Wednesday, December 20th, 2006
If upstate New York was my Egypt, then Delaware, I thought, was to be my milk-and-honey filled Promised Land. That was my first mistake. Delaware is no one’s promised land. If I was Moses leading the Jews out of Egypt and what I encountered was Delaware, I’d have turned right back around and explained to the Pharaoh it was all a big misunderstanding.
I exaggerate, but only a little.
Delaware is essentially one enormous stretch of strip malls, a repeated pattern of cheap dry cleaners, Red Lobster restaurants, pawnshops, Home Depots, and office supply stores. Yet unlike other suburban areas, Delaware is haplessly devoid of anything new or interesting. There are few electronics stores, trendy burrito spots, or nightclubs—though no shortage of Arby’s. People in Delaware seem to live their lives floating between a wistful melancholy and a slightly blissful ignorance, as if they weren’t quite aware there was more to the world than used clothes shops and cut-rate nail salons.
It was next to an unfinished nail salon in a yet-to-be-filled strip mall that my saving grace of a restaurant lay. The idea really wasn’t all that ill-conceived: combine fine dining Asian-fusion style food with a stylish sushi bar, and upscale but not fancy surroundings and plop the whole thing down in a middle class area near a big university. The plan was to hire hip, attractive servers, have a partly open kitchen, a bar right in the center of the joint serving modern, creative cocktails. It all seemed doable.
At least that’s the portrait my friend and C.I.A. compatriot Ryan painted. Ryan never impressed me much at school. He certainly wasn’t a great chef. But he was older, more experienced, very nice, and quite convinced that this restaurant was the real deal. He was to be the executive chef, I his sous chef.
I have to admit that when he made this offer I was desperate. It was like Last Call, and I was that morose frat boy looking desperately around when he realizes he’s confronted with the possibility of yet another weekend night alone.
By early summer I’d come to loathe the hotel. Gianni left for New York in the late spring; without him I felt overwhelmed and, frankly, quite lonely. The hotel was a union house and the cooks there were overpaid and impossible to discipline, fire or motivate. Very few of them had a passion for food. I spent most of my days alone, making the sauces for the hotel and little else. It was in this mindset I agreed to go to Delaware. What can I say? The lights were very dim.
It was in June that I finally packed up and left the hotel. Before I left I dropped into the kitchen one last time to say my goodbyes. Chef was in a Food and Beverage meeting in one of the conference rooms I was told. After some looking I found the room and slowly opened the door. Chef stood up, smiled, shook my hand and said in his thick accent, “I am loooosing a great saucier.” I smiled back. Other members of the Food and Beverage team had shocked looks on their faces when they saw me, as if behind my back I had a cache of automatic weapons and was looking for retribution. On the drive south I had morbid Charles Bronson-style daydreams about how everything would have ended better if I’d just gone in with weapons blazing.
At Ryan’s urging I developed a sample menu. I filled it with what I thought was interesting, innovative, yet easily marketable food. There was no foie gras or veal cheeks or obscure Asian ingredients. There were, instead, simple dishes like five-spiced cured salmon, crispy soft shell crab with ponzu brown butter, and jasmine tea smoked chicken. Ryan seemed very pleased with my menu; so did the owners of the restaurant.
In reality, it was all lip service. The restaurant’s owner, with minimal influence from Ryan, had already constructed a menu that was essentially filled with fancied up take out fare. Instead of tea smoking the chicken like I suggested, thin breasts were to be coated with a macadamia nut crust and served with “savory pineapple bread pudding” and a sickeningly sweet, vomit-colored “port-coconut cream.” Nearly every single dish seemed to call for large quantities of sugar. Beef with broccoli and chicken lo mein played prominent roles on the menu.
Ryan assured me that this was all just pretense—a nervous restaurant owner attempting to assert his authority. Soon the food and the menu would be all ours, he promised. Meanwhile, I was to be developing recipes with the other sous chef, Brandon. It was hard to take the process seriously. We developed—I kid you not—separate recipes for ginger-soy vinaigrette, ginger-soy sauce, honey-soy emulsion, sesame-soy sauce, citrus-ginger dressing, sesame-ginger dressing, honey-teriyaki vinaigrette, honey-teriyaki sauce, and mustard-soy sauce, among countless other hyphenated horrors. Our most difficult task was remembering which of our plethora of identically flavored sauces we were working on at the current moment.
The restaurant was still under construction at this point so Brandon and I conducted our work in a tiny single family home in a nondescript residential neighborhood about a mile away. Brandon commuted from Philadelphia, but I lived in this house (which was owned by the restaurant’s owner) with Suzanne, an old and close friend from the C.I.A. who had been recruited by Ryan to manage the sushi side of things. While we developed recipes, Suzanne trained at the owner’s other restaurant—a fast-food Chinese place located in a mall that also happened to serve shoddy, too-old sushi. Her experience was a combined set of food crimes worse than anything I had previously imagined. January’s tomato tartare paled in comparison. Not only did the owner use frozen fish that he illegally marketed as fresh, he served aging, nearly inedible product and instructed her to cover up the off flavors with slices of raw ginger, insisting that “people don’t like the flavor of raw fish anyway.” One day Suzanne walked in and found the other cooks washing vegetables in the mop bucket. She told me she nearly quit on the spot. I should have quit the minute I heard it. I didn’t. That was my second mistake.
My third mistake was when I found out the owners of the restaurant obtained the necessary capital by selling off the Taco Bell franchises that they owned. That really should have been my cue to exit. Inexplicably, I did not.