Port Townsend, Washington.-They blew into town as they do every spring like a Nor´Wester. A breeze at first, steadily building to a gale, and finally easing off to a slight brushing on the cheek, that´s how tourist season is here. A trickle signifies the beginning and the end.
Seasonality is common place in the hospitality biz, but I constantly flashback to the days of catnaps on bags of dirty linen after struggling to feed 200 for lunch with another 300 readying to test my agility behind the line for dinner. Isn´t that what we all love so much, the constant struggle to ace the test? Getting the end of the night results, the numbers, and then crashing in preparation for the next day? Of course it is.
Each day, while writing this column, I marvel at the passion hospitality professionals, both owners and employees, exhibit in their personal quest for individual perfection. How a national group of artisans, misplaced lawyers, the occasional doctor, architectural students, philosophers, cinematographers, salesmen and numerous others either chase or fulfill their dreams while coming together to prepare and serve food and offer hospitality to a nation.
The extremes we drive ourselves to in order to accomplish those goals are less than glamorous, yet for the most part, we all enjoy the cuts and bruises, nicks and bangs, bumps and falls that are sustained throughout the day.
Few things compare to the mental game plan change. You´ve been there. You presume the night is going to be a breeze- not a gale- now that the touristas have gone home. The night will be steady but nothing a two person team in the dining room can´t handle. Then the phone rings. One waiter down in the dining room, a lot of action by the front door and you begin to ask yourself, should I still take the night off? Yes. You have to.
I had the pleasure of watching Nick Yates help orchestrate his kitchen to near rhythmic perfection as I sat in the dining room of his Fountain Cafe two nights ago. Yates has just recently purchased the 25 year-old Port Townsend culinary mainstay and has made some interesting changes to the menu in his quest for culinary perfection. On Sunday night the 24 plus chairs that dot the dining room filled quickly. Yates, standing in the window of his semi-open kitchen prepared simple dishes of pasta, seafood and salads and added his signature touches to each. The salads boasted flavorful dressings and fresh greens and The Anchovy, a dish of Penne Pasta with olive oil, anchovies, and pine nuts, made Pasta Puttanesca taste like a dish for culinary wimps.
On my return last evening, Yates was absent from the kitchen. He probably arranged for a well deserved night off. A very risky maneuver for any owner of a new venture, Yates stuck his head in the back door in the middle of the dinner rush- the kitchen was under control. The chef had a back-up assistant- a New York City film school student who had returned to her hometown for a vacation. However, the dining room team wasn´t quite so lucky. One employee had called in sick in the front of the house so one waiter-sans any bussing became the server, busser, bartender, and host. Taking on the duties of a dining room team, she showed true professionalism rising to the occasion and pushed herself to the edge of duty. Cutting bread, scooping butter, clearing tables, and delivering food all came under the responsibilities of the call. One person handling a full dining room of 24 people, not once, but twice throughout the night, can be very difficult duty. Similar to sailing in a gale force wind.
The Holly Hill House sits a few blocks up the hill from the Fountain Cafe. The cafe’s moniker comes from the lovely fountain that welcomes climbers to the beautiful stairs that lead up the hill just a stone´s throw from Polk St. While Yates is busy keeping things flowing smoothly at the Fountain, Nina and Greg Dortch own one of the most charming Bed and Breakfasts in the country.
A Band B boy from way back, I´ve always had a hidden desire to own one. Possibly one that floats so when it came time to end the tourist season, a simple cast off could accomplish that goal. I have never been able to master the patience and total passion of the B and B owner. You see that one guy at table 14 put a damper on my B and B dreams. I don´t believe I have the patience or possess the passion that the Dortch´s do.
They do a superb job at hospitality. Always pleasant, and hospitable, their home is a Victorian showplace. The gardens are out of Sunset, the breakfasts are out of Gourmet, and the beds are out of a back therapist´s guidebook. But, the cookies and confections are what make the birds sign. Nina grew up in an Italian kitchen- her love of the stove is an inherent quality. Daily she proves this to the guests of her home and other lucky tourists who visit Port Townsend. Not only does Nina fill the cookie jar in the parlor with her freshly baked Chocolate Chip Walnut Cookies, but Momma Nina´s are available at the local grocery store in Port Townsend, Aldrich´s Market. They are that good. They could easily win a home meal replacement competition. Hands down, they are the best dessert in town.
And, that´s what this business is all about- going that extra step- making people feel special whether they are on vacation, or celebrating a special occasion, or just out for dinner knowing the touristas have gone home and the dining rooms are safe and running on all cylinders once again. Even if the busser doesn’t show up.