The Making of a Restaurant

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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