Musings of a Chef....
...we once again found ourselves in the Journal-Sentinel; this time in a "Best New Restaurants of 2010" feature last Friday. Of course, it's really great to be among the restaurants chosen, and we are all honored to be in such great company. Thank you very much, not only to Carol Deptolla, but to everyone who continues to come out to visit us and tells someone else. I can only express my gratitude by continuing to work hard to try to deserve the support you give us
2010 was a good year, and it went out with a bang. New Year's Eve capped off our busiest week to date. In truth, we were too busy for me to feel comfortable or on top of my game. Every business has a "sweet spot" to operate most efficiently and to provide the best experience, and we were beyond that point last week. I mean, the restaurant is usually busy, but we were scrambling like crazy people all week to keep up on the long-cooking items like navarin, osso bucco, and short ribs. Jockeying big braising pots around the stove and in the ovens while trying to put out fifty to sixty lunch covers every day is tough, and when you only have, realistically, an hour to get ready to turn it over for a hundred or so more for dinner service, it's pretty intense. By Friday night, when it was just us and the last few customers lingering over Champagne and coffee, I felt about as beat up and tired as I can remember.
It's been said by better chefs than me that line cooking is a job best suited to young people. It's hard work, physically and mentally, and certainly not for everyone. In fact, most cooks work really hard to get off the hot line and into the front of the kitchen to advance their careers as chefs. I've kind of regressed, returning to line cooking because I love working with the food, and I love the adrenalin and rhythm of a busy night. There's a price to be paid, though. I just turned 49 last week, and I've got a lot of mileage with not a lot of regular maintenance. What keeps me going is how much I enjoy seeing the dining room full of people enjoying themselves, and when I walk through and talk to people who like our food and appreciate what we're doing, it gives me back everything I've put into it and then some.
That's not to say that everyone has been happy with us all the time. If you look on some of the customer rating web sites you'll see plenty of gripes about one thing or another; most are legitimate, some are not, and a couple are just mean. It's a subjective business, and everyone's entitled to their opinion.
As restaurants, all we can say (and we say it over and over again...) is that if you're unhappy with something, tell us right away and we'll do our best to fix it. When you sit there and tell us everything's great, and then go home and get on your computer and say it wasn't, you are taking away our chance to make it right. You're also cheating yourself, because chances are pretty good that, had you said anything at the time, we could've done something to recover, made your experience that much better, and you'd have left happy.
We as restaurants don't really get a forum to rate our customers, even though believe me, sometimes we'd like to. The best we can do is to appreciate our good ones and get over the few that aren't.
The way I see it, some people get who we are; some don't.
Those who do will spread the word to like-minded friends, as will those who don't. Eventually, those who don't get it will go elsewhere. We'll be busy taking care of those who do, and everyone will be that much happier. My bet is that we can still keep our little restaurant going just fine with that. I'm pretty happy with what we are.
Having said that, though, there is still a lot of work to be done, and a lot of improvements to be made.
Angela ordered a buffet lamp for the bar last week, because it's really too dim and having penlights to hand out to guests isn't the best answer to the problem; but the shade they sent us was the wrong one so it needs to go back and be exchanged.
In the kitchen, I've been working on tweaking some of the dishes both to improve the flavors and to minimize or in some cases eliminate things like wheat gluten, which is a concern to many of our customers. I've replaced the flour in both the French onion soup (minus the crouton, of course) and lamb navarin recipes with caramelized tomato paste, which not only gives the finished product a richer color and deeper flavor, but also the thicker texture and mouthfeel normally associated with the traditional thickener called roux- a mixture of cooked flour and butter. We've played around with the desserts and, with a new recipe courtesy of my good friend and former pastry chef Mary Lou, traded our dense and rich walnut cake for a much lighter and more complex-flavored walnut roulade.
Angela is on a mission to find a small table or cabinet for the ladies rest room, and we've had the front door repaired and repainted since a sudden gust of wind blew it off on a Sunday night a couple of weeks ago.
To sit here today and look back, I'd say it was a pretty good year indeed. This year will be so much better. New locally-owned, independent restaurants are opening, and that's an exciting thing for all of us. They have so much to offer, and deserve our support. Please think of that when you go out to eat. I hear it from customers who come in from places like New York and Chicago all the time- that the small, neighborhood places like Crazy Water, Meritage, La Merenda, Maxie's, Bosley, and Cubanita's, not to mention any of the other great small restaurants we have here to enjoy, are really what defines the food culture of the city and they think it's great to find so many here. That's very cool, I think.
Milwaukee's the best place I know of to be able to find so much diversity with so little driving. I only wish we had a little more free time to go out and enjoy it a bit more often then we do.
So here's to a great 2011...Updated: January 2, 2011 10:10 AM
Every year, people ask me what I do on Thanksgiving. For probably the last eight or nine years, I've been grateful for the opportunity to celebrate Thanksgiving with a group of anywhere between 10-15 good friends whose ages span anywhere from the early 40's to maybe the mid 80's. Four of us are working chefs and the rest are a delightful group of talented cooks and intelligent, well-traveled bon vivants. Each one of us brings a dish or two, so the cooking is pretty minimal, and a couple bottles of wine. The evening is always hosted by the same gracious lady who has a large enough kitchen to accommodate a half dozen of us working and drinking and talking at the same time, and it is truly an evening we look forward to all year.
True, it's not the typical Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving. But it's just as special to each of us, and since it's a late-starter, we still get to see our families earlier in the day. This year, Angela and I met at the restaurant in the morning- her to finish her rice balls and me to work on a cauliflower and chanterelle gratin and some crab cakes. She finished and went to her Aunt and Uncle's house for their family Thanksgiving, and I was planning on heading to my Mom's after I was done, en route to the group dinner. As it always happens, things change; Angela decided to join me with the group dinner, so I went over to her Aunt and Uncle's to pick her up. When I walked in the house the whole family, numbering something like 20-22 people, had just apparently finished deciding where everyone was going to sit around this huge table, and were beginning to enjoy their dinner. Of course, Angela's Aunt is a fantastic cook, so when they asked me to join them I couldn't refuse. The food and family gathering was wonderfully traditional; I have to say that I hadn't really experienced that in a long time and it was very nice. After that, we scooted over to my Mom's and had a little time with her and my sister Lori's family (I missed seeing my other sister Lisa because she was enjoying her Thanksgiving at a restaurant) then onward to Beth's for the final stop on the turkey tour.
It's something amusing to see, I'm sure, watching us all working together in a home kitchen to produce Thanksgiving dinner. We're used to working in our little restaurant kitchens, though, so we all cooked without getting in each other's way, sharing the oven and stove burners, and managing to consume a truly impressive quantity of Champagne in the process.
Dinner was amazing. The company was even better. There is just something really wonderful about the chemistry of this group- the range of life experiences, ages and backgrounds; the personalities and camaraderie. The common denominator is that we truly enjoy each other's company and cooking, and we're all very thankful to be able to celebrate together each year. In whatever form it takes, I think for me at least, that's what Thanksgiving is all about.
I hope you all enjoyed your Thanksgiving, too. You must've eaten well because we were a bit slow last night. Tonight is busy again, though... one more thing to be grateful for.Updated: November 27, 2010 7:59 AM
...it's been a month since I've written anything. It isn't as though there's nothing to say; in fact, in the last several weeks we were awarded the "Best New Restaurant- Critic's Choice" in the 20th Anniversary Sheperd Express "Best of Milwaukee" poll, had yet another generous review- this time in "M" Magazine, and had our busiest week to date. We've opened on Sundays and hosted an American Institute of Wine and Food dinner, and seen lunch business spike dramatically after we stopped taking reservations.
I guess that's why I've been too tired to write. Tonight I feel good, though. My friend Dan Nerby and his family were in for dinner earlier and it was wonderful to see them all. I've known Dan for many years and worked with him in several different places. He's a very talented chef, and owns an artisanal bakery in Wales. He and his wife Michelle were taking his longtime assistant Lori out for dinner to celebrate her pending move to Tennessee. It's always tough to lose your right hand person, but hopefully there's another waiting in the wings. Bon Voyage Lori, and best of luck!
Another friend, Leo, came by a few weeks ago and snapped a few photos while we were working. We loaded a few on the home page here but more can be seen on our Facebook page "Pastiche Bistro".
For me, I think that the best feeling I have right now is that we finally seem to be hitting our groove- that place where you have a good feeling how busy you're going to be each night, so you can order and prep accordingly, staff the right number of cooks and servers, and have smooth days and nights. Not that everything's always smooth because that really doesn't happen. It's just not the wild ride every day that it was a few months ago.
Another good feeling is that I think people are responding well to our philosophy of good food and wine, well-served, at reasonable prices. Guests are constantly asking me when we're going to expand, open a second restaurant, move, or even raise prices. I don't know if or when we'll do any of those things- I'm happy right now. Very happy. That's worth much more to me than having lots of money in the bank. For the most part, our guests are very happy, and so are the people who work here. Why fool with that? I pay the bills and have enough left over to help the boys with school and even go out with Angela every now and again.
It's getting late and the waitresses are almost done polishing the silver and glassware, so I guess there's only one other thing I'd like to say tonight before closing up and getting out of here, and that's to our veterans- thank you very much.
.Updated: November 11, 2010 8:19 PM
...to a generally warm reception... except for the people who were upset because we replaced the chocolate mousse crepes with a chocolate ganache cake and a chocolate hazelnut tart. The sales have been slowly shifting from the warm-weather fresh fish and salads to the more fall-inspired dishes like cassoulet, coq au vin, and navarin (now with fall vegetables); and the onion soup has been flying out of the kitchen.
The air conditioner is off and the door is open once again. The farmers' market is winding down, and the neighbor's yard is decorated with a giant pumpkin and witch. I can hear the leaves blowing down the street and the kitchen isn't unbearably hot anymore. I love Fall.
The phone still rings for reservations; business remains steady, and we continue to work toward improving our food and service. Pastiche was nominated and is a finalist for "Best New Restaurant" in this year's Sheperd Express "Best of Milwaukee" feature; a nice surprise for us because there were so many really good restaurants opened during the last twelve months. Regardless of whether we win or not, we're all grateful to be thought of in such good company.
I'm proud of what we've done so far, yet I continue to find so many things we can improve upon. Moving forward isn't always easy, and we've lost a few staff and also a few customers in doing so. I've always felt that a restaurant can't be everything for everyone; that it should instead be a reflection of the owner's vision and passion and if that remains consistent then people who feel likewise will find the restaurant and make it succeed. So far, we've done well by not compromising on our dedication to providing good quality French food and a well-rounded wine list at reasonable prices.
One other thing I believe strongly in is that no matter what your price point is, service should be excellent. We are grateful for each person who comes through our door, and want very much for everyone to leave happy and full.
It's not always easy to convey this, and we don't always get it right. We'll still lose a reservation every once in a while, and are still sometimes in too much of a rush to remember to take a deep breath, smile, and greet the person walking in the door with warmth and humility. We're working on it, though.
We always try to remember that when you arrive here you're hungry; you may have had a long day, and just want to sit down and relax. We do our best to get you to your table in a timely manner. We insist that even if it's a few minutes after closing, we have the time to make you something to eat. We do a pretty good job of letting you sit at your table until you're done visiting, even if it's getting close to midnight and the last table left an hour ago. We're doing better at answering the phone. In fact, last week I bought a new one with two handsets, and one is near me wherever I am so I can hear it ring and answer it in the kitchen and basement, to cut down on the number of messages that are left. We check the answering machine first thing when we come in, and return calls as quickly as possible to make or confirm reservations.
In other words, we hear what people are saying and are always trying to do more to make it a better experience for them when they visit us. I'm always happy to hear people tell me how much they enjoyed themselves, but I also appreciate it when they tell me that something could be better. I know how hard that is. in fact, I'm the person who will sit quietly and eat a dreadful meal poorly served, never say a word about it, and still leave 20%. It's a funny business.
Anyway, it's way too nice out to spend any more time in front of this computer. There's yard work to be done, and I need to clean out my refrigerator- everything in it is out of date because I'm just not home enough to eat anything but an occasional frozen pizza or cheese and crackers. I just heard a motorcycle rumble past my window, and now I want to ride mine in to work. There aren't too many more good riding days left, so maybe I'll take the long way...Updated: October 10, 2010 11:07 AM
It's been a while since I've written. I haven't had too much to say really. Things have been going well; we've had several nights in the last few weeks where we've had open tables and been able to accommodate walk-ins and call-ins. I've had time to put some Fall menu ideas down on paper, and am working out a few details so we can get it on the table by the end of the month.
I've also had time to read a little bit on the customer review websites like Yelp and Urbanspoon. It's interesting to a point, because it matters to me what people think about their experiences- their perceptions, criticisms, and compliments. I tend to look at them like diving scores: throw out the best and worst ones and go from there. I also looked around to some of my other favorite restaurants and found that they were no different- a few unhappy people but mostly others who were really enthusiastic and positive. It's a very subjective business and everyone has their own views. People are always challenging us to get better, and we're always challenging ourselves to do so as well.
Lunch business has been steady for the last few weeks. Most days are right around 30-35 people, which is a good number for us. Since we stopped taking reservations for lunch, it's a lot easier to get a table, especially before noon. The business at dinner remains steady- not the post-reviews crush of June and July, but busy and right on our numbers. Our regular customers have been telling their friends, who have been coming in and then telling their friends, etc. so that's really cool.
Speaking of friends, we have a new Facebook page at "Pastiche Bistro Milwaukee". Since I know practically nothing about these things, it's being run by the sister of one of our staff members. She's been putting the daily specials up, and is going to be adding some photos soon as well. She's also doing the Twitter account but I don't know anything at all about Twitter. I've just been trying to tighten up the Fall menu and focus on the food and wine.
I bought some really cool wines this week that will be making the list as soon as we run a few of the other ones out to make room. They are small production and really tasty; almost all are organic and a few are biodynamic.
You'll see a few new faces at the restaurant, too. We lost Jay to Alterra Baking Co. last week, and hired Philip Godfrey to take his place at the cold station. After only a few days, Phil's been doing a very good job and proved to be a nice addition to the team. Joining us this coming week will be an old friend, Frank Harroun, who I worked with over a decade ago at another restaurant in Delafield. Frank's been a touring chef for many years, working for the PGA Tour and Cirque De Soleil. He'll round out the kitchen team and allow me to focus on some new things as well as accomplish a few old things I've neglected because I've been so busy.
We've got an AIWF dinner coming up next month, and Angela and I have been talking about maybe opening for dinner on Sunday evenings. We both work at the restaurant on Sundays, and are able to get a lot of work done because the restaurant is closed. We usually go out to dinner afterwords, and it seems that there is more potential for Sunday business than I'd thought. With AJ returning and the addition of Frank and Phil, we have the staff available. The only negative would be that it'll be that much harder for Angela and I to get our work done with other people in the kitchen getting ready for service. Like I said, we're just talking about it and if you'd like to give your opinion, just shoot me an email either through the "Contact" page on the site or directly at email@example.com and let me know what you think.
So that's it for now. I've got to get in to work to get set up for tonight. Have a good weekend, and I hope to see you soon!Updated: October 10, 2010 9:36 AM
...which is good, because I'm not sure how much longer I could've physically kept up the pace we've been running at for the last couple of months. I mean, sure it's great to be busy, but there are different levels of busy, and lately, Angela and I have been literally running from one thing to the next to try to get set up for lunch and dinner every day. Even though she possesses a seemingly inexhaustible supply of enthusiasm and energy, in my case it's the trouble I get from my knees from going up and down the stairs and my back from constantly bending over to get things in and out of the reach-in cooler and oven. I guess that's why they invented Aleve, and also why I continue to be grateful to work with others who also put in long days without complaining.
Anyway, it's been a pretty fun week. I learned a long time ago at The Metro that you never know who'll you'll meet when you walk out in the dining room, and it was very nice to see Sen. Russ Feingold and a few associates eating lunch here on Thursday. I've always respected the senator for standing alone opposing the Patriot Act in 2001, even though it was clear there would be a lot of negative political fallout from doing so. He seems like a pretty nice guy and said he enjoyed his lunch- maybe he was heading down to Irish Fest and didn't want to go on an empty stomach... My good friend Sean "The Crusher" Jones, a chef who is as proudly Irish as anyone I've ever known, used to jokingly maintain that Irish cooking was little more than boiling the daylights out of things that no one else would eat, then drinking enough whiskey to make it taste good. We used to work in a small restaurant next door to an Irish pub in Delafield, and though there may be some truth in his observations, I'll still admit to liking a good Shepard's Pie, lamb of all sorts in fact, and pretty much anything having corned beef in it. Maybe that comes from the Irish on my Mom's side?
Well, even if it's not acknowledged for it's delicious cuisine, Ireland has given us Guinness and hurling, and that's a lot to be proud of right there. Even though I'm pretty sure you can't get a Guinness at Irish Fest, you can still check out the Milwaukee Hurling Club's booth there and get a taste of the "fastest game on grass". I used to enjoy hurling several years ago, when I worked days and could make the practices. It's a lot of fun and the hurlers are good people to hang out with...
But I digress. Getting back to the restaurant, we're now starting to have a few open tables on weeknights, and lunch is coming back nicely since we stopped taking reservations. We've hired Adam, Kira, and Nina in the front of the house to help out in AJ's absence and to fill the positions left by Brandice and Yesh. I've been told that Brandice may be moving to California but I don't know whether or not that's true, and Yesh has taken a job in Chile and will be moving down there in a week or two; I wish them safe travels and hope they are both very happy in their new jobs. AJ brought her baby boy in this week, too, and told us she'll be coming back soon. We're all looking forward to that; it seems like she's been gone a long time even though it's just been a few weeks.
Some really nice dairy and produce has been coming in from Dave Swanson and Braise RSA lately; it's good to see that it's a productive year for the local farms and the quality looks great. A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of meeting a professional mushroom forager, and he brought me some beautiful chanterelles and hedgehog mushrooms- a sure sign of the changing seasons. I'm really looking forward to Fall, and starting to work out the next menu in my head. The salmon out of Alaska is fantastic, so it may make a comeback, replacing the walleye, which is getting a little scarce right now with the warmer water temperatures in Lake Erie making them head for the deeper areas of the lake to keep cool. Halibut season typically winds down in November, so we'll see how that goes. Maybe we'll bring back the osso bucco, or add another steak. So many choices.
All this talk of food is making me hungry- I've got no food here at home but I'm pretty sure there's a Guinness in the fridge.
Now that's what I'd call a good Irish breakfast!Updated: August 21, 2010 8:14 AM
Last week I received a call from a gentleman who wanted me to know how frustrated he was with the way he and his wife were treated on three occasions when they had tried to dine at Pastiche. The first time they came was within the first few weeks we were open. They had decided to come for dinner but had no reservation and were turned away because we were full. They came again a second time, a month or so later, but it was on the spur of the moment and again they had no reservation. When they walked through the door they were asked if they had a reservation and when they said no they were given attitude from the server who made them feel foolish for even thinking that they could just walk in and get a table without a reservation. The third time was just a couple of weeks ago. The gentleman's wife, knowing that he still wanted to come here, called on Monday and made a reservation for his birthday dinner on Thursday. She was so excited that she wrote about it on her Facebook page, and even called and confirmed on Wednesday. On Thursday they arrived at the proper time and were told by that same server that we had no reservation for them and no table to seat them at.
In talking to him, I could tell not only how disappointed he was, but also that he was still burning from being treated that way.
I felt, and still feel, ashamed and embarrassed that anyone who came to my restaurant would be treated this way not only once but three times. Of course, I couldn't change what had already happened, but Angela and I talked at length about how we can change reservation procedures to make sure this doesn't happen again, and we are working with the servers to provide them with positive ways of interacting with customers in these situations.
Reservation mixups happen for a variety of reasons; some are within our control, and we've implemented systems to minimize them. They can be as simple as having someone answer the phone who can count to ten. We only have ten tables, and you would think it's a pretty simple thing to do (I've messed up a couple of times myself), but we've now implemented a new system to keep better track of reservations and turns so that we can seat guests at the correct tables, on time. We've also made the commitment to have a dedicated host on the floor during dinner service- Angela has joined us full time now to do that, as well as to supervise the front staff to insure that our service is up to par.
When there's a problem with being able to get someone down on time for their reservation, it usually has to do with our ability to turn the tables. "Turning the tables" is how we refer to the process of serving a series of guests with reservations at the same table at different times during the evening.
Getting tables turned is a real, ongoing challenge in every small restaurant, everywhere. People have every right to expect to be seated within a reasonable period of time. There are a lot of different perceptions about why people get seated late; most of the time I hear it's because they think the restaurant wants to make more money by having them buy cocktails at the bar before being seated...
...I remember an experience I had years ago, at a well-known downtown steakhouse that had a reputation for doing just that; it was clear when we arrived that our table was set, watered and ready to go, with the server not otherwise occupied, yet still we were told that we had to wait at the bar- we were seated promptly after we'd finished our second round of drinks. I can't deny that may happen some places, but definitely not here. In fact, on busy nights, we'll take guests cell numbers, send them next door to The Palm and call them when their table is ready.
You don't want to have to wait for your table. That's why you make reservations, after all. Sometimes, though, things happen that prevent you from being seated on time. The most difficult turn is seven o'clock. To begin with, many of the five o'clock tables arrive late- anywhere from fifteen minutes to a half hour. We do everything we can to get their orders in, cooked and served promptly, without making them feel hurried, and most of the time we can get them contentedly on to whatever else they're doing that evening in time to have the table ready for the next reservation at seven. If the seven o'clock reservation is late, and we don't have another turn on that table, it's no big deal. If they are, we usually start thinking ahead to maybe moving that next reservation to another table if we have one available. Seven o'clock and later reservations sometimes tend to linger longer because they are there for the evening and may not be going anywhere else.
We want everyone to enjoy their dinners in a comfortable and relaxing way, and never ask for anything more than their understanding if indeed there is another group of guests waiting to be seated at the table they are occupying. In that case we'll simply ask them please if it's not too much trouble would they mind continuing their conversation and after-dinner drinks at the bar?
We believe that you should reasonably be able to expect to be seated within twenty minutes of the time you reserved, and are also willing to hold your table for that long should you find yourself running late. If we can't seat you within that time frame, I've asked Angela and the staff to offer you a glass of wine or a drink in appreciation for your patience. Having said that, though, if you're not here on time and twenty minutes goes by, and you haven't called to let us know you're running late, please don't expect us to hold your table for you if there is someone else who is waiting. We'll find you another table as soon as one opens up, and I think that's fair enough...
As for the gentleman I spoke with on the phone, I could do no more but express my regret that he'd been treated so poorly, give him my cell number to call should he decide to give us another chance, and my promise to do everything I could to personally see to it that he has a great experience. I truly hope he calls me and gives us that chance. He and his wife seem like nice people; exactly the kind of people anyone would want to have dining with them.
As with anything I do, I prefer to be straightforward. I've written about bad customers, and I'll never hesitate to write about us when we are bad, too. It's all part of the big picture. We're always going to be a work in progress. So far, people have been really cool about telling me both the good and bad things we do. Sometimes we change, and other times we don't. We still don't have high chairs, and we still don't serve Sunday Brunch. We do serve lunch, though. That's a big one, and that was your idea. We'll continue to evolve and improve, I promise.Updated: August 8, 2010 9:10 PM
As I stood at my saute station last night, enjoying a few moments of inactivity between orders and looking out the little kitchen window at the neon Miller High Life sign and the smokers across the street at Lee's Luxury Lounge, I was trying to think of what to take off the menu for Summer.
I've been so busy it's been nearly impossible to find the time to rework the menu, and it's become embarrassingly late in the season to be still trying to get it done. The truth is that there just aren't many things to change. It's not broke, so I think that if all we do is tweak a couple things that's probably for the best. I'm leaving the appetizers alone, adding walleye, and changing the tiramisu to a strawberry version to reflect the availability of good fresh berries. The mix of what's been selling has been all over the board, which is really nice, and also tells me that it's a solid menu, lending weight to my feeling that it's better to leave well enough alone. Barring anything weird happening, we should have it on the tables this week sometime.
One other thing you'll notice is that I've added a short note in the space above the salads that says, more or less, that we make lower acid dressings because they have less of a negative effect on the flavors of the wine you may be drinking and to allow the flavors of the salad ingredients to come through and stand out. I've had a few comments from people who want "more zip" in their salads, so we've upped the EVO to vinegar ratio a point or two, from 8 or 7:1 to 6 or 5:1 ("traditional" vinaigrette can be 4 or even 3:1), depending on the dressing; still fairly gentle and food friendly, but a little more assertive. European wines have an inherent acidity that is able to take on a little more vinegar in a salad than, say, wines from Napa or Sonoma. The note concludes by saying that we're always happy to add a little more vinegar to your salad if you'd like.
We had a nice review in The Shepard Express last week; thank you Jeff Beutner and Lindsey Abendschein for the nice article and pastiche of photographs of the restaurant. We were even featured in another national magazine called "The Week" last week, and had several people comment on how cool that was. It is cool, and also a little surreal. Having people come from out-of-state just to eat dinner can be a little unsettling. We've had people drive up from Chicago, take the ferry over from Michigan, and even a couple from Santa Barbara, heading to Chicago, who diverted to Milwaukee for a day to come and eat dinner with us. Being so busy is nice, but it also puts extra pressure on us and on the restaurant and equipment.
I realize that people make reservations a week or two in advance, and are really stoked about coming out to eat with us. I know that many look on the website at the menu and are excited to have something they see there. We are constantly making navarin and cassoulet, two of the biggest sellers. Rabbit legs are almost always going in the slow cooker, and I get fresh fish delivered almost every day from Milwaukee and Chicago. I try really hard to not run out of anything, but the restaurant kitchen is only so big and we only have so much storage space. The little walk-in cooler in the basement fills up with deliveries every morning then empties out as we process all the food for dinner service.
We seat 40 people at our ten tables and 8 more at the bar. In an average week we go through, more or less, about sixty to eighty pounds of lamb, maybe eighty to a hundred pounds of fresh fish and scallops, twelve to fifteen gallons of heavy cream, five to ten pounds of Callebault chocolate, thirty pounds of shrimp, two dozen ducklings and about as many chickens, two hundred pounds of potatoes, fifty pounds of onions, seventy five dozen eggs, and butter. Lots of butter. A hundred and twenty pounds or more, every week. We roll about twenty pounds of fresh tagliatelle, and make enough lemon tarts to blow through two or sometimes three big cases of lemons. We buy around a thousand dollars a week in fresh produce, not even including what I get from Braise RSA or the Farmer's Market, all of which has to be strategically jammed one way or another, along with the prepared food and desserts and cases of beer, into the tiny 8' by 10' cooler. It keeps everything fresh and rotating, for sure, but it is a logistical challenge every day to make sure nothing gets overlooked. The wine storage is a little better, though.
We'd originally had the wine stored on one side of the basement, but it was too near the cooler and freezer compressors (which generate a certain amount of heat) for it to be comfortable, so we moved it to the other side, cut a couple of small ducts in the air-conditioning stacks, tied a blue tarp up around it, and voila! The Pastiche Makeshift Wine Cellar and Chef's Office remains at a comparatively cool temperature and is much easier to keep organized.
I also bought a couple things last week that I'm kind of excited about- a new slicer for the kitchen and another new ice maker for the bar. The secondhand slicer I bought to open with made me pretty uncomfortable because it was all but impossible to use it with the hand guard in place and still get a reasonably decent result- the parts didn't fit together properly and I was always worrying that someone was going to get hurt, so I bought a nice, shiny new Globe that is much easier to use and clean. Because we've been so busy, and also had a little interruption of service with our ice machine a couple of Saturdays ago, we've been buying a lot of ice. I'd originally hoped that we could bag ice during down times and keep it in the freezer to use when we were busy but since we've opened for lunch and been so busy for both lunch and dinner, there really are no down times and that idea isn't working well at all. So I ordered another ice machine that we'll put in the basement and that problem should be resolved. The guy at the Marathon station will probably miss us, but I think the boys will still buy enough 5-Hour Energy drinks there that he'll be just fine.
So anyway, I didn't mean to go off on such a long jag, but that's why it's been a couple of weeks since I last had the chance to sit down and write. I'm going to try to do this every Sunday, because that's the only time I really have. Last Sunday I would have but we participated in an event down by the lakefront called "The Big Taste" which was pretty fun. There were a lot of restaurants there and it was cool to hook up with some good friends I don't get to see much of anymore. Because of the lack of time and storage space at the restaurant, we couldn't really make anything too fancy for the 300 or more people who were at the event, so we set up a little oyster station and Nick and Bobby shucked about 550 fresh oysters and got to meet a lot of nice people. My thanks to them and to AJ Dixon, who organized and supervised and talked me into doing the event in the first place. She's taking some time off right now to have a baby- we miss her at the restaurant and eagerly await her return in the Fall.
So look for the "new" menu this week (I'll change it on the web site, but maybe not today because I've got to get to the restaurant and pay some bills), and please let me know what you think when you come to dinner. I try to get to every table but it isn't always possible, so if you'd rather, send me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell me. Good or bad, it matters to me.Updated: July 30, 2010 8:58 PM
After the last table had gone last night, I took a quick look at the Micros reports before going down to the basement- it had been another busy week; our busiest yet, and by quite a bit, too. I was expecting a slow week; post-Summerfest, with the Water Frolics and Bastille Days going on. Not so.
"Being so busy is a good problem to have" is what people keep telling me, and though I know from a certain point of view they're right, I'm not sure I agree a hundred percent. I'm not in the restaurant business to make a fortune, or to get my "name out there". I love the work. I'm grateful to make a modest living, to pay the bank and bills, and be able to help my boys through school, the same as most people. People call and tell me to advertise in their paper, and to take advantage of the good press to market the restaurant and grow the business. There's a lot I don't know, for sure, about marketing a restaurant that's already as busy as we are. I do know that every time I see someone walk out the door, shaking his or her head after being told that we're sorry, we're all booked for the evening, I feel really bad- not (as more business-savvy people will tell me) that there are dollars walking out that door, but really that there was someone who thought enough of our restaurant to want to eat there and ended up having to go somewhere else. Should we expand upstairs? I don't know. Will the wave of business, fueled by good reviews, subside so we can establish a more realistic and sustainable business pattern? That's the real question. Time will tell, and then we can make some decisions and go forward. Right now, it's all I can do to try and keep food and wine coming in the back door so it can go out the front. We have so little storage space we have to get almost everything fresh every day. Sounds good, but it's still very difficult to predict with any degree of accuracy what's going to sell each night. One night we'll sell twelve chickens and three pork mignons and the next night that'll reverse itself. It's the same across the board, especially with the fresh fish. It makes ordering a challenge, to say the least. Don't get me wrong, that part of being so busy is a good problem to have. I just wish there were a few more hours in the day. If I just had a little more time, I could let my brain relax a little and be more creative. I could get working on the Summer Menu before it's time for the Fall Menu, and I could enjoy the time I spend working with the cooks and front staff so much more.
Right now, even just sitting here, I can't really follow a thought through from beginning to end without being interrupted by the work voice that says it's time to get going, there's so much to do and tomorrow will be here before you know it. Quiche crusts need to be made and rolled, bills need to be paid, payroll needs to be done, fish, meat and produce need to be ordered and I need to see if I can fix the front doorknob better so it doesn't keep coming off when people pull on it. The ice machine broke down yesterday, so I need to call my repair guy and leave a message to see if he can get out here tomorrow morning, and I need to leave Mario a note to let him know that the ADA access door on the South side of the building is sticking because the wood from the ramp has warped and the door scrapes against it. I just about throw my shoulder out every time I have to open it from the inside- I can't imagine how hard it would be in a wheelchair or with a walker from the outside. Then there's the stack of unopened mail on my desk... from the City of Milwaukee to the Sisters of St. Francis; you get pretty popular when you're in the restaurant business...
I love it, you know, and really can't imagine doing anything else. It's better than I'd ever dreamed, and being able to work every day with my boys, Angela and her son Frank, and the rest of the crew is more fun and rewarding than anything I've ever done before. Being able to share that with everyone who comes out to eat is an amazing feeling, and the times when I get to come out and visit with people make it all come together. The rest of the day recedes into the back of my head, the work voice quiets, and I just relax and soak up the happiness of the dining room. For a guy like me it just doesn't get much better than that.Updated: July 11, 2010 8:00 PM
I met my friend Scott Williams and his wife Shannon at the South Shore Farmer's Market yesterday morning. Scott is the GM at Lake Park Bistro, and I first met him and Shannon when we worked together at Bartolotta's Catering. The Farmer's Market on a beautiful Saturday morning may seem an odd place to be talking shop, but we're restaurant people and that's what we do, pretty much.
A good review of your restaurant is a blessing; and three in as many weeks has brought a whirlwind of activity to our door that's been very difficult to deal with. In addition to the crush of calls for reservations, the phone rings off the hook with people trying to sell me everything from matted and framed copies of the review to noise suppressing fabric panels because the review said the restaurant gets noisy. People order all the dishes mentioned in the review, and it skews the normal menu mix dramatically. Customers pull copies of the review out of their pockets and purses to compare notes. Some take snapshots of their food with their phones; God only knows what they do with them.
The vast majority of the people who've been coming out to the restaurant have been totally cool, and get what we're doing. They'll be back and if we keep making them happy, will become loyal customers. Others come in to "kick the tires", and may or may not come back because we may not meet their expectations. Most of these people seem to think we're a fancier place than we are. Then there are the "one percenters", who just come in to rip on everything and everyone they can, which brings me back around to my original point in bringing up my conversation with Scott yesterday.
Every once in a while we have to 86 a customer. Telling them to not come back; they are not welcome, knowing full well that they will waste no time and spare no effort relating to all who will listen about how awful your restaurant is, is not easy or pleasant. It's not really a choice on our part, because the person in question has behaved in such a way as to put us in the position where we need to do it in order to restore order in the dining room and not let what's happening have a negative effect on the rest of the customers. We had our first one last week. I felt really bad about it, but this person was rude to the staff, disruptive to our customers, and clearly not happy with the food, drinks or service, so I picked up the tab for him and his guests and asked him not to come back in what was the most apologetic and courteous but firm way I could muster the energy for. I was telling Scott this, hoping he could give me some advice because he's been handling situations like that for years and is really great at everything having to do with the front of the house. He told me that the best line he'd heard for that type of situation came from Joe Bartolotta's brother Paul, who was Chef at Chicago's Spiaggia restaurant many years ago. "Please don't give us another opportunity to disappoint you". Respectful and just indirect enough to make the person think about it for a second or two, that's a great one, Paul. I just hope it's a long time before I need it again.
That aside, it's been another fantastic couple of weeks.
Ann Christiansen wrote a wonderful piece about the restaurant in July's Milwaukee Magazine. I've always enjoyed Ann's writing, and have always appreciated her criticism because she goes to great lengths to be accurate and fair. I can honestly say that in the case of both Ann's and Carol's reviews, the quibbles and criticisms were right on. Some things we've changed or may change, others we'll try to do better, and a few will remain because, well, that's just the way we do it. I couldn't be happier or more grateful because the reviews have brought in so many new people to our restaurant. I hope most of them come back many times and are always happy.
For those who aren't, all I ask is for the opportunity to address and correct whatever it is they don't like, and for those who won't be pleased, well, there's always that little gem from Chef Paul...
One last thing- to my Dad and all the Dads... have a happy Father's Day. I feel like the luckiest guy in the world because I get to work with and spend time with my sons. It's why I do this, and my reason for getting up and going in every day. I'm so proud of them, and so grateful for their presence in my life. I hope we can have a long and successful run, and that the restaurant will help provide them with experiences and income that will enable them to have opportunities to live their own dreams. What could be better?Updated: June 20, 2010 3:03 PM