The Making of a Restaurant

Saturday, August 31, 2002

Despite having had its title translated from sweetness into nonsense, "Mostly Martha" (nee "Bella Martha") is the best movie I've seen this year, in no small part for the entertaining way it serves up the frantic life of a professional kitchen.

Martha is a gourmet chef in Hamburg, the "second best chef in the city," her employer tells her. Into her tightly controlled, Type A world is thrown a sensuous, free-wheeling rival chef, Mario. She moans to the owner: "Of course he's a madman. He's Italian!" (In a clear nod to "Big Night," he plays Louis Prima on the boom box he brings to the kitchen.) They go together like olive oil and mineral water, but of such pairings are the best (all?) romantic comedies made.

The movie includes a lot of details we've discussed here, such as feeding the staff before opening. And in an early scene, a customer sends back his foie gras for being undercooked. Outraged, Martha storms into the dining room and basically tells him to go screw. She notices his cigarettes and expensive wine. "I don't understand why you bother with wine. With all you smoke, it's not like you can taste it."

Mario says its a cook's obligation to stuff himself by tasting everything. Only then can he judge his food's quality, for if the food can make him swoon on a full stomach, he says, imagine what it can do to a famished diner.

There's also a great scene in which Mario, Martha and Martha's niece have dinner together -- without plates. Instead, they dig in to common serving bowls on the living room floor. It looked like fun, and a splendid way to save on dishwashing. (Of course, I do this already, but I don't think a lonely bachelor eating straight from the pot over the sink is quite the same experience.)

Thursday, August 29, 2002

Today's Mister Boffo comic, which I appropriately first saw while munching on leftover potatoes at the Cafe, pretty much nails what it's like to cook with me. "One sausage for the guest, one for me! (Munch munch.) Some green pepper for the omelette, some for me! (Munch munch.)"

This is why I'd never be good in the kitchen of our restaurant. All this delicious food in front of me, and I'm supposed to seal my lips? Unlikely. If I must don the apron, Luke better hope there's not one cubic inch of space available in my belly, or else our kitchen's efficiency rating will go out the window. Or down the hatch, as the case may be.

YANI: The Nibbler.

Wednesday, August 28, 2002

When I returned to Chicago in 2000 after a two-year exile in San Jose, it was refreshing to once again patronize smoke-filled bars. Though I've never had a cigarette myself, I enjoyed having to part a thick haze that separated me and my bartender. I found romance in an old-timer taking drags with his left hand and nursing a glass of Schlitz with his right.

This lasted about a week. Then I remembered how much I enjoyed breathing. I suddenly found romance in a deep drag of fresh air. Ever since, I've longed to spend a night out and not come home smelling like an ashtray.

I've argued before that we should not allow smoking. Looks like we might not be alone: Chicago is considering a ban on smoking in large restaurants. Though this doesn't include bars, it's excellent news. And as Jane Brody notes in the Times, such a ban doesn't necessarily curtail sales. In fact, 70 percent of New Yorkers have said they would go out to bars as much or more often if smoking was banned.

I'll drink to that -- lots!

Tuesday, August 27, 2002

EUREKA, Calif. -- I notice an absence of a Chicago-style hot dog joint here. Perhaps we could follow in Hot Doug's steps and export the high-end wiener to the land of endless-high weenies. Restaurants here come and go with the tide, but there are worse places to set up shop.
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Monday, August 26, 2002

EUREKA, Calif. -- Greetings from Humboldt County, where the fog is thick and the line between 1962 and 2002 is thin. This weekend I've had the pleasure of staying at one of the area's finer bed-and-breakfasts (read as, "my parents' house"). To repay the hospitality, I asked my hosts to give me an Iron Chef cooking challenge, in which each of them would suggest an ingredient around which I would make dinner.

Dad chose T-bones, a complete surprise (read as, "his favoritest food in the whole wide world"). Mom asked for eggplant. After an hour scouring the recipe books, I had a menu: grilled T-bones with chimichurri sauce, accompanied by oven-roasted vegetables and a spinach salad. (The sauce and vegetables included garlic, parsley and rosemary plucked straight from Mom's garden, a test-run of my idea for ikezukuri vegetables.) I burned the candied pecans, the chimichurri was too thin and I had to substitute heirloom tomatoes for mangoes, but otherwise it was a success. I didn't catch anybody slipping food into their napkins.

I've been thinking of how an ingredient challenge could work for a restaurant. How about this: A customer calls a week ahead of time to make a reservation, minimum party of eight. She names an ingredient. After our chef consults his cookbooks and confers with our food distributor, he calls the guest and informs her what the price will be for the prix fixe meal we have designed for her and her companions (the price is all she gets to know; everything else should be a surprise). If she accepts, that meal will a week later be our special of the night. Voila: We have a way to rise above the fray, we maintain a fresh menu and we attract large parties, all with one gimmick.




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