I know that I skip around timewise, and I’m going to do the same here. I’m jumping to a point when working at Vera had become unsustainable. There were a lot of things that happened those first few years we were open, some good, some not so great. But I wanted to talk about what it’s like to own your own business and the toll it can take on you, mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. There is also something to be said for having a dream for years, chasing that dream, fulfilling that dream, and realizing that maybe it wasn’t what you thought it would be.
When I walked into Vera that morning I knew I was going to be in the weeds. My only cook had called off because he had injured his back. That would mean I was on my own all day. There weren’t a crazy amount of reservations, but it was a bit of a mind fuck to think that you were going to work by yourself the whole day. Not only that day but for the foreseeable future, unless I could find another cook quickly which wasn't very likely. On the way there I tried to prepare myself mentally, sort of psyche myself up, tell myself I could do it, over and over. I asked myself “What’s the worst that could happen? I get in the weeds? So what? If people have to wait a bit longer for their food no one is going to die right?”
When I left that morning Liz was still sleeping, she closed the night before. In fact, she always closed, which meant she got home later than I did. I was usually asleep when she got home and she was usually asleep when I went to work. I could tell that she was tired, we were both tired all the time. I assumed it was just part of owning a restaurant. We both worked six days, we spent the vast majority of our waking hours inside our restaurant. We both felt it was normal to live like this. Although there were times when we would be exhausted, angry, resentful, or lost and the thing we would say to each other was “This is not normal.” Funny.
So one of the things that bothered me, was leaving every morning without talking to her. Even before Vera, at Carnivale we would be on the same schedule, I left early, she came home late, very late. Every time I would leave her I felt a tinge of sadness, I felt like I was leaving her all alone. I still feel like this sometimes. Even nowadays when I leave my home, I feel a hint of sadness that I am leaving her behind, I’m not sure why. But those days, when we were working a lot and were stressed and tired, I felt especially sad, even though I knew I would see her in a few hours, it didn’t matter. Closing the door silently behind me in the morning my stomach would be in knots. I would shove how I was feeling deep down inside me and not think about it.
When I got to work the first thing I did was check reservations, and of course, it was busier than I had hoped flying solo. Yes, I was certainly happy to be busy but dreaded the idea of being in the weeds all night. Again I chose not to think about it until later. No matter how busy it was I had a morning ritual of having two shots of espresso from our La Mazzorco espresso machine, something I should not have bought, but loved regardless. This spectacular piece of Italian engineering made delicious espresso and I used it many times during the course of a day. After I had my espresso I would sit at table 19, and think about my day, ponder the state of my business, the world, the universe, you name it, I thought about it all at table 19. Table 19 was where all the half thought out schemes for world domination were hatched usually crushed to bits by my wife later in the day. Liz always saw how impractical or far-fetched my ideas were and was able to tell me in a tactful loving way my ideas were dumb. I had a lot of bad ideas at table 19, a lot of contemplating, a lot of trying to come up with new ways to squeeze water from a rock. I was always trying to come up with new ideas to be more profitable or get more people in the restaurant.
One of the things people don’t often talk about is how hard it is to actually run a business while working at that business. I don’t recommend it. It’s extremely difficult to be objective about the state of things, and it’s easy to not see things as they are, rather you tend to see them as you wish they were, something that can spell doom. The stress was starting to get to me and I wasn’t really cognizant of that, I felt it was certainly getting harder to remain positive, I was having trouble sleeping, but I felt that it was just part of owning a restaurant, feeling run down all the time was normal. But that day as I was writing my prep list, listening to Stevie Wonder, something occurred to me, this wasn’t fun anymore. It just wasn’t. I thought things would be much different when I pictured owning my own restaurant in my head. The planning part was fun, though stressful. The actual opening was again stressful but fun. Doing this side by side with my wife made it even more fun, and made the hard days bearable. We often joked about how both of us couldn’t lose our shit at the same time. If one of us was having a horrific day, or stressed, or angry, the other one had to be even-keeled, positive, and calm. It usually worked out like this, even though we didn’t plan it.
But that day, I saw clearly how lost I was becoming. It was obvious to me my stress level was very high and it was affecting my health. My whole body hurt. let’s face it, working a line every day is hard when you get to a certain age, and I purposely didn’t hire cooks in the misguided idea of saving some money. When I finally started prepping for the day, and I went downstairs to grab everything I needed, my knees, lower back, and shoulders all let me know that they were there, and they were upset. I used to try to bring everything upstairs in one trip, throwing everything I needed for the day in a bus tub or Lexan and taking it a step at a time because it weighed about 50 pounds and my legs hurt. Once I got upstairs I would lay everything out in neat piles, dish by dish.
I would start the dishes that needed the longest to cook, like the lamb shoulder, trying to get it in the oven as soon as I could. While that was cooking I would start poaching octopus. We sold so much octopus it was something we prepped almost daily, it took a long time to become tender, usually around 4 hours. It was important to get it going early, I put it on at just barely a simmer. Next, I had to get the desserts going, which truth be told I didn’t enjoy making. When Vera opened we had no desserts at all but then customers kept pleading for something so I came up with a few desserts I could make with my very limited skills. I came up with a caramel pudding, creme brulee, and chocolate mousse. They were fairly easy to make and didn’t require tons of pastry skills. The only problem was that everyone seemed to like them and we sold out all the time, meaning I had to make them almost daily.
While things were cooking I cleaned a case of lacinato kale (black kale) for the kale salad. That kale salad sold like fucking crazy and to this day I don’t really understand why. I got the idea from a salad that Jonathon Waxman had on the menu at his restaurant Barbuto. The kale had to be sliced thin, the dressing was fairly close to a caesar with lots of garlic and lemon, and I use manchego cheese instead of Parmigianino Reggiano, then topped it with breadcrumbs. I came up with it one day because I ordered way too much kale from a local farmer. I had so much kale I needed to get rid of it fast and saw that salad somewhere and decided to borrow the concept. However, people absolutely loved that salad and it sold like crazy. One time I tried to take it off the menu and people revolted. I eventually put it back on the menu much to the relief of my wife. She was the one that had to deal witppy customers demanding kale salads, not me. It also goes to show my mindset at the time. It bothered me that that dumb salad sold like crazy, there were other things on the menu I thought were much better, more interesting, more unique, but no one cared, they wanted that damn kale salad. But I should have been grateful that a simple thing like a kale salad can make so many people happy. I should have been grateful that people returned to the restaurant again and again just for a salad.
Around service time I was trying to prepare myself mentally for working the line by myself. I figured there were a lot of small restaurants where a chef worked by himself, it’s no big deal. I was ready, I was sure of that. Once the first order came in I was able to shake off nerves and just cook. A slow steady stream of tickets kept me busy for a while, mostly easy stuff like tomato bread, kale salads, and charcuterie boards. Liz would check on me every few minutes or so to make sure I was ok, and I was fine, but it was still early. When I saw more people walking in the door I knew what was coming, but I was ready. I’m not the fastest cook in the world, but I am organized. I set up the line to have almost everything I needed to be within my reach.
A few minutes later tickets were coming in a bit faster, and I was grilling octopus and cooking garlic shrimp on the flat top while making salads as best I could. One of the things I knew from years of cooking was to do as many things at the same time as possible without sacrificing quality. So while lamb chops were cooking I threw potatoes in the deep fryer for patatas bravas. While paella was working I checked on the lamb, turned the octopus over on the grill, and made tomato bread. the kitchen at Vera was very small and I could move the entire length in one stride, when it got busy I felt like I was skating. I looked up at one point and saw the dining room was mostly full, and Liz was talking to people at the bar, pouring wine, checking on regulars, adjusting the music, she would look my way every so often, but I was fine. The orders were coming in fast and the room got louder, the music became more lively, and the servers were moving through the room much quicker, trying to run food and pour wine as quickly as they could.
We made paella from scratch, a lot of people precook the rice so it cooks much faster. when an order is placed. But I wanted to make it the way they make it in Spain, so we made it to order. When you are by yourself in a kitchen trying to make paella, the way I wanted it done, it’s really a pain in the ass. First, you add chorizo, then sofrito, then pimenton, cooking it at just the right heat level, not hot, not too slow, then add the bomba rice, then saffron, then seafood, then chicken stock, then salt, then cook at the right heat until cooked. Not only do you have to make sure everything is cooked correctly, but you also have to keep an eye on it because paella should have socarrat, s sort of brown crust on the bottom of the paella pan that comes from cooking the rice. It’s hard to do under normal circumstances let alone by yourself. You have to listen, the stock will eventually evaporate as it cooks and you can actually hear the rice cracking as it cooks. But you really have to listen and the heat has to be just right, not too high, not too low. Cooking paella is complicated, as are most things that seem simple. It’s just seafood and rice right?
At some point, it got really busy and I would just focus on a few tickets at a time, trying to get at least some of the food out as fast as I could. I was making cheese boards while keeping an eye on garlic shrimp, while cooking patatas bravas in the fryer, while sliding across the kitchen to check on the paella, then sliding back to make a couple of kale salads. My theory was to try and get the cold stuff out of the kitchen as fast as I could so that people would have something in front of them if I got super weeded. I recall a table of four liking the lamb chops so much they all wanted an order, which is great. But I cooked each lamb chop separately, so at three per order that was 12 lamb chops at one time, it took up a lot of space on the flat top. The grill was half-covered with bread for tomato bread and I could sense my grasp on the flow of the kitchen slowly seeping away. I’ve always been a pretty calm, laid-back person but even I have lost it on a few occasions. I knew that I just had to hold on for a few minutes, that it would all be over in an hour. But the tickets were coming in faster than I could keep up, and I ran out of room for the tickets on the speed rail, so I put them in a pile and put them in my shirt pocket.
I was starting to feel like things were out of my control, and when that happens I get angry and anxious. I wanted to scream, bellow, or yell. My mind was racing, trying to remember what to do next, what was cooking and where, thinking about how to buy myself some time, I was drowning in tickets. I looked up and saw that the servers were busy as well, and Liz was talking to some people that had just walked in the door. She would usually try to stall people if she knew the kitchen was in the weeds, which I most certainly was, One of the servers walked by on the way to the dish pit and asked if I was ok. No, I wasn’t ok. I was a rapidly aging chef trying hard to keep up with a shit ton of orders by myself. Thank God for adrenaline, otherwise, that food would have taken a lot longer than it did. I had a lot of food ready at the same time and threw about 12 plates in the window at the same time. The servers saw that I was putting up a lot of food in the window so they all headed to the pass to run the food before it got cold or I got pissed either one. The funny thing is physically I felt fine. I was moving through the kitchen, trying to time everything just so, especially the paella. When the tickets started to disappear and the dessert tickets started popping up I realized it was almost over. The minute the last ticket went out my back, knees, legs, and neck started hurting. I stood for a minute looking at the dining room, feeling proud of myself, but also realizing my body hurt, and I needed to sit down. I started cleaning up, taking my time because my body hurt. One thing about having a tiny kitchen is that it doesn’t take all that long to clean and break down. Before long I was sitting at table 19 again, the room was half empty by now.
Liz brought me a 32oz deli container of beer and two ibuprofen, my usual. As I drank my beer and tried to relax, I couldn’t help but think about my health. How long could I keep doing this? Not just the physical aspects of it, but mentally as well. I was stressed and tired all the time. My self conscious nagged me constantly, I knew I needed to take a long look at my lifestyle. I had to be honest with myself, this was not sustainable. I needed to make a change, I just wasn’t sure where to start.