Clueless

By

To say I was clueless indicates that a clue even existed. To be fair, we all were. It seemed like a good idea at the time, move to Brooklyn in March, help open a restaurant in May, invest some money in it, work without knowing how to pay ourselves. Initially it was the triumph of the collective effort, friends reunited and working together to open something in the neighborhood.

The neighborhood at the time was waiting for it, this was Brooklyn over ten years ago, the neighborhood a lovely tucked away gem between Williamsburg and Queens off a ghost train from the MTA. This was before everything became a brand, when Brooklyn was just so much more damn livable than Manhattan, affordable and interesting without any of the Wall Street/incredible wealth germs.

Four of us ran the place: the owner and chef who used her windfall money to open the place, our accountant/server/designer/prep cook, our head server who was also a drummer, and me, a fresh, ignorant transplant with a truck and too much willingness. We were quite a cast of characters. Our first hire was another cook, a Polish American kid we dubbed the Pole Billy for his increasing love for country music and an ever-present cowboy hat. A musician friend from Chicago who lived down the street proved to be our most sane server at the time; she described herself to Ruth Reichl as a “space cadet” when she served her. Another friend joined us from Portland, Oregon. He made the crucial mistake of falling in love with a server when he was supposed to be devoted to the kitchen and the chef. Our first dishwasher was a foot and half too tall for the sinks designed for the petite owner. He was a punk kid covered in tattoos that recently survived open-heart surgery and loved cocaine. Another dishwater promoted to cook promoted to server was a young Puerto Rican woman with more shorties than wine knowledge and an affection for Phillie Blunts.

The kitchen was a six-burner stove, one refrigerator and a lowboy the first summer. No prep kitchen or cook. Most of us lived in the building or around the corner. The one who handled the money and payroll had no personal bank account. The outside garden was a bunch of garbage-picked chairs and tables, before the perpetual bed bug fear, all with serious breaches in safety on the deck.

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We had no systems in place or safety net, no credit. We knew how to cook, and we cared about food and music, and, well, we couldn’t do math. Rather there was no time for math. Prices were plucked from the air according to how we felt something should cost, with a very real sensation that we didn’t want to price people like ourselves out of the restaurant.

That notion of pricing didn’t matter, some people still objected. Yelp was just beginning back then, and people had a lot of opinions, both on the Internet and sometimes just on the sidewalk or in the bar. Our food costs the first summer were 74%, and even our low wages couldn’t make up for that. When I had fifty bucks to my name we initiated a bottle fee so I could hopefully get $200 a week. To keep up with our lack of storage and daily changing menu we went to the farmers market for everything, then brought it back, washed it, dried it, prepped it and made a new dinner every day. We became increasingly busier each week, and then a Times review in the second month brought out the adults, people lined up outside waiting for us to open. I’d stare at them from my prep space and feel the anxiety, endless deli coffee and many, many Marlboro reds churning in my stomach lining. People walked by the kitchen to the outside garden peering in while we set the line up. Everyday was a new menu; there was very little consistent mise en place—no security in repetition, just cooking blind everyday. The food was cheap and people could bring their own alcohol. They stayed for hours.

Due to the nature of the menu we often opened late. It was hand-written every day and taken down the street to the pharmacy to photocopy. Because if we could find a more difficult way to do things, we did. We frantically set up for service, the servers often ending up helping us finish prep. It was a hot summer, really quite ridiculously hot all across the country. I lived upstairs and took three showers a day if time allowed. One in the morning to try to wash away the booze, one between prep and service, sometimes with a short back-stretching session where I psyched myself up by repeating “it’s only eight more hours, it’s only eight more hours” and put on clean socks if they existed. The third shower was after service.

WastedAwayEvery night I went to the local bar for air-conditioning and alcohol. I lost myself for quite some time in booze and work—okay, for several years. We were always fighting the learning curve and dealing with our own stubbornness. We couldn’t take care of ourselves, so we just tried to cook our way out of everything. I was new to New York, and all I knew of it was the dump, the fish market when it was still under the bridge, Restaurant Depot, and a few local bars. Nobody knew me and it felt like no one cared to. I wasted away. There was plenty of me to give, but it fucked up my metabolism and my drinking, so I ended up way drunker. I was a shell of a human, sometimes passing out on my kitchen floor, waking up to shower, change clothes, and go downstairs to begin it all over again.

The walls to hit were many. Any fuck-up with food was devastating, wiping out an important chunk of our menu. None of us ate, there was no family meal, but we drank PBR through the night. We didn’t take reservations, so the wait list got out of control and sometimes we were still cooking long after closing. Every menu was new and nothing was tested; we learned how many portions we had during service and often ran out of dishes with a flurry of tickets still hanging. Those tickets hung from a piece of string over the stove with clothespins, a system that took its own maddening amount of time to deal with. Four pan pickups rarely allowed for tables to get their food all at once. A pledge to abstain from cocaine written on a cocktail napkin was torn in half the second week in. And I wasn’t the one to do it. The cardinal rule of Nobody Sleeps With The Dishwasher was broken early on, and sadly it wasn’t me who did it. We called the cops on our landlord and neighbor; they called the EPA and buildings department on us. Once there was a mutiny, a goddamn mutiny from customers in the backyard who waited too long for their prix fixe courses. Prix fixe, another great untested idea on a six-burner stove. Whenever it rained customers huddled inside the shotgun restaurant with their plates like a refugee camp. The structure out back had no roof because the owner liked the breeze.

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We adapted and adjusted along the way, over the years, but everyone was bailing water out of the rapidly filling canoe. Exhaustion and overwork reveal people, expose their essence. There’s no cushion. My worst self is a self-loathing internalizer, a drunk who tries to fix everything by working and can’t express feelings. Because feelings are for suckers. My worst self is also incredibly adept at picking up strange men in bars and fucking them. Other people’s worst selves are victims, or really manic, or utter narcissists. We were a crazy boat of humans gathering more weirdoes with inertia. A forty-year-old friend dished for us on the weekends for a spell, comparing the restaurant to being a part of a punk band you know is going to crash and burn.

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The problem is when you’re in that band, you’re doing everything you can to not break up. I lived on sacrifice, but sacrifice alone isn’t enough to sustain a collective effort. It doesn’t buy new shoes or pay bills or even hint that there might be a future improvement in life.

Things fell apart. I fell apart. People fell in love, people hated each other, we all swapped moments of being toxic. Blame was spread, people left, feelings were hurt. So many feelings. In the end the restaurant closed with just the owner/chef still there. Everyone left. I eventually left once my self-esteem moved to town, two and a half years after I did.

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Rumpus original art by Kaili Doud.


Millicent Souris is a cook and writer based in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. She is an editor-at-large for Diner Journal, an independent magazine published by the Diner/Marlow restaurant group and the author of How To Build A Better Pie (Quarry 2012). More from this author →