Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Open letter to Devra First, Boston Globe Restaurant Reviewer

Dear Devra:
First, thank you for coming to Roslindale, our quiet section of Boston. I am glad you thought enough of our project to come and consider us for a visit. Since the moment you first followed our Twitter account, I was excited and nervous about your visit. Now, on the eve of our scheduled review, I thought it would be fun (especially considering our past conversations where I criticized your rating system while praising your prose and quest for umami as the elusive Delicious), to tell the story about what I went through in anticipation of tomorrow.
Let’s rewind to a few weeks ago.
“Delicious, there is a Deborah on the line for you.”
“Heather, I told you I only accept calls from my wife on this line and her name is not Deborah. Take a message.”
“She’s from the Globe.”
[Pin drops in the background]. The wine representative I am sitting with shifts excitedly with a smirk on his face, and I say, “Excuse me, I should take this.”
As I spoke to you then, Devra, memories from the last six months with this restaurant came flooding back to me. When I was a cook, I put so much thought into the planning of a future restaurant, but also dreamed of the great reviews that could catapult me to success. When it become a reality, and the opening was upon me, the impression of a reviewer suddenly falls down the list of importance behind bookkeeping, hiring, menu planning, farm delivery schedules, painting, cable, gardening, etc., etc., etc. However, the reviews that hopefully will come are never completely out of focus. After we opened, I noticed your link to our Twitter account, and I decided to get serious about prepping for a reviewer.
As I sat up late in my dining room, sipping Pena de Lobos, I began to feel like a wolf on the hunt in the rocky slopes of Bierzo. Who are you, Devra? What did you like about other places in the past? What do you look like so we can identify your arrival? What do other people think you look like? How can I mark you and make sure that my team nails it on the times you come?
Then the idealist angel on my shoulder put down his cigarette marked with a gold dollar bill in a glass ashtray, stretched, and stood up.
“What makes this person more important?” he said.
This idealist, representing the younger me, continued on: “When we started this journey 20 years ago all I heard about was equality. A restaurant that was open to all, approachable to all, and where no one was marked with VIP (although all the 2011 Bruins are some of the few VIP’s at R’n’R since their championship defined the opening. There is an exception to every rule). How many times did you loathe that chef as they loomed over your shoulder pointing out issues with a dish you made 1000 times just because it was for this VIP?  How often did you stand on your soapbox, at the bar after work, preaching about how every guest was important and deserved equal attention? As you learned at Radius, every dish was for your mother, best friend, and Boston Globe restaurant critic. You started this project with clear ideas and initiatives that will all change, but remember ‘the why’. Why do you want to do this? Because you want to share great, local, thoughtful, fun food with whoever wants to come have it.”
The idealist continued some more, “This restaurant is for the college date who just wants to be treated with some fucking respect instead of like a child when they go out to eat with their hard earned money, and a restaurant critic.
This restaurant is for the English high school teacher that broke up two fights / was called a bitch motherfucker / was reprimanded for low test scores / had a 16 year old boy crying in her arms after class / managed to get off a trig lesson with success / bike had a flat tire, and Mayor Thomas Menino.
This restaurant is for the new parents whose 3 month old has finally fallen asleep and they can have some peace with a glass of wine and Joel Robuchon.”
 “Let her come,” he concluded. “Let Devra have a good time like everyone else, and let her write what she will write. Focus on everyone and you will succeed.” He then took a hefty drag from the cigarette he had put down and leapt onto a copper baron’s pirate ship disguised as a duck boat.
I sat back, staring at the e-mail I was writing to my fellow colleagues (the ones who had been so helpful in opening) asking if anyone had a picture of the unanimous Boston Globe reviewer. I wanted to paste her mug on the kitchen door so that everyone leaving the kitchen would be reminded of her and how important she was to our success. My old self was right: R‘n’R was supposed to be a place for all. It is a place where the working person was respected and welcomed, and a place where the experience of a reviewer was as important as the experience of a couple around the corner.
From then on, I stopped obsessing over nailing your experience here, Devra, and reminded myself what R‘n’R was supposed to be about. Nailing EVERY experience. Who will tell more people about R‘n’R? Paul “The Truth” Pierce or Chris and Kim from the bakery around the corner? Corey Kummer or the Roslindale Librarian? Zden Chara or Chris the school teacher? All are important because they have decided to spend their hard earned money at my restaurant and I want to make them satisfied with that decision. While you do a fantastic job of testing new restaurants ( I truly enjoy your column) and reporting fairly so the people of Boston can save their money from the pitfalls of shitty restaurants, should that make you more important when you visit than someone who has already decided to spend their money with me? No. In that category everyone stands equal.
While I wait for your review, life goes on here at R‘n’R. Regardless of your review there will be a group of people coming in tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that I have to give 110% to. Devra, uncovering your identity would have to wait. I hope you had a good time.

Yours in the search for umami,


Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Chapter 2- Summer Camp

So where does a good Southern boy go to summer camp? Cooperstown NY, of course. No, not a baseball prodigy.I was scared of the ball. Beaver Cross was an Episcopal church camp run by the diocese of Albany that is within driving distance of my Oma's summer house in the Adirondacks where we would spend the summer. As I left the Outback with little ambitions for the summer I contacted Deacon Betty and she hired me as kitchen help for the summer. I got room and board, some scratch at the end of the summer, and got to be STAFF at the camp I went to as a kid. What else is there in life? The added perk that the most beautiful girl I ever had the luck of courting until then was at that summer camp and lived right down the road in Cooperstown. Northern bound!
So my brother and I packed up my Toyota Corolla, hit a few Dead shows on the way up the east coast, and I rolled into Beaver Cross Summer Camp refreshed and excited. It is a beautiful old mansion converted into a camp with little cabins, big meadows,  a pool, and a cast of characters like any other camp. Former campers turned adults that can't quite quit the camp life. But what a life. Even as a STAFF it's all games, swimming, songs, candy, but with access to the staff smoking porch, beers on the weekend in Cooperstown, and making out. Counselors, maintenance, directors, lifeguards, cleaning girls, everyone got into the mix and the drama was better than any soap opera. There is nothing quite like laying on a blanket in the middle of the field under a clear starry sky frenchin' with the NEW hottest young woman who ever got within my personal space. If this is what being an Episcopalian is all about, everyone should get some!
And in the kitchen was Patty. A great chef who truly loved food. She opened my eyes to what food could be, even at summer camp. Why? She fucking CARED. How many people I've worked with that don't care, stopped caring a while ago, or care but are too lazy to make it happen. Patty wanted it all be good even if it was for kids, teenagers, and STAFF that really don't care about anything. This cooking thing, bent over a big black ancient stove, walk-in fridges, and a steamy dishwasher that was a constant race was exhilarating and educational under her. I didn't cook shit, though. Scrubbed, cleaned, peeled, chopped, whipped with an egg under my arm to show me the proper technique, all the time dreaming about the next chance I might get to kiss that girl in the meadow even though she was making out now with one of the older counselors. "Charlie! Wake up and get those mashers done!" "Owwww! I just cut off the end of my finger!!!" Blood hits the ceiling. I battle on until after dinner when I get a trip to Cooperstown Hospital. What's not to love about that?

Next Chapter- Hans, a lesson in divorce and playing with food (as well as other things?!) at The Melting Pot

Dedicated lovingly to the memory of Deacon Betty and Frank, two of the best people I have had the luck to know and model citizens who made life for a lot of kids great. Summer camp should be fun, simple, safe, and cheap. They made that happen for my family and for many less fortunate than me. RIP.