Saturday, December 30, 2006

The Last Vestiges of Normalcy

Maureen says:
Was off work yesterday and met two former and much-missed co-workers at a bookseller's cafe for coffee, tea and lots of talk. They'd phoned to say they were running a bit late just as I was pulling off the highway--no problem, of course--but it did give me enough time to go on a last-hurrah book-buying spree:

Nigella. What can I say about Nigella? I. Love. Her. And I often tease Tom that he should marry her if she weren't married already for the simple reason that he'd be hard pressed to find another woman who shares his deep love of bacon fat. My love for her has less to do with bacon fat and more to do the ideas central in her work: originality is not the same as authenticity and learning how to cook begins with learning how to eat and we learn How To Eat at home.

I also purchased Spin to Knit. Tom, ever observant and known among family and friends as Perfect-Gift-Giver-Extraordinaire, eavesdropped on a conversation I had with the owner of The Elegant Ewe earlier in the year and presented me with an Ashford Traveller spinning wheel for Christmas. At first I wanted to learn to spin for its own sake, but now that we're in business for ourselves the wheel will, one day, allow me to spin yarn for less than I could buy it. Sadly, there will be no last-hurrah yarn-buying spree, but I did get lovely sock yarns from my brother Scot.

Rounding out the spree was Amy Sedaris' I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence. Pee-your-pants funny. Seriously. And there are real recipes too.

Little of this has to do with the restaurant, I know, and that's what you're coming here to read about. Driving home last night, I realized that this was likely the last normal kind of day off work I'd have in a good, long while. My afternoons of poking around bookstores and chatting with friends over coffee are numbered and I just wanted to write something to remember them by.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Hocus Focus

Tom says:
Even though we finalized the lease today and I met with our interior designer, Ariel Duffy, and had another meeting with a payroll vendor, it feels like I accomplished little today.

That's far from the truth--I discussed bar build plans with the contractor, cleaned up areas of the kitchen, and started my small wares needs list--but productivity, for me, has always had its basis in product. An order comes into the kitchen, I fire it up, plate it and scrutinize the presentation before approving it for the table. Clear start, clear finish. Clearly, I need to adjust my definition of productivity and, while I'm at it, stop judging myself.

What can I say? This part of a restaurant opening--the true startup phase--is completely new to me. I've been on the opening staffs of four restaurants in my day, in both back-of-the-house and front-of-the-house positions. In all cases, I came on board in the final weeks before we unlocked the doors. Vendor contracts were signed. Suppliers in place. Decisions around design and decor, smalls wares and table settings, and menu design and service protocol were already made.

At that stage, there's an easily definable rhythm to the day as, believe it or not, the pressure of the impending grand opening focuses the mind. Where I'm at isn't exactly soft planning, but without firm dates to structure a timeline around, it's not hard planning either. Right now, the challenge for me, is to focus.

But I'm fortunate that I have a sizable support group to call on for counsel, support and advice. I risk sentimentality here, but I'd like to acknowledge the members of that group. I'll shout out to Jack, too, the finance broker without whom I wouldn't be thanking anyone on this blog. In no particular order, then:

Bill Lee, owner of Bahama Billy's, who instilled the confidence that led me to the knowledge that I'm read for this challenge.

Noel Young, who was a gale force in helping me to realize my potential.

Tim Poplar, whose leadership and friendship heavily shaped my career.

Ed Aloise, who showed me, during the years we worked together, the blueprint for operating a successful restaurant.

And the passionate, energetic Pam Kelley whose encouragement and resources have been invaluable since we returned to Manchester.

Thank you to each and everyone one of you. The more frantic things get, the more and more I hope you keep taking my calls.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Commitment to Organize

Tom says:
Today may have been my first full day to focus on Z, but a lot of the people I needed to talk to weren’t in the office. I spent my time setting up my own office in our waiting-to-be-refitted space. When that was done, I started in on my first to-do list. One item on that list was to create a system. A system to manage the information I need at my fingertips, the tasks I need to complete and the progress we’re making in relation to budget and timeline.

Anyone who knows me is familiar with my own brand of organization: what’s not in my head is scribbled, illegibly, on random scraps of paper scattered far and wide. Just in getting this deal done I began to understand that this haphazard system that’s served me in the past isn’t going to cut it from here on out. For the sake of my sanity and for the good of Z, I hereby commit to getting and staying organized.

Other items on the list? Telephone calls. Emails. Printer paper. Sketching floor plans. Without ordering food, writing inventory sheets and actual cooking on that list, this doesn't feel like opening a restaurant.

Maureen says:
Did I read that right? Tom's committed, in front of Internet, to get and stay organized? Be still my beating heart. Nine years of project management and coordinating two cross-country moves more than qualifies me to pitch in here, but I confess, it’s also for my own sanity. The less I hear, “Honey, do you know where I left the fill-in-the-blank?” the more harmony there’ll be at home.

So off we went to procure all manner of things necessary to support the way Tom naturally works with organizational methods that still make sense. While I do believe that we’re all infinitely capable of learning new ways to do familiar things, I also believe that to some extent we are who we are as people. Tom is never going to clap his hands with glee at the sight of my label maker and I’m never going to put anything I can’t afford not to remember on a Post-It note.

My goals for the week include signing up with the web host recommended to me by Indiana Michael who shan’t be confused with Boston Michael, though they are both v. v. talented web developers and designers. I’ve also committed to defining the site architecture and generating first drafts of site copy so that once we’ve finalized the logo, Boston Michael can start on the site design. I worked for three Internet startups in three consecutive years doing site implementation—crazy, yes?—and I’ve published various personal Web sites over the years (back in the olden days when they were called online journals instead of blogs), but this, this is different. I have personal and professional stakes in all matters. Yes, there’s revenue to generate and success to achieve, but there’s also the care and feeding of someone else's DREAM. Someone with whom I happen to share a home and life. It's been said that love means never having to say you're sorry, but in this case I hope it means I never have to say, "Honey? I deleted the Web site."

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Some Questions, Few Answers

Maureen says:
By Christmas Eve, the adrenaline rush had passed through me, leaving in its wake what I’ll call an adrenaline hangover (headache; hot, burning eyes; an inability to focus on anything that wasn’t sleep for more than five minutes). We arrived at my sister’s late in the afternoon and while I helped plate some of the dishes she’d prepared, it was really Tom who stepped in, sleeves rolled, and ensured everything was not only ready in time, but was presented perfectly.

(I’ve got to tell you: the only thing better than a partner who cooks is partner who cooks and takes entertaining seriously. The only thing better than that would be if mine also found deep, personal fulfillment in laundry and scrubbing tile grout, but I strive to be grateful, not greedy. He did, after all, not only build, but also upholster, the window cornices when we did over the dining room in November.)

Guests began to arrive just after the stroke of 7p by which point I was content to sit back and enjoy watching Tom do another one of the things he does best: mingle. We hadn’t seen anyone, really, since we’d bought the restaurant and Tom was meeting a lot of new people and naturally the conversations centered on Z. What kind of restaurant will it be? What kind of food will you serve? When are you opening?

All good questions and all questions that Tom and I need to be able to answer without hesitation. Really good food—which it will be—is not an acceptable answer.

Another often-asked question is whether I plan to leave my job. Um, that would be a big, loud, resounding NO. For one, I happen to love my job, but it’s also not a wise idea to walk willingly from a steady source of income when you’re opening a business, the viability of which could takes years to prove. A restaurant consultant here in town, whom Tom knows from over the years, told us that's a Year Three Consideration and only then if Z’s generating revenue to support the decision.

In other news, that KitchenAid ice cream attachment that I gave to Tom for Christmas isn’t going to see any play at the house. The KitchenAid, she done got a new home on Elm Street.

Holiday Anomaly and Eggnog

Tom says:
The holidays. The calls to deck the halls, make merriment or spend time with loved ones go unanswered. If you’re in hospitality, you work ‘em. You can sleep after New Year’s. That’s how it’s always been for me, so this particular holiday season was a special anomaly; it was our first back in New England and our first Christmas Day together (when we lived in California, Maureen flew back East to be with family). This holiday season will also be the last with an abundance of free time on my hands. That’s the intention anyway.

So what did we do with the time and energy? Maureen put me to work, of course. There was the Christmas Eve open house at her sister Elaine's to attend. Would I make tiramisu? How about the Pave Potatoes I’d made at Thanksgiving? There’s a good chance, actually, a better-than-good chance, that I’ll be in Z’s kitchen in more than an Executive Chef capacity. Meaning, at the start anyway, I may be doing the vast majority of the cooking. I’ve spent the last two years in general management roles so I’m eager to return to my roots.

So. Tiramisu. The key to a superior one is the quality of the ladyfingers. You need to have a ladyfinger that will retain its shape after soaking in espresso, otherwise the entire dish turns to mush. I've found that only imported lady fingers fit the bill and even then brands vary. We were fortunate to find the perfect ones right here in town at Angela’s Pasta and Cheese Shop. My recipe, however, is secret and so I won't be posting it on the blog; ditto the Pave Potatoes (it's going to be a side dish on Z's menu).

One recipe I will share is the eggnog I decided, last minute, to make for the open house. Maureen had never had it made from scratch and I, believe it or not, had tasted the store bought only once (once was enough to tell me not to sample it again).

Homemade eggnog was a holiday standby in my family and, on occasion, my mother might have let me sip from the “adult” version when my father wasn’t looking. I'll never tell for certain. The following makes a tremendous amount of 'nog --about two gallons--so adjust accordingly. Don't think for a second I'm going to tell you the nutritional values. Besides, once a year won't do you in.


12 fresh, organic eggs, separated***
1 quart heavy cream
1 quart light cream or half-and-half
2 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 tsp vanilla
¼ c. brandy (optional)
ground nutmeg to taste

Using either a KitchenAid or hand mixer, combine all 12 egg yolks with 1 cup of the sugar. Beat well until mixture is pale yellow and ribbony. Transfer mixture to a larger mixing bowl and set aside.

Wash and dry your mixer bown, then add 2 cups of heavy cream, ½ cup of sugar and the vanilla. Whip until soft peaks form. If you're using brandy, now's when you drizzle it slowly in, while still beating. Wait until the soft peaks reform, then gently fold the cream into the egg yolk mixture you've set aside.

Wash and dry your mixer bowl (last time, I swear). Add the egg whites and mix on low until frothy. Increase mixing speed and gradually add remaining sugar. Once all of the sugar has been added, increase the speed to high and whip the whites until stiff peaks form, being careful not to over whip. Gently fold the egg whites into cream and egg yolk mixture. Stir in remaining cream and all of the light cream. Refrigerate until serving time but at least two hours.

Don't worry if immediately after you finish the eggnog looks too thick to drink. After a couple of hours it will begin to weep and separate, naturally thinning itself. If after a couple of hours it's still too thick for your taste, stir in more light cream or whole milk.

Serve in mugs with nutmeg sprinkled on top. You'll never drink store bought again. Promise.

***Lots of supermarkets now carry pasteurized egg whites and yolks. If available, these are the safest option. Simply follow the conversion guide printed on the carton. For my own recipe, I used fresh, organic eggs from a local, traceable source.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

No Turning Back

Maureen says:
Did I need a lot of coaxing? You bet I did. I’m what you’d call selectively risk averse. Ask me to risk my heart and leave behind an entire established life to move to the other side of country and I’m your girl (this is exactly what Tom asked me to do after dating for a mere three months; we lived for two years in Carmel, California and returned to New England in August ’06, in large part, because we liked what we saw happening in downtown Manchester). Ask me to risk my finances and an entire established life to pursue a business venture with a success rate a coin flip could determine and I no longer know your name. I’m exaggerating, of course. I didn’t turn my back on Tom, but I did make him go through the painful exercises of answering the hard ‘what if’ questions, outlining worst-case scenarios, and detailing exit strategies that can be put into play if the coin toss isn’t in our favor.

But, like Tom, once the papers were signed, the monies distributed, and the keys in our hands, I experienced a sense of relief. There would be no more point/counterpoint discussion about whether or not to move forward with the venture. The deal was done and I was done creating anxiety around it.

Or was I? There was, after all, that restaurateur couple in Milford this summer, who, it was discovered, had been squatting inside their restaurant before they skipped town (they were flushing the toilets with water dredged from the river). A restaurant, I’d heard, that had been going for and getting $30 a plate. Maybe it was the price point that contributed to their demise. Who knows? It’s not my place either to speculate or pass judgment, but the end to their story is the sort, that if I don’t keep up with yoga practice, will surely keep me up nights even I agree with Tom when he says the key to any business, but especially restaurants, is what you do with the money that comes through your doors.

Fear, anxiety and tales of others’ woe aside, it’s something exactly like a gift having your life partner be so obviously fulfilled. After 20 years of increasingly supportive roles in the restaurant business, Tom’s not only taking center stage to star in his life, he’s producing and directing. Me? I’m the writer.

We've Only Just Begun

Tom says:
We bought a restaurant. We bought a restaurant in downtown Manchester, NH and we bought with it with every cent we have plus the belief we have that when you’re brave enough to leap, the universe conspires to make the net appear. And we need the net: whatever turn-of-phrase you’ve heard describe the process of opening a restaurant, it applies here—no exceptions. Lighting the stove with $100 bills is one we’re particularly fond of, but once the papers were exchanged and the keys were in our hand, I was actually relieved that we’d leveraged our future. I think that qualifies as some form of insanity, but I’ve been in this business twenty years and know that I’m in good company (Hi Pam! Hi Tim!). Each and every day of the last twenty years has been leading up to this one and there are moments when I can’t quite believe it’s here.

I/we own a restaurant?!

Still, the relief of having closed the deal is waning fast. In fact, it’s turning into something that hints of dread. To quote the Carpenters, “We’ve only just begun.” If this is my Everest, I’m only three-quarters of the way to the summit. The hardest part is yet to come: getting the doors open. Then, as any climber will tell you, once you reach the summit you’re still only half done. You have to get back down the mountain (alive) so you can tell about it. In this case, that means keeping the doors open. Restaurants are risky businesses--just ask the banks. The success rate is on par with marriage: only one, they say, out of every two will make it and the definition of making it is vague at best.

This venture will prove either to be a dream realized or a nightmare (on Elm Street) we—my business and life partner, Maureen—can’t wake from. But no matter the outcome the experience will be worth it because we were brave enough to take the chance (even if Maureen needed a little coaxing. Okay, a lot of coaxing, but that just means she’ll work even harder than she already does at anything she puts her mind to).

We’ve started this blog for two reasons: we want to document this phase in our lives and, with time already being tight, to create a place where family and friends can come for the answer to the question everyone’s already asking—How Are Things at the Restaurant?

I almost forgot: the restaurant’s called Z. More details to follow. For now, just the facts: We’ll be located at 860 Elm Street in the space that was formerly Little Saigon, next to The Chair Gallery (where, incidentally, we purchased our own dining set earlier this year). We don't yet have anything like a hard opening date, but mid-to-late Q1 ’07 is our target.