Thursday, December 15, 2011

2011: December 15th

The is the 24th and final posting of the series about One Block West Restaurant during 2011. It's been a year of a lot of changes for the better at the restaurant and I have greatly enjoyed writing about what has happened. I will follow up on or about December 31st with an index to the series and a few notes summarizing the year, but this it for the series. I hope that you have enjoyed reading along.

After a great run this fall, business has come to a screeching halt. Although I should be used to it after nine full years at this restaurant, the nearly instantaneous cessation of business after Thanksgiving this year surprised me. The first weekend in December is always miserable for two reasons. First, the travelers that we depend on for the bulk of our weekend business are spending the weekend at home because they were on the road the weekend before for Thanksgiving. And second, any potential local business is obliterated by the local holiday house tour. The second weekend is hardly any better. Collectively, the first two weeks of December are historically two of the worst weeks of the year, and so they have been this year.

Because of the dearth of customers, it has been a real struggle to sell the food we have prepped. Even though we know it is a slow time, we have to be prepared to have a busy night at any time and that means prepping more food than we think we have good reason to believe that we will sell. As I mentioned in the last posting, unpredictable is the new normal. And after a slow weekend on the 9th and 10th, we got bombed out of nowhere on Tuesday the 13th. We were barely staffed and barely prepped for more business than we did the entire weekend before.

But the overall slow time has let me get things done in my office that I haven't had time for in at least four months. For example, I have been through a lot of old paperwork and shredded and recycled anything not necessary to preserve. I've sent several massive bags of shredded documents to recycling in the last couple of weeks. And, I am already starting to close 2011, getting a jump on this heinous annual chore.

I keep three years of files on site: the current working set in one file cabinet, last year's in another, and the prior year in file boxes. Each year, another set of files gets moved to offsite storage. This year, I have already moved the 2009 files offsite and removed the 2010 files from the backup file cabinet and boxed them for onsite storage. Left to my own devices, I wouldn't keep this much documentation on site, but certain agencies, ABC in particular, require that we keep two years of documentation on premise.

This month, as I have paid the final bill for each vendor in 2011, I moved the 2011 file from the current vendor filing cabinet to the backup file cabinet. At the end of this process toward the third week of January, the current vendor filing cabinet will contain only active 2012 files.

I have noted with some satisfaction that over the years, the amount of paper that I am storing has grown smaller and smaller each year as more and more vendors switch to paperless billing. Killing fewer trees each year is a good thing.

I mentioned last posting that I spent considerable time on the telephone with an examiner from the Virginia Employment Commission because the dishwasher I fired in October filed for unemployment. I mentioned that my track record with the VEC has only been about 50-50 in the past. Their decision arrived this week in a letter stating that our former dishwasher has been denied unemployment benefits because he had a well-documented history of tardiness and absence from work and because he admitted to the same. I don't wish the guy ill will but I do have a problem with people filing for unemployment when they were fired for not bothering to come to work.

Special event menus always seem to sneak up on me and catch me unprepared. Once again this year, the New Year's Eve menu planning got away from me. I like to have the menu done by the first of December when we open the book for New Year's reservations, but this year, it was the 7th before I published it. After a few calls from customers wanting to know what was on the menu, I finally took off early on the night of the sixth and spent 2-1/2 hours working through the menu with Ann. At least half the ideas on the menu are hers—she remembers dishes that I have cooked that have long escaped my mind. Hell, I can't remember what we served at last week's Chef's Table.

The long and short of it is that we started booking reservations for New Year's Eve on the 7th this year. That morning, I came in, typed up the two menus, published them to the web site with pricing, updated the web site to promote the menus, and decided on seatings and put together a seating chart.

You may recall from the very first posting in this series that last year, we did two seatings two hours and fifteen minutes apart and still had some tables that took longer than that, creating a bit of a traffic jam at the beginning of the second seating as new guests arrived and had nowhere to sit. So this year, I spaced the seatings two and a half hours apart with seatings at 6:00 and 8:30. You might think this is early for New Year's Eve and it is: our customers are not a late partying crowd. They come here to eat before going wherever they are going to ring in the new year.

And this year after a lot of thought on my part, we are returning to a prix fixe menu after a couple of years of not having a special menu, just offering our standard à la carte dinner menu. I think people are ready to celebrate this year; I know I am. And the prix fixe menu is not the only change this year. Even when we did a prix fixe menu in the past, we had about four choices for each course. This year, I have done something entirely different in creating two separate menus, a standard one and a vegetarian one, neither with choices. This is probably going to put off some people and I'm OK with that. My goal this year is to serve customers who are coming to the restaurant to have One Block West food, not customers who are going out to order the filet mignon that they can get at any other decent restaurant. This will be my 10th New Year's Eve dinner service at One Block West and this year, I'm doing it on my own terms.

After sitting in a warehouse in Hagerstown for five days, our new bar stools finally arrived, in the pouring rain. It seems that every time we have to offload furniture or equipment from a trailer, it is pouring rain. With the arrival of the bar stools and the hanging of purse hooks on the bar, the bar renovation is now complete. It's been a long time coming and I am very pleased with the results.

This past week, we were faced with a new twist on the old credit card scam. A guy called at lunch time with a NYC area code and said he was visiting from out of town and wanted to order some food for the rest of the week and have it delivered. But, he didn't know what days we are open or what is on our menu. When informed that we do not deliver, he wanted to order lunch and dinner to-go for the remainder of the week, despite the fact that our dinner menu changes nightly and we have no clue what we're serving for dinner three days hence. The server told him to go look at the lunch menu on the web site and call back with a specific order for today. Good thinking on her part. He never did.

The word for this past two-week period is "short." As in, we got shorted a bunch of stuff that we ordered. Do you have any idea how frustrating it is to order something, such as a case of portabella mushrooms, only to find that it mysteriously never made it onto the truck? And it's doubly frustrating if that causes you to not be able to serve a dish on your menu.

And this happens all the time with wine and beer. With more than 70 wines by the glass, we just don't sell much beer, but the beer we sell is from a small microbrewery that has seen phenomenal growth and demand for its product. And they have just moved from their old brewery to a brand new bigger one and in the process, we got shorted on the stout we ordered. Goes with the territory, I suppose. Wine is even worse, coming and going, changing vintages and prices without warning. Despite our best intentions, there is always going to be a wine or two on the list that we just don't have.

A case in point: we have a shiraz that is very popular and is prone to be out of stock for months on end, so we buy large quantities to see us through from container to container arriving from Australia. We were getting low a couple of weeks back, so I called my sales rep and inquired when the next container was arriving and if they had enough in stock to carry us until then. I was told that the next container arrives in January and yes, they had plenty in stock to cover our re-orders between now and then. So we reordered last week and—of course, you've already guessed the outcome—no shiraz. Despite our best intentions at managing our distributors, they can foil just about any plans we might have. "Roll with the punches" is my mantra.

And this past week, Travis tendered his resignation to move to, coincidentally, Hagerstown. This has been coming for a long time and I had expected him to leave the first of the year anyway to go to culinary school, so I have been bringing along a new line cook as a backup. So, we are going into the new year with a new cook. So goes the restaurant business. I'm not sure what Travis' plans are—there aren't any culinary schools near Hagerstown—but I thank him for his service here and I wish him the best in the future.

Speaking of line cooks, one of my former cooks surprised me with a visit at lunch last week. I am very pleased to see that he has matured considerably and is now cooking at The Greenbrier in a very respectable kitchen. One Block West alumni are now in good kitchens around the country; one is a sous chef at a very fine dining place; several are working their way up in big kitchens; and a couple are executive chefs in their own right. It is gratifying to see that they have gone on to do good things with their lives and in their professions. It is my hope that each of them goes on to be a better chef than I am.

We also did a photo shoot with Around the Panhandle magazine and I spent a considerable amount of time doing an interview with a writer for that magazine, which is distributed primarily in the three counties just north of us, Morgan, Berkeley, and Jefferson counties in WV. The restaurant is supposed to be featured in the upcoming January edition. Photoshoots are always difficult for us, especially for magazines because of their long lead times. Our menu is seasonal and what is seasonal for a photoshoot today is not seasonal eight or twelve weeks down the road when the magazine is published. But I've been coping with this problem for years, given that I write articles for food magazines and am always working a season or so ahead.

Those of you who have been reading along through this series will remember that I had problems with my microgreen supplier. He only supplied product in the warm months and then it became too much for him to deliver to me. Back in the fall, we switched to another supplier whose product was not as good and was more expensive. And after about four weeks of working with her, she wanted to almost double her prices. Given that she was already priced above market and the quality was not quite there, I told her that I wouldn't be ordering any more product from her, which may have been her goal. She knew I wasn't happy with her standard product or her weak justification, "All my other chefs are happy with the product." I am not most other chefs and I won't use any product that isn't first class, so I just severed the relationship before it got any worse. She can go on supplying her other chefs and I will move along elsewhere.

And finally, the company Christmas Dinner is on my mind. Or rather the menu is on my mind. What to serve to a very jaded bunch of restaurant employees? You can keep your lobsters, caviar, and foie gras—we see it all the time. The initial word on everyone's lips was "braised." We all want non-fussy comfort food and we want meat, meat cooked low and slow for a very, very long time.

Last year I cooked ossobuco of pork, risotto milanese, and collard greens braised with smoked turkey necks. And I shucked a box of Cavendish Cup oysters from Malpeque, Prince Edward Island. The oysters were briny and fabulous, the osso was so tender and delicious, and it sure is hard to beat a classic like risotto milanese, but I did. Those collard greens are the thing that everyone remembers vividly and were the first dish to go.

I made them for my then-dishwasher who grew up in North Carolina where greens are a way of life. He hadn't had greens in forever and was constantly asking me to make collards for him. And I did, finally, for Christmas. Quoth he, "These are better than my grandma made." Rule number one of the restaurant business: never set yourself up for a comparison with grandma, because she wins every time. Rule number two: if you're going toe-to-toe with grandma, you better knock her out. I knocked her out.

So how to top this? This year I want to do something different and I have gone around and around about sundry braised meats, but there is just no getting around the fact that the pig is king. No meat is as succulent or as flavorful. And as I was struggling with reprising the braised pork shanks, I happened across a late night show on the Food Network that mentioned porchetta. It was a Bart Simpson "Doh!" kind of moment. And then Ann mentioned gnocchi and I was off to the races. And so, I am going to serve a sinfully unctuous porchetta (cured, rolled, and stuffed pork belly roasted for 8-10 hours), potato gnocchi with black truffles and pancetta, and yes, Grandma Williams, collard greens slowly braised with smoked pork necks.

As I wrap up this series about the restaurant, which has caused me to focus on the blog in the last year (as opposed to the web site, the newsletter, the Twitter feed, or Facebook), I have been looking for something to drive me to keep moving the blog forward. It occured to me this week that we have a new international grocery here in Winchester and although I am familiar with thousands of ingredients and although we have hundreds in our pantry, in a troll through the store last weekend, I saw dozens that I have never worked with. So, for 2012, the crew and I are going to be playing with two new ingredients each week. Stay tuned for our experiments with alien-to-us foodstuffs in the new year.

I leave you with the delightful vision of our staff Christmas dinner, a sense of anticipation (hopefully) for the new series of postings in 2012, and thank you very sincerely for reading along with me this year and wish you the merriest of Christmases or whatever holiday you celebrate.


  1. Can't wait to read about the new ingredient adventures in 2012! Hats off for another exceptional year of posts in 2011. Your realistic chronicles are a source of more inspiration than you know.

  2. Hey Ed, please keep the blog going...I love to read about the restaurant comings and goings...far better than any reality tv show crap! :-)