Cooking is the Fun Part
Greg Atkinson / May 2013
In this third and final installment of his story chronicling the process of imagining, opening, and running Restaurant Marché, Northwest chef/writer/teacher Greg Atkinson reflects upon the restaurant’s very successful and highly acclaimed first year and what he learned about a profession he thought he had down pat.
“Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. Making money is art and working is art and good business is art.” —Andy Warhol
Launching a restaurant is not an entirely logical endeavor. While it’s most certainly a commercial endeavor, it feels more like a work of art. Running a kitchen and dining room is a creative activity that in some sense has nothing to do with the world of business. What’s more, even when the business side is carefully addressed with a solid plan and sound financial planning, restaurants cannot survive if the food, drink, and general ambience don’t include a modicum of magic.
It’s interesting to note that, with or without the magic, restaurants don’t fail quite as often as people think. A common industry myth is that most restaurants fold within a year of opening; in fact, only about 25 percent of new restaurants close or change hands in the first year. Even after five years, fewer than 40 percent have given up the ghost. So, technically, a good majority of start-ups stay up for at least five years. Still, it’s a fraught business, and the process is daunting.
Of course, my wife, Betsy, and I did everything we could to prepare for Restaurant Marché, which we opened last March near our home on Bainbridge Island, a 35 minute ferry boat ride from Seattle. As soon as we hired our opening team, we had staff meetings. As soon as we could get into the kitchen, we built fires in the grill and cooked off a few steaks and lamb kebabs. We tested the deep fryer, had the burners adjusted to work with propane instead of natural gas, and tested it again. We scaled up the formulas for recipes I had tested in smaller batches at home, streamlining the braised dishes, getting a feel for the stock burners. We scheduled a tutorial for the combi oven and preprogrammed a few settings for dishes we knew would be critical—our soon-to-be-in-demand bread rolls baked in-house twice a day every day, the savory vegetable flans, and the vanilla bean crème brûlée. Everything looked promising.
Betsy and I sat down at every table and read the menu to evaluate the lighting and the comfort levels. We stocked the silverware drawers with extra pairs of reading glasses in case customers needed them. We tried out the sound system and the HVAC, tried to alleviate any noise or drafts. We wanted the place to be comfortable. We emphasized this to our staff at preopening meetings and walked the front-of-the-house team through our philosophy, our policies on alcohol, our dress code, and some of our preferred phrases: “When you answer the phone, simply state the name of the business and your name: ‘Restaurant Marché; this is Betsy.’ Keep it simple. Don’t say good morning or good afternoon or ask if you can help the caller. When you deliver the welcoming hors d’oeuvres, say this is a little something from the chef,” insisted my wife. “Please don’t say amuse bouche; it sounds pretentious.”
Having written a business plan, secured investors, negotiated a lease, and somehow survived the renovation of a derelict building, I couldn’t wait to get back to cooking. Even now, with a year of operations under my belt, I feel that way every day I come to work. Cooking is—at least for me—the easy part. And to the degree that I find myself thinking about profit and loss, labor costs, or taxes, I feel myself neglecting the creative process. The alchemy of transforming disparate raw ingredients into orderly and even harmonious arrangements that please my guests is my raison d’être, and while I was able to do that as a hired gun for other restaurateurs, it has only been at the helm of my own ship that I have been able to focus fully on the craft.
Fortunately, Betsy does almost everything else to maintain the infrastructure of the 48 seat restaurant (there are another 24 seats on the deck, but we take reservations only for indoor seating because we have no contingencies for rain—this is the Northwest, after all). She schedules the servers, serves as hostess on most nights, maintains the books, and pays the taxes. My sous chef’s job description includes scheduling the kitchen help and supporting me in maintaining the equipment and the inventory. The youthful energy and enthusiasm of my sous chef and line cooks are things we would sorely miss were they no longer a part of the operation. And yet, from the other side of 50, I must say that I am very happy that I didn’t open my own restaurant when I was as young as they are.
Working as an executive chef for others for more than a quarter of a century afforded me a deeper understanding of what it takes to run a restaurant and provided me with the stamina that allows me to keep going. Furthermore, even at the height of my restaurant career, working full-time as executive chef at Canlis, one of Seattle’s top-rated restaurants, I was successfully moonlighting as a freelance reporter from inside the restaurant industry. I also put in some time as a consultant for numerous start-ups. All this allowed me to view the industry from almost every conceivable angle. And during the course of all that, I generated considerable “reputational capital,” establishing myself as an influential figure in the industry. All those years that prepared me to run my own place also prepared my clientele. It was as if Seattle was as eager as I was to see what I would do with my own place.
Within a week of opening, we had prepared a thousand meals, far more than we had projected for that week. We had, in fact, tried to avoid a huge swell of business at the start because we knew that we weren’t ready. Systems had been sketched out on paper, but not tested in the field. Even with a great facility, the best equipment, an excellent staff, and all the right intentions, a restaurant can’t run smoothly until the staff has had the opportunity to work together in the space, gradually developing a body of “tribal knowledge” about how things work, where things go, and when. But by the end of that first grueling week, our small staff was beginning to gel.
Silverware that piled up unpolished and growing cold on the first few nights of service was now sorted, rewashed, and polished almost as quickly as it was soiled. Linens, both clean and dirty, assumed their appropriate places almost effortlessly. Subtle shifts in locations for glasses and bottles were made to ease the reach and minimize steps. Routines like delivering the welcoming bite at just the right moment (when cocktails have been delivered and menus are still being perused) became de rigueur. And the same thing happened in the kitchen.
After our preparatory friends and family night, my sous chef, who had been my star pupil when I served as a chef/instructor at Seattle Culinary Academy, went home and sketched a floor plan of the kitchen. He charted out stacks of plates; spots for condiments, spatulas, and tongs; ideal locations for clean sauté pans; and a bus tub for dirty pans ready for the dishwasher. He penciled in a second speed rack to hold half sheet pans that would serve as trays for our knives and small tools. “See chef, everyone gets his own tray, and everything is ready when we need it.” How did I spend all those decades in restaurants without ever seeing this before? These minor details of playing restaurant were not part of the game last time I was working in someone else’s kitchen, and being introduced to them now made me feel somewhat like Rip Van Winkle. Had I been sleeping?
At the friends and family dinner, we reinvented the wheel at every turn. Plates had to be fetched from far corners; tools had to be found while proteins threatened to overcook. When I plated the first few dozen chicken liver pâtés, I asked the pantry cook every time to pass me the plate I used; now we have a stack at each station. When I shucked the first order of oysters, I realized that I hadn’t plucked the fennel fronds that I envisioned as the garnish; now I never open without a bouquet of those licorice-scented leaves on my station.
“Some people are afraid of change. They resist it. But we embrace change, we encourage it and try to let it happen freely and beautifully, because it’s going to happen anyway.” —Richard Ha
Even as we were establishing systems and striving toward consistency, we were seeing things change every day. The rustic bread rolls we baked became more uniform, and their crust became thinner and more crackly. The chicken liver pâté that I had practiced repeatedly before opening, morphed gradually over a period of weeks as I made it again and again; careful attention to details in cooking time and moisture content resulted in something lighter, smoother, and more refined. The awkward struggle to transform day-old bread rolls into toasts to accompany the pâté smoothed itself out, and the baker now keeps us supplied in more little melba toasts than we need.
Almost nothing on the menu has changed, and yet every dish has become increasingly elaborate and more carefully tuned. The brochette of grilled lamb leg kept its sidekick of a saffron/pine nut/currant pilaf, but it then adopted a lamb crépinette made with the trim left after cutting perfect cubes of lamb meat for the brochette (it gets cooked beside the kebab and presented on the same plate with a salad of herbs). In a similar way, the grilled pork loin, originally served with buttered noodles in an affectionate nod to a veal dish once served at André Soltner’s Lutèce, now comes with a large raviolo filled with pork rillettes.
For the first few weeks, pulling together the hors d’oeuvres was a bit of a struggle. Now, that part of the prep is woven into the fabric of the week. When salmon arrives in the kitchen, it gets filleted and the trim goes into a brine for smoking. By the time the salmon is smoked, a second salmon has been filleted and the trim is poached, then combined with the smoked salmon and some butter to make another form of rillettes, which is piped onto plastic wrap and rolled into a log that would make Michel Richard happy. In a similar way, any trout that doesn’t sell on Saturday nights also is brined and smoked for a spread of smoked trout and crème fraîche with chives, another amuse bouche. Trim from the wild albacore used for the salade niçoise is finely diced and marinated with soy sauce and sesame oil to make another bite. Throughout the week, these spreads are presented on potato gaufrettes (using toasts invited too many grumbles from the gluten-free gallery).
In a matter of weeks, it became clear that not only was the food becoming more refined but that I was changing as well. Before we opened, I knew I would work hard, but I didn’t realize just how hard. Twelve weeks in, none of my clothes fit me anymore—I had dropped 30 pounds. I relaxed when I leveled off at precisely the weight I had maintained in my 20s and 30s when I worked as a line cook full-time. It seemed that my body had recalibrated itself to meet the demands of this new-old role. My mind was reshaping itself, too. During the dinner rush, timing a table of various completely different entrées proved difficult; within a few weeks it was almost seamless, mostly because the cooks knew what to do but also because we all shared a clear and common vision of how it all works.
This clarity of vision paid off almost immediately. When we had been open just a few weeks, the free weeklies gave us glowing reviews. Even the cynically toned alternative press gushed and prompted readers to hop on a ferry and come on over. By the time the glossy monthlies and the Seattle Times had their say, we were gleaning three out of four stars and eliciting swooning reviews. They loved the look of the place, the noise levels, and most of all the food. And while we were careful not to rest for even a moment on these laurels, I must say it felt good to see those positive evaluations in print. Nine months after opening, we made four different top 10 lists for 2012, and customers were quick to report that those reviews had brought them in.
Now, my weeks follow a rhythm defined by the daily specials and the days when we’re closed. On Sundays, I ferry over to the farmers market in Seattle to meet the rancher who provides all the beef, pork, and chicken for the restaurant. For the five days that we’re open (Sunday and Monday closed), I spend between 12 and 16 hours a day in the kitchen. And for most of those hours—there is no place on earth I’d rather be—the work is physically, mentally, and emotionally challenging. The kitchen, separated from the dining room by a zinc-topped counter with six barstools, is my studio, my workshop, my stage, and to some degree, my comfort zone. From my position behind the counter, I can see and be seen by anyone who walks into the restaurant, and I can be watched pretty closely throughout the meal service by those seated at the kitchen counter. This makes for some challenging moments. Occasionally I’ll grab the handle of a sauté pan only to realize that it’s about 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit, knowing instantly that I’ll spend the rest of the night distracted by agonizing pain, all in plain sight of the customers. I might occasionally get a nick or even a real cut and scramble to keep from bleeding in front of the customers. Sometimes, even without any visible or physical injuries, I feel so tired and irritable that I can barely muster a civil word.
And yet, for the duration of lunch and dinner I’m likely to be standing less than three feet away from paying customers, some of them hanging on my every word. Usually, the intimate exposure to the guests forces me to behave myself, and even if I occasionally let the F word slip, I manage to bring at least a modicum of kindness into every act because that’s my trade—feeding people, nurturing my guests, and making them feel glad.
Regardless of how I’m feeling, I always feed my crew. It was Fernand Point who said that meals for the crew should be as regular as the trains, and at Restaurant Marché, they are. They are, in fact, the focal point of our company’s culture. This might be a tray of BLTs made with the certified organic, nitrate-free smoked bacon we buy from a local rancher for the salade lyonnaise, or perhaps a tuna melt made with trim from the troll-caught, Northwest albacore we buy for the salade niçoise. More often it’s a beef and vegetable soup, or a bolognese made with trim from the pastured beef we buy for our steaks. Whatever it is, it contains the same local organic vegetables, care, and attention we put into food for the dining room. For me, taking care of my customers begins with taking care of my staff. Besides, I practically live at the restaurant and take almost all my meals there. They might as well be good ones made of sustainable, wholesome, local foods served in a convivial environment.
Part of what makes family mealtime so vital is the team building, but it’s also a tangible acknowledgement of something I have tried to instill in the staff at other restaurants where I worked in the past. Time spent at work is every bit as precious as time spent doing anything else. To the degree that we can be real and connect with one another in a genuine way around the table, we share our lives. I like to imagine that this will make the work and the restaurant sustainable. Only if I can truly enjoy it will I be able to continue for the 15 or 20 years I’ll need to do it in order to earn my retirement.
I save compost for the farmers who deliver our produce. If I buy grass-fed beef and pastured chickens, organic produce, and hormone-free dairy, I might as well practice sustainability in my lifestyle too. I might work too many hours, but they are, for the most part, pleasant and sociable hours in the company of people I genuinely like. Looking ahead, this is what keeps me going. Even though several wonderful people who helped us open the restaurant have already moved on to other jobs, I’m confident that others will fill those positions and that over time, the same flow that allows product to go from receiving through some form of preservation and preparation to presentation in the dining room will empower young people to learn beside us, grow, change, and emerge as better workers and more fully realized people in their next jobs. This is the nature of the business.