The Making of a Restaurant

Tuesday, July 31, 2001

The heart unmoved by William's radio interview is a heart that pumps but icy gazpacho.

My favorite parts:

  • "I had to lock myself in my taxi for six years, 18 hours a day. I never went to sleep until I made a certain amount of money. It was like being in prison."
  • "I don't have the luxury of buying 200 chairs (that are) the same, the yuppie way, at Crate and Barrel."
  • "This is what my restaurant has taught me: Try to open every day with integrity (and) give the best I can. ... It's hard to be alive every day. Opening a restaurant is like having a wedding every day. You cannot get tired or depressed. You have to have fresh flowers. You have to have fresh food. You have to have a clean place. You have to play with whatever life gives you."
  • "I'm not too crazy about yuppies, but I guess they like some kind of pain. They come here and ask for wine menus and dessert menus and all these kind of things you expect in America."
  • "If you don't like something, just pull it out. Some people are really picky: They can't pull the chicken out. ... All the things going on with this planet -- all the beatiful things and miserable things -- and some people are so picky they can't separate the chicken from their rice! And so I pick the chicken up with my hand and eat it, and they think it's too wild! Some yuppies like this, some can't handle it."
  • "I haven't taken a day off for years."
  • "I don't want money. I want meaning."

I say we decorate our kitchen's walls with some of William's affirmations, from this interview and from Neal's story.
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Chowhound Tara also pointed us to an excellent radio interview with La Cumbamba owner William Restrepo.

The piece, which aired on a recent Eight Forty-Eight, is incredibly telling. William speaks of spending six years driving a taxi, day and night, collecting the funds necessary to buy the building at 2311 W. North Ave. -- with cash, because the bank wouldn't offer a mortgage to a lowly cab driver.

He says he's "definitely" selling the place. By this fall, apparently. He wants to move on to his real dream, building an orphanage in Colombia. He says he wants to do something "meaningful for [his] life." Does this mean he doesn't consider operating a restaurant meaningful? I sure hope not.

We'll be looking back on the things William says when we're opening our place. If it ever gets off the ground, much will owed to the lessons learned from him. With that in mind, I offer the following YANI in William's honor: Jawbone. You'll get it after you listen to the interview.
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Monday, July 30, 2001

I think what Luke's trying to say is that we're Chowhounds:

"Foodies eat where they're told; they eagerly follow trends and rarely go where Zagat hasn't gone before. Chowhounds, on the other hand, blaze trails, combing gleefully through neighborhoods for hidden culinary treasure. They despise hype, and while they appreciate refined ambiance and service, they can't be fooled by mere flash."

(Thanks to fellow Chicago Chowhound Tara for the link.)
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Last week, Luke and I took in a bite at Bite, a cozy joint in Ukrainian Village. I think Luke will agree with me when I say Bite is very close to the kind of place we could see running ourselves -- small, intimate, without pretension, and with a focus on the cooking. Plus, it had lots of personality. Personality goes a long way. To wit:

• The bathroom walls were hand-paitned, with little designs sprinkled about. One is discouraged to engrave dirty limericks into the wall if it means destroying the owners' art. Also, between the sink and the mirror, instead of the typical "Employees must wash hands ..." sign, was a note painted onto the wall saying the exact same message, but in someone's handwriting. It's a small detail, but it's that kind of stuff that sticks in people's minds.

• The daily specials were written on chalkboards that hung on the far wall. Perhaps it wasn't the chalkboards that made me take notice, for that's nothing new. Again, I think it was the handwriting. It had an artistic flourish, like it belonged in a mural of street graffiti art.

Neither Luke nor I possess the skills to write with any elegance. (That's what you get when you spend your whole life writing digitally.) If we decide to implement similar handwriting-based ideas, we'll either need to hire a friend to do the job for us -- I have a few in mind -- or we'll just have to hire struggling artists as our waitstaff.
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Sunday, July 29, 2001

To be a foodie:"Foodies are competitive. It's not enough to just eat well and enjoy it. You must be able to whip off commentary about the amuse-bouche at Daniel, know the bodega in Red Hook that makes the best churros and be able to recite the last five restaurants Wylie Dufresne has worked at."

Sandy and I are both foodies. Neither our vocabularies nor our coffers are rich enough for us to be this obnoxious, but we can aspire.
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Chez Panisse turns 30:"At first, Waters and some friends just wanted a comfortable place for good food and thoughtful conversation. They knew nothing about the restaurant business, managing a kitchen or filling orders for a multitude of dishes at once." Says one former waitress: "There was this aliveness. You just felt it in the air.''

Good food, thoughtful conversation: two great tastes that taste great together!
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Saturday, July 28, 2001

Here's a great game we can play until we're ready to open.
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Wednesday, July 25, 2001

The Chopping Block has released their September class list. Much to my joy, they're offering the Flavor Dynamics class again. ("Taste olive oils, vinegars, herbs, spices, and more as we explore how to combine flavors and learn how to make substitutions and cook without recipes.") I immediately called and signed up for the class on the 18th. There are only 16 spots in the class, so if you're interested in joining me, better sign up quick.

I also signed up for their free Stock Your Pantry class on the 16th. ("Our Chefs will teach you how to select the ideal cookware, tools, and ingredients for your family's needs!") I'm sure it's not much more than a promotional tool to sell more T.C.P. merchandise, but hey, it's free, and I could use a little learnin' about cookware.
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Tuesday, July 24, 2001

Ben writes in:

"I'm uneasy when I go to restaurants and either the host or the waiter/tress seems not to like me. I worry that they're going to hock a stringy one into my portabello sandwich or drop eyelashes in my hummus.

"So, why keep all that food preparation hidden away, like it's a secret? I don't necessarily think you should make it the main attraction (like the shows at stir-fry places or whatever). I'm thinking more like a glassed-in area where people can watch their plates prepared, kind of like when microbreweries were big, you could often see the vats behind glass walls.

"Plus, it's a good way for you guys to monitor the kitchen staff while you're out on the floor; you can make sure they're not plotting to overthrow you."

A clever idea, and worth listing as YACMI, but I'm not sure we really want to reveal the inner workings of our machine. From what I know about professional kitchens -- and it's not much, most of it coming from the sensationalized Kitchen Confidential -- they're noisy and confusing. I'm afraid opening it up to viewing will ruin the illusion of how an motley assortment of ingredients turns into their gorgeous dish.

Then again, there are plenty of restaurants that don't bother to separate the kitchen from the dining area -- La Cumbamba is one -- or that place a special table inside the kitchen so the diners can watch their meals being prepared -- like Evanston's Trio. I guess the next logical step is kitchen walls made of glass. But would they fog up?
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Sunday, July 22, 2001

This week's Tribune Magazine looks at a restaurateur network whose members all emigrated from the same Mexican village. I've always wondered how immigrants can come to America with but a few pennies, pesos or drachmai and shortly forge a restaurant empire. If they can do it, with far less to their names than there is to our own, why can't we?
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Saturday, July 21, 2001

Coincidentally, while I visited La Cumbamba last week I read a Reader story about Katerina's, a jazz cafe in Roscoe Village. Katerina says the restaurateur bug first bit her in Toronto, where she discovered boites, "these little places with food and drink and smoky singers and dark poets. Cafe society. They were very intimate and soulful ... For the next 15 years I talked about it -- I wanted to open my own boite, a little hole-in-the-wall."

In the fall of 1999, 15 years later, she did just that, and she has developed a circle of regulars. This spring, an anonymous donor left a cashier's check for $10,000. It's an encouraging story. Whoever they are, we dreamers depend on the kindness of strangers.
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Friday, July 20, 2001

More cooking at the cafe this morning. Friday mornings there apparently belong to a man named Charlie, a volunteer head chef who's known to bring in his own ingredients, like seafood for the omelettes. The guests know him by name, look forward to Fridays because of him, and I've been warned by anyone who knows him that I'll be in for an ass-kicking if I happen to work with him. The guy's a real dictator behind the stove, apparently. But Charlie was off this morning, so instead of filling in the vacancy with another head chef, I was joined in the kitchen by two other assistant chefs. Such an impact this guy has on Fridays that we had to write "Charlie's not here today" on the menu white board, lest people start getting crabby about their eggs.

Because of the lack of a clear leader in the kitchen, things weren't as organized as usual. The potatoes didn't get cooked enough, and some orders got mixed up. Not big stuff, as we are all volunteers, not professionals -- all except Charlie, of course -- and no one really complained about it. I got my big break behind the griddle making omelette and egg orders, which I'd always assumed would take me weeks or months to work up to. I didn't do such a bad job either. Between the beginning of the meal and the end -- a mere 45 minutes -- I noticed a distinct improvement in my cooking style. Hey, before you know it, they might be asking for me by name.

I'm on again in a week. Let's see if Charlie shows up this time. I could use a good culinary ass-kicking.
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It's been awhile since we've tossed out any name ideas, so here's one I've had since the very beginning: Eureka!

Even though it has two attributes -- a single word and punctuation -- that I don't care for in restaurant names, Eureka! remains my favorite. I'm biased, of course: It's my hometown, so phrases like "Let's go to Eureka" and "Eureka is such a nice place" are hard-wired into my brain. Still, I think it works. It suggests both discovery and smarty pants-ness, two elements that I think will define us. We could promote Eureka moments and decorate the place with gold crowns and bathtubs.

I thought of ways to incorporate Sandy's hometown, too. Careka? Eurmel? Better might be to include an icon from each locale, such as Car & Redwood, or maybe The Redwood Car. The Redwood Racer?
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Monday, July 16, 2001

So, yeah, I've been volunteering at the Inspiration Cafe.

For me, this gig is really two steps in the right direction. One, it's offering hop-into-the-fire experience. From the time the other chef and I arrive at the cafe, we have an hour and a half to prepare a meal for 35 people. That's a hefty chore. Fortunately, they're a laid back crew and obviously don't expect a four-star meal. (Heck, I'm not sure it's even one star.) Most of the food is prepared in bulk, like a gigantic cookie sheet full of Chicken Parmesans. But there's always at least one item on the menu that employs technique -- last time it was a vat of home-made salsa -- and I relish any chance I can get to learn something new about food preparation.

(And if I had any doubts about the credibility of experience gained at the I.C., they were muted when I learned that a fellow volunteer, who's been working there slightly over six months, is counting on that tenure to help him gain acceptance into the Culinary Institute of America. According to the guest chef/teacher at the last cooking class, the CIA requires that applicants have a year of experience upon application, and two years upon starting classes. If this guy can get in with just six months of volunteer work, our five- to ten-year preparation plan should be more than adequate.)

Two, my stints under the I.C. chef's hat serve as a larger, more meaningful notch on my volunteering scorecard. I've spent the last two years doing volunteering duty at the Old Town School of Folk Music, and while it's nice to support good music, my intentions were mostly selfish. I was really just accruing points in order to take a free guitar class. It was time to find a more civically-minded benefactor of my volunteer time, I realized, and the Inspiration Cafe fit the bill. Witnessing folkies enjoying the finger-pickin' stylings of Leo Kottke is nice, but it holds no candle to seeing the fruits of your labor feed the city's homeless.

It's been two weeks so far, and I've already worked two meal shifts, one breakfast and one dinner. I've got another one coming Friday morning, and another one the Friday after that. I'm quickly becoming a regular there. Luke says he'll start volunteering soon, and someday soon I hope we have enough courage to take on the kitchen entirely by ourselves.
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Big Ben directs us to Carta in San Francisco: "The idea behind Carta is simple but ambitious: a menu that changes bimonthly, drawing on cuisines of the world. Since opening in 1995, the restaurant has featured the menus of the Caribbean, Russia, India, the American South, New England, Indonesia, Turkey, France and other delectable destinations, all served with a view of the romantic old streetcars along Market Street."

It sounds like our idea for rotating themes, as well as what goes on in Scotia's Redwood Room. I think Wrigleyville's Outpost does a similar shtick, taking its diners on a culinary tour along South Pacific trade routes.

Yesterday I caught an episode of "Legendary Hangouts" on the Food Network. Morley Safer visited Chicago's Pump Room, where the best seat is at Booth One. Back before cell phones, celebrities liked to sit there because it was the only table with its own telephone and a fresh flower, and it also got the most service. Sounds a bit like our premium Red Table, though I doubt Irv Kupcinet will be a regular at our place.
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Saturday, July 14, 2001

This month's issue of Restaurant Report discusses up-selling vs. overselling. It does not, however, touch on the importance of candid underselling.
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Wednesday, July 11, 2001

As I'd planned, I pedaled down to Wicker Park last night to visit La Cumbamba. (Along the way I passed a crew filming exteriors for "Real World Chicago." Just that morning, shooting had been interupted by, well, a shooting. Such is the real world in Chicago.)

Dinner was exquisite. The arepas, dusted with a layer of queso fresco cheese, were perfect. I'm not one for hyperbole, but I honestly cannot recall tastier morsels.

Have we discussed the mechanics of La Cumbamba? William, the owner, bills the place as a "primitive concept of a social club," and everything is informal and casual. Service is sporadic but, when it comes, heartfelt. (William on this night gave more than a few embraces and backslaps.) And any menus on hand are for entertainment value only; meals turn on whatever is available. Tonight I asked William what was cooking. "You like chicken?" I like chicken. "Good. I set you up. Don't worry."

La Cumbamba has added outdoor seating since my last visit, but it's more like a small park than your typical al fresco set-up, which has gotten pretty generic in Chicago. There were hammocks, a jungle of plants and a well-pocketknifed park bench. A cat came and went, as did the young apartment dwellers from upstairs.

While I waited for dinner, a breathless William checked in on three guys at the next table. "How long have you had this place?" one of them asked. William's eyes rolled upward as he did some math. "Three years, but it was in my mind, like, 2,300 years ago." With that he darted off to another table to pour some wine.

When William came with the bill -- "Here you go," he said. "The tip is included." -- I told him I'd seen his ad in the Tribune.


"Yeah. Are you serious? That would make me very sad."

He gave a slight shrug. "You want to buy it?"

I patted my sides. "Empty pockets, but I'd love to."

"You want it, it's yours."

And again he dashed off, volunteering no more information.

I looked at the check. For a glass of wine, a large plate of homemade chips and salsa, arepas, bean soup and the chicken entree, he had charged $13. I shook my head in disbelief. The arepas alone were worth $13. Nikki says William gets by by counting on diners to tip 50 percent, as I did, but if the place is for sale because it can't make enough money, perhaps the blame lies with this honor system.

Yes, yes, the honor system is part of the charm. But would set prices be that much of a concession? I fear that William's charm will force him to sell the place to a developer interested only his liquor license. This phantom menace would remodel immediately, rename the place "Tequila Bill's" and introduce a menu of garlic fries and oysters. This is Wicker Park: Worse has happened.

Nikki's hunch, and my own, is that William isn't all that serious about selling, that this is the whimsy of a bleary-eyed father hanging a "for sale" sign on his child. I hope we're right. I'd really like to have my birthday dinner there this year.
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Tuesday, July 10, 2001

While I was volunteering in the Inspiration Cafe kitchen Monday morning -- more on that later -- I was chatting with some of the servers about how cool it would be to do this kind of for a living. I passed it off as a casual observation; it helps, when probing others for their opinions on opening a restaurant, to not reveal that I'm actually considering this line of work for myself. Otherwise, I risk getting the candy-coated responses instead of the truth.

Turns out one of the women I was speaking to was good friends with the owner and head chef of The Lucky Platter, a restaurant we've mentioned here in passing. Once, she told me, she had considered going into the culinary industry herself, so she shadowed her friend -- let's call him Eric, because that's what the Reader says the owner's name is -- around one day to see what it was like. Eric spent the entire time trying his best to discourage -- let's call her Karen, because that's what her nametag said -- Karen from becoming a restaurateur herself, saying that she'd end up miserable. Being a chef, he said, had none of the glory we all like to attach to it. He cited all the common reasons to buffet his argument: lack of social time, lack of sleep, lack of sanity, et cetera, et cetera.

If, by this point, I was again feeling down about this whole adventure, my mood was suddenly lifted at her final comment. Despite all these adversities, despite the eternal hell that he's built for himself, Karen said, Eric loved his job. He couldn't see himself doing anything else. His passion was cooking and running a restaurant -- and a damn good one at that -- so it was worth all the shit he had to put up with.

It's clear from what we've learned in the small time so far that there's a great deal of shit to put up with. But if we have the passion -- and I believe we do -- then I have no doubt the two of us will end up just like Eric in the end: frustrated, tired and crazy, but grinning from ear to ear.
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Monday, July 09, 2001

Will we put a webcam in our restaurant?
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Saturday, July 07, 2001

Gabrielle Hamilton, chef-owner of Prune in New York, discusses the myths of being a chef.

Not every night can be "Big Night," she says. In reality, her job is to "accept and reject plates, keep the portions consistent, taste for salt, make salads, wipe down counters, make sure the walk-in refrigerator is clean and organized, administer Band-Aids to my dishwasher, change lightbulbs, scrape dried egg yolk off the floor and, like a good sheepdog, yap at the heels of cooks who arrive late."

Mythologizing the kitchen? Who, us?
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Thursday, July 05, 2001

I've eaten at Grace. I once received a gift of dinner at any restaurant in the city, and having just read about Ted Cizma in Food and Wine's Best New Chefs of 2000, it seemed like the perfect place.

Cizma runs a classy ship. He's right-on about his staff being professional and highly skilled. Our waiter, in addition to being candid about our choices, helped us through the eccentric selection of appetizers and the extensive list of wines and ports. If Luke and I were interested in how to run a fancy place, there's a lot to learn from Grace.

As much as I'd like to draw parallels between our quest and Cizma's career, he's had a few lucky breaks that we're going to have to do without. Not the least of which was growing up around a grandfather with a passion for cooking, something that put cooking in Cizma's blood. Luke and I are both developing our own passions, from scratch, and hopefully our grandkids will learn a little something from us someday. In the meanwhile, though, it's one more stumbling block we're going to have to overcome.
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In Today's Tribune: "One day, I finally realized I had strayed off the path, so to speak, and I found the path to true enlightenment. I cashed in my 401k and took a job as an unpaid intern in a place called the Winnetka Grill. Eventually, I got a paying job there."

Many years later, Ted Cizma is one of the top 10 chefs in America and owns two restaurants, Grace and Elaine, the second of which he expects to gross $1.5 million in its first year.

In Grace's Reader rating, there is an entertaining exchange between Cizma and an unhappy customer. Among Cizma's zingers: "I can't let ignorance run rampant ... My dedicated, highly skilled, professional and highly paid staff are mostly lifelong city residents. Sorry to break the news: We are way hipper than you ... It's not our fault you chose to live in Schaumburg, or wherever ... Tea drinkers are a demographic you'd rather not have in your restaurant."

Cizma has the same fastidiousness I fantasize having. I particularly like that he uses Schaumburg as a generic slur against suburbanites. This has long been my favorite thing to scream as I wag my fist at downtown tourists: "Go back to Schaumburg, you clown!"
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Tuesday, July 03, 2001

Monday I drove to Grandma's and back. For seven hours, my elbow hung out the window, my eyes gazed upon the horizon, and my mind pondered the La Cumbamba ad.

I wrestled with a series of questions, at the fore of which was, How cool would it be to buy La Cumbamba?

And my answer was, Insanely cool.

But that was a gimme. The other questions were harder: What about our jobs? Where would we get the money? Could I cash out my 401(k)? What would our families think? What would our friends think? What about our total lack of experience?

And I answered, respectively: What about 'em? Who knows? Retirement is for suckers! They'd invest! They'd shower us with free labor! Did Neil Armstrong have experience walking on the moon?

Something tells me each of those is a wrong answer.

I'll head to La Cumbamba next week to see what the story is. If this were the pilot to a restaurant sitcom, William's eyes would well up, and he would say: "I see in your face the same fire that cursed me in my youth and brought me to America. I admire your pluck and desire. Here's what I shall do: You can be my busboy. I'll most likely kill you in the morning, but if you last a year, the restaurant is yours."

Sadly, this is not a sitcom, so he will probably grimace, cross his arms and say: "You silly man. This restaurant has been my life. My blood and tears have gone into every dish -- I'm speaking figuratively, of course -- and you think I'd give it all up for nothing? You insult me with your tales of trivia contests and doggy bags. Out with you, now! I may serve swine, but I refuse to serve such a pig as you."

Truth is, we are far from ready, even if by some miracle we raised the money. But that hasn't stopped me from planning a beer list, our dessert menu and a new facade. And I've decided that, whether we buy La Cumbamba or not, we should hang a portrait of William in our waiting area. Without his dream, we would have none of our own.
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Of the two restaurants that inspired Luke to start this thing, The Dellwood Pickle has closed, and La Cumbamba is apparently up for sale. It's a harsh lesson in the reality of how fleeting success can be in the restaurant biz. Especially for the places that really get it.
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