Saturday, January 15, 2011

2011: January 15th

Whew! We got rocked tonight! And any time in the winter that we get rocked is a really, really good thing. But, nights like this severely tax my ability to buy and prepare enough food. People are no longer booking in advance like they did two and three years ago. Rather than simply walking in, most are still calling ahead, but only an hour or two before they show up. I made decisions about how much food to buy, especially the proteins, about 48 hours ago on Thursday. Same day reservations don't help me plan. Still, I am not complaining. We had bought and prepped enough of everything tonight. Just barely enough, but enough. And that's a great thing.

On top of regular business tonight, we did a private 7-course Chef’s Tasting for a really nice couple from Warrenton who were seated in our back bar. The couple requested no meat for their menu, but they love all manner of seafood, so we used that as our starting point for their custom menu. While planning their menu, I had this slightly whack idea: why not pair a different seafood with a different winter root vegetable for each course, except for dessert? Last Tuesday, we randomly paired each of six seafoods with six winter root vegetables and divided them up: I took two pairs, Chris took two, and Tony took two.

Our random pairings were: lobster and leeks, mussels and red onions, scallops and parsnips, sablefish and daikon, crab and sweet potatoes, and oysters and celery root.

After we brainstormed separately for a day, we sat down and started presenting our ideas. Some stuck, some did not, and some sparked some totally new ideas. And our trying to put these pairings into order on the menu so that they made sense in a progression and so that they paired with wines in a logical order gave us some constraints on an exercise that had been heretofore unbounded. And these constraints such as "the second course will be a soup course" let us move forward with the menu.

Doing the menu this way proved to be a great intellectual challenge. Pairing seafood with root vegetables is rarely ever done. Generally, root vegetables get ignored at most restaurants, but if you’ve been to our farmers market lately, you know that that’s pretty much all we have to work with. Beth was fairly apologetic on Tuesday when she showed me a single crate of yellowing kale, saying, “That’s the only green thing we have.”

In any case, by Wednesday afternoon, we were in the kitchen playing what-if games. Wednesday and Thursday, we spent doing proofs of concept for some of the trickier items (“pommes Anna” of daikon and musselwurst), and Friday we spent doing some of the longer prep items, making bread, making stock, chopping vegetables, making dressings, etc. Today we baked bread, made grits, and other things that wouldn’t hold overnight, as well as getting set up to finish cooking each of the courses at service time.

We’ve had three of us working this menu for about three days, from concept to execution. If I charged for the true labor costs, this dinner would not be affordable. I charge what is really a nominal fee for these dinners: they are great bargains compared to the effort we put into them. Yet we still do them, because they are great outlets for our collective creative muses. We do them because that is what we love to do. And we do them because we love people who don’t care what the menu is, who just want us to go in the kitchen, take risks, and give it our best shot.

I took a lot of photos of the dishes in the tasting tonight, despite how busy we were. I hope that they came out well enough to post, simply because there were some interesting ideas for dishes that I don't want to forget. Over the past 30 years of seriously cooking, I have forgotten a lot of dishes that now I wish I could remember. [Jan 21: the photos are posted here.]

This Chef’s Tasting has been a wonderful respite for me. I’ve been driving the desk hard for the past two weeks and I needed to get in the kitchen and do what I do best. The good news is that my year end bookkeeping is moving along very nicely; the bad news is that I have had lots of time to work on it: nobody is dining out right now during the week. [Hey, if you’re reading this, help your local restaurant out now in the slow winter season: book a table for dinner, especially on a weeknight.]

Two weeks ago, I finished the preliminary bookkeeping for 2010—while the year wasn’t as bad as it looked at the first of December, it was the worst year that we’ve ever had in the business, finishing just slightly worse than 2009. I prefer to see this as a moral victory: that we could even come close to 2009 numbers in this wretched economy speaks well of the strength of the business and the products and services that we provide. Typical glass-half-full entrepreneur: always looking for the silver lining in the clouds!

Last edition, I talked about the snow and the havoc it wreaks on business. Since, we have survived our first snowfall of the year, something on the order of an inch. That trifling amount was enough to kill business for two days. Thankfully it took out Tuesday and Wednesday and not a weekend. My snow removal contractor is happy that he gets to bill for putting down chemicals on the parking lot.

We kicked off our Valentine’s menu planning the first week of the month by first printing out menus from the last three years for ideas and looking at the sales mix from the past five years to refresh our memories about what sold and what did not. It is really clear that customers do not want to be challenged on Valentine’s Day. So, mixed grill of Hawaiian blue prawns and hebi (short-billed spearfish) is out. Crab cakes are in. Sensual cassoulet redolent of duck confit, bacon, and sausages is out. Steak is in. Fancy multi-component desserts are out. Plain NY cheesecake is in. We’re used to it by now. As much as it pains us, we keep the Valentine’s menu really plain and save the creativity for other times.

I do have to be very careful about what I do put on the menu though. As I wrote in the last posting, customers are ordering almost nothing but filet mignon right now. It is still accounting for more than 40% of our entrée mix, despite being the most expensive item on the menu by far. If I put filet on a fixed priced menu such as the Valentine’s menu, it’s all over. I am certain that our entrée mix would be upwards of 80% filet and there is not nearly enough room on my broiler (restaurant term for grill) for all those steaks. I simply would be unable to fill all those orders, without precooking the steaks and rewarming them to order and I will never, never, never do that.

Based on experience from last year, I am also working on a Valentine’s Day to-go program in which we provide really nice meals that can be shared at home with minimal effort and minimal cleanup. I haven’t given this much thought yet, but I need to get moving on this very soon. I’m also using this to see if there is interest in a larger grab-and-go program in which customers call the day before and book to-go meals. And in other brainstorming, I am finally getting together a schedule for cooking lessons for this winter. More details on that coming in the next few days.

Another upcoming task is the revamping the lunch menu. We generally change it about six times a year and it is time for a change. In the last revision, I reorganized the menu to make it make a little more sense, but what I really did is make a change that stopped our lamb sales cold. I need to sell lamb. They come in from the butcher every two weeks and I need to move lamb to have room for the new lamb. That lamb has stopped selling has really underscored for me that customers do not read the entire menu. I made the lamb less prominent on the menu and killed sales. Bad move: it used to be a great seller and in marketing terms, it was a great competitive differentiator. There is no other lunch outlet in our market where you can get lamb. Now customers don’t even know we sell lamb for lunch. Doh!

Speaking of lunch, it is interesting to look at our lunch order mix. As a rule, through the winter, our heartier dishes such as pasta are the biggest sellers on the lunch menu. In the summer, salads and lighter fare hold sway. In defiance of the usual ordering patterns, customers have ordered over the past two weeks almost nothing but salads and virtually no pasta. Desserts and alcohol aren’t selling either. This is no surprise to us; we see it every year. Customers will hang on to their New Year’s resolutions to eat less and better but only for another week or two, then it will be back to normal ordering patterns.

In the taxing spirit of trying to get all my fourth quarter and December taxes ironed out, I just got another friendly letter from my good friends at the IRS. They have lost (actually, they said that I failed to file, but I have a copy in my file cabinet) another of my quarterly tax returns stating how much money I have already deposited. Gee, you would think they would already know how much money I have deposited. This makes three lost out of the last six quarters. They’re pretty efficient at losing forms. Why, if I have to send them payments by EFT, why in the name of technology do I have to mail the bastards a hard copy form stating what they already know?

In other news, Chris, my most senior cook, just told me that he is headed back to South Carolina to take care of his mother come the first of March. He’s been my right hand in the kitchen for so long now that I can hardly remember when he wasn’t here. I’m going to miss him a great deal and I can hardly blame him for doing what he has to do. And now I begin the search for someone else to fill out the team, a task that is not all that easy in Funchester, Virginia. We don’t have the critical mass of good restaurants that ensures a steady supply of kitchen talent. Good cooks are few and far between.

Two weeks ago, we visited Glen Manor winery just south of Front Royal and helped kill the remaining 2008 Cabernet Franc. While most people like to visit the local wineries in good weather and especially in the fall, it’s impractical for me. Our busy season corresponds exactly with grape harvest, so when the vintners are especially busy, so are we. It is only after the holidays that things slow down for both of us, so winter is the primary time that I go visit wineries. The wines are in barrel and mostly through malolactic fermentation and it is a good time to visit with my winemaking friends, taste some barrel samples to get an idea about the 2010 vintage, and catch up while enjoying a bottle or two of Virginia’s finest.

That pretty much catches you up on the first two weeks of 2011. The rest of this month will see me focus on our wine dinner with Tarara on the 20th, the Valentine’s menu, the cooking class schedule, finding a replacement for Chris, and getting 2010 behind us and all our data to the accountants so that they can prepare our taxes. And I’ve been invited to do a presentation at my youngest daughter’s school for their career day in early February. What exactly do you say to a bunch of teenagers about the restaurant business, except “Don’t do it!”?

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