When Royalty Comes Calling

Posted in Letters on Saturday, March 1st, 2008 by Mark Pastore

“Well, what if there is no tomorrow? There wasn’t one today.”
Bill Murray as Phil Connors

As a genuine self-made man who has gained his measure of fame through an amalgamation of talent, hard work, and strategic use of culinary vulgarities, he would no doubt be disturbed by use of the word “royalty” to describe his visit to Incanto. Moreover, by memorializing his visit in this Letter from Incanto, I have violated an important commandment from the unwritten Restaurateur Code of Ethics: Do not trade upon your celebrity guests’ fame for your own gain or amusement, at least not without their permission.

I agree. It’s tacky.  But some rules are indeed made to be broken.  And Anthony Bourdain is so very different from any other celebrity or psuedo-celebrity (we’ve had our fair share of both) to grace our modest Upper Noe Valley dining room with their presence.  When he announced he was going to have dinner at Incanto last week, it was an occasion for anticipation and excitement. Kind of like if you were a heroin addict and Keith Richards dropped by to hang out.

Here in the United States, royalty originates, perhaps even more than does beauty, in the eye of the beholder. For many of our cooks, who work a demanding, physically hazardous job, Anthony Bourdain is more than just a hero and a role model. His values are their values; his past experiences are their present experiences; the path he now travels serves as inspiration for where their own culinary adventures may someday take them. He no longer slaves in a hot restaurant kitchen, but he did so for a long time. And he understands that world profoundly, the way that grass understands dirt.

This is not to imply that Anthony Bourdain is the only person to grok the not-so-tidy combo pack of insanity/serenity, pain/pleasure, and beauty/horror that many who work in restaurant kitchens wake to find gift-wrapped under their Christmas tree each morning. He is, however, the first author to elevate an appreciation of the craft of professional cooking to a place that rings with both nobility and truth – without the kiss-ass, candy-coat treatment that comes so frequently from those to blame for glorifying the modern-day “celebrity” chef.

However profane Bourdain’s truths may sometimes be, one cannot read him without being inspired by and rooting for cooks of all stripes who possess a sincere love for food and strive to cook with passion and integrity.  It was not his celebrity status that made Tony’s visit important to so many of our cooks. It was the fact that his work fills a gaping hole, addressing a basic human need that cooks across the globe experience every day: the need to be understood, the need to have their travails appreciated. Few outside our industry are in a position to comprehend the bittersweet life of a professional cook. But because of Anthony Bourdain, more people than ever are now able to fathom the endless toil that happens in the back of a restaurant.

So to cooks everywhere, Anthony Bourdain is royalty. And he is royalty of the most uncommon kind: a prince who has been ennobled not by heredity, but by the respect, devotion, and gratitude of his peers.

A Cook’s Tour

Admiration from Incanto’s cooks, however, was not the reason I decided to chuck professional ethics out the window to write about his visit to Incanto.  Believe it or not, Anthony Bourdain had a hand in shaping Incanto.  It’s time to thank him publicly for that.

Dante had Virgil to guide him through his version of hell. Similarly, five years ago, as a wet-behind-the-ears newcomer to the business of restaurants, I also had a guide who helped to indoctrinate me into the behind-the-scenes, seedy realities of the restaurant world. His name was Anthony Bourdain and the guidebook was titled Kitchen Confidential.

It was the year 2000.  I was transitioning from a high-tech corporate career to pursue a dream: opening a restaurant that was eventually to become Incanto. A fair number of people told me straight to my face that I didn’t know what I was getting myself into.  Another group of people, instead of telling me I was crazy, simply sent me a copy of a book that was shooting its way up the New York Times bestseller list: Kitchen Confidential.  Read it, they said.  If you’re still dumb enough to want to open a restaurant afterward, then that’s your problem.

That is how I came to own eight copies of Anthony Bourdain’s first book, without ever buying one for myself. I read it – wincing, grimacing, and laughing – all the way through.  I went on to create Incanto in spite of the warnings, but with eyes opened a bit wider because of Tony’s tutelage.  So Tony, thank you from the bottom of my heart.

For those of you who have been living sotto pietra for the last six years, Kitchen Confidential is the tell-all book about “adventures in the culinary underbelly.” Tony Bourdain is its anti-hero. “In your face”, “punk-rock chef”, and “disgusting yet hilarious” are phrases frequently used to describe both author and book.  Yet for all its provocation and controversy, the reason for the book’s great success lies not in its eagerness to expose the gory details, but rather in the humanity with which Tony treats them.  It’s rare to find an author in any field who captures the soul of his subject matter with such care and attention. Anthony Bourdain’s great talent, as is the talent of all great storytellers, is his capacity to permit his readers to empathize with the subject.

Looking Back

Incanto turned four years old earlier this month (Dante, born on the same day Incanto opened, June 2, would be 741 years old – if you’re keeping track). As much as Tony’s visit afforded an opportunity for our cooks to spend quality time with a chef’s chef, it also provided me with an occasion to reflect back on what I’ve learned since that day I first picked up Kitchen Confidential.

With hindsight, much of what Tony wrote rings even more true today.  A restaurant can be a nutty place, a crucible that produces good food, deep friendships, and strong emotions, both positive and negative.  After all, we’re dealing nightly with primal human needs: to be fed, to be cared for, and to escape from the world outside.

But if I were to relate my own experiences of life in the restaurant business, it wouldn’t be populated with scarred, frightening creatures lurking in dry storage. Thievery, sex, and alcohol-induced malfeasances would probably not be major themes. In short, Kitchen Confidential would not be the model. That’s one of several reasons why my book will never be written (too damn boring) and I will never reach celebritydom, while Tony has gone on to become an internationally famous author, television personality, and sought-after raconteur since first telling his tale.

My story would instead be the story of a single day. It would start with a breakfast of orange juice and oatmeal, a quick check of the New York Times online, and a short walk to work.  Upon arrival at the restaurant but before entering my office, I would be informed that a piece of equipment crucial to operations has broken down. That’s how the workday would begin in earnest.  It might be the refrigeration running hot or the point-of-sale system crashing, like a 50-cent toy airplane set on fire and launched from a second-story window by a mischievous eight-year-old.  Whatever breaks is irrelevant to the story – something inevitably does – just an unplanned mini-crisis to occupy the first 45 minutes of the day.

After attending to the failing equipment, my attention would turn to the books: settling the prior night’s credit card transactions, dividing up tips among the dining room staff, entering invoices, paying vendors.  There would be an excursion to the restaurant supply store in the middle of the day; we might be running low on water glasses. Then a trip to the bank. Back at the ranch, the kitchen staff would be prepping for dinner.  There might be a small grease fire, but it would be extinguished quickly.  Throughout the day, the phone would ring, with guests calling about reservation requests, questions about corkage, dress code, parking, plus an assortment of off-the-wall queries, such as “How far are you from the other districts?” “Will my mom like it?” and “Can we bring our own lettuce?” Yes, those have all been asked and answered.

At 3:30 p.m., dining room staff would begin arriving to prepare the front of the house for dinner. A busboy would inexplicably cut himself while wiping a table, then come up to the office for a Band-Aid. Servers would fold napkins and gossip while setting the dining room. Bartenders would stock wine and search for wine tag labels.  Staff meal would come up at 4:33, with work slowing down for 20 minutes as everyone pauses to share a communal repast.

At 5:00 p.m., we would begin our nightly lineup in the wine bar, a ritual of looking back at the prior night’s service, looking ahead to the current night’s service, and reviewing new food, wines, and communication of any special details particular to that evening’s guests. Doors would open promptly at 5:30 p.m., and the first guests would saunter in, look at the empty dining room and remark, “Gee, I guess we didn’t need a reservation.” By 6:45 p.m., the dining room would be full, and those guests would have to guess again.

Service is always the high point and low point of every day, where we experience our greatest successes and most depressing failures. At one table, a guest proposes to his girlfriend; we are on the spot with champagne and the ring, presented on the plate along with her dessert.  Three tables over, we spill red wine on a first-time guest’s new silk shirt.  Dry cleaning won’t remove the stain. One guest raves that our breadsticks are the best they’ve ever tasted; another guest encounters a fragment of an olive pit in his tapenade and almost cracks a tooth. A ten-top calls to say they will arrive 15 minutes late, then actually arrives 35 minutes late, synchronizing their arrival with five other tables (one late, two on time, and two early), throwing the kitchen into chaos when dinner orders for all 30 guests simultaneously bombard the kitchen 15 minutes later. Each evening is chock-full of minor victories and occasional letdowns. We hope to tally more of the former and few of the latter. But our guests cannot judge their experience at Incanto based on how the restaurant does as a whole; each guest’s experience is his or her own, often one small mistake can tear apart an otherwise lovely evening. In the final judgment, total success can be defined only by perfection.  And perfection means performing each of the 100,000 individual tasks needed to serve dinner for 150 people, flawlessly.  That’s the benchmark by which the greatest restaurants in the world measure themselves each night. It may not be particle physics or climbing Mt. Everest, but it is a daunting standard nonetheless.

Sometime after 11:30 p.m., the final table straggles out.  The closing busboy is cranking the window awnings closed, the bartender is polishing the final rack of glasses, the kitchen crew is storing food and cleaning the kitchen. At 1:00 a.m., the closer checks the locks on all the doors, turns off the lights in the restrooms, sets the alarm, and walks out. In six hours, the pastry chef will arrive to start the new day.

Groundhog Day

For most of us, life progresses in a straight line: school, work, marriage, kids, retirement, death. Four years in a restaurant have taught me that is not necessarily the way things work.  Life in a restaurant moves in a circle, like the Earth on its axis. Every day is more or less the same, yet different, from the day prior.  You strive for perfection, to have the perfect day, then inevitably fall short of your ideals. You repeat the same day again the next morning, experiencing the same result, but for different reasons.  In my experience, life in a restaurant is not like Kitchen Confidential.  It’s more like Groundhog Day.

You might think that sounds boring and monotonous, but I assure you it’s not. In fact, having lived a linear life for 35 years, a life lived in small circles is liberating.  There’s a genuine opportunity to learn from mistakes while they are still fresh, to improve in small but steady increments, to reach new levels of expertise and execution. It’s actually very groovy, if you have the patience for it.

The occasion for Anthony Bourdain’s visit to San Francisco was the publication of his new book, The Nasty Bits, a collection of Tony’s recent writings. People love to put Tony in the black hat, to portray him as the bad boy of the restaurant world.  He no doubt cultivates the image – it helps him attract readers and viewers and get his message out.  But stopping there does injustice to the bigger point: Tony isn’t an indiscriminate flamethrower. There is a thoughtful agenda beneath his subversion, if you take the time to look for it. And if you read carefully, you might be pleasantly surprised.

In the book’s final pages, Tony uses the phrase “God’s work,” to refer to the thankless daily minutiae that restaurant cooks must do to keep a restaurant kitchen going. It’s a phrase Tony likes to use, and it speaks of the man who wrote it.  He could have just as easily written “the devil’s in the details” or, true to his perceived character, employed some other more profane expression to describe this type of work. But after meeting him, I know that would not be Tony’s style, certainly not when he’s speaking of the working restaurant cooks he loves and admires.  A prince doesn’t describe the work of royalty in anything but noble terms.