It was New Year´s Day 2000 when my infatuation with the restaurant business came to an abrupt halt after a decade as an owner. I had arrived at my San Francisco restaurant at an early hour to make sure the chef was in better than average form. It was going to be a busy day.
The kitchen was the only warm place in the entire restaurant. Situated between the main dining room and the smaller, rear dining room, the postage stamp sized space had a large, arched opening, overlooking the front of the house. This allowed the heat to flow into the entire restaurant warming it comfortably.A six burner Wolf stove, an Alto-Sham Slow Cooker, a steam table, a double convection oven, and the flatbed grill, threw off more than enough heat during the damp months of a San Francisco winter to warm the entire two-thousand square foot space. Still, it took time to heat the far corners of the dining rooms, especially near the draft laden windows. All this was mine for a mere $13,500 per months.
The kitchen crew was especially cold. The warmth of the alcohol from the evening before had worn off and a body temperature chill had set in where the Tequila once flowed. Albeit difficult for anyone who worked with them regularly to believe, they were more disheveled than usual.
Javier, the Spanglish speaking cook, who months earlier was the painter, then dishwasher, then garde manger, had suddenly become a lead line cook. Chef Frank, as he liked to be called, abruptly left culinary school and our employ a week earlier and headed back to New York, leaving only with his forty-seven hundred dollar knife set in hand after a course on cheesecake preparation went sour. Mastering the simple rotisserie Chicken and barbecued rib menu, Javier was still glassy-eyed from the Tequila, Shamseer, the bartender had been sneaking into the kitchen all evening as a Millennium celebration.
The dish, Sebastian, recruited from the Ceasar Chevaz Street Employment Agency had beaten back a clogged, nasty, gnarly, drain and was prepping for dish washing war.
Chopping as fast as his last name suggested, Billy Lightening had already prepped his waffle, roast beef and ham buffet station. The TV, mounted on the wall above the bar, was in clear view for Lightening. As long as he didn´t need to move out of the line of vision of the TV, he was a workhorse. However, if moved from that spot, his nick-name became Struck-By.
The Head Chef, who was the only culinarian in the kitchen with the balls to wear an Egyptian Cotton Chef´s Coat, complete with the sripes of the Cordon Bleu, which nobody really needed in a barbecued brisket joint, was customarily late.If he did study their, he missed La Punctuality. He would be in soon, we were assured, by Shamseer, who had last seen him yelling at his girlfriend in the middle of Chestnut Street just after closing DeLaney´s, the saloon next door. Rumors were bouncing off the wall that his midnight Millennium kiss was a cold as the stainless steel counter in the walk-in.
The rest of the crew was coming around. Slowly. Although each had more than their share of celebratory New Year´s Eve drinks they were prepping for battle even in all their shakiness. The main problem was heating the dining room before the guests started to arrive.
The chill was coming up through the floor and the building just couldn’t maintain a very high heat level.
Although not ancient, it was built directly atop wet sand. There was no protection above, as the rain soaked roof added to the dampness, and the wind made the non-insulated walls that had seen better days, especially drafty.
San Francisco’s Marina District, devastated in 1989 during the Loma Prieta Earthquake, was home to the building. The structure survived the tragedy without noticeable damage, with one exception – it was a few degrees off center. And, the landlord could also be placed in that category, for he professed the slight tilt gave the building potential landmark status allowing him to charge an outrageous monthly rent, which I agreed to pay, including increases, for the next twenty years. Addiction often allows one to make clouded decisions. Signing outrageously ridiculous leases is one of them.
But, this was going to be a gangbuster day. The reservation book was bulging with notes and reservations, and the phone was still ringing. And, with the exception of the Chef being on time the kitchen seemed to be in good shape. And, I would be on the front lines, working the room with my partner, Kranston. For me, it was more comfortable to be chilly in the dining room than warm in the kitchen. Years before, I opted to never go into a kitchen again unless an emergency beckoned. The joy of the stove had long since passed. And, this was the day that would reconfirm that belief.