Gastronomic trial and error in Essex, London and now Bristol.
Monday, 20 August 2012
Four days spent 'owning' a restaurant
I suspect many of us who while away our days thinking or writing about food, harbour secret restaurant owning ambitions. Not serious intent of course, just happy daydream fodder, idly picturing in our mind’s eye the look of the place, the menu, the wine list, perhaps even the name above the door. Because we all know what makes a good restaurant and what makes a frigging awful one, right? Our individual visions, pure and true would obviously be sure-fire winners and have punters queuing round the block to sample, say, the delights of a Mongolian-Cajun-fusion restaurant, which solely sells Jagerneister…by the pint.
Massive lottery win withstanding, for most of us, that’s about as far as it will ever get and our dreams will forever remain, just that.
Not for me.
Last week ‘E’ and I were ‘loaned’ the keys to a restaurant and spent four days running it exactly how we wanted to, more or less.
The Runcible Spoon is a friendly little Bristol neighbourhood bistro, which I like a lot and have written about in the past. The co-operative (very Bristol) of chefs who own it had decided to take a well-deserved holiday, and decided to close the place throughout August. Knowing that our ‘Basement’ supper club had been forced to move venues, they very kindly offered us the use of the ‘Spoon.
What a frigging opportunity eh? The only nagging doubt we had was whether we could hack it in the kitchen. Don’t get me wrong, we are well used to cooking set menus for fairly large groups at the supper club, but the numbers are fixed, you buy exactly the right amount of ingredients, there’s no waste and everyone gets the same. Contrast this against unknown numbers of diners, a high chance of either running out of ingredients (or possibly worse, buying too much, so loads of waste), and having to cook every single plate of food to order. It would be a real test of our abilities and nerves. Resisting an almost overwhelming urge to immediately purchase a Marco Pierre White style headscarf, we decided to crack on with planning exactly how we were going to pull this caper off.
Deciding that the best way to go would be two evenings, Thursday and Friday, then straight into an all day weekend menu on Saturday and Sunday, we started pilfering our back catalogue of ‘Basement’ menus for suitable dishes. The process we went with was for us to compile our own menus separately, and then meet back to compare notes. Naturally, this structured and well-ordered meeting of minds involved much impassioned discussion, swearing and shaking of fists, ending with a refusal to actually speak to each other. Two days and some intense counselling from friends later, we had an evening menu consisting of 3 starters, 2 mains and 2 desserts, and a final savoury flourish, our signature rarebit.
Another bruising bout of discussion left us with a room full of broken furniture and a single screwed up ball of paper, on which was scrawled the weekend menu. Mainly consisting of (hopefully superb) Bacon Sandwiches, which are a surprisingly rare find in Bristol and thepièce de résistance, Momofuku style Volcanoes (a bread roll, stuffed with potato dauphinoise, caramelised onion and with our nod to the West country, topped with Keen’s cheddar). For the rest, we planned on making up dishes from the evening leftovers.
A ridiculously huge shopping list, a timeplan, a quick tour of the ‘Spoons kitchen, a daytime music playlist and a brand spanking new ‘Basement’ website later, we were almost ready get on with it.
Gonzalez Byass makers of our favourite sherry, Tio Pepe, had readily agreed to provide the booze on a sale or return basis. At their suggestion we arranged delivery of half bottles of fino, red in the shape of a cracking Berionia Rioja Reserva, and white, a Vinas Del Vero Gewurztraminer. They also agreed to supply some bottles of Matusalem, a 30-year-old dry Oloroso, as a match for the rarebit.
Unfortunately, we both had to work, so after collecting the restaurant keys, prep didn’t start till late Wednesday night. We were on top of it; we had a plan and our own restaurant to implement it in.
Thursday morning flew past, deliveries came, one after the other. Meat, Vegetables, a whole pallet load of booze. Resisting a strong urge to wade into the sherry then and there, in a disgusting display of excess, ‘E’ and I instead were head down in the kitchen working through a prep list as long as your arm. At this point, the indomitable Kate arrived, a glamorous yet grizzled veteran of the restaurant game, she had agreed to work as our front of house. We also had the unheard of luxury of a Kitchen Porter, Alice, completely overqualified for the job really, being an old hand at waitressing and also a recent Ballymaloe graduate. She would be able to help out anywhere she was needed basically.
As is the way with these things, in the blink of an eye it was now late afternoon, and we hadn’t made much of a dent in the to-do list. This realisation injected a feint undercurrent of panic into proceedings, and we both unconsciously upped the tempo. The thing is, being in an unfamiliar kitchen, without a considerable amount of your normal everyday kitchen kit slows you down a fair bit. Also factor in that every single job, even the most mundane always takes longer than you think it will and the potential for abject humiliation was rising by the minute. I suddenly had a wave of fear wash over me, my stomach knotted and I had to fight back a rising feeling of panic.
On the plus side, the ‘Spoons professional oven, a sexy rather expensive wonder of technology was proving frigging lovely to use. Balanced and even, with a button to check current temperature, it even automatically overcompensates slightly over the desired heat, for when you open the door. I had to spend some quality time fawning over it; delicately caressing its buttons and basically playing with its knob.
6:30pm, exactly 30 minutes until the doors would be flung open, the first customers would be arriving and potential chaos. We were still cooking. I was hoping there would be a small lull before things kicked off proper, time for a mug of tea, a chat, with ‘E’. Kate and Alice, a walk through proceedings, and a chance to mentally prepare. No. We were going straight into service still completing our prep. Talk about making things hard for ourselves. Strangely enough, I now felt completely calm, and despite being patently not, pretty much on top of things.
Our first customers arrived, smiling and were ushered to the dining room downstairs. I saw Kate preparing a drinks order, and I tried to get on with the last few bits…. then almost, in slow motion, our first ticket was tucked into the holder with a “Check on” and that was that, we were off.
The next few hours passed in a blur, ticket after ticket came into the kitchen. Making dishes to order felt at first a bit clumsy, until I settled down and found a bit of a rhythm. The right frying pan for sautéing potatoes, my mise en place laid out just so, the right saucepan for poaching an egg. It’s hard to go into it with no experience of the menu and the kitchen equipment; I was fumbling my way through. It was unbearably hot and hectic. ‘E’ and I danced around each other, trying our hardest to ensure that every tables order went out together, as hot as we could make it. We both burnt ourselves often, and had a few hissed words with each other as tensions spilled over, but for the most part we stayed on top of it and suddenly, the fluttering strip of orders was reduced to just one and then none. To go through such intense all encompassing activity and then suddenly stop, left me in a bit of daze. I’ve got to say it; the mental-high of working through pressure like that and coming out the other side intact is huge.
The odd ticket came in, but compared to the deluge we’d steamed through earlier, it wasn’t anything to tax us, two now gaunt, hollow eyed and bedraggled looking 'sort of' kitchen veterans.
At this point, right at the end of the evening, the expensive super oven switched off and refused to come back on. Luckily, that was pretty much it for the night, but we had to repeat the whole thing again tomorrow, and we’d obviously be needing an oven.
As the last guest left, the front door clicked shut, a weary ‘Team Basement’ gathered around a table and alcohol was produced. We wound down, chatted and had a booze driven debrief on how we thought the evening had gone. A little worse for wear, ‘E’ and I finally got home to bed at 2:30am.
Back at The ‘Spoon for 9am, Evie, one of the owners, was waiting for us and had arranged for an engineer to come in and have a look at the busted oven. Diagnosing the problem instantly as ‘overheating tripping the switch’ the oven was functioning in minutes, by virtue of him pressing a hidden reset button on the back. He then proceeded to thoroughly milk us, his customers, by performing various, and no doubt needless diagnostic checks. His final bill. £80, for basically pressing a button.
Damning the oven engineer’s eyes, we moved on and began prep. We’d planned on Friday being more leisurely. Having done a lot of the organisation and big cooking jobs the previous day, so were confident this wasn’t going to feel anywhere near as hectic. And so it was. We worked through the list, had time for a bit of a breather before service, after feeling the heat the previous evening, we weren’t nervous and were actually looking forward to it all. At ten to seven, and just about to open the doors, a final check saw me looking around for the roasted fennel, a component on one of the main dishes, it had gone in the oven ages ago…. fuck! Quickly opening the oven doors I surveyed the blackened, steaming wreckage of the fennel, and felt physically sick.
After five minutes of recriminations and tension induced blame apportionment, we had to crack on and try and get some more prepared, rather than roasting it, we’d parboil it and then sauté it. All of this was taking up precious time. People were arriving and starters were going out already.
Fantastic. Someone had skipped starters and ordered the fennel dish. It wasn’t anywhere near ready and as we scrambled around, tickets started to back up, and more were coming in. The pressure levels in the kitchen were going through the roof, but somehow, I’m not sure how, heads down, working like automatons we got through it, plate after plate heading off the pass, in what seemed like 10 minutes but was actually around 3 hours. So much for a more leisurely day then.
Exhausted, at the end of service, after cleaning up, we gathered again round the table and had a drink and a chat about the weekend’s menu and dishes. Saturday and Sunday were going to be all day menus. Some dishes could go back on the menu as they were, and some could be recycled – the leftover cooked pork joints, shredded and served with green sauce in rolls, for example. When we knew exactly what the next days menu was going to look like we headed home. ‘E’ and I got in at midnight.
Up at 6:45 for an 8am start, I was making Volcanoes half hour later, and was selling 7, pre-ordered to a single customer by 9am. Things were going well already, we had a time plan and were on top of things, feeling fairly fresh and optimistic. Whilst leaving Klaus, our Kitchenaid to mix more dough, ‘E’ and I hefted the restaurant signboard out onto the pavement outside and straightaway heard a massive bang from within, accompanied by Alice seemingly shouting ‘FIRE!’ Dropping the board we ran back into the kitchen to a sight almost as terrible as a raging conflagration.
Alice had in fact shouted ‘FRYER!’ The countertop wasn’t level, and Klaus the Kitchenaid’s strenuous dough mixing exertions had made the whole thing vibrate wildly. The industrial deep fat fryer nearby, helped along by the tremors had worked it’s way to the edge and upended onto the floor. The horrific sight that greeted us was a 5 litre thick slick of vegetable oil spreading rapidly across the whole kitchen.
Panicked and cursing liberally, as a group we descended on the spillage with bundles of blue roll, a mop and a flat rubber broom, which seemed curiously designed for just such an incident. There is absolutely nothing worse than cleaning up oil, we slipped and slid around the kitchen getting smothered in it. 45 minutes later, the floor sparkling and us now noticeably less so. We opened the doors for our first crack at the all day menu.
Customers started arriving, tickets started coming into the kitchen and straight away everyone seemed to be ordering the same thing, herb potato cakes with bacon and either fried or poached eggs. Unfortunately, we’d had no time to pre-poach the eggs and providing that many to order, whilst trying to cook everything else was quickly becoming a problem and holding things up. We made a hasty command decision to drop poached eggs from the menu, and only offer fried.
I’ve never cooked so many bacon sandwiches in my life, and I started to think that working in a greasy spoon café was obviously a much harder gig than I’d have given credit.
As the day progressed, bacon sandwich orders started to wane, and pulled pork rolls with green sauce started to fly out of the kitchen instead, along with Volcanoes. This continued until about 4:30pm, when apart from the odd customer, things quietened down.
We closed the doors at 7pm, utterly exhausted. Our third day over, I was so tired I was almost falling asleep standing up. We had the now traditional debrief, and headed home. I was asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.
Sunday, our fourth and last day running a restaurant. Happily, no accidents or disasters. The doors opened at 11am, and off we went. It was busy, far busier in fact than Saturday but we were now old hands at this; knew which pans were best for which job, where all the equipment was located and as a result we worked quickly and steadily.
It was incredibly satisfying to start seeing menu items crossed off the blackboard as gradually we started to run out of ingredients. We’d bought a mountain of bacon from our butcher, and after the first day I was doubtful we’d get through it all, but it was all gone.
Again, as it got to late afternoon, around 4pm, things started to die off again, and then I saw a couple eyeing the signboard outside, where Kate had billed the Volcanoes as ‘The best thing you’d put in your mouth all weekend’ and I popped my head out to explain what they actually were. It turned out they were looking for something to eat, and somewhere to meet friends. They came in and sat at the window ordered some beer, a volcano and some pulled pork sandwiches. 5 Minutes later, their friends arrived, and ordered more beer, volcanoes and pulled pork. Another pal arrived and ordered more of the same. We were kept busy for the rest of the afternoon, and they spent over a £100 between them. They even took volcanoes away.
When we finally closed at 7pm, we’d pretty much sold out of everything, which was a huge relief, the idea of throwing expensive ingredients away as waste doesn’t bear thinking about really.
Now we had to pack up all of our kit, get it all out and leave The Spoon looking as spotless as when we arrived. A couple of hours later, between the four of us we had the majority of it done. ‘E’ and I would come back on the Monday to finish it all off.
We sat down around the table for one last time, got the booze out and together celebrated a job well done.
At the end of the day, no one had waited that long for their food, it had all gone out of the kitchen hot, and looked decent. We’d had no complaints whatsoever. That’s about as good as it gets, considering it was the first time ‘E’ and I had worked in a kitchen together, cooking food to order. Obviously, we were helped immensely by the fact that Kate and Alice were so good at their jobs, real professionals adding a veneer of slickness to our dog and pony show, no doubt.
Working in a professional kitchen, off tickets, was a revelation for me. Yes, extremely hot, pressured, frantic and exhausting but at the same time, incredibly rewarding and addictive. When we were all working together as a team, at full tilt and dish after dish was flying off the pass and tickets were being spiked one after the other, it’s actually exhilarating, a real high.
As for the lows, it’s fucking hard work, almost ridiculously so. Even for just four days, the hours we put in were immense. Personally speaking, at the end of all that I was covered in burns, utterly exhausted and generally feeling a bit minging and spotty.
After paying staff, suppliers and The Spoon for the use of their restaurant, we didn’t exactly make out like bandits. The amount of work we did was out of all proportion to the profits. This restaurant lark is a hard game to make money from, there’s no doubt about that. I have a deep and newfound respect for anyone who’s no doubt knocking their cods off in kitchens or dining rooms up and down the country.
Finally, did the reality of my four-day restaurant ‘owning’ experience kill the dream? Happily, No. It just brutally opened my eyes to how much work is involved in actually pulling it off.
I’d like to thank both Kate and Alice for their hard work and professionalism, Jeremy and Louise at Gonzalez Byass for all their help and supplying the best alcoholic drink EVER, Dave Giles Butchers, Scott at Powell’s of Olveston, Ben at Charlie Hicks, Rory at Roy Ireland, Somerset Dairy, Herbert’s, Trethowan’s, Bristol Beer Factory, Darren at Grape and Grind, Andrew at Tart, The Runcible Spoon for actually lending us their restaurant and finally everyone else who supported us over the four days. Oh, and our mate Liz, up the road who let us put all our glass in her black recycling box.
Until recently Essex - Now 'on tour' in Bristol, United Kingdom
"I wouldn't call it so much a peek as a full blown expose of your innermost culinary pretentions and ambitions. You're effectively rolling over and exposing the soft paunch of your underbelly and asking to be caressed. You're a culinary whore!"