The SMITH Diaries Project

On Sushi, Tomato Roses and Race Relations

Saturday, February 10th, 2007

By Tim Riley

As time passed things veered from the outrageous to the simply comical. Though we’d only developed and tested about half of the enormous menu’s recipes, Ryan moved Brandon and I from the home kitchen to the restaurant. There we were entrusted to set up the kitchen––installing shelves, assembling equipment and doing all sorts of other tasks the owners must have forgotten to contract from the construction company. We were hilariously inept. Even working together neither of us seemed to have the ability to use a level, so our shelves always tended to lean one way or the other; sometimes whole sets would collapse in cartoon-like fashion because of incorrect bracket placement or some similar error.

Hiring a kitchen staff was a nearly impossible task. There were no fine dining restaurants in the area and our advertising consisted solely of a laminated banner hung sloppily in front of the unfinished restaurant. Unsurprisingly, most of our applicants consisted of cooks already employed at the nearby Red Lobster and Olive Garden. Not a single one had any experience in high-end dining or Asian cuisine. Ryan (our executive chef, and my friend from the Culinary Institute of America, as you’ll no doubt remember from our last installment) insisted that any potential employees be able to speak English—an arbitrary and totally absurd demand in an industry dominated by Latin American immigrants; right off the bat this ruled out 80 to 90 percent of our candidates.

The matter was further complicated by the owner’s vague promises that “Chinese guys,” meaning Chinese immigrants like the owner himself, would staff half of the kitchen. They were to do the more “traditional” Asian dishes, the inescapable shrimp with garlic sauce and all its relatives, while Brandon and I handled the fusion ones. A week before the restaurant was to open there was no sign of any of them.

Things got progressively crazier. Days before our opening the restaurant had no pots, pans, plates, or silverware. Other than the yet to appear Chinese guys, our kitchen staff consisted of Brandon, one young woman and myself. Our sushi chef who was to work with Suzanne—another friend of mine from the C.I.A.—was suspiciously stuck in Italy. Our pastry chef was Ryan’s wife, Kelly, who had no pastry experience or training, and was incapable of producing even the most basic desserts. Our dishwasher didn’t work. That mattered less than the fact that we didn’t have any dishwashers to man it.

In the middle of this mess, the owners decided to try and open the restaurant two days earlier than planned.

It is important to step back and realize just how insane this whole scene was. It’s true that in some respects restaurants are supposed to be frenzied, hectic places. Cooking is by its very nature unpredictable, sure. But while life in any kitchen is chaotic, in a good kitchen it is a controlled chaos where, despite pandemonium, the line holds. Our line wasn’t holding; it couldn’t, it didn’t even exist.

Amid this turmoil, Brandon and I formed the same sort of friendship I imagine people form on nose diving airplanes or iceberg-bound ships. We spent nearly every waking minute of our lives together, especially since our work week was now easily more than 100 hours.

Ryan always viewed Brandon with suspicion. During a phone call when I was still in New York, Ryan described him as “a South Philadelphia gangster-type.” I shuddered; figuring my future partner to be impudent and hotheaded, the jersey-wearing type who spent his free time cruising in a souped-up import, watching Rocky and stuffing his face with cheesesteaks and Newport cigarettes.

Nothing could have been further from the truth. Brandon was more pensive than brash, the kind of guy who mixed NPR with arty hip-hop on his morning commute. His voice was quiet and he spoke slowly, as if contemplating each word. And he wasn’t from South Philadelphia, but from the city’s middle-class northeast.

Brandon was also hilarious, and the two of us spent a good bit of time laughing at the absurdity of our situation.

Picking through our bare stack of resumes, we managed to put together the semblance of a kitchen staff. We didn’t have half the people we needed to open the restaurant, but with three days to go we were desperate. In our desperation, we obviously weren’t considering human resource issues like employment diversity, but by coincidence we ended up with a staff that included four African-Americans. This wasn’t a conscious move, and not something we even noticed until much later.

A day or two after this hiring the restaurant held what can only be described as a pitiful attempt at an employee orientation. Led by Scott, a morbidly obese, crew-cut food salesman—the kind of guy who had rolls of fat on the back of his head—who was a friend of our bumbling, inexperienced GM, the orientation was filled with bullshit talk about fine dining and excellent service. It all flew way over the heads of our service staff, most of whom seemed bemused and lost, especially when the conversation turned towards food.

The highlight of the kitchen orientation was the long-awaited appearance of the “Chinese guys,” none of whom spoke more than a word or two of English, and all of whom had hilariously anglicized names: Sam, Paul, Kenny, Sean, and Vincent. With 48 hours to go before the restaurant’s official opening, it became clear that neither Ryan, Brandon nor myself could communicate with what was now the majority of our cooks. Not that communication would have really accomplished much-–-it was soon clear that the Chinese guys had no intention to follow our direction, the menu or any culinary trend more recent than, say, 1975.

Seeing that the Chinese guys were content to spend hours constructing outdated garnishes like tomato roses (long, inedible ribbons of tomato skin rolled into the shape of a rose), and dreaming up hideous culinary abominations (fried lobster in sweet strawberry sauce), Brandon and I realized that night we were going to have to rely almost totally on our meager hires.

Upon arriving at the restaurant the next morning, Brandon was told that he had to fire all of the African-American cooks and dishwashers we had hired. Of course, the owner didn’t phrase it exactly that way, but when we examined the list of the people Brandon was instructed to get rid of they all had one thing in common: their skin color.

Ryan denied the firing was about race. According to him the owners were upset that some of our hires showed up in shorts and sports jerseys—a sign of “unprofessionalism,” in his words. Even Ryan struggled while making these clearly nonsensical excuses; during our conversation he began to sweat profusely, his brow furrowed and he kept shooting Brandon and I those “why are you making me go through this” sort of looks.

Brandon refused to do the dirty work and someone else (we suspected Ryan or the GM) did the actual firing. Suzanne quit the moment she heard about the incident. I myself was ready to quit—and call the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on my way out the door (driving home from work, I called one friend to have him look up the number for me.) But I didn’t. I wanted to, what I thought happened disgusted me, but I had rent and loans to pay, and I was stuck in Wilmington, Delaware, with nowhere else to go. I resolved, though, that when I could get out, I would.

Above and beyond the obvious ethical issues, the firing and Suzanne’s departure presented a major problem. With hours to go before the restaurant’s opening, we had no one to cook the food. Unbelievably, the owners decided to open as scheduled.

So we did.

Up Next: Bad to Worse.

4 responses

  1. Rachel says:

    You guys make Top Chef look like pre-school. I’d like to see Ilan Hall get out of this one…

  2. Suzanne says:

    from mop bucket vegetables to real live chefs, who knew it would be this hard

  3. Kelly says:

    Wow, guys! I work for a chef in Houston (he graduated from CIA, too)….I used to want to own a restaurant until I started working in the industry! Ha! It’s alot harder than it seems……I can relate to the frustration of hiring adequate staff. It’s very difficult to staff a kitchen with a group of people who have the skills and personalities to make it all work! I am looking forward to reading more about your adventures!

  4. Chris Johnston says:

    I just started reading this blog and realized that it was all written months ago. I’d really like to hear an update and know what is happening. I’m planning to attend the CIA next fall (35 yr old career changer) and I enjoy reading the stories of a CIA graduate out in the real world.

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