/My Restaurant Was My Life for 20 Years. Does the World Need It Anymore?

My Restaurant Was My Life for 20 Years. Does the World Need It Anymore?


On the evening earlier than I laid off all 30 of my staff, I dreamed that my two kids had perished, buried alive in filth, whereas I dug in the mistaken place, simply 5 toes away from the place they have been truly smothered. I turned and noticed the royal blue heel of my youngest’s socked foot poking out of the black soil solely after it was too late.

For 10 days, everybody in my orbit had been tilting a method one hour, the different the subsequent. Ten days of being waterboarded by the information, by tweets, by pals, by my waiters. Of being inundated by texts from fellow cooks and managers — former staff, now at the helm of their very own eating places however nonetheless keen for steerage. Of mild however nervous pleas from my operations supervisor to contemplate signing up with a third-party supply service like Caviar. Of being rattled even by my very own spouse, Ashley, and her anxious compulsion to behave, to scale back our restaurant’s working hours, to shut at 9 p.m., minimize shifts.

With no clear directive from any authority — public colleges have been nonetheless open — I spent these 10 days sorting by way of the conflicting chatter, attempting to resolve what to do. And now I understood abruptly: I’d lay everyone off, even my spouse. Prune, my Manhattan restaurant, would shut at 11:59 p.m. on March 15. I had just one piece of unemotional information to work with: the checking-account steadiness. If I triaged the collected gross sales tax that was sitting in its personal devoted financial savings account and left unpaid the stack of vendor invoices, I might totally cowl this one final week of payroll.

By the time of the all-staff assembly after brunch that day, I knew I used to be proper. After a few weeks of watching the each day gross sales dwindle — a $12,141 Saturday to a $four,188 Monday to a $2,093 Thursday — it was a aid to resolve to drag the parachute wire. I didn’t need to have waited too lengthy, didn’t need to crash into the timber. Our sous chef FaceTimed in, as did our lead line cook dinner, whereas almost everybody else gathered in the eating room. I regarded everyone in the eye and mentioned, “I’ve decided not to wait to see what will happen; I encourage you to call first thing in the morning for unemployment, and you have a week’s paycheck from me coming.”

After the assembly, there was some directionless shuffling. Should we gather our issues? Grab our knives? Stay and have a drink? There was nonetheless one final dinner, so 4 of us — Ashley and I; our common supervisor, Anna; and Jake, a beloved line cook dinner — labored the final shift at Prune for who is aware of how lengthy. Some workers members remained behind to eat with each other, spending their cash in home. As phrase trickled out, some long-ago alumnae reached out to put orders for meals they might by no means eat. From Lauren Kois, who waited tables at Prune all by way of her Ph.D. program and is now an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Alabama:

2 darkish and stormies
shrimp w anchovy
fried oysters (we’re pretending it’s a particular tonight)
Leo Steen Jurassic Chenin Blanc
skate wing
treviso salad
potatoes in duck fats
brothy beans
breton butter cake
2 black coffees
+ 50 p.c TIP

Ashley labored the grill station and chilly appetizers, whereas additionally bartending and expediting. Anna waited and hosted and answered the telephone. Jake labored all 10 burners alone. I used to be in a yellow apron dealing with the dish pit, clearing the tables and working bus tubs, and I broke into tears for a second once I discovered of Kois’s order. The phrase “family” is thrown round in eating places for good cause. We banked $1,144 in complete gross sales.

As our workers left that evening, we waved throughout the room to at least one one other with an odd combination of longing and eye-rolling, nonetheless in the self-conscious part of getting to behave so distant from each other, all of us nonetheless so unaware of what was coming. Then, as I used to be working a final tray of glassware earlier than mopping the flooring, Ashley leaned over to announce: “Hey, he just called it. De Blasio. It’s a shutdown. You beat it by five hours, babe.”

The subsequent day, a Monday, Ashley began assembling 30 bins of survival-food kits for the workers. She packed Ziploc baggage of nuts, rice, pasta, cans of curry paste and cartons of eggs, whereas music performed from her cellphone tucked right into a plastic quart container — an previous line-cook trick for amplifying sound. I texted a clip of her mini-operation to José Andrés, who referred to as instantly with encouragement: We will win this collectively! We feed the world one plate at a time!

Ashley had positioned a final giant order from our wholesaler: jarred peanut butter, canned tuna, coconut milk and different unlikely objects that had by no means appeared on our order historical past. And our account rep, Marie Elena Corrao — we met once I was her first account 20 years in the past; she got here to our wedding ceremony in 2016 — put the order by way of with out even clearing her throat, sending the truck to a now-shuttered enterprise. She knew in addition to we did that it will be an extended whereas earlier than the invoice was paid. Leo, from the family-owned butchery we’ve used for 20 years, Pino’s Prime Meat Market, referred to as to not diplomatically inquire about our plans however to right away provide tangibles: “What meats do you ladies need for the home?” He supplied this regardless that he knew that there have been 30 days’ price of his invoices in a pile on my desk, totaling hundreds of . And all day a string of neighborhood regulars handed by on the sidewalk outdoors and made coronary heart palms at us by way of the locked French doorways.

It turned out that abruptly closing a restaurant is a weeklong, full-time job. I used to be bombarded with an astonishing quantity of texts. The telephone rang all through the day, overwhelmingly well-wishers and regretful cancellations, however there was a girl who apparently hadn’t adopted the coronavirus information. She minimize me off in the center of my greeting with, “Yeah, you guys open for brunch?” Then she hung up earlier than I might even end saying, “Take care out there.”

Ashley spent virtually three days packing the freezers, sorting the perishables in the walk-in into classes like “Today would be good!” or “This will be good for the long haul!” We tried burying par-cooked chickens beneath a good seal of duck fats to see if we might hold them completely preserved of their hermetic coffins. She pickled the beets and the brussels sprouts, churned quarts of heavy cream into butter.

I imagined I’d sort out my different issues shortly. I emailed my banker. For gross sales taxes, liquor invoices and impending hire, I hoped to use for a modest line of credit score to drift me by way of this disaster. I assumed having run $2.5 million to $three million by way of my financial institution annually for the previous twenty years would depart me poised to see a line of credit score shortly, however then I remembered that I switched banks in the previous yr. Everyone in my trade inspired me to use for an S.B.A. catastrophe mortgage — I estimated we wouldn’t want a lot; for 14 days, $50,000 — so I despatched in my question.

Knowing the balance, I snorted to myself: Good luck with that. I called Ken about this, and he got them to postpone the draw.

And then, finally, three weeks of adrenaline drained from me. I checked all the pilot lights and took out the garbage; I stopped swimming so hard against the mighty current and let it carry me out. I had spent 20 years in this place, beginning when I was a grad student fresh out of school, through marriage and children and divorce and remarriage, with funerals and first dates in between; I knew its walls and light switches and faucets as well I knew my own body. It was dark outside when Ashley and I finally rolled down the gates and walked home.

Prune is a cramped and lively bistro in Manhattan’s East Village, with a devoted following and a tight-knit crew. I opened it in 1999. It has only 14 tables, which are jammed in so close together that not infrequently you put down your glass of wine to take a bite of your food and realize it’s on your neighbor’s table. Many friendships have started this way.

What was I imagining 20 years ago when I was working all day, every day at a catering job while staying up all night every night, writing menus and sketching the plating of dishes, scrubbing the walls and painting the butter-yellow trim inside what would become Prune? I’d seen the padlocked space, formerly a failed French bistro, when it was decrepit: cockroaches crawling over the sticky Pernod bottles behind the bar and rat droppings carpeting the floors. But even in that moment, gasping for air through the T-shirt I had pulled up over my mouth, I could see vividly what it could become, the intimate dinner party I would throw every night in this charming, quirky space. I was already lighting the candles and filling the jelly jars with wine. I would cook there much the way I cooked at home: whole roasted veal breast and torn lettuces in a well-oiled wooden bowl, a ripe cheese after dinner, none of the aggressively “conceptual” or architectural food then trendy among aspirational chefs but also none of the roulades and miniaturized bites I’d been cranking out as a freelancer in catering kitchens.

At that point New York didn’t have an ambitious and exciting restaurant on every block, in every unlikely neighborhood, operating out of impossibly narrow spaces. There was no Eater, no Instagram, no hipster Brooklyn food scene. If you wanted something expert to eat, you dined in Manhattan. For fine dining, with plush armchairs and a captain who ran your table wearing an Armani suit, you went uptown; for the buzzy American brasserie with bentwood cane-backed chairs and waiters in long white aprons, you stayed downtown. There was no serious restaurant that would allow a waiter to wear a flannel shirt or hire a sommelier with face piercings and neck tattoos. The East Village had Polish and Ukrainian diners, falafel stands, pizza parlors, dive bars and vegetarian cafes. There was only one notable noodle spot. Momofuku opened five years after Prune.

I meant to create a restaurant that would serve as delicious and interesting food as the serious restaurants elsewhere in the city but in a setting that would welcome, and not intimidate, my ragtag friends and my neighbors — all the East Village painters and poets, the butches and the queens, the saxophone player on the sixth floor of my tenement building, the performance artists doing their brave naked work up the street at P.S. 122. I wanted a place you could go after work or on your day off if you had only a line cook’s paycheck but also a line cook’s palate. And I thought it might be a more stable way to earn a living than the scramble of freelancing I’d done up until then.

Like most chefs who own these small restaurants that have now proliferated across the whole city, I’ve been driven by the sensory, the human, the poetic and the profane — not by money or a thirst to expand. Even after seven nights a week for two decades, I am still stopped in my tracks every time my bartenders snap those metal lids onto the cocktail shakers and start rattling the ice like maracas. I still close my eyes for a second, taking a deep inhale, every time the salted pistachios are set afire with raki, sending their anise scent through the dining room. I still thrill when the four-top at Table 9 are talking to one another so contentedly that they don’t notice they are the last diners, lingering in the cocoon of the wine and the few shards of dark chocolate we’ve put down with their check. Even though I can’t quite take part in it myself — I’m the boss, who must remain a little aloof from the crew — I still quietly thrum with satisfaction when the “kids” are chattering away and hugging one another their hellos and how-are-yous in the hallway as they get ready for their shifts.

But the very first time you cut a payroll check, you understand quite bluntly that, poetic notions aside, you are running a business. And that crew of knuckleheads you adore are counting on you for their livelihood. In the beginning I was closed on Mondays, ran only six dinner shifts and paid myself $425 a week. I got a very positive review in The New York Times, and thereafter we were packed. When I added a seventh dinner in 2000, I was able to hire a full-time sous chef.

When I added weekend brunch, which started as a dreamy idea, not a business plan, it wound up being popular enough to let me buy out all six of the original investors. I turned 43 in 2008 and finally became the majority owner of my restaurant. I made my last student-loan payment and started paying myself $800 a week. A few years later, when I added lunch service on weekdays, it was a business decision, not a dream, because I needed to be able to afford health insurance for my staff, and I knew I could make an excellent burger. So suddenly, there we were: 14 services, seven days a week, 30 employees. It was a thrilling and exhausting first 10 years with great momentum.

There used to be enough extra money every year that I could close for 10 days in July to repaint and retile and rewire, but it has become increasingly impossible to leave even a few days of revenue on the table or to justify the expense of hiring a professional cleaning service for this deep clean that I am perfectly capable of doing myself, so I stayed late and did it after service. The sludge of egg yolk seeped through the coverall, through my clothes to my skin, matted my hair and speckled my goggles as my shock registered: It has always been hard, but when did it get this hard?

Two weeks after we closed, Ashley still had not got through to unemployment, and I had been thrice-thwarted by the auto-fill feature of the electronic form of the loan I was urged to apply for. I could start to see that things I had thought would be quick and uncomplicated would instead be steep and unyielding. No one was going to rescue me. I went into the empty restaurant for a bit each day to push back against the entropy — a light bulb had died, a small freezer needed to be unplugged and restarted. Eleven envelopes arrived, bearing the unemployment notices from the New York State Department of Labor. The next stack of five arrived a week later. And then another six.

The line of credit I thought would be so easy to acquire turned out to be one long week of harsh busy signals before I was even able to apply on March 25. I was turned down a week later, on April 1, because of “inadequate business and personal cash flow.” I howled with laughter over the phone at the underwriter and his explanation. Everything was uphill. Twenty-one days after we closed, Ashley still hadn’t been able to reach unemployment. They now had a new system to handle the overload of calls: You call based on the first letter of your last name, and her next possible day would be a Thursday. If she didn’t get through, she would have to wait until the next day allotted for all the M’s of the city.

Links to low-interest S.B.A. disaster loans were circulated, but New York City wasn’t showing up on the list of eligible zones. I emailed my accountant: This is weird? She wrote back with a sarcastic smiley emoticon: I believe it will be updated. It’s the government — they are only fast when they are collecting your taxes. The James Beard Foundation kicked into high gear and announced meaningful grants of up to $15,000 and with an application period that was supposed to last from March 30 to April 3, but within hours of opening, it was overwhelmed with applications and it had to stop accepting more.

Ashley texted me from home that our dog was limping severely. This was the scenario that made me sweat: a medical emergency. We could live for a month on what was in the freezer, and I had a credit card that still had a $13,000 spending limit, but what if we got hurt somehow and needed serious medical care? Neither of us was insured. My kids are covered under their father’s policy, but there was no safety net for us. Among us chefs, there have been a hundred jokes over the decades about our medical (and veterinary) backup plans — given our latex gloves and razor-sharp knives and our spotless stainless-steel prep tables — but my sense of humor at that moment had become hard to summon.

Meanwhile, my inbox was loaded with emails from everyone I’ve ever known, all wanting to check in, as well as from colleagues around the country who were only now comprehending the scope of the impact on New York’s restaurants. Hastily, fellow chefs and restaurant owners were forming groups, circulating petitions, quickly knitting coalitions for restaurant workers and suppliers and farmers. There were surveys to fill out, representatives to call, letters to sign. Some were turning their restaurants into meal kitchens to feed hospital workers. There was a relief bill before Congress that we were all urgently asked to support, but it puzzlingly left out small, independent restaurants even as it came through pretty nicely for huge chains and franchises. The other option, the Paycheck Protection Program, would grant you a loan with forgiveness, I learned, but only if you rehire your laid-off staff before the end of June. With no lifting of the mandatory shuttering and the Covid-19 death tolls still mounting, how could we rehire our staff? I couldn’t really use the loan for what I needed: rent for the foreseeable future and the stack of invoices still haunting me in the office.

And right when I started to feel backed against the ropes, I got a group email from a few concerned former Prune managers who eagerly offered to start a GoFundMe for Prune, inadvertently putting another obstacle in front of me: my own dignity. I sat on the email for a few days, roiling in a whole new paralysis of indecision. There were individual campaigns being run all over town to raise money to help restaurant staffs, but when I tried to imagine joining this trend, I couldn’t overcome my pride at being seen as asking for a handout. It felt like a popularity contest or a survival-of-the-most-well-connected that I couldn’t bring myself to enter. It would make me feel terrible if Prune was nicely funded while the Sikhs at the Punjabi Grocery and Deli down the street were ignored, and simultaneously crushed if it wasn’t. I also couldn’t quite imagine the ethical calculus by which I would distribute such funds: Should I split them equally, even though one of my workers is a 21-year-old who already owns his own apartment in Manhattan, while another lives with his unemployed wife and their two children in a rental in the Bronx? I thanked my former managers but turned them down: I had repeatedly checked in with my staff, and everybody was OK for now.

It would be nigh impossible for me, in the context of a pandemic, to argue for the necessity of my existence. Do my sweetbreads and my Parmesan omelet count as essential at this time? In economic terms, I don’t think I could even argue that Prune matters anymore, in a neighborhood and a city now fully saturated with restaurants much like mine, many of them better than mine — some of which have expanded to employ as many as 100 people, not just cooks and servers and bartenders but also human-resource directors and cookbook ghostwriters.

I am not going to suddenly start arguing the merits of my restaurant as a vital part of an “industry” or that I help to make up 2 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product or that I should be helped out by our government because I am one of those who employ nearly 12 million Americans in the work force. But those seem to be the only persuasive terms — with my banks, my insurers, my industry lobbyists and legislators. I have to hope, though, that we matter in some other alternative economy; that we are still a thread in the fabric that might unravel if you yanked us from the weave.

Everybody’s saying that restaurants won’t make it back, that we won’t survive. I imagine this is at least partly true: Not all of us will make it, and not all of us will perish. But I can’t easily discern the determining factors, even though thinking about which restaurants will survive — and why — has become an obsession these past weeks. What delusional mind-set am I in that I just do not feel that this is the end, that I find myself convinced that this is only a pause, if I want it to be? I don’t carry investor debt; my vendors trust me; if my building’s co-op evicted me, they would have a beast of a time getting a new tenant to replace me.

But I know few of us will come back as we were. And that doesn’t seem to me like a bad thing at all; perhaps it will be a chance for a correction, as my friend, the chef Alex Raij, calls it.

The conversation about how restaurants will continue to operate, given the rising costs of running them has been ramping up for years now; the coronavirus did not suddenly shine light on an unknown fragility. We’ve all known, and for a rather long time. The past five or six years have been alarming. For restaurants, coronavirus-mandated closures are like the oral surgery or appendectomy you suddenly face while you are uninsured. These closures will take out the weakest and the most vulnerable. But exactly who among us are the weakest and most vulnerable is not obvious.

But block after block, for so many years now, there are storefronts where restaurants turn over so quickly that I don’t even register their names. If Covid-19 is the death of restaurants in New York, will we be able to tell which restaurants went belly up because of the virus? Or will they be the same ones that would have failed within 16 months of opening anyway, from lack of wherewithal or experience? When we are sorting through the restaurant obituaries, will we know for sure that it was not because the weary veteran chef decided, as I have often been tempted myself in these weeks, to quietly walk out the open back door of a building that has been burning for a long time?

It gets so confusing. Restaurant operators had already become oddly cagey, and quick to display a false front with each other. You asked, “How’s business?” and the answer always was, “Yeah, great, best quarter we’ve ever had.” But then the coronavirus hits, and these same restaurant owners rush into the public square yelling: “Fire! Fire!” They now reveal that they had also been operating under razor-thin margins. It instantly turns 180 degrees: Even famous, successful chefs, owners of empires, those with supremely wealthy investors upon whom you imagine they could call for capital should they need it, now openly describe in technical detail, with explicit data, how dire a position they are in. The sad testimony gushes out, confirming everything that used to be so convincingly denied.

The concerns before coronavirus are still universal: The restaurant as we know it is no longer viable on its own. You can’t have tipped employees making $45 an hour while line cooks make $15. You can’t buy a $3 can of cheap beer at a dive bar in the East Village if the “dive bar” is actually paying $18,000 a month in rent, $30,000 a month in payroll; it would have to cost $10. I can’t keep hosing down the sauté corner myself just to have enough money to repair the ripped awning. Prune is in the East Village because I’ve lived in the East Village for more than 30 years. I moved here because it was where you could get an apartment for $450 a month. In 1999, when I opened Prune, I still woke each morning to roosters crowing from the rooftop of the tenement building down the block, which is now a steel-and-glass tower. A less-than-500-square-foot studio apartment rents for $3,810 a month.

The girl who called about brunch the first day we were closed probably lives there. She is used to having an Uber driver pick her up exactly where she stands at any hour of the day, a gel mani-pedi every two weeks and award-winning Thai food delivered to her door by a guy who braved the sleet, having attached oven mitts to his bicycle handlebars to keep his hands warm. But I know she would be outraged if charged $28 for a Bloody Mary.

For the past 10 years I’ve been staring wide-eyed and with alarm as the sweet, gentle citizen restaurant transformed into a kind of unruly colossal beast. The food world got stranger and weirder to me right while I was deep in it. The “waiter” became the “server,” the “restaurant business” became the “hospitality industry,” what used to be the “customer” became the “guest,” what was once your “personality” became your “brand,” the small acts of kindness and the way you always used to have of sharing your talents and looking out for others became things to “monetize.”

The work itself — cooking delicious, interesting food and cleaning up after cooking it — still feels as fresh and honest and immensely satisfying as ever. Our beloved regulars and the people who work so hard at Prune are all still my favorite people on earth. But maybe it’s the bloat, the fetishistic foodies, the new demographic of my city who have never been forced to work in retail or service sectors. Maybe it’s the auxiliary industries that feed off the restaurants themselves — the bloggers and agents and the “influencers,” the brand managers, the personal assistants hired just to keep you fresh on “Insta,” the Food & Wine festivals, the multitude of panels we chefs are now routinely invited to join, to offer our charming yet thoroughly unresearched opinions on. The proliferation of television shows and YouTube channels and culinary competitions and season after season of programming where you find yourself aghast to see an idol of yours stuffing packaged cinnamon buns into a football-shaped baking pan and squirting the frosting into a laces pattern for a tailgating episode on the Food Network.

And God, the brunch, the brunch. The phone hauled out for every single pancake and every single Bloody Mary to be photographed and Instagrammed. That guy who strolls in and won’t remove his sunglasses as he holds up two fingers at my hostess without saying a word: He wants a table for two. The purebred lap dogs now passed off as service animals to calm the anxieties that might arise from eating eggs Benedict on a Sunday afternoon. I want the girl who called the first day of our mandated shut down to call back, in however many months when restaurants are allowed to reopen, so I can tell her with delight and sincerity: No. We are not open for brunch. There is no more brunch.

I, like hundreds of other chefs across the city and thousands around the country, are now staring down the question of what our restaurants, our careers, our lives, might look like if we can even get them back.

I don’t know whom to follow or what to think. Everyone says: “You should do to-go! You should sell gift cards! You should offer delivery! You need a social media presence! You should pivot to groceries! You should raise your prices — a branzino is $56 at Via Carota!”

I have thought for many long minutes, days, weeks of confinement and quarantine, should I? Is that what Prune should do and what Prune should become?

I cannot see myself excitedly daydreaming about the third-party delivery-ticket screen I will read orders from all evening. I cannot see myself sketching doodles of the to-go boxes I will pack my food into so that I can send it out into the night, anonymously, hoping the poor delivery guy does a good job and stays safe. I don’t think I can sit around dreaming up menus and cocktails and fantasizing about what would be on my playlist just to create something that people will order and receive and consume via an app. I started my restaurant as a place for people to talk to one another, with a very decent but affordable glass of wine and an expertly prepared plate of simply braised lamb shoulder on the table to keep the conversation flowing, and ran it as such as long as I could. If this kind of place is not relevant to society, then it — we — should become extinct.

And yet even with the gate indefinitely shut against the coronavirus, I’ve been dreaming again, but this time I’m not at home fantasizing about a restaurant I don’t even yet have the keys to. This time I’ve been sitting still and silent, inside the shuttered restaurant I already own, that has another 10 years on the lease. I spend hours inside each day, on a wooden chair, in the empty clean space with the windows papered up, and I listen to the coolers hum, the compressor click on and off periodically, the thunder that echoes up from the basement as the ice machine drops its periodic sheet of thick cubes into the insulated bin. My body has a thin blue thread of electricity coursing through it. Sometimes I rearrange the tables. For some reason, I can’t see wanting deuces anymore: No more two-tops? What will happen come Valentine’s Day?

It’s no mystery why this prolonged isolation has made me find the tiny 24-square-inch tables that I’ve been cramming my food and my customers into for 20 years suddenly repellent. I want round tables, big tables, six-people tables, eight-tops. Early supper, home before midnight. Long, lingering civilized Sunday lunches with sun streaming in through the front French doors. I want old regulars to wander back into the kitchen while I lift the lids off the pots and show them what there is to eat. I want to bring to their tables small dishes of the feta cheese I’ve learned to make these long idle weeks, with a few slices of the saucisson sec I’ve been hanging downstairs to cure while we wait to reopen, and to again hear Greg rattle the ice, shaking perfectly proportioned Vespers that he pours right to the rim of the chilled glass without spilling over.

I have been shuttered before. With no help from the government, Prune has survived 9/11, the blackout, Hurricane Sandy, the recession, months of a city water-main replacement, online reservations systems — you still have to call us on the telephone, and we still use a pencil and paper to take reservations! We’ve survived the tyranny of convenience culture and the invasion of Caviar, Seamless and Grubhub. So I’m going to let the restaurant sleep, like the beauty she is, shallow breathing, dormant. Bills unpaid. And see what she looks like when she wakes up — so well rested, young all over again, in a city that may no longer recognize her, want her or need her.



Source link Nytimes.com

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