Monday, January 30, 2012

Quick Update

Now that the weekend's over, I thought I should let you know we survived.  We served 120 people on Friday and 127 on Saturday.  That's great business for a 50-seat restaurant, but you'll notice it's lower than the 135 and 140 we had on the books going in.  Because a whole bunch of people didn't show up.  Can you imagine?  You make reservations on one of the busiest weekends for a restaurant, meaning they have to turn away dozens of other people for their most popular times, and then you just don'

Now that you're a reader of this blog, you have no excuses.  Please don't do that.  At least call us and let us know.  Because believe me, there are people calling at 6:00 looking for your 7:00 table.

On the other hand, if it weren't for all the no-shows, I would have been in a world of hurt.  Both nights went smoothly, but only because the double-booked seating on table 7 didn't show up, and the unexplained absence of the regulars on table 13 at 7:30 allowed the snarky couple before them to linger well over 2 hours.  Also, the mistake on our end leaving an 8-top free sure helped when table 4 showed no signs of leaving, and the third couple showed up whose reservation never made it onto the list.  All night long I was moving reservations from table to table as couples left early or stayed late.  If guests knew how many tables they'd almost been seated at, they'd be too dizzy to eat.

My favorite of the evening, though, was the lady who called an hour and a half before her reservation time, asking if she could add a third person to the party.  She was told sorry, but no, because the table they were assigned to was too small to seat a third, and as the restaurant was fully booked, we had no other table to switch them to.  Ninety minutes later, three people showed up.  (Pause to imagine my teeth-gritting grin while I told them again we could not put a third chair in the narrow aisle through which the servers have to carry hot plates full of expensive food.)

Believe it or not, they walked out that night without being seated.  No, not all restaurants have that magic table saved for when the President or the chef's mother stops by.  Some of them actually have to fill all the seats to get by.  (And the chef's mother knows better than to show up at 7:00 on a Saturday without calling ahead.)

Sunday was a day of recovery for me.  I felt tired, but also confused as to why Miss Chef seemed perfectly fine.  She'd been through ten days, and I'd only caught three.  She laughed when I told her she's amazing, but it's true.  She amazes me.

Now, even though we got through without too many issues, Chef Adam still got a couple of emails from customers unhappy with feeling rushed through their meals (out of over 300* served, that's not so bad).  He actually called me Sunday evening to get my perspective on how things went in the dining room, and whether an hour and a half is too short for a deuce.  Giving people more time would mean he could only flip tables twice instead of three times, but on the other hand his restaurant does have that romantic, lingering-over-candlelight atmosphere.  And sorry, but aside from the deal they're getting, Restaurant Week patrons don't care that it's Restaurant Week.  They only know they're trying out a restaurant that has interested them--and the idea is to wow them enough to make them come back.

There's no easy answer, and I sort of argued both sides with him.  So I'll be interested to see if there are any scheduling changes next time around.  In the meantime, I'm girding my loins for Valentine's Day.  The things we do for love...

*If you're wondering about my math skills, one of the emails was about Thursday night, on which they served 86 people.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Art of the Omelet Part I: Ceci n’est pas une omelette

So…the great omelet adventure.


Miss Chef has, to date, made exactly one omelet since my last post.  It was delicious, but it wasn’t perfect enough for her.  We still have a dozen eggs in the fridge, waiting for her next attempt.


So what’s the big holdup?  A little thing we in Charlotte like to call “Queen’s Feast.”  More commonly referred to as Restaurant Week.  If you read Garret’s blog, you’ll have heard a bit about it.  Participating restaurants all over the city offer three-course meals for $30 a person.  This can be a great way to try out a fine-dining restaurant that may cost you closer to $50 a head on a normal night.

Restaurant week technically lasts 10 days, so to encompass two weekends.  And boy howdy, does it drive business!  Restaurants have to pay to participate, as well as offering gift certificates (I’m not sure how that works in), and by discounting their food they also cut their profit margins to a sheer margin.  But the publicity is enormous; more than any one restaurateur could afford on his or her own, so the benefits outweigh the costs.

What the heck does this have to do with my lack of breakfast?  Well, remember how Miss Chef is crazy, and is working two jobs?  And remember how she’s also working on an online MBA?  Part of the reason she’s still alive is that Chef Adam has been super understanding in letting her drop to part time at the restaurant, working around her class schedule and giving her a couple nights off to do her grading and homework.  Restaurant week, however, cancels all that out.  He needs her too much.

So now Miss Chef is living an impossible schedule.  Mondays she’s in the classroom 12 hours.  That’s 12 hours of face time—not including short breaks between four-hour classes.  Tuesday and Wednesday are shorter days, but her classes start at 5:30 am, so she’s out of bed by 3:30 am.  (She actually prefers this over the later schedule she had last quarter, with classes ending at midnight.  Have I mentioned you have to be a little crazy to be a professional cook?)

Now, on top of all that, she’s working extra shifts at the restaurant.  Normally closed on Sunday and Monday, the place is open all week to take advantage of all the reservations pouring in.  I’m not entirely sure how Miss Chef is going to survive—and neither is she.  But somehow, she always does.


So, I can’t tell you how to make the perfect omelet.  Not yet.  But I can tell you a little bit about restaurant week.

First of all, it’s crazy busy.  You’d better call way ahead for reservations, especially for the weekends.  Many of these restaurants are smaller than your typical TGIFriday’s so there’s not a whole lot of space to put butts in chairs.  On a good Saturday, Miss Chef’s place does between 30 and 50 people; chain restaurants routinely serve hundreds. 

Now seems like a good time to play a game called “How Many?”  The staff does this at the end of busy nights: everyone guesses how many people were served, because nobody has time to count!  The one closest to the number without going over wins.  (Go ahead, pick a number.  I’ll tell you at the end of the post how many were served last Saturday.)

All these numbers don't just affect the restaurant staff.  It also means customers shouldn't be expecting a lingering, romantic meal.  Many of our tables were to be turned in an hour and a half.  That’s pretty fast for three high-end courses.  The kitchen is generally able to handle the volume, because of course they limit the menu for the special, and design dishes that can be, in great part, prepped ahead of time.  Still, people show up ten minutes late, can’t decide what they want, order a second glass of wine…and the next table is standing at the door while I try to explain why they’ll have to wait.

Because, did I mention….?  Yeah, I’m hostessing again.  So far I’ve done one night, last Saturday, but I’m also scheduled for next Friday and Saturday.  I’ll be following in Miss Chef’s steps, getting up at 6 am for my office job Friday, then going straight to the restaurant where I’ll probably be on the clock until 10 or 11.  Heck, that’s only 14 hours; that’s like a normal workday for her!  I’ll be interested to see how ready I am to put my shoes back on for Saturday night.

Which brings me to the next insider tip—don’t expect as great quality of food or service as the restaurant might normally offer.  Sure, it should still be plenty good, but they’re probably not going to be blowing your mind with intricately prepared and plated chefs d’œuvre.  Quality may slip a bit in the face of all that quantity.  Also, as the week drags on, I’m betting the servers won’t be quite on their toes…they may be a little slower, perhaps a bit forgetful, and I’m betting it’ll be harder and harder to smile as the second weekend grinds them up and spits them out.

Still, at the end of a successful night, it’s great feeling to get all those folks in, fed, and out the door with thanks and smiles.  Saturday I managed to get through a couple of tight spots with smiles, options (ok, do you want to wait ten minutes, or be seated now at the table under the leak we’re hoping is done dripping?), and really understanding and patient guests.  One table I sort of had to kick out (“We’ve got another reservation who’s waiting.”) was quick to leap to their feet, generous with their praise and even promised to return for Valentine’s day.  That made me feel good—what could have been a tense, nasty situation was warm and friendly.

Now that you’ve got a little insider info, are you ready for the conclusion of “How Many?”  Got your number?  Remember, a good Saturday night sees anywhere from 30 to 50 people being served.  How many did we feed last Saturday? 117.  Yeah, it was a busy night.

So, anyway…it’s gonna be awhile on those omelets.  Thanks for your patience.  Can I get you a drink while you’re waiting?

UPDATE (Friday, Jan. 27th):  It's gonna be a loooong night. 

a) Miss Chef says they've got 135 reservations on the books already.  Chef Adam is closing for lunch in order to have enough time to prep. 

b) Last night a customer got so angry when asked to leave so the next reservation could be seated, Chef Adam had to come out of the kitchen to save his wife. 

c) Neither of us slept well last night.  A windy storm came through, turning the siding on the house into a big kazoo.  Miss Chef came home after I went to bed, and then was up 'til all hours trying to finish a paper--I finally got up at 3:45 to bring her to bed, 'cause I just knew she'd fallen asleep on the couch.  Then more kazooing...I'm dragging today.

d) Today is my supervisor's retirement party, which I've been largely responsible for organising.  I won't go into detail; it's just one more mental demand I don't need right at this moment.
But the show must go on.  Smiles, everyone!!

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Getting Schooled: Food and Fun

Blame it on Murray Horowitz.

Mr. Horowitz is one of the funnier members comprising the panel of six who play on the NPR quiz show “Says You.”  This show is an erudite yet extraordinarily witty hour of playing with words—just the type of thing to appeal to people who enjoy knowing words like “erudite."  (The board game Balderdash resembles one kind of round they play.)  We listen to it nearly every Saturday on our local NPR news station, and Miss Chef is a most enthusiastic fan.

So sometime last fall, when the host announced that Mr. Horowitz and his witty compatriots were traveling to Charlotte for a taping of the show, our ears perked up.  Although it’s hard to plan much of anything that far ahead with Miss Chef’s schedule, I think it’s fair to say she was adamant that we find a way to attend.  So I bought Miss Chef a very early Christmas present of two tickets to the Sunday afternoon show.

The taping was in the Pease Auditorium on the campus of Piedmont Community College, just east of uptown Charlotte.  It was a new area for me to explore, but it wasn’t until that morning that I sat down to figure out how to get there.  This was about the same time Miss Chef suggested we go out for brunch before the 1:00 show.  I knew that the neighborhood had some cool little independent shops and restaurants, so I put on my Google research cap to find somewhere we hadn’t tried yet.

I came up with the Customshop.  Not only does the dinner menu have a separate “charcuterie” section, but they also serve locally-brewed coffee—something I knew Miss Chef would appreciate.  As it turned out, she’d been interested in trying their dinner menu, so we were both happy to give them a try.

Now while Customshop is pretty upscale in food and price, the atmosphere—at least at brunch—is pretty casual.  It actually reminded me of a bar we’d greatly enjoyed in Charleston, called the Gin Joint.  Both are long, narrow spaces with big booths, lots of wood and a modern yet rustic design.  The menu at both highlights lots of seasonal and local products; just the kind of thing we like to support.  Plus, they’re both unique, independent businesses with the flavor of their towns.

I am a big brunch fan, so once I had the menu in front of me, I was torn among about four items, including a Belgian waffle and a Monte Cristo sandwich.  Miss Chef chose the egg rancheros, whose corn pancakes had intrigued me.  So really she’s partly to blame that I ended up ordering the herb and cheese omelet.

When it arrived, I was surprised that the “herb” was mostly arugula, but that was fine with me.  I can use all the greens anyone can manage to sneak into my diet.  As I began to dig in, I noticed Miss Chef staring at my plate.  This didn’t bother me at first, because of course she has to taste and analyze everything we get at good restaurants.  But even after taking her own forkful and assuring me that her dish was quite good too, she kept staring.  I think she even reached over with her fork again and sort of poked at it.

“What’s the matter?” I had to ask her.

“How did they do that?” she asked back.

Miss Chef was mesmerized by my omelet, it seems.  To me, it was just a yummy egg-wrapped concoction, but to her it was a perfectly cooked, yet perfectly moist miracle.  “There’s no tough, dry spots anywhere.  I can’t figure out how they did that.  I wish I knew how to make an omelet like that.”

After a minute, I started hacking at it with my fork again, and we did manage to enjoy the rest of our meal without too much further obsessing.  When I realized I wasn’t going to be able to finish the whole thing, I asked her if she wanted me to get a to-go box, so she perform some omelet CSI at home.  She said no, but I think if we hadn’t had to leave it in the car for several hours during the show, she might have taken me up on it.

So with happy mouths and full bellies, we wandered off to see Says You.  As we headed into the theater, I realized we must have been the first to buy tickets, since we found ourselves seated, literally, front and center.  Row A, right in front of the microphones set up to capture the audience’s enthusiasm.

I was a little nervous about being right in front of the microphones, since I was still in the grips of an unpleasant cold.  Sneezing, coughing and throat-clearing had all been regular activities of mine for several days, and I was a bit leery about disintegrating into a massive coughing fit at some point.

As it turned out, my sinuses behaved themselves and we had a wonderful time.  Seeing the show live is even more enjoyable than listening to the smoothly-edited broadcast version.  The radio audience will be missing a brief session in which the host used his iPhone to verify an answer on Wikipedia, and may wonder why the studio audience laughs when Carolyn Faye Fox repeats the clue “scientific for skin.”  (If your interest is piqued, click here to see if there’s a station near you that carries it).

Miss Chef agreed that we could have sat there for hours, mesmerized by the brilliant repartee on display before us.  There was a warm feeling of being part of a special group, or being at a relaxing party with funny, brilliant people.  Though there are no return trips scheduled for the show, all the panelists were effusive in their praise for Charlotte.  So we will be eagerly awaiting our chance to repeat the experience.

Ah, but our day was not over.  For just a couple of hours after the taping, we had the annual Christmas party to attend at the restaurant.  Chef Adam thanks his staff every year by inviting them to the restaurant for a free meal he prepares himself, including hors d’oeuvres, plentiful wine and his special Christmas dessert, the traditional French bûche de noël.  (Long-time readers may remember the “special report” I did on Miss Chef’s making 10 of these babies a couple of years ago.)  This was followed by a round of Dirty Santa—but we had to leave before the game of charades.  It was getting on to 9:00 already, and Miss Chef had an early class the next day.

What a long, enjoyable day we’d had.  Good food, lots of laughter and even a bit of intellectual stimulation.  However, in the back of her mind, Miss Chef was troubled.   As we drove home from the restaurant through the dark night, she suddenly said “I still want to know how to make an omelet like that.”

Stay tuned…she has since bought a dozen eggs and she’s determined to use them!

Wednesday, January 4, 2012


photo source

I took Rosie on a moonlit walk tonight.

At night, the park area around the pond in our neighborhood is an oasis.  Totally unlit, it is especially separate from the streets that surround it.  Most walkers would find it forbidding, with no artificial lighting, hemmed in by darkly shadowed woods on three sides.  A lack of illumination keeps many of my neighbors out.

But I find it freeing.  Away from the aggressive brightness of porch lights and high beams, the moon comes into its full strength.  On a night like tonight, past half full in a cold, clear sky, the moon is a spotlight high above my head.  Its silvery white light casts clear, sharp shadows of tree branches onto the gravel path, turning blue as it hints at darkness. 

Instead of blaring brightness and inscrutable shadow, we walk through soft light and dim shade, gently allowing the eyes to adapt.  The charcoal-colored path stands out definite against the darker grass on the sides.  As we stroll, Rosie’s inky blackness flows clear-cut against the gray gravel.  The moon shines brightly enough to bring out the reflections in her coat as it bunches and slides over itself, armor against the cold.  I see her triangle ears perked, her head turned, her bright eye picking out some detail across the pond.

I ignore the distant signs of the humanity surrounding us—the rush of tires on the busy main street, the headlight beams picking their way through the adjacent houses, the occasional bark of a dog frustrated at not wandering beneath the moon tonight.  I hear only the movement of my hood and the crunch of gravel beneath my feet.  I speak to the dog in quiet tones, my usual sharp commands softened by the witness of the moon.  They say one should speak often to the dog, but tonight there is little need for voice.  We are unusually in tune.

I call her to me, and stop to pet her.  Rosie presses her head against my knee, a familiar posture, comfortable and connecting.  I stroke her head, neck and ears.  The heat of her body bleeds through her fur into my leg.

We continue on, past quiet houses and empty paths.  As we exit through a shrub-lined sidewalk, Rosie strains to the side, toward where we found a tiny, noisy kitten last fall.  “No collecting cats for you tonight,” I tell her, and we move on.

The house is hot when we return.