Served: My Love Becomes My Chef

20080616-servedbug.jpgThe time: summer, 2010. My boyfriend Micky is unhappy in his work, as a sous chef at a Big Philly Restaurateur's soulless bistro.

I too am starting to feel less than blissful about my restaurant. We launch lunch for our garden season. But for the second day in a row at 11:30—when we open—there are guests and waiters, but no kitchen staff.

The third day, after angry phone calls from the owner to the chef, and confused ones from me, the BOH staff shows up. But 86 lettuce and bread from the get-go. This is a problem because our lunch menu consists overwhelmingly of salads and sandwiches.

The Chef Must Move On

Some background: the owners are old family friends with the chef's late father, once a successful Italian Philly restaurant man. They are supporting his son—holding a property for him in the colorful Italian Market neighborhood where he will open a BYOB.

The chef agreed to help open my restaurant as a sort of exchange with the owners. In return, they would support him in launching his own place.

For the first time, the owners invite me to the monthly owner's meeting. The numbers aren't good, and they want some insight. They also invite the chef, who fails to show.

I am honest. I tell the owners and their accountant, "the chef is a wonderful person, but it's so clear that his heart is not in the restaurant. If the situation continues, I don't see how we can succeed."

Then Who?

"It's time for him to move on and focus on opening his space," the owners say, "but who can we find? Who will want to work here?" There are definite cons: small kitchen, small budget. But there would be freedom for a young chef to create and execute a menu. And the restaurant, hotel, and garden are a remarkable space. It could be an extraordinary opportunity.

"I know someone," I said.

Debbie, one of the owners, knew who I had in mind. When she had stopped by my apartment to drop off some papers, she had met my boyfriend. Whisk in hand, he was whipping up a meringue to fold into the buckwheat pancakes he was making us for breakfast.

Debbie and Micky met again when Micky came to pick me up from work. I showed him the colonial hotel with its fairytale windows and spirally staircases, the blossoming garden, the restaurant's big, epically messy basement, the small kitchen. Micky told Debbie, "you are only capitalizing on ten percent of this place's potential." She and I both knew he was right.

Working Together

Micky is my first serious boyfriend, the first man I ever lived with. The prospect of working together requires serious consideration. We toss around other possibilities. We both miss New York, and talk about business opportunities were we to move back. We even scout neighborhoods for apartments. We both apply for jobs on an extra-luxury resort on a tropical island. Why not?

Meanwhile, Micky meets with the owners. They love him. He drafts sample menus. We are doing serious research, calling farms to see where we can get amazing produce, dairy, and meat.

He asks for a certain salary, a parking space. He negotiates a small vacation for me so we can embark on a roadtrip before we begin the daunting task of re-opening a restaurant.

And he asks that I stop waiting tables. Even though my job title is general manager, I often double as server.

It's a small restaurant with a small budget, and this helps save on payroll costs. He and I want to avoid the waiter-chef interaction, often a tense one. I like this proposal. I would be happy to never wait on another table in my life. And now I can focus on what I'm there to do: lead and run the restaurant.

We agree that work is important, but our relationship is much more important. We've been plotting to open a restaurant together—dozens of concepts and ideas sneak their way into our conversation—and now is our chance for a trial run.

Here We Go

To all his requests, the owners say yes. In July, we return tanned, excited, and nervous from a long New England drive. I put Micky on payroll. We're interviewing like crazy (the previous chef will bring his team to his new restaurant). And on a Saturday night at midnight, after the final service with the outgoing chef, Micky gets to work on his stocks.

Together, we peel carrots and onions, then walk home in the wee wee hours of a sticky summer night.

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