Greg Atkinson
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Pursuing Happiness

Greg Atkinson - May 2012

In this second installment of his chronicle detailing the process of opening Restaurant Marché from bright idea to first dinner served, Northwest chef/writer/teacher Greg Atkinson runs through the endless list of decisions he had to make and what they revealed about himself and the fundamentals at the heart of the restaurant business.

Read more
Part 1: Both Feet First (September 2011)
Part 3: Cooking is the Fun Part (May 2013)

“The universe is transformation; our life is what our thoughts make it.” —Marcus Aurelius

When my wife, Betsy, and I determined that we were going to open a restaurant—and more importantly, when we borrowed hundreds of thousands of dollars to make it happen—I didn’t experience an elevated heart rate, shortness of breath, or other indications of stress that one might expect. Instead, I was charged from the outset with an invigorating sense of purpose. That’s not to say that the process wasn’t exciting and terrifying. It was. But the excitement and the terror were mitigated by a powerful sense of direction. Like a passenger secured into a roller coaster ride, I resigned myself to the fact that I couldn’t safely abandon the course. So I threw myself into it with vigor. This, I realized, was going to be fun.

Certain things were already set in place. We knew for certain that it would be called Restaurant Marché, that it would feature products from the local farmers’ market, and that it would be housed in what had long been an under­utilized building adjacent to the market on a bustling lane that runs through the center of the place my wife and I call home, the small town of Bainbridge Island, a 35 minute ferry ride away from downtown Seattle.

But a thousand other things had yet to be determined. What color would the building be painted? What sort of light fixtures would hang there? Where would people sit? Carpets, flooring, furnishing, placement of the bar, not to mention the myriad elements that would comprise the kitchen itself were all unknowns. So we developed a kind of invisible reality and set out to transform the building into some semblance of the place we could only see in our minds.

“This area will be carpeted,” I told the architect, tapping his drawing with my index finger. “Everywhere people sit will be carpeted. The traffic areas, from the doors to the bar and the bathrooms will be polished concrete.” I was gentle, I thought, but firm, possessed of a kind of certainty that surprised me. I had been granted a vision of the place in its final form, and I was determined to bring it forth.

“There will be a wait station here,” I said, as if I had been over this several times already. “And another one here. Each wait station will have a glass rack above, and storage for napkins below. The drawers will hold enough silverware to set every table in the room. The host stand is something else entirely. It goes here; it will house the POS system and controls for the music.”

The building’s owners, my wife, and the architect held extensive meetings about colors and textural finishes. I whipped out my iPhone to share pictures I had taken at the beach. “This,” I said, “is the color scheme. See the dark green fir trees in the background, almost black? That’s the color of the painted cabinets and trim. See the color of the dried grasses waving in front of the water; that will be the color of the dining room walls. And the gray of those clouds? That’s the color of the back bar, the hall, and the bathrooms.” The coral- and orange-colored seaweed with green eel grass running through it would eventually be reflected in a textured fabric to upholster the banquettes. I knew these things as if they had been written in my genetic code. And when other members of the team contributed ideas to the discussion that were better than mine, I quickly co-opted those ideas and claimed them as my own.

When the architect’s drawings of the wine storage cabinet, the banquette seating, and the other built-in furnishings were laid out before the subcontractor in charge of casework, the cabinet-maker let me know that he was an artist, that he would infuse every item with all the intensity of his decades of experience. I didn’t mean to be harsh, but I told him I didn’t want to hear it. “I am not building this restaurant to showcase your artwork. The focus will be on the food, and the furniture must enhance that, not detract from it. Besides, if it looks too good, people will say I spent too much money on the space; they’ll feel uncomfortable. I want it to feel casual, comfortable. I want everyone to feel welcome here. Do not make it too beautiful.” That was one battle I fortunately lost.

When local artists heard I was opening a restaurant, they flocked to me with samples of their work. “I’d like you to see my art,” they said. “No,” I said, “The restaurant will not be a gallery. Besides, your work is too good to hang in a restaurant,” I told one friend. I surprised myself with the certainty I felt about this. But even before we signed a lease, I knew what would hang on the walls.

My friend, cookbook author Grace Young, once posted a link on Facebook to a collection of 19th century prints called The Vegetable Garden, published by Taschen Books, and her post prompted me to message her. “If I ever manage to open this restaurant,” I wrote, “I will decorate the dining room with those prints.” Emboldened by my own claim, I ordered the collection online, and when they arrived, I pondered the images at length. They reinforced everything I intuitively felt about the restaurant and its theme. Vegetables from the local farmers’ market would steer the menu. A sense of timeless well-being would prevail.

The menu
But how did 19th century botanicals fit with “Contemporary Northwest Bistro,” the description I had used to sell Restaurant Marché to my investors—and to myself—as a place featuring dishes and techniques I had been cooking in restaurants all around Puget Sound for the last three decades. Accenting every dish with organic local produce and foraged items such as mushrooms and sea beans, I would serve oysters, wild salmon, pastured chickens, and grass-finished beef.

Sample menus I put in the original business plan included items like Bruce Gore’s grilled trawl-caught ivory king salmon with wild fennel risotto, and roasted Oregon Muscovy duckling with heirloom oranges on a bed of Washington beluga lentils with island-grown kale. I love writing menus with items like those, and I had been doing it for decades. And, yet, when I started to write the menu for my own restaurant in earnest, I was listing items like onion soup, steak-frites, coq au vin. Where was this stuff coming from?

“Go with it,” insisted my wife. “You love that kind of food. That’s why you went to work in France.”

I thought of the hours I had spent perusing Larousse Gastronomique when I was a kid, the pleasure my wife and I had taken in ordering a simple croque-monsieur on our first trip to France.

“Just make those traditional dishes with modern techniques and local ingredients,” she coaxed. “That’s what people want.”

From that point on, the menu flowed from my keyboard. Gone were the stark white spaces and the lean hand-written items with their emphasis on provenance of every ingredient. In their place were headings like Hors d’Oeuvres and Soupes in rustic fonts. As I tried to summon why I felt compelled toward this Frenchification of my menu, I tapped into some deeply held beliefs I wasn’t even aware I had. The business, the philosophy, indeed the word “restaurant”—they’re all fundamentally French.

The word, as every culinary student should know, first appeared in 1765, when a Parisian soup vendor, ironically named Boulanger (baker), hung a shingle outside his shop that read “Come to me all who labor, and I will restore you.” The syntax he used required a variation on the word “restore” that came out “restaurant.” Boulanger was referring to his restorative soups, individual servings that could be selected from a menu and eaten on-site at the shopkeeper’s tables and from his dishes. His concept was revolutionary; prior to that, good food was found only in private homes; and as the actual French Revolution unfolded over the next decade, an explosion of shops like Boulanger’s followed. The nobility fled, or was eliminated, and staffs from their kitchens and dining rooms opened their own restaurants and offered their services to anyone who could pay. By the dawn of the 19th century, more than 500 restaurants were operating in Paris.

When I was teaching the course Introduction to Restaurant Cooking at the Seattle Culinary Academy, I insisted that my students distinguish between a brasserie, a bistro, a cafe, and a restaurant. A bistro, I told them, was distinguished by its broad appeal, by its affordability, its relatively casual service, and its emphasis on traditional French techniques. A restaurant was something more formal; a restaurant, I said, is a serious undertaking. Other types of eateries are just places to get food, but a restaurant must immerse the diner in a total experience. The theme of my restaurant, I was beginning to realize, might be Northwest bistro, but as I developed the menu, I began to wonder if the place might be turning into a Restaurant with a capital R.

Equipping a cook
Once a solid draft of the menu was in hand and the basic provisions for the dining room were in place, I shifted my focus to the kitchen. I had always imagined that this progression would be the other way around. In fact, when I was younger, I used to boast that if I ever opened my own place, it would be all about the kitchen, and the dining room would come second.

What I didn’t understand then, and what is all too clear to me now is that this entire business is based on the number of seats in a place and how many times you can fill them with paying customers. So after I sold a plan to my investors based on 48 seats, I penciled in space for those seats before I made another move.

Half the guests would be seated on upholstered banquettes; the other half would sit on chairs. I ordered table bases and commissioned the wood artist to make walnut tabletops. I priced new chairs, cringed, and opted instead for used. My wife found a set of 32 matching chairs on Craigslist. I sanded them down, hand-painted them, and reupholstered the seats with the faux leather that’s used on automobile upholstery. “You should get 25,000 uses out of that upholstery,” said the car upholstery guy. “That’s a lot of people sliding across those seats.”

Next, my architect made sure that all passageways, restrooms, and exits would conform to the various federal state and local building codes. And I was left with a tiny corner of the building to house my kitchen. “So that’s how kitchens end up being so small,” I whispered to myself. To make it feel as spacious as possible, I decided to eliminate the wall between the kitchen and the dining room.

“We’ll put a zinc countertop here,” I said, with an assurance I did not entirely feel. “People can sit here and watch everything that goes on in the kitchen.” Secretly, I wondered how I would keep my cool when there was no backstage, nowhere to hide from the guests. I found some used barstools, painted them to match the chairs, and sent their seats to the car upholstery guy.

In lieu of a walk-in, I ordered a flank of reach-in coolers across the back wall. For extra cooling space, I ordered low coolers under the hot line and the garde-manger, plus reach-in freezers for ice creams and ice for the shellfish platters. Then, just to be sure, I secured a couple of used reach-ins for the dry storage room across the alley from my back door. “Incoming produce will go into those,” I surmised, “and after it’s washed, we’ll put it in the new reach-ins in the kitchen.” Instead of pizza or sandwich-style prep tables with inserts into the refrigerated space below, I ordered butcher-block tables under which the reach-ins would reside. The solid-topped tables, I thought, would be more versatile. We could prep on them before service and assemble plates on them when we were open.

As for the hot line, it should run the gamut, affording me access to every basic way of applying heat to food, from the most traditional, with wood fire, to the most advanced, with an immersion circulator, as well as a Rational combi oven, a convection oven with stockpot burners, a traditional range, and a deep fryer in between. A wood-burning grill, at least in Washington State, requires a separate hood, and the hood, as any restaurateur knows, is typically the most expensive piece of equipment in a restaurant. Still, I couldn’t imagine having my own restaurant without having the means to cook over a real wood fire. I would be adding a new log, and more charcoal three or four times an hour, but visions of applewood-fired steaks and salmon swam in my head. Dollar signs also swam there. But I had set up the business plan with the option of adding more investors if the costs spun out of control, and when they did, I gripped the bar of that roller coaster cart and took the next hill.

I had been telling everyone interested in the project that we were doing a Northwest bistro, and I believed it. But when it came down to picking the light fixtures and designing the menu, the plan was starting to morph from contemporary Northwest to the Chefs de France Brasserie at Epcot Center in Disney World. I tried to reign it in, but I found myself pining over Roger Vergé’s Entertaining in the French Style and Christopher Hirsheimer’s evocative images in The Balthazar Cookbook, an homage to Keith McNally’s sumptuous eatery in SoHo, the most flamboyantly French of all restaurants run by an Englishman in New York City. I reread the text and came across this quote from McNally: “The restaurant’s success hinges on customer’s leaving happier than when they arrived. It’s that simple.”

And that remark, I came to realize, encapsulates everything I believe a restaurant is for. Guests arrive hungry, angry, lonely, or tired and gradually come to feel nourished, grateful, and filled with a sense of camaraderie and renewed vigor. If we were to believe the myth they tried to teach us in 20th century schools that human beings are machines and food is our fuel, then we could be fed with 2,000 calories in the form of colorless slurry. But we are not machines, and food is infinitely more than fuel. Food and the rituals surrounding its procurement, preparation, and service constitute a tapestry of silken threads that connects us to every other living thing.

I have written menus, articles, and books about buying local food and cooking from scratch for decades, but it’s only now that I am coming to realize why I feel strongly about purchasing from vendors I know. It’s not because it’s politically correct, but because it’s socially appropriate. And sometimes, so is buying food from far away. I buy saffron from the fields of La Mancha, where I have stood in the October sunshine, plucking purple blossoms from crocuses that spring up out of bare brown soil. I know that the money goes to help ordinary people there improve their lot. Meyer lemons evoke happy images of California; vanilla conjures the magic of Madagascar; coffee from Ethiopia smells like pure magic. Money spent on these products becomes the lifeblood of the communities that produce them. These things make me happy, and I can transfer that happiness to my customers through the power of flavor, texture, and color.

Restaurants have always been pluralistic, urban affairs; they quite naturally incorporate ingredients, techniques, and ideas from far away even as they rely heavily on local products to make them financially and culturally appropriate. A restaurant is pretentious beyond belief if it pretends to be anything other than a construct of multiple layers of culture and tradition borrowed from multiple continents and centuries. And as I compiled and tested the dishes that would become the menu at Restaurant Marché, I came to understand that the market is the very essence of this notion, as that’s where everything comes together, and the restaurant is where it’s transformed into something complete and meaningful.

A box of warm tired frisée, curly endive with dirt still clinging to its roots, is delivered from a local farm. In my kitchen, the roots get trimmed, the plant is submerged in fresh water, it’s drained and chilled in the refrigerator; it’s broken into bite-sized pieces, tossed with crusts of bread fried in Italian olive oil, dressed with red wine vinegar from France, topped with a local pastured egg plucked at just the right temperature from an immersion circulator, and garnished with smoked bacon from the belly of a local pig. As I finish the dish, salade Lyonnaise, with a grind of Tellicherry peppercorns from India, I realize that this is at once local and incredibly cosmopolitan, simultaneously traditional and contemporary.

Making ingredients palatable and interesting involves incorporating them into a context that sparks our appetites, awakens our senses, stimulates our imaginations. That context is the restaurant. The job of the owner and the staff is to communicate that context, not only through the materials and objects that occupy the space—including the food and wine we serve—but through the message we send to one another and to everyone who walks through the door. That message is “we are delighted to be here because you are here, too.”

Betsy and I knew that choosing staff members who could communicate that message would be as challenging as anything we had ever done. A person can be taught how to grill a steak or open a bottle of wine with panache, but how can one teach delight? When I taught at the culinary school, I used to tell my students that they were going into the business of pleasure. Most of them tittered or squirmed in their seats over the sexual innuendo. Americans are somewhat uncomfortable with pleasure. Other students leaned forward in their chairs with their eyes opened slightly wider and a look of revelation on their faces. I aimed my remarks at them. “You’re going to work in an industry where it’ll be your job to make people feel good, and the only way to do that effectively is to feel good yourselves,” I told them. “Take care of yourselves. Feed yourselves. Cook at home on your days off. Try new wines and pair them with the foods you cook. But take it easy; you won’t make anyone happy if you’re hungover. Get some rest. Read yourself to sleep with cookbooks and culinary memoirs. Immerse yourself in everything there is to know about our craft. The more confident you feel, the more at ease you will be at work.”

A few of the students who heard me, the ones with whom this philosophy struck a chord, let me know that if I ever opened my own place, they wanted to come to work for me. We stayed in touch, and when the time came, I hired them. In fact, the brightest student I ever taught, Scott Robinson (Paul Bocuse to my Fernand Point), a line cook who was working at Crush for Jason Wilson, the 2010 winner of the James Beard Award as the Best Chef in the Northwest, moved from Seattle to the island two weeks before I opened to become my sous chef. A student who was in the first class I ever taught heard I was opening a restaurant and sent me his résumé. Since graduating, he’d worked his way up from entry level to lead line cook. I hired him to become my lead lunch cook. Other hires already lived on the island. They presented their résumés, and Betsy and I scheduled interviews. The ones who lit up at the idea of making people happy went on the payroll.

Taking stock
Shortly after we made the first few substantial deposits from investors into the new restaurant account and just before we started demolition on the old building that would house our rapidly gelling vision, my wife’s 50th birthday rolled around. We borrowed keys to the building from the landlords, set up a barbecue outside, mopped the floors, and hung some Chinese lanterns. I made a mock-up of the bar in the room where the lounge would be, and we decorated the front room with a disco ball. Our friends brought tables, chairs, paintings, plates, glasses, napkins, and silverware. It was a warm summer night and the light stayed in the sky for hours. By the time it was dark, we were glowing with the certainty that this thing was going to happen.

Nine months later, about two weeks before the restaurant was scheduled to open on March 17, I stood looking out at the dining room from behind the kitchen counter, now freshly clad in zinc. Behind me, I sensed the presence of the huge wood-burning broiler standing under its hood and the enormous combi oven beside it. I remembered the night the lowly backyard grill had teetered on its rickety legs outside the backdoor. Where the makeshift tables for our friends had stood in the dining room against cinderblock walls, handcrafted wainscoting now glowed under a fresh coat of paint. Instead of lights on strings, beautiful pearl glass shades hung from antiqued bronze fixtures. The next day, the walnut-framed prints of French vegetables would be hung.

The transformation of the place was almost complete, and soon, shipments of raw bulk foods would arrive at the back door and throngs of diners would arrive at the front. Arrivals at both doors would be transformed as they spent time in the restaurant. Strains of slack-key guitar music were wafting in on the newly installed sound system. I could smell the coffee beside the espresso machine in the bar and I could feel the warmth and security of the newly restored walls around me.

And then I felt a surge of the most profound gratitude I have ever felt in my life. I was almost overcome with emotion. For the first time since the building had been in any state close to completion, I was alone in there, standing on the line in the spot where I would presumably stand more than anywhere else for the next decade and a half, and I knew that more than the building, more than the food that would come through my kitchen, more than my employees or my guests, I was the one who would be transformed. In fact, I already was.