooms there were 35 tables. Pereira described the challenges of working the front of the house: “You must know how to look at your tables. We have to consider that most of the time and check with the customers.” He spoke of the tricky business of overseeing 5 and 6 tables at one time, making sure the customers had what they desired in a timely manner.
The back-of-the-house staff faced their own hard tasks. I asked Bacheco if he ever cut himself. Big laughter, “Yeah.”
Pathak brought up clientele issues. “Customers, there are always a few people who want to complain about things. It’s normal. Most of them are really happy, and everything is good, great. It’s, like, one in a hundred people, you get one person, like, a little bit get crazy.”
Bacheco: “The Indians.”
Pathak: “Mostly Indians.”
Bacheco said that most of their clientele were Americans and European tourists. A lot of the regulars were La Jolla residents.
As a staff, everyone seemed content, saying they all tried to get along. I asked, “No one ever gets upset?” They laughed and shrugged.
I mentioned that working in the close confines of a kitchen with rushes at mealtimes must present some tense moments. Pathak admitted, “Well, yes, kind of. But since you have a lot of people working — like on Fridays and Saturdays, like a couple people more, just to help — it doesn’t get very stressful, really. But everything seems like it goes pretty smooth.” As if on cue, the other three chimed in with Pathak on the word “smooth.”
Asked what the lack of problems could be attributed to, Pathak said, “Good teamwork.”
Bacheco said, “After the dinnertime we make special things. Like the chicken spicy.”
Pereira interrupted, “Spicy, spicy, spicy!”
They said the average American could not tolerate the level of spiciness that they were accustomed to and enjoyed.
The dish most often ordered by the customers was chicken tikka masala, and the favorite dessert was kulfi. “We have homemade ice cream, like mango and pistachio. That’s what they order most,” said Pathak.
They served me chicken tikka masala. It had been roasted in the tandoori oven and bathed in a spice-infused tomato sauce. They also served mushroom mattar makhani, mushrooms and peas in a yogurt-based sauce, and sag paneer, a spinach dish. The recipes came from northern India.
Bacheco said, “It’s very hard to make, this Indian food. It takes a lot of time. Even if you want to cook the same kind of rice, you can’t make it. It’s a simple thing, but you can’t make it like this.” He said the spices they used were not available in the United States. They bought them directly from India.
Curious about what they ate away from the restaurant, I asked if they ever had fast food. I mentioned french fries.
Bacheco bristled, “No, I have no use to eat french fries. Sometimes, once a week when we go for an off day, I don’t like to go to Jack in the Box or McDonald’s.” They all agreed that Indian food was more healthful and better.
During staff meals, they discussed a variety of topics. Bacheco offered, “We talk about whatever is happening in the kitchen, whatever is happening in the dining room. Like teasing and everything. After eating, we discuss what happened in that night.”
Pathak said, “We talk most of the time about games, sports, like cricket. Now there is a game going on, like the World Cup. Most of the time we talk about that. And we play some games we have here when we have break time. It’s an Indian game. It’s almost like pool, but you play with your hands and fingers.”
Bacheco said they also talked about their families and politics.
When I asked what was the best thing about living in America, the table became quiet. Finally, Bacheco answered, “Goa is a paradise place.”
It seemed prudent to switch the subject. I asked what they did for fun.
Pathak replied, “For me, I go to play soccer every week.”
“When I am off,” Pereira said, “mostly I go for shopping, especially North County. I am not buying, just going and looking. It takes a lot of money, and I don’t have that much money. I just go and watch the system and say, ‘One day I will buy that.’ ” I asked him what he would buy first. “The Bose speakers. I like very much. Those speakers are very expensive, like $1700, very expensive.”
Singh said something and his friends burst into guffaws. Pathak translated, “He just said, ‘Watching the girls passing by.’ He said he’s met some girls, and they’re very nice.”
Bacheco said, “I, myself, I go watching movies on off days.” He rents movies at Indian stores along Miramar Road and in Clairemont Mesa. “There’s a lot of story in Indian movies, so that we like the Indian movies because of the stories. We like the different kind of story. That’s a real kind of story.”
When asked how many hours they worked a day, Pereira, Bacheco, and Singh all looked to Pathak for the answer. “It depends. They get, like, 48 hours a week. Sometimes we are short on people, so they have to work a little extra. Since they are from India, they know how to cook and everything.”
Concerning the most fun aspect about working at India Palace, Pathak said, “Like, they know everybody. They can speak their language. Like, some guys, they don’t really speak English well. They can communicate with each other very well. A couple of the guys in the kitchen are from Goa. Most of the people who work in the kitchen are going to be from Punjab area, the northern part of India. They are young and old, both. They understand each other. They speak their language.
“Everybody lives in one apartment,” Pathak said. “Like a three- or four-bedroom apartment.”
“It saves time,” said Bacheco. “We are all staying in one room. And the Punjab people, they are staying in one room, but there is a common hall. And the bathroom is separate. That’s it.”
“It’s just one block away,” said Pathak.
“It’s very easy for us to go and come,” Pereira said. “There’s a lot of traffic and all.”
They said they sometimes walked down to the Cove. This got them talking about Goa, their home.
“Much more beautiful place,” said Bacheco, “much more than this. In our place, we have the most beautiful beaches.”
“Goa is a coastal area,” said Pereira. “If you go to the south you can see the beaches and the temples and the plantations.”
Pereira and Bacheco said that they were both Roman Catholics, which explained their first names: Luis and Francisco.
Bacheco said, “I do not know why the Americans leave the Catholic Church. Most I have seen move from the Catholic Church.”
Pereira shut it down with “You cannot discuss religion. You will never finish it.”
The conversation ended with another topic that can never be finished, dreams. I asked if any of them had a dream to own their own restaurant.
Pathak blurted out, “Absolutely.”
Everybody grinned and nodded. “Everybody here.”
Pereira said, “Just looking for the finances.” Lots of laughter.
Pathak said, “Someday, sooner or later, that’s going to happen. When you work in the restaurant, that’s going to be your dream, because that’s it. Because you know when you dream, yeah, for me, yeah, I’m going to do that for sure.”
150 Grand Cafe
When I arrived at 150 Grand Cafe, executive chef Carlton Greenawalt was setting samples of the night’s specials on the bar. “No digging in until I get to them,” he admonished the staff. At 150 Grand, the staff meal was eaten quickly. The fish taco dinner had been served at the kitchen pass. “What we usually do is sit down and have our menu-sampling at the same time as we eat,” he told me.
Greenawalt called the group to attention. “I’ll start at the top. Tonight’s special is herb-crusted Alaskan halibut. This is Alaskan halibut you guys are eating. This is the special, only in different pieces. So the herb crust is panko bread crumbs, blended with parsley, chives, basil, a little bit of spinach, and seasoned real well. The fish is going to go into that, into a pan, and into the oven. It’ll be a very nice, flaky, mild, very fresh, direct from Alaska. We’re at the first of the halibut season. We’re serving it with a saffron cream. This is a reduced cream sauce with white wine and shallots, in addition to the saffron. And julienned vegetables, which are carrots, leeks, red peppers, and red cabbage.
“We have a new appetizer. This is the almond-crusted manchego.” As Greenawalt began to slice the cheese, a hunk went spinning in the air. “The flying manchego,” he quipped. “Okay, this is three ounces of Spanish cheese that we’ve been serving on the cheese plate. It’s been breaded with almonds: almond-and-bread-crumb mixture.” The crusted cheese is placed in the oven until it’s slightly mushy; then it’s cooled, allowing it to firm.
“This tomato is locally grown, hydroponic, organic, in a greenhouse,” Greenawalt continued. “Port reduction, basil oil, a little bit of frisée, sea salt, and some black pepper, garlic, almonds, and chives.
“Other than that, we have not really changed anything on the appetizers. We do have foie gras tonight. Otherwise, there are no changes. They are the same old things.
“A little change in the salads; the nuts are flip-flopped, so the hazel nuts are on the grapefruit salad, and the walnuts are on the baby green salad. This is because I got really nice walnut oil in yesterday that’s in the baby green salad. In the dressing. So the dressing has nuts in it. If anybody asks for no nuts, please ask for a dressing on the side, or something like that. And the salad is going with the Point Reyes Blue Cheese, which we’ve had before, and the sun-dried tomatoes, which have been reconstituted and then julienned. Soup is shrimp-and-lobster bisque, pretty much our standard.
“Okay, the entrées. Salmon, rock shrimp, mussels, and clams. The white fish will be up on the specials. We’re doing the strawberry-braised salmon. You guys have all seen that, I think. Bouillabaisse tonight has scallops, prawns, halibut in it, and also Chinese sausage is the new addition to it. This is the Chinese sweet sausage and purple sticky rice in there.
“The quail moved back down to an entrée. Mustard grilled, brushed with the mustard dressing from the salad after it comes off the grill. Going with roasted beets and kalamata olives, wild rice, balsamic mushrooms, and pine nuts. Probably throw a little green on there to give it some color, an extra veggie. The wild rice will go in the middle. We’ll probably put some watercress on top, then the beets and olives over that. We haven’t put one together yet, so we’ll all find out together.
“The cheese is worded differently. It says, ‘Daily Selection of California Specialty Cheeses.’ So we have a cheese plate today.”
Paul Ryker, a server, asked, “No French cheese?”
“No French cheese,” Greenawalt said. “This is called Mezzo Secco. It’s an aged, dried jack cheese. And this is the Red Hawk. This is the Cowgirl Creamery. This is actually the last day we are going to serve this. We are going on to a different product tomorrow.
“So your dessert menus over there are current, except for the cheeses aren’t listed on them. I don’t think many of you have tried the bread pudding yet, so here it is. This is the white-chocolate-and-banana bread pudding. Rum-raisin ice cream, caramel sauce, and the garnish is a frozen banana with chocolate.” Lots of oohs, aahs, and “that’s amazing.”
“We haven’t changed desserts this week,” Greenawalt continued. “Everyone was here Saturday or has seen them all. Anyone have any questions about desserts?” No one did, thus the meeting ended.
The conversation with Paul Ryker continued. He considered himself a foodie and cooked at home for himself and friends he entertained.
Greenawalt reminded him, “You bought those scallops off me.”
“Yeah, that’s right,” Ryker said. “A couple months ago he had some scallops, and I took those home. Normally, depending on what I have, I’ve played with different things I’ve learned from here, including the bulgur wheat, the pearl barley. I’ve taken those home and done things with them. I’ve grown a real affinity for food since working here.”
Lynnette Oliver had been a server at 150 Grand for one year. “I was in fine dining for two years before I moved from LA a year ago. I had a really hard time finding a job. I came by and left Vicki my résumé, and maybe a month and a half later she called me after I had already taken a horrible job. I was so happy to hear from her. At the time, I guess her dog was sick, and she kept having to cancel interviews, so I actually got hired on the phone. But it’s been working out really well.”
Machelle Ferketic, another server, had worked at 150 for three years. “I read a lot about 150 Grand, so I came down to apply and they called me a few months later.” She had worked in the restaurant business for 20 years before coming to 150. “I was a cashier at a nice restaurant while I was in school.” I asked Ferketic if she had a passion for food, and she said, “I sure do. I like to cook, but being single I don’t get much of a chance. Everybody in my family cooks. I’m always dining out. I went out to lunch today. I like gourmet foods. I don’t like fast food. I’m the biggest critic, I think.”
Deidre Cobbe was also a server (Cobbe has since left). She’d worked there three years. “I love it.” Before working at 150, “I was a server at Bernard’O Restaurant in Rancho Bernardo. It’s a more comfortable atmosphere here, especially for older women servers. ‘Egalitarian’ is the word. I like the clientele. I love the whole style. I was a fan before I applied. This is where I came to dinner, so when I saw the ad I thought, ‘Hmm, switch.’ I’m a foodie. I like the ingredients that Carlton uses, unusual ingredients. Fresh produce. I like the whole concept.”
I prompted them to talk about the toughest part of their jobs. Oliver said, “I guess it would be dealing with very picky people. I mean, you don’t get a lot of difficult people. I always just kill ’em with kindness. They usually end up happy. You just have to deal with it. If you don’t, you get fired.”
Ferketic said the toughest part of the job was getting everyone seated and fed during a rush. Located near the California Center for the Arts, Escondido, the restaurant had many guests who came in for dinner before a show, and that could put pressure on the staff in trying to accommodate the diners’ schedules. “That gets kind of rough,” Ferketic said. “On the other hand, it’s nice that we can do that.”
Much of the staff’s happiness about working at 150 centered on the employees themselves.
“Our staff is incredible,” said Ryker. “One of the best I’ve ever worked with. Everybody works hard, everybody loves what they do.”
“I’ve worked in quite a few restaurants,” said Oliver. “This is amazing. Everyone gets along really well. Especially this kitchen.”
“Yeah, usually it’s the front of the house against the back of the house and vice versa,” said Michael Wilcsek, a bartender. “This one all works together. They’re always really good to us, and we’re good to them.”
Scott Clark, the sous chef, was attired in the typical white tunic, checkered pants, and heavy black cloglike shoes. There was one difference. Earrings and tattoos.
Even though it was five o’clock on a Friday evening, everything was in order, allowing him to give a tour of the kitchen.
Clark’s greatest joy in his job was that “the menu is constantly changing. I get to work with the best products, beautiful fresh produce. It keeps me excited.” He proudly showed me plump pillows of scallops in neat little rows; massive red steaks stacked like bricks; chopped scallions; diced tomatoes; sliced mushrooms; and perfectly cut halibut waiting to be encased in panko bread crumbs.
He pointed out translucent plastic bottles with squeeze tops containing oils and sauces to be used in the course of the evening. “Everything is made from scratch in this restaurant.” Motioning to one of the bottles he said, “This one’s balsamic port wine that we reduce down into motor oil.”
The challenge for him was that “every day is so different. You have to organize your mind constantly, because there are always new problems. It’s hard and it’s good. It’s not boring. You always know you have a job, ’cause everybody’s got to eat.”
Clark, too, mentioned that everyone got along well even in the close and often hot quarters of the kitchen. A digital thermometer announced the temperature as 87 degrees, but Clark said that wasn’t bad. He said in the summer months the thermometer might read 111, and across the room in the stovetop area, the temperature could rocket to 130. Scott said he bore up okay under the heat. “I don’t pass out like some people.”
The pantry chef, also called the garde-manger, was Stephanie Greenawalt, Carlton’s wife. Her greatest joy about her job was working with her husband. “We were looking at different restaurants in this area, and we just fell in love with this restaurant. Carlton started working here with the previous chef, and I was over at the Golden Door. There are only so many things you can do with a carrot.
“It’s really turned into such an incredible synergy within the whole restaurant, because not only can Carlton focus on his food, he knows that I can stand there next to him and talk about the food. And he knows that I understand what he’s saying instead of having to explain it. He does the same thing with Scott. To find a good sous chef and a chef that can work together is just really hard, but they’re really wonderful together. All three of us will hang out together and talk about accompaniments to go with different foods and the seasonality of things. That’s really important to Carlton, the things that are indigenous to San Diego and supporting the community. And also what’s the peak of season, and what can he get that’s going to be a little bit different than most restaurants, whether it’s the Meyer lemons or the Carlsbad strawberries or the Pio Peterson lettuce.
“I’ve done everything from a hostess, from waitress, to bartend, to prep, to dessert, whatever it takes,” said Stephanie. “I enjoy the restaurant here so much. This is exactly what we were looking for, a family-run restaurant. That was something we thought we would never find, and we just came across it and just fell in love.
“Oh, Julio Iglesias came here one time. It was so cute. He had played a concert, and he called up and said, ‘Can I come in after my show?’ and I said, ‘Well, we’re not open.’ Carlton goes, ‘Well, if you guys come in right after the show, we’ll set you up.’ It was his bodyguard’s birthday. So here he comes with all of his people and everything. He said, ‘I want to meet the staff.’ And he told Carlton, ‘It’s so nice to find a good restaurant in the middle of nowhere,’ and Carlton’s, like, ‘Hey, we’re not in the middle of nowhere.’ ”
When I’d talked to Carlton Greenawalt a few days earlier, I asked him how it was for a husband and wife to work so closely. He grinned, “We both have knives, and neither one of us has any cut marks. We do well together. We met at work. She was a server. I was a cook. We have been chef and sous chef before. We’ve worked almost every job we’ve ever had together. Sure, we snap at each other once in a while, but for the most part it’s not a problem. It’s what we like to do.
“The restaurant’s been here ten years,” he told me. “I’ve been here for about two and a half years, and one and a half of those as chef. I worked for the former chef for about a year.
“I got a job washing dishes when I was in college. That was in Pittsburgh. When I moved out to San Francisco after I left school I looked for a job for a long time. I was looking for either carpenter or cook, basically, those two. The first job I found was in a restaurant, so I worked as much as I could. I worked my whole way down the line. I started off in the salad station and ended up as the supervisor. By the time I finished all that, I thought, ‘Okay, now what am I going to do? Oh, maybe I should just go to school. If I go to school, then I can get a better job.’ ”
He and Stephanie attended culinary school in Seattle at the Art Institute. “We worked in a few places up there. Before that, we met in San Francisco, where we were both working in restaurants, so we had probably 15 years of experience between us before we went to school.”
Regarding the staff, he said, “There are about a dozen in the back, including myself. And maybe 18 or 20 in the front.” Employees were white and Latino. As for age, “We’re pretty spread out. The kitchen is younger. The kitchen years are hard. You have to stop after a while. We’re pretty spread out in the front of the house. We’re probably through mid-50s, at least, down to 17.
“We have a really good staff as far as loyalty. I mean, they’ll stay with us. Like I said, I’ve been here two and a half years. The problem is replacing the people that are really good. It’s not so much that turnover is so bad. It’s finding the people to replace them. Like when our previous pantry lady left, it took us six months to get the station running well again.
“If people don’t get along, they don’t get to stay.”
As for staff training, “I do a lot of one-on-one. We’re small. There’s four people who work the hot line. We don’t have to sit down real formal and do that. We have big staff meetings maybe once a year.
“Cooking’s the easy part. It’s dealing with all the other stuff that’s harder. Cooking’s the easy part ’cause that’s what I’ve been doing for 12 years, or whatever it is. As a chef moves up the ranks, you get more and more things you have to do. You get to the chef level, and you have to be doing all these other things, and cooking is what you’ve learned. All this other stuff has been added on over time. So it’s not as natural to do all the administrative stuff.”
He chuckled when I asked him what he liked to do when he wasn’t working: “My wife and I have Disneyland season passes.
“I spend a lot of time on the computer reading about food or in chef bulletin-board forums. Watching the Food Channel.”
I inquired about the clientele. “We get a fair amount of regulars. Once people realize they don’t have to drive to La Jolla to get a good meal, they come back. We do get people coming from the opposite direction. We get people from La Jolla saying, ‘We heard this is so great that we drove all the way out here.’ It’s always so easy to drive to La Jolla, no big deal. But for La Jollans, it’s ‘all the way out here.’ ”
He insisted that the greatest reward of working with his staff was when “we all sit down at the end of the night and we talk over the evening. We get all the complaints out of the way or problems. Or good parts. They’ll say, ‘Oh, table 14 just loved it. It was their first time here. They’re going to be back.’ ”
As rewarding as being a chef could be, it required long, demanding hours. “I did about 14 yesterday. I got here a little bit after 9:00 and I left at 10:30 last night. That’s not 14, that’s only 13. Today’s only going to be, like, 11. Generally, five days a week, sometimes six. We’re closed for one day, so that guarantees a day off unless I have some sort of event. Some weeks are seven.”
I asked him if he had any funny stories about the restaurant. “They always say, ‘Restaurant is like theater,’ ” he said. “You don’t have to know what is going on in the back. You don’t have to know that Juan just cut his finger off, and he spilled the stock all over the floor, and one of our dishwashers is out and the drains are backing up. You don’t need to know any of that stuff out here. There’s always something, so you wake up in the morning and say, ‘Okay, what’s going to happen today?’
“I was reading a website about practical jokes. Servers are really easy to take in, gullible. All you have to do is leave something that looks like a dessert at the side station, and they’ll eat it. Okay, I’ll just say it. Mayonnaise crème brûlée. We took a crème brûlée dish and filled it up with mayonnaise and then caramelized it. Then left it in the server’s station. ‘Oh, is this for me?’ Took a giant spoonful and then the worst look. I mean, it wasn’t anything that was going to hurt her.” Big yucking laughter. “The horseplay, the practical jokes come after the important work is done.”
159 S. Coast Highway 101, Solana Beach
If I had to sum up in a word my first impression of the staff at the Beach Grass Cafe, it would be “young.” Shorts-clad beach girls zipped around the dining room, taking orders and carrying plates of food. The back-of-the-house employees working in the partially exposed kitchen looked young from the neck up as well. It came as no surprise when Kelly Flores, the manager, mentioned that the restaurant was blessed with “a lot of professional surfers” as regular customers. (Flores and several others have since left.)
Beach Grass Cafe did not have a special menu for its staff meals. Flores explained, “They make us plates, pretty much anything on the menu. There are some things at dinner that are expensive, like the rib-eye steak and the prawns, which we can’t have because of the cost, but besides that, we eat off the menu whatever we want. Everybody gets a meal every time they work, and they make it the way they make it for the customers. You can have an entrée or you can have an appetizer and a salad, or an appetizer and dessert, you know what I’m saying? You can have two little things or one big thing. So, yeah, a lot of times we choose dessert as our meal.”
The mood was playful as everyone gathered to eat, and the five young women eagerly shared funny stories.
Katie Brown, a hostess, said, “One time when it was raining, the roof was leaking right there, and Jacquelyn came and slipped and fell right on her butt.” Big giggles.
Jennifer Brown, Katie’s sister, added that Jacquelyn, who was not present, “has had a few episodes. Were you here when she ran into some guy and flipped a whole plate over her head? It just went straight over her head and right onto the floor. It was really funny.”
Someone asked, “What about when you got shot in the butt, Kell, with the steamer thing?”
“Someone turned on the espresso machine,” said Flores, “and hot water shot out and burned me in the butt.”
Four of the young women had all started working at the restaurant at the same time, about five months earlier. Romiro, a buser, had been there three months.
Erika, a server, got her job, she said, “through a friend. I have a friend that was waitressing here. I just moved out here from Minnesota and didn’t really have a job.” Before that, she went to the University of Minnesota, where she played soccer and earned a degree in nutrition. “I’m actually looking into culinary schools. In San Francisco or maybe abroad.”
“I worked in a restaurant in downtown San Diego,” Katie said. “I used to live in that area, and then I moved up here.” She and her sister, Jennifer, were roommates with another waitress.
“Romiro’s our star buser,” Mishael Olson said.
Romiro had done prep work at a restaurant in Del Mar before he heard about this job. He liked working at Beach Grass because he got more hours, thus made more money. He also had fun because his brother and his friends worked in the kitchen.
Flores began working in the restaurant business at an early age. “I was living in Park City, Utah, and that’s what you do when you live there, is work in restaurants. I’ve done everything: waitressing and bartending and managing.
“I went to school, got a degree, and stayed in the restaurants. I went to school first in Colorado, and then I came home to San Diego. I finished at San Diego State. I studied liberal studies because I intended to become a teacher.” But she liked the flexible hours a restaurant job could offer and had been working for the café’s owner, Tommy Golden, since 1996.
The young servers all said they worked between 15 and 25 hours a week. The kitchen crew worked longer hours.
Flores said, “Some of the servers work more like 25 to 30 hours a week, and then some less.”
I was curious to hear what these young people found challenging about their jobs.
Olson, a server, said, “I don’t think it would be good to print.”
Flores said that for her, “It is the details, small details. Running out of bread. Or running out of adding-machine tape. Everything here, you can run out of.”
Tino had cooked at Beach Grass for a year. “I worked at Las Olas before. I like working with the Americanos because I learn more English.” He said things went fairly smoothly in their kitchen, except when someone made a mistake. He was referring to mistakes made outside the kitchen. Then the back-of-the-house crew got mad at the front of the house. Usually, however, he said, “For me, here at first, it is easy for me. Like, the kitchen is easy for me.” He worked 40 hours a week.
“I’m a hostess,” said Katie. “I think it’s the pressure of having to seat so many people at one time and be able to spread it out so your servers don’t get stressed out. Like, this morning was my first day working on Saturday morning. I usually work on weeknights. They’re a lot busier on Saturdays and Sundays. It was definitely a rush for me trying to figure everything out, seat people at different times, and have people come up and ask, ‘How much longer?’ ”
“It’s really hard to judge how long it’s going to be to wait too,” said Flores. “People want an answer.”
“ ’Cause you get people that sit down and just hang out after their checks come,” said Katie, “so you think, ‘Okay, ten minutes, they’re going to get their check.’ You tell the people who are waiting ‘ten minutes,’ and the people at the table decide to sit around for half an hour after the check already came. You look like you’re screwing up, but it’s okay.”
Ruben said the most common disaster that happened in the kitchen was when a prepared dish fell on the floor. “You make something like a sandwich, and it ends up on the floor. You go, like, wow!”
We flipped to the perks of their jobs.
“What’s really nice is that there’s a lot of regulars that come in, so there’s that consistent comfort level,” Erika said. “It’s more almost like a friendship basis, you know, not just like restaurant clients. And also, I think that the people that work here, like all of us, are good friends.”
“Yeah,” said Katie, “and hang out outside of work.”
“It’s the first restaurant that I’ve gone to where the entire staff actually gets along with each other,” Jennifer said. “You know, usually you have, and especially with restaurants, I feel like they’re so cliquey and, like there’s a lot of stuff that goes on in them, but I don’t feel like it goes on here.”
Erika and Katie would both like to own a restaurant.
“My dream for the future is to have a bed-and-breakfast,” Flores said. “It would be great if it was in about three to five years. And I would like to be in the mountains somewhere. I would like to somehow be affiliated with Tommy Golden. I don’t know how it would work, but, yes, I can see myself staying with him.”
“I wanted to have a restaurant that didn’t turn a profit,” Katie said. “It basically just was built to employ people so that we could just not be nice to anybody that we didn’t want to be nice to.” Huge laughter. “That’s my idea. Yeah, I just thought it would be really cool if they had a problem with, you know, something. Oh, and, I’m going to do all the jobs. Like, I’ll be a waitress and a buser sometimes. I mean, if we mess up, then it’s okay. But if they’re just rude, then the server could say, ‘Then I don’t think you really should be in here.’ And they would say, ‘Could I speak to a manager?’ and then I’m the buser and I turn around and I’m, like, ‘Hey, I own the restaurant. Are you being mean to my waitress? Okay, bye.’ ”
“Is this a dream you had one night when you went home, Katie?” Flores asked. Everyone laughed again.
“It’s going to work, and then it’ll catch on,” Katie said.
“Well, they’re doing that at, what’s it called, Dick’s Last Resort,” Flores said. “But they’re never nice. That’s their whole thing is that they’re rude when they walk up to the table. See, you don’t want to be rude.”
“No,” said Katie, “we’re going to be nice until they’re rude to us first.”
“So that’s the concept,” said Jennifer.
They all agreed that they didn’t get many rude customers but that it came with the territory. Most of them thought that women were bigger complainers than men and that often a man was visibly embarrassed by a woman who was making a fuss.
Olson wanted to have a restaurant someday. “I would just offer healthy produce. I’m a vegetarian. It’s hard to go out to places that you can actually trust as far as not getting a little bacon grease in your stuff or having the veggie burger cooked with the hamburger. You know what I mean? I would be into that stuff. I used to work for a place that was like that, Swami’s Cafe. Like, I used to cook. I was always careful. The meat was always cooked on the right side of the grill; the vegetarian stuff was always cooked on the left. It’s not that hard.”
Romiro’s dream was to remain living in the United States and earn “mucho dinero” if possible, but he had no aspirations to own a restaurant.
Ruben, on the other hand, said he might like to own his own restaurant. He said he would probably serve similar food to what was served at Beach Grass. He’d learned to cook from Tommy Golden and had worked for him for the past eight years.
For now they all did their respective jobs and then some.
“A lot of us surf,” said Jennifer.
“I play soccer,” Erika said.
“I go to school,” said Katie. “I surf.” She was working on her AA degree. “I would like to be an architect.” Someone commented that she would be able to design her own restaurant — the one where she would hold all positions.
“When I not work I go to the playing football, soccer,” said Tino.
I wondered what this group liked to eat when they were away from Beach Grass.
Romiro: “Roberto’s, Fidel’s, all the Mexican food.” He said all his friends in the kitchen like Mexican food best.
Erika: “Salad. We eat a lot of salad.”
Katie: “I love Mexican food. Jenny is drive-through queen.”
Flores: “I like to cook for myself. Actually, I just love to eat. I love to eat out, and I love to eat at home. I cook all kinds of different kinds of food. I’ve learned a lot from Tommy, and I cook similarly to him, I think.”
Flores went on to speak of the gifts of friendship that came through this profession. “A lot of my very best friends I’ve met through working at restaurants with them. I think it’s different than working in other industries, the friendships that you make with people. I don’t know if it’s just that you work more closely with people. I think it is that the kinds of people are similar that work in this industry, and working for this particular restaurant, for Tommy, is kind of a family atmosphere. Everybody’s friends and family. It’s nice to come to work.”
2550 Fifth Avenue, 12th floor, Bankers Hill
When I contacted Fabrice Poigin, executive chef at Bertrand at Mister A’s, he told me that, yes, he did provide a staff meal, but he did not want to be misleading. Unlike restaurants in France where a restaurant staff will sit down together family-style and share a meal, Bertrand had a hectic pace that did not often allow this. “Our front-of-the-house and back-of-the-house staffs eat separately, and usually on the run. Sometimes you can literally only grab a hunk of bread. Things are too busy. But you are welcome to come and see another, more common perspective of how things happen in most San Diego restaurants.”
I visited Bertrand at Mister A’s on a Friday night at five o’clock. I was ushered into a hub of activity. Men in royal blue shirts stood near the front eating their dinners. Further back the team in white busily prepared for the Friday-night rush. The pastry chef applied meringue to Meyer lemon tarts; the sous chef spread fish onto a stainless steel table. At the far end of the huge kitchen, a grinning Poigin waved me to come on back. (Poigin recently left Bertrand.)
He glided around the kitchen in exaggerated Marcel Marceau movements, but unlike Marceau, he talked nonstop. Working on a variety of dishes while we chatted, he never missed a move that occurred in the kitchen nor a word that was spoken by any of his team. Poigin was preparing everything from garnishes for a braised chicken dish to a complicated eggplant appetizer wrapped in phyllo dough. Referring to the chicken, he said, “I’m going to roast this in the oven. This will be my garnish for the chicken. And that’s served with caramelized carrots and harissa sauce. Harissa is a sauce, it’s very famous in France because in France we mix it, French with the Moroccan. It tastes just like they use Tabasco. It’s crazy. This is kind of like a cumin paste. I’m going to do a sauce with the carrots, just sweet and caramelized so it will balance the spiciness.”
Poigin came to the United States for the first time at the age of nine, when his family traveled here. “I fell in love with this country. Even now with the world situation, I am very pro U.S. I still love my country, France, but I am very pro U.S.” Since that trip, he dreamed of moving to San Diego.
First, he had to grow up in Nice. After realizing that he “was born to cook,” he studied and cooked in France. At 18, he was cooking in the kitchen of French president François Mitterand. At 24, he came to San Diego and has worked in a variety of top restaurants, including his own, Vignola, in the Gaslamp Quarter, which he closed before coming to Bertrand.
He pointed out to me that he had indeed provided a meal for his staff. Situated at the pass, it consisted of a shepherd’s pie, grilled vegetables, and salad. And, yes, he was correct. Some of the front-of-the-house men ate standing near the kitchen doors, while others had plates of food at their workstations, shoveling in hearty bites between tasks.
Poigin, a man with high energy, said he worked 50 to 60 hours a week. “It depends on the business. We’ll be cooking for 150 people this evening.”
Poigin also had a high-voltage personality.
“Do you have women…,” I asked, and hesitated for a split second.
“Do I have other women in my life?”
“No, well, maybe. I was going to ask if there are women working in the kitchen.”
As is fairly standard, the kitchen staff was primarily composed of men. However, Bertrand’s pastry chef was a woman. Poigin related that he was currently blessed with a talented team of players, but in the world of restaurants, things were constantly in flux.
He said the greatest part of the job is that “we are never bored. I have a real passion for cooking. It’s like a piece of a play. We perform a play every night with different critics every night.”
I asked Poigin what he liked to eat when he was away from the restaurant. “I’m pretty easygoing. I like everything. I can’t think of anything I don’t like.” As for who cooks at home: “Definitely not my wife.” Poigin’s wife worked in the hotel business, so they both got home late each evening.
Poigin became more animated at the mention of his wife, saying they first spotted each other when he was cooking in a bathing suit in La Jolla. Shortly thereafter a friend set them up on a blind date, and that was it. He was so aglow talking about her that I asked if he had any children. “My dog is my child. My dog is my baby!”
He bolted across the room and through a door. I followed and saw that he was in his office, shuffling through a foot-high stack of photographs. The silky ear of a dog flashed by, and I reached out my hand. “No,” he admonished. “I want to find the perfect one.” Sure enough, his “baby” was a springer spaniel.
The baby photos proudly shared, we raced back out to the kitchen.
He rattled off some comment to his sous chef, Brian O’Connor. O’Connor, brandishing a menacing-looking knife, was cutting salt cod. “Oui, chef,” he replied. The two had been bantering intermittently throughout the interview.
O’Connor had worked at Bertrand for 14 months. Prior to that, he was executive sous chef at Tupelo in the Gaslamp Quarter.
O’Connor’s entry into the culinary world was similar to many others’. “I started washing dishes when I was 15 in a kitchen in New York and proceeded to take a two-year cooking course while in high school. Instead of taking math or science, I just took baking for the first year and food preparation for the second year. When I graduated high school, I went directly to Baltimore International Culinary College to study the culinary arts for two years. I graduated from there and also worked in restaurants in the Baltimore area.” O’Connor said he had known since he was a little kid that this was his purpose. “My mom just made me peel a lot of potatoes. I don’t know, I’m from an Irish family, so every meal had potatoes. Somehow that was my job, to take care of the potatoes. I used to just sit there and peel potatoes instead of going out and playing with my friends. I don’t peel potatoes to this day for that reason.”
As for his work hours, “It depends on the day. If we have lunch, I probably work from 10:30 or 11:00 till close. Anywhere from 10 to 12 hours a day.” I asked him about how many days per week this involved. It could be “five or six or seven, depending on if we have parties and Chef needs me here. But I try to get my two days off a week. He doesn’t want to kill me.”
Regarding the biggest challenge of his job, he said, “Probably just the organization of the staff and having everyone trained exactly the way the chef wants his food prepared. Just being consistent and keeping everyone having a good morale while they’re at work. It’s really not a hard job if you can stand the hours and being in a kitchen. It’s really odd, because it’s so much like being in a family setting. You spend so much time with people you’re around. You know, everyone has their own little inside jokes with each other, and it’s really nice. A lot of the kitchen staff and the house staff, they all hang out with each other outside of work. It becomes more of a friendship than a working relationship. So I don’t know, probably keeping a managerial and friendship relationship outside of work is probably the hardest thing I have to deal with, being my age. A lot of the guys I do hang out with; we’re always drinking beers, having fun, and at work I’m in charge. It’s kind of hard to keep that managerial aspect of it and the friendships outside of work.
“I love this business,” O’Connor continued. “It’s a passion. It’s something I wake up and think about, and I go to sleep and think about. It swallows you whole. And if you let it, it definitely takes over your life. My girlfriend knows that my job is the most important thing to me, and I’ve been with her for almost a year and a half. It’s kind of hard ’cause a lot of people get burned out from the business, but if you have a passion for it, it’s very rewarding personally. Not monetarily, but, uh, definitely just on a...I don’t know how to say this. It’s very rewarding to myself on a daily basis when I put out a plate and someone says it’s the best thing they’ve ever eaten. It’s very rewarding, and at the same time, it’s very taxing on your lifestyle. Everyone’s out on a Friday and Saturday night partying, and you’re working until 12 o’clock at night.”
I asked O’Connor about how things go when a stress-filled rush hits. “I think everyone knows their place when it gets to that point. You know, Chef has it pretty much down to that the only person that should be talking is me or him, and everyone else just listens and puts the food out. That’s really how you can create a stress-free environment, where everyone knows you listen. I’ll call a ticket out. I’ll order five things off three different stations — everyone calls it back to me so they know what it is. The chef acknowledges it, and it goes out. It’s really simple. The only problem you might come across is a waiter coming in and changing it halfway through. You know, saying, ‘Oh, I wanted this instead of that and blah, blah, blah, a side of this.’ But those changes, it’s really not hard to do what we do as long as you can take the stress and put it on the back burner and just do your job and put the food out as fast as you possibly can.”
When I asked about something crazy that had happened at the restaurant, he said, “Oh, goodness gracious, there’s so many. Let’s think of one that won’t ruin my reputation. Oh, goodness. Wow. That’s a good question.” He wanted to think for a bit, so he talked about what he normally liked to eat.
“Whatever’s around. I’m not really into eating only fine-dining food. I like carne asada burritos. I eat junk food. I don’t lie. If a chef tells you he’s at home eating striped sea bass and ratatouille, he’s lying to you. You’re so tired of cooking food that you go home, and if your girlfriend wants to cook for you, your wife wants to cook for you, if she makes spaghetti with meatballs, you’re stoked. The way I look at it, when I go home I don’t cook unless it’s a special occasion, like Thanksgiving, Christmas, anything like that. I don’t want to cook. It’s like asking the garbage man to take the trash out. My girlfriend’s a vegetarian, so it’s very hard for me to cook when she’s around. Everything she cooks for me is vegetarian, so I have to say I eat vegetarian more than anything. And I’m a huge meat-eater, but I do all my meat-eating at work. Yeah, simple food. Peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I’m not even kidding. With bananas on it. That’s a good meal. Cereal. I really enjoy oatmeal. Stuff that’s simple. It’s brainless, ’cause on my days off, I just want to relax, and I’d rather not eat anything than to have to cook for myself. It’s usually just go out and get something. I like Indian food a lot.
“Okay, we have a very tight crew. I’ll tell you this. A lot of places won’t tell you this. Um, getting habaneros, and rubbing the top of someone’s glass of water with habaneros.” O’Connor meant a coworker’s glass. “It’s the spiciest chili available. It’s the hottest chili on the planet. You just take the oil, and you put it around the rim of their glass, and when they drink it, it gets on their lips, and it starts burning their tongue a little bit. It doesn’t hurt them, but it wakes them up a little bit, and they know they were tricked, basically. Chef really doesn’t approve of any of this. It’s usually on Sundays and Mondays, when all the guys are here. We’re all great friends, and, like, someone will pull a joke, and someone else will try to find out who it is and try to get ’em back. We never try to harm anybody. It’s just out of good fun.”
Next I wanted to speak with someone from the front of the house, so I was introduced to Javier Campas, an expeditor, who was standing eating his dinner.
Campas said, “I have been working here since Bertrand took over. That’s been almost three years. I used to work at the Prado. I food-run here.”
When asked about the hardest part of his job, Campas said, “I would probably say, just like all the guys would say, the shifts we have. We have to work holidays, weekends. There’s not much you can do about it. At this restaurant, I have five shifts. Basically, the shifts that we work are five to six hours. And the waiters, they usually have about four shifts.”
I asked if the restaurant had many regular customers. “Actually, this building has a lot of offices,” Campas said. “For example, we have attorneys, we have accountants, other types. We do get a lot of people who come here pretty often. We get a lot of regulars here. We get a lot of people from hotels. The concierges refer a lot of people to us. You can get from locals, you know, to people who already know the restaurant, friends of Bertrand and other associates, to a lot of people from the hotels. Conventions. When we have conventions, reservations go up.”
When I asked about problem customers, he said, “Nobody’s a pain. Is that thing on?” He looked at the tape recorder. “Nobody’s a pain.
“I enjoy it, you know,” Campas continued, “but it’s not what I want to do for the rest of my life. Right now, I’m attending real estate school, which I have been doing for a few months. That’s a good thing about this, ’cause we have the mornings open. We usually work just nights.
“I would say about 75 to 80 percent of the waiters, captains, they’ve been here since day one, a lot of them,” Campas said. “You kind of get accustomed to them. You work with them at least three days a week. It’s not like you work independently. For example, the captain has a buser, and if they don’t get along, then it’s not going to happen. So I would say that all of us really get along.”
James Van Pelt, a runner, joined the conversation. “It’s like us and all the busboys are brand-new. Busers are always turning over.”
Campas continued, “Busers are usually the ones with the most turnover.”
“I mean, overall it’s a hard industry,” Van Pelt said. “You know, service and all. It’s interesting.”
Poigin flew past speaking out of the side of his mouth, “They all say I’m a nice guy because they’re afraid.”
Campas said, “You know what, seriously, talking about Fabrice. I have worked already in, like, six restaurants, and he’s been by far the chef that’s been the easiest to work with. You can tell just by coming into the kitchen. The staff, we can all talk to him, and that’s what really makes a difference. You’ve been told in restaurants, I’m sure, where nobody speaks, you know what I mean? Here we have people, like, from French, to American, to Hispanics, from everywhere. This restaurant has a nice combination.”
Just then, O’Connor walked by, and Campas said, “I don’t know if you’ve met Brian yet. He’s our sous chef.”
O’Connor said, “Javier and James are the heart and soul of the front of the house. The heart and soul, seriously. Without these two, I wouldn’t be able to do my job.”
Campas said, “I mean, it helps with everything when the chefs are real personable.”
O’Connor rejoined with “Yeah, I think this is probably the first restaurant I’ve ever worked in in the last ten years where the front of the house and the back of the house get it together and are really close. Everyone respects everybody’s job. It’s that easy. And it’s really hard to find, it really is. We have an amazing crew here, and they’ve been here for so long. It’s good that everyone enjoys working here.”
Aswan African and Creole Café
Trish Weir, manager of the Aswan African and Creole Café, had invited me to a staff meal on Saturday at 3:30. (Aswan has since changed hands. Its new name is Monroe’s Café.) The staff would eat after the brunch customers had left. At 3:30, the conversation and laughter of diners still filled the restaurant. Sukumu’s Gumbo Brunch was served on the weekends, and the smells from the buffet were a pleasant welcome.
Harlan Ward, a server, greeted me and informed me that Weir was off on an errand and would return soon. He took me to the back end of the restaurant, where the staff would gather to eat, and told me to make myself at home.
The dining rooms were warm and inviting. The banquettes were caramel-colored. Giraffe-skin fabric covered lampshades. The candleholders added a touch of humor — shapely women’s legs with short wraparound skirts. The real treat, however, was on the tabletops. Placed upon each white linen cloth was an original Togolese batik done by the artist Marah U. Alain. Each was protected by a glass topper. What fun to wander the mostly empty dining room and view a tabletop art gallery.
The Aswan had been open a little over a year when I visited last February. The owner’s son, Teule Sukumu, who worked part-time at the restaurant as a floater, talked about opening a new restaurant. “We really didn’t know what we were getting into when we started this. It’s going good. It’s picking up. I just remember that first weekend when we started. Oh, it was awful. We didn’t anticipate how many people were going to show up. We did the brunch, and it’s a big thing on Sunday. People come after church, and the place was packed. We didn’t know how to clean the tables fast enough to get people seated and in and out. We had customers actually help us. There were friends of my dad’s clearing off tables. It was funny. We did have enough food, but it was tough getting the dishes cleaned and everything. It’s worked out. We’ve gotten comfortable with what we’re doing, and who knows?”
Teule talked about his dad, Vernon Sukumu. He cooked for the brunch on weekends, but weekdays, he was director of a nonprofit organization, where Teule also worked.
“It’s a program where we manage funds for SSI and Social Security recipients who can’t do it themselves,” Sukumu said. “Pay their bills and give them spending money throughout the month. It’s on Federal Boulevard, but it helps people all over the county. They don’t always appreciate it. It’s mainly mentally ill people. Some of them are drug addicts or whatever. They would prefer to get all their money themselves and do what they want with it. We try to keep them off the streets. A lot of them were homeless before, and that’s one of our main goals, to make sure they have a place to stay.”
I asked Teule what he found most difficult about working in the restaurant business. “I deal with out front mostly, so I don’t deal with what goes on in the kitchen a whole lot. It’s probably just getting a rush of people in at one time. That’s the hardest part, ’cause I hate to see people waiting. So I’m always trying to say, ‘Can we hurry up, get the tables cleared, can we get everything ready for the next group?’ I’d say, in the back, it’s the same. It’s the rush. For instance, we did a Valentine’s Day thing, and they did seatings, which is something I don’t know that I’d recommend again. They did a five o’clock seating and a seven o’clock. You know, most people on Valentine’s Day, they get off of work — they’re not going to come at five o’clock. So at seven o’clock, we had people out the door waiting. People had reservations, but there were some walk-ins that came. Figuring out how we are going to handle that is something. We’re going to have to develop a better system. No one here has really been involved in food and restaurants before, so we don’t have that experience — so it’s something we have to figure out as we go along.”
Trish Weir arrived, apologizing for being late. She said the staff would wait till a few more customers departed before eating.
Aswan had a staff of 21. One employee was Algerian, 2 were Somalian, 2 were Sudanese, others were African-American, and 1 was Latino. Most of them had met only recently, but there was an evident cohesiveness.
More of the staff joined us.
Aaliyah Abdullahi was a server. “I just started working here, just a month. I used to work at the movie theater. My cousin works here. She cooks, and she told me about this place. I work on weekends. I am going to school, high school.”
Marvin Escobar, whom the staff lovingly called Carvin’ Marvin, was also a server. “I started here in August 2002. I enjoy it. The customers are good. They love the food. I met Trish’s daughter, and she told me about the restaurant, and she told me she might need a server. So I came down, and we had an interview and I like it. I help cook also.” He learned cooking elsewhere. “I was a server in Nevada for two years. It’s fun.” He said the thing he liked the best about his job was that “It’s easy. It’s really easy compared to where I come from. That was really hard-core serving.”
Ward said, “Everybody’s different. Everybody has their own personality. Him, he’s the comedian, Marvin. It’s weird. Everybody’s definitely different personalitywise, but we all click in our own particular ways. I love it. It’s like we’re a big family, everybody, you know?” They all agreed.
I asked Escobar if he’s a practical joker. Lots of laughter. “Yeah.”
“He just does things and says things to make everybody laugh,” said Ward. “Today — what are those things they call for the Muslims?”
“Hijab,” Abdullahi said.
“He put one on earlier and then came out here,” Ward said. The entire table erupted in laughter remembering. “He definitely keeps us on our toes and keeps us smiling and kind of forgetting about things. He’s used to the hard-core stuff. Me, this is my first time ever serving, so I kind of look at it a little bit different. With him around, he makes you kind of forget about it being a little stressful at times. He just makes you laugh.”
“One time I was cleaning the fish,” said Escobar, “and I put a fish in the pitcher, ’cause that’s how we do it. I was telling the people, ‘Hey, you been working hard, why don’t you get a cup and get some water.’ And then I was pouring them some water; then they saw that fish in there and said, ‘Oh, no. Wait.’ I got ’em good.”
Ward shared, “Aaliyah, like, me and her, we’re like one as far as serving. We know whose table is whose table. We come out and fill up all the drinks for every table. We try to do that with every server, but… If she’s got a stack of dishes, I grab a stack from her, ’cause I’m closer, and it goes vice versa. We’re like a team. We’re like a good team.”
What happened when a grumpy customer showed up?
Abdullahi shrugged and said, “You have to deal with it.”
Ward added, “I’m grumpy, so I know how it is being grumpy. You have to just put yourself in their shoes. They might have had a bad day at work or something. You can’t necessarily take it personally. They’re only here for 30, 45 minutes out of their day, and we don’t really know what they went through.”
“You gotta get used to it,” Abdullahi said.
Escobar said, “We try to give them dessert on the house, make them feel better, and make them have a better concept about this place, and then they’ll come back.”
The restaurant featured both Louisiana Creole food and African cuisine, which prompted me to ask what they like to eat when they weren’t at work.
“Pizza,” said Abdullahi.
“Chinese food,” said Ward.
Abdullahi, referring to Ward: “He likes Carl’s Jr.”
“I just eat so much food here ’cause the food is new to me,” said Ward. “Like, I’ve never really been exposed to most of this food that they serve here. I definitely, on my day off, come in here and have a catfish sandwich or something. I’ve never had bean pie before or mud pie, and it’s so good. So I mostly eat here because it’s new. I’m not really into fast food all that much, except, of course, Carl’s Jr. The chicken strips.”
Sukumu confessed, “I like a lot of different things. I like Chiquita’s. It’s a Mexican restaurant. I eat there twice a week. Another soul food place I go to occasionally, Huffman’s, a little hole-in-the-wall place that serves good food.” The rest of the group was beginning to hassle him. “Sorry. Oh, and there’s a Caribbean place also.”
“Oh, now we’re finding out a bunch of new stuff,” said Escobar.
More of the staff arrived from the kitchen, signaling that the customers were gone and we could serve ourselves at the buffet. Just as there was a diversity of people on the staff, so was there in the choices at the buffet. Fresh turkey, grits, ribs, fish, yams, sambussas, and Sukumu’s seafood gumbo.
Viola Baya, a shy Sudanese woman, was introduced as a server who had worked at the restaurant for just over one month. Her English was limited, and since she and Yar Atim, a cook, both spoke Arabic, Atim acted as her interpreter. Baya learned to cook in Egypt. “She likes the people here. She thinks they are very nice people. Baya has two children, four and three.” Weir filled in a few more details: “She’s a buser and a cook. She makes our sambussas.” Sambussas are a delicacy in Somalia. They look almost like a wonton and can be filled with anything: spinach, shrimp, cream cheese, or pineapple and banana.
Atim, sweaty from toiling over a hot stove and wearing an engaging smile, took the initiative and said, “I’m from Sudan. I ran away from my country to Egypt for six years, and then we come here. The United Nations helped. We were refugees with the United Nations.” Atim came with some of her family, including her husband. She had three children, aged 5 years, 19 months, and 5 months.
I asked if she planned the menus. She nodded and said, “I cook good. I have worked in many, many restaurants, but this restaurant, everything’s nice. Nice food, healthy food, everyone likes it. Most of the time customers say, ‘That’s nice food.’ ”
Sada Abdella was from Somalia. Weir said, “She is one of our top chefs. She can fix both menus extremely well. Not only that, she has the patience to bring it together. She doesn’t get nervous if there’s a crowd out there, and she calms everybody else down. Besides being an excellent chef, being able to blend flavors together, but to have the personality to be fast and have the ability to bring the group together. Right now, she would be the most experienced chef I have back there.”
“I was in a refugee camp too,” Abdella said. “In Somalia they killed my father.” Her eyes teared up. “Then my whole family lived in Rome. I cooked in Rome. I love to cook.” She said the hardest time at the restaurant was “Valentine’s.”
Trae Whitfield was a dishwasher and a buser who had been working at Aswan for two weeks. “I like it. It keeps me just going faster and faster. It keeps me going to a different goal. I like that. I like the challenge.” He was 19 years old and engaged to be married. When I reacted with obvious surprise, he said, “I have had a hard life. I’ve been through a lot. My mom died when I was very young. I will never be more mature than I am now.” Whitfield was currently working three jobs.
Some of the other employees had more than one job as well, and they all worked varied hours at the restaurant. Ward said, “I work, I would say, anywhere between 30 and 40 hours a week. And weekends are so unpredictable. You never know. All the time you’re scheduled for the buffet.” Escobar worked evenings and on weekends, and he had a morning job cooking elsewhere. Atim worked 6 hours a day, five days a week.
I asked what they wanted for their futures. Did they intend to stay in the restaurant business?
“No. I want to be a lawyer,” Abdullahi said.
Abdella wanted to cook and maybe own her own restaurant.
“I probably want to develop a business where I can express my art skills,” Escobar said.
“Me, I would love to, like, work for a magazine, writing articles,” said Ward. “More music oriented, you know.”
Regarding the restaurant’s future, Weir said, “I think the sky is the limit, when you look at the variety of food that we have, the atmosphere. On Sundays, without being rude, we have to kind of urge people to leave. There’s days when people come at eleven, and at three o’clock they’re still here.”
“You know, people fall asleep,” said Ward. “We’re trying to see if we can get them pillows. Get some cots set up in the back for people who get too full and don’t want to leave.”