Thursday, September 28, 2006
Instead of slobbing around in front of the laptop in my pajamas drinking coffee all day, stopping only for an hour of yoga somewhere in the middle, yesterday I decided to go up north for some manual labor in Healdsburg. I was called late the night before that by the owner of a.Muse gallery on 18th and Alabama, who I'd met at the soft opening of my friend Brandon's new spot, Luau. She was going up there to help harvest and crush two rows of Syrah as the guest of chef/blacksmith/Sicilian about town Angelo Garro and his young apprentice Jeff Burwell, who is one of her artists. I'm from Healdsburg, and I hadn't been up there in way too long (ever since I let DPT keep my car after one tow-job too many) so I agreed to keep Lori company on the drive and in the fields.
We arrived at 11am to join a jovial crew of artists and Europeans (including Angelo's cousin from Sicily, Jeff's cousin from Belgium, and an independent filmmaker from Slovakia who was mostly sick because she had put on a nicotine patch in order to kick her 15-year habit) sweating away, sickles in hand. We jumped right in and picked the two rows pretty quick (well, we only picked about 3/4 of a row, having been late). After putting everything through the crusher/de-stemmer it was time for a swim in the young apprentices parents pool while Angelo cooked lunch: wild boar ribs (which is almost common food in the Dry Creek Valley), a delicious pasta, crostini with cheeses, tomatoes, figs, and Angelo's own prosciutto, and lots of wine (jug wine from Preston, which is next door to the house and Angelo's syrah from last year).
More swimming and sunning followed lunch, and then Jeff and Lori and I headed down to the Barn Diva (where I worked and was fired from three times in 2004-2005) to see the general manager, who is a dear friend of mine (hence the re-hiring) and a friend of Jeff's as well (Healdsburg is a very, very small town). We quickly polished off 2 bottles of Roederer Rose (it's good to have friends who manage restaurants) and called it a day. It was 6pm and time to head back to the city; after promising the GM that I would return to Healdsburg next summer and stay in his empty bedroom (which has been empty for a year ever since his hippie chef left to get married in Santa Cruz) and clean for him and see how many more times in one summer I can get fired from the Barn.
I drove back to the city and dropped myself off on Cesar Chaves, which was the location of yet another Ghetto Gourmet (which I weaseled a seat at and a ticket to, through my hard work as a waitress on Sunday night. Thanks, Jeremy!!). The food was interesting, and you'll have to wait until next Wednesday to read more, somewhere in the actual printed-word world.
Following the "underground dinner," Michael Hebberoy, his lovely girlfriend Holly (who'd flown down from Seattle for a long weekend), the photographer who's documenting the dinners for his book, two friends of theirs who live in the Mission, and I headed over to Nopa for more wine and dessert. I like the food at Nopa very much, and the three other city-dwellers (we were joined by a friend of Holly's, who was jokingly peeved we were at Nopa at all as she'd wanted to surprise Holly with dinner there tomorrow night) agreed that the food was good but were in disagreement over the mural. I love it (it's an artists rendition of the Western Addition, complete with a hipster walking little dogs in Alamo Square, and I think I can see my old house), they hate it.
Dessert was two baskets of fries (I think Nopa has the best French fries in the city, served with a spicy harissa aioli), chocolate ice-cream, and spiced doughnut holes with a rum-caramel sauce. The fries were gone in a blink and we all picked at the desserts (they were very good but I think we wanted something saltier to accompany the two bottles of Nosis (where's the "G"? Anybody?) verdejo that Michael picked, yum. The two Blue Bottle espresso martinis went down easy, too, which was maybe not such a good thing as several shots of espresso right before bed atcually *do* make for a sleepless night.
Monday, September 25, 2006
Last night's Ghetto Gourmet at the top-secret location in North Berkeley took place outdoors under the stars and the icicle lights in the back garden of two lovely folks who'd attended a few dinners and hosted one this summer (which was recorded for NPR).
The menu, which was entirely vegetarian (and nearly vegan) was full-fledged late-summer/fall bounty. A hot and cold salad of confit tomatoes, little sea plants, and chrysanthemum fronds led the way to a minestrone-like soup with all of the vegetables distinctly flavored and textured. It's so easy to turn vegetable soup into a hearty mush (which I always seem to do), that the cranberry beans and patty-pan squash pieces floating in an herbed broth, seemed like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. And normally I don't even like cranberry beans because it seems like they're on everyone's menu this time of year.
The main course was a butternut-squash lasagna, with thinly-sliced layers of the squash itself acting as noodles interspersed with black and white chanterelle mushrooms, white corn, and parmesan. The lasagna sat atop a puddle of red sauce and was adorned with arugula and more crispy parmesan. Dessert was little chocolate cakes with homemade caramel ice cream and crispy little pieces of vanilla bean.
The Ghetto Gourmet is a BYOB type event, so the communal tables (there were 30 guests in attendance) were filled with pens and wine-openers, all the better to take down names, doodle in gastronomic frenzy on the menus, and open bottles. Musical entertainment was provided by Jeremy's roommate on classical guitar, and some hippie chick from the East Coast wailing about the Mother Earth. Mostly I couldn't take my eyes off of her glittery, tasseled, white Sherpa boots, and the boxer dog who lived there put in a decent effort at hooking up with them a couple of times through the night.
Although it was a Sunday night, I should have known this wouldn't stop the roving band of bohemian culinary outlaws who'd just returned from a weekend spent 24/7 drinking Macallan 12-year scotch with Gore Vidal. The boys hadn't slept much and were loopy from a weekend of amazing conversation, food, and company (I knew I should have pressed them to let me be their waitress-in-residence!), so of course I took them out. We met up with Matt Dillon from Sitka and Spruce, who was in town from Seattle trying to get away from the pressures of being the town's most recent four-star chef (and on GQ Magazine's Top 5 Hot List for restaurants this fall), at the 500 club for a few and then moved on to the Lucky 13 until closing time. Fueled by cigarettes, adrenaline, and skyy citrus vodka, we headed over to Baker Beach (which took me 40 minutes to find from Market Street as I never drive in the city) so that the photographers could jump into the ocean while I did headstands on the beach (a yoga instructor told me last week that inverting myself for a minute every day would combat the stresses of waitressing all night. She was right!)
I woke up this morning feeling strangely refreshed after my second night of bohemian debauching in four days, and realized that my theory must be true: it doesn't count as being a lush if you're in the company of other artists. I'm like Kerouac, baby!
Sunday, September 24, 2006
As I may have mentioned, the foundering ship had an entirely new staff when I came back from South America. There were no more Mexicans cooking, instead the place is now being run by 22-year-old "culinary school hotshots" who are too big for their britches. The kids can cook all right, but the attitude that comes across the line with the plates was just too much for me. Too much for everyone that still works there, in fact; at the bar last week, two of the bar managers plotted how to get one of the cooks alone, outside of the building, so they could jump him and punch his face. This kid has a propensity for muttering snide comments under his breath, and their rage was warranted. I talked them out of it.
This huge attitude is compounded by the fact that most of the kids are decently good-looking. There is one cook, however, that we all called either "The Cute Cook," or "The Nice Cook," because not only was he the yummiest to view (over six feet, pretty roses tattooed on his forearm in place of the ubiquitous swallows or pin-up girls, hipster glasses, hot hot hot), he was the one who actually said hello to the front-of-the-house staff of his own accord and didn't look at you like you'd just crawled out from under a rock and asked what year it was like the other cooks do. Also all of the other cooks all have a variation of the same name and his is different, so nobody could remember it.
I can understand why cooks have this bad attitude--they put in three times as many hours as waiters do and get paid less than half as much. Now for me, this didn't make sense after one year of cooking at a fancy-pants restaurant when I was eighteen, so I got a job as a busser right quick. Some people are crazy enough to want to cook in restaurants for their careers, and I commend them for this. I have a great respect for cooks, I just wish they would be nicer to me. And I'm not some clueless waitress that just wants to go out and get drunk and go shopping the next day; I do this work because I'm passionate about food, and it generally confounds a line cook even more when I actually know all of the ingredients in Romesco and Rouille, and how these sauces are prepared.
I'd found out before the shift that the Cute Cook's long-distance relationship was no more, so I gave him every opportunity to ask me out on my last night at the foundering ship. Unfortunately, he did not pick up on my subtle clues, like when I asked him if he was going to come and visit at my new spot... "Blank," he responded "What the fuck is a Blank?" More promisingly, when I explained what and where a Blank was, he sort of ogled me and said "How could I NOT come and see you?" in an extremely sarcastic tone. I think working in restaurants has lowered my standards in men.
Friday, September 22, 2006
Restaurant Girl Speaks got a mention in the Toronto Sun today!
"Ella Lawrence is a San Francisco writer-slash-waitress at high-end restaurants. She's also the phantom behind a popular blog in the industry -- restaurantgirlspeaks.blogspot.com. Working in four-star establishments for the better part of a decade, she's written extensively about the personalities, quirks and secrets of her trade.
As customers, we think we're in an intimate setting -- but we're part of a large production number.
"(As a waitress) you can be the rock star of the area you're serving," says Ella, a 27-year- old who can, on a good night in her elite workplace, earn $500 in gratuities.
With two degrees under her arm, she still says you can learn more about the human condition in an eatery than out of any textbook.
The restaurants she has worked in are a haven of indulgence. The industry, at her level, can offer the best alcohol and the best food and the best excesses."
Check out the full article for the rest.
A couple of days ago I got a call from my friend Jeremy, who does the Ghetto Gourmet in the East Bay. For those of you who've been living in the dark in regards to the underground restaurant scene this last year, the Ghetto Gourmet is basically a dinner party in someone's living room. Jeremy has roving chefs come to town and cook, artists musicians and writers giving performances, and great salon-type conversation.
Jeremy's call went something like this, "HiEllait'sJeremyihaveafriendintownwhoscookingforfamouspeople
Well, I like meeting new people, especially other restaurant people who are writers, because we are few and far between. Michael Hebberoy and I made plans to meet at Ti Couz for a cocktail and a crepe, and I knew we were going to get along when I texted him, "On my way. Brown hair, blue eyes, six feet tall. Bicycle," and he responded "Long hair blue eyes big truck likes Barry Manilow and walks in the park."
So I threw on my Barry Manilow t-shirt (yes, I really do have one! I only wear it on special occasions because it's very old and for some reason I always wind up getting really drunk when I have it on) and away me and Barry went. I thought I was just going to meet some chef. Who I met was a guy starting a cultural revolution. Hebberoy (or "Hebb" to his friends) is a well-known Portland resterateur who is going through a "very hard break-up with that city," and to get out of the public eye he decided to go around the world and cook for interesting people. His philosophy is philosophers, and in telling about me the sorts of dinner parties he's hosting (at other people's houses), I was reminded of nothing more than the literary salons hosted at the Paris home of Gertrude Stein and her partner in the 1920s.
This weekend, Hebb is going down to L.A. to host a dinner party at Gore Vidal's house. The impressive guest list includes well-known literary and musical figures; not the type you see in (my beloved) Us Weekly, but the type who are quietly doing what they love and believe in and have gained recognition for their work along the way. The guy who started the Sex Pistols is going to be there, as is Madonna's sister.
Hebb's book-in-progress, "Kill the Restaurant," will focus on three groups building culture through feeding people on the down-low: the Ghetto Gourmet here in the Bay Area, a guy in Seattle who serves only the things he grows on his 10-acre farm (except for flour and sugar, although both crops went in the ground this year), and a group in New York. He'll be attending the upcoming Ghetto Gourmet dinners on Sunday night in North Berkeley and on Wednesday in the Mission. I'll be there, doing what I do best: bringing the food out of the kitchen and putting it down in front of people who want to eat it.
Also last night I attended the soft-opening of my friend Brandon's new venture (aside from the newly-minted Avenue G), Luau. The bar is on Lombard between Franklin and Van Ness, and I vaguely remember driving by there in my Bridge and Tunnel days. A vague memory of last night is all I posess as well. I know that there were lots of people I didn't know when I got there at 10:30, and then lots of people I did know starting around 12:30 or 1am who began to trickle in as they finished their shifts. I'm pretty sure I was yelling and throwing pretzels by the end of the evening, and was trundled into a cab with my bicycle poking out of the trunk and sent home. I received an email from the esteemed Hebb this morning, which went something like:
"apologies for my sheer drunkiness last night. ended up losing my phone somewhere to boot. i think maybe it is kickin around the bottom of that fuckin truck. it is dangerous to drink heavily with a blog queen...- liberace"
Wednesday, September 20, 2006
After a night staging, some intensive food and wine training, and my first night on the floor at the New Restaurant, I am happy to report that Restaurant Girl is no longer being choked by a tie, the great waiterly de-humanizer. I forgot what a difference it makes to not have a tie around your neck in your comfort level when waiting tables.
The New Restaurant is a self-proclaimed "not-hip spot," which automatically makes it cool. The groovy owners, who all hail from San Francisco or its outlying areas are "not slicksters," as one of them says, and what this comes through as is a restaurant that's well-designed with a decided lack of pretense. Everything's organic but they don't advertise the fact, they just let the food speak for itself. And last night, on a Tuesday, in a reduced section (two tables), I made the same amount of money as I'd made last Friday night at the foundering ship. Sigh of relief.
The way the New Restaurant does its training is really nice. I came in to stage on a Sunday night (and wasn't paid for my five hours of foodrunning, unless you count a truly delicious dinner and cocktail ordered off the menu at the bar after my shift) and then returned the next day after being offered a position to meet with the owners and review restaurant philosophies and policies, which happily are in line with my ideas on how a restaurant should be run; ie. open doors to management, building sustainable communities through feeding people and being a positive force as a business in the neighborhood you've chosen, and making sure the employees are happy.
I returned to taste through the whole wine-by-the glass list yesterday at 3pm, and then went through computer training (the Restaurant uses one of the most up-to-date and user-friendly systems that's available) before starting the shift. The kitchen puts up just about one of every dish at every line-up, so the waiters can taste it all before they start. They also put up a nice staff meal at 11pm...a welcome change from the new kitchen at the Old Restaurant, who didn't allow the waiters to taste anything (costs too much to feed us vultures the fancy stuff the guests get?) and sometimes put up leftovers that were too disgusting to sell before the shift started (old tapioca pearls from last week's soup, anyone?). Sometimes a salad was put up (no protein was offered in the two weeks since I'd been back from South America) but the chef put most of it on a plate for the "vegan" floor manager ("vegan" in parenthesis because when a meat dish was infrequently put up for the staff to taste, this floor manager would be the first one elbowing you out of the way with their fork, to "know what the food tasted like").
It's easy to tell how a restaurant feels about its waiters by the way they feed them. After all, restaurants are in the business of feeding people. So if a restaurant feeds its staff, happily and with good quality food, you can bet it's a place where all the staff is happy.
Sunday, September 17, 2006
Like rats deserting a sinking ship, all of the waiters at The Restaurant are quietly putting their other options in order. While I can't (and shouldn't) speak for other people's projects; ie how they are going to tactfully remove themselves from a Restaurant that has been suffering under mis-management for a year, I can speak for myself.
I have been staging (pronounced in the Frenchy French manner--"stAH-sheeng") at other restaurants around town. Staging, a term that is used when a cook tries out for anywhere from one day to one month at a restaurant, is a way of trying out a restaurant (and having a restaurant try you out) in a relatively low-pressure setting. The resume has been approved, the interview(s) have gone smoothly, and the stage takes place to see if the restaurant is a good fit for the cook (or in this case, the waitress) from both sides.
My stage tonight went extremely well, and I accepted the position. The new Restaurant is a joy to be at. It's funny how when you're working at a place where the entire staff is miserable, and you're miserable, that you start to accept those as being normal working conditions. I kept telling myself, "It's just a phase. The Restaurant will settle down (or pick up) soon enough, I just have to wait it out."
Leaving for two months and then returning put a lot of things into perspective. Just about everything at The Restaurant has changed since I've been gone, and this has been the common thread at The Restaurant for the last year (the time that I've worked there). While I didn't mind it when I was raking in fistfuls of cash, once the cash stops a-flowin' (and The Restaurant has been scarily slow for the two weeks that I've been back working there) I start to evaluate why, exactly, I'm working in a place that has made me consistently unhappy for the better part of my employment there. I left for a period of time because of a terrible manager; once he was fired I came back but now there *is* no manager, which presents a whole slough of other problems.
The deciding factor of which new restaurant to accept the position from came tonight; the New Restaurant is filled with professionals who are all decently nice people. Nice people are somewhat of a rarity in a restaurant world filled with ex-cons in the back of the house (cooks) and charming coke-heads in the front of the house (waiters). While The Restaurant has been busy trying to cover its lack of panache with a glossy PR campaign and an elitist attitude, the New Restaurant quietly goes about its business (providing excellent food in a nice setting), and people are taking notice--they did over 400 covers last night (on the same night The Restaurant didn't even break 100 covers).
Another restaurant that offered me a position is one of San Francisco's Very Famous Restaurants, and I spent a lot of time thinking about their offer. But after speaking with a couple of servers at the place whose offer I did accept, I feel confident in my decision. The other Very Famous Restaurant serves a specific clientele, a gentrified clientele that sees a big distinction between the people who serve them, and themselves. I'm not into that. While the money is consistently good at this place, I think I would only have lasted about 3 months before I began to hate it. The New Restaurant seems to be a perfect fit. It's run by a few people who have been in the business at comfortable, hip places of quality for a long time. Nice people who happen to love food and run a restaurant. Bon appetit!
Friday, September 15, 2006
We started off with the meze for two, which is a Middle-Eastern platter filled with all of the trappings: tender, dolma stuffed with ground lamb and cous-cous, with the grape leaf imparting just the right amount of tanginess, moist falafel, bright-green with parsley , chunky-vinegary baba ganoush, smooth pale humus, tabbouleh, and a creamy yogurt-dill sauce. Warm pita arrived to slather everything on, and we made quick work of it while we enjoyed our wines (Spanish Rioja for me, Petite Sirah for her) on the patio under the heat lamps.
The best part about the patio at Ziryab is that there are so many interesting people walking down Divisadero street at 10pm on a Sunday night. As my roommate said, "This neighborhood is like the Mission, but cleaner!" I don't know if I agree with her that far, but NOPA/Western Addition is certainly becoming hip. I guess all of the artists had to move somewhere once the boutiques and yoga studios took over Hayes Valley.
The lamb skewers were up next, perfectly tender and flavorful chunks of lamb meat interspersed with roasted red peppers. The cous-cous the lamb was served over was bland, but the zingy shaved carrot salad gave a nice bite. I could have probably eaten one myself but we wanted to save room for dessert: an apple-tobacco hookah, Moroccan Mint tea, and tapioca creme brulee.
528 Divisadero St. at Hayes, 415/522-0800
Dinner 4pm-midnight nightly, and they've just started doing lunches, too.
Sunday, September 10, 2006
I got sent home after two event-free hours on Thursday night, along with three other servers. Friday night I had a four-table section and it would have been a wash had the host not taken pity on me and given me the late 8-top walk in. Their bill was low for that large of a party but they were the only reason I walked home with over $100 (just barely), my criteria for putting on a tie each night.
Last night, for some reason, I was assigned the same section as another server (the new guy, who luckily I already know and like because we worked at a Very Famous Restaurant in the wine country together) and we pooled tips at the end of the night because we had a table of 20 in the second turn (although we only had a couple of tables each in the first turn).
Pooling tips is a tricky business. I've worked in a pooled house before (actually at the Very Famous Restaurant) and although it might seem fair in practice, one or two servers usually wind up carrying the rest of the staff, bringing in the bacon night after night, no matter how many times everyone says, "It all balances out in the end."
So all the new servers are looking around with wide eyes, asking each other, "Is it going to pick up?" and all the old servers are frantically looking around at each other asking, "Why are they giving the new people all of the shifts and all of the tables?" (My guess is to keep them from quitting), and in the meantime everyone's resumes are sharply polished and ready to be dropped off somewhere else at a moment's notice.