Monsters, Beasts and Virtuosity

Paul Rogalski - 19/03/2011

Restaurants are monsters. Monsters are beasts. If you are not careful they both can eat you alive and spit you out with unprecedented indifference. They attack with relentless diversity that can bring a swift demise to all things beloved and can break down the strongest opponents in a slow torturous end. However there is a prize for a special few crusaders. Those who can tame their creature can achieve a place on higher ground and possibly rewarded with a hero’s bounty. Ok, so this is speaking metaphorically but as we know only those with the bravest of hearts and the purest of virtue can master their restaurants. This takes time, patience and rehearsal. The most important time for a restaurant is the “opening”, the moment the monster fully awakens. Imagine the advantage of a “soft opening”. The beast can be tamed at a slower, more methodical rate. This allows the operator a chance to familiarize themselves with their operation and lower collateral damage when unfortunate events happen- a clear tactical advantage. Some choose a “hard opening”, with all guns blazing, announcing loudly their existence before they open the doors. They hit their animal with everything they have, hoping to blitz it to submission. This tactic seems to be one of the most common practices and punctuates the high-risk nature of a restaurant. Restaurants are not only logistically challenging but they are always a financial nightmare when they open and need revenue as soon as possible. For this reason I believe this method to be so popular. Most launch with a gala or soirée of sorts with canapés and champagne in abundance. In the case of Rouge we had a two-year “soft opening”-not by choice but by budget. However, this certainly gave us time to tame our beast at our own pace. We operated under “The Cross House” name while we built the capital to market ourselves. Once we were well rehearsed and repainted, we rebranded and implemented “hard opening” tactics minus the gala. Consider the importance of making a good first impression-the risks are high and anything short of imprinting positive thoughts with the patrons could lead to immediate failure. The more discerning the clientele the tougher the critiques and the better you have to be. With this being said., every chef or restaurateur in the world would love the benefit of rehearsal before the professional critics arrive. And they are not always from the media, as often the toughest critics are colleagues and yes, the opinion of industry matters. Nothing worse than the word on the street being “thumbs down” from your peers. April 27th /2010 To my amazement I witnessed the unthinkable. Before Bar Boulud London had any rehearsal time whatsoever they opened their doors to a guest list with names like Ferran, Heston, Jay, Thomas, Fergus and René to name a few. It was The Worlds 50 Best chef’s luncheon and those who were present were of the world’s culinary elite. The pressure must have been unbelievable, unthinkable and unprecedented for any of the newly hired staff -many of whom are seasoned veterans. Chef Boulud was at the helm, carefully watching his team, assessing potential problems and leading the charge. With extreme precision and confidence Chef Boulud and his team treated us to a delicious lunch, delivered in a timely fashion. With his contagious smile, gentlemanly demeanor he reconfirmed what the word “hospitality” means. Bravo to an exemplary start to Bar Boulud. This day Daniel reconfirmed why he is one of the most respected chef’s in the world and he indeed can tame monsters of enormous magnitude. January 25th/2011-I flew to Toronto for one of Visa’s Infinite Dining Series Dinners and a very exclusive sneak a peek of Lee Lounge, the newest creation of Susur Lee. Susur is one of the first Canadians to punctuate the globe with his vision boasting restaurants in Hong Kong, Washington, New York, Singapore and Toronto. The official opening dates have been continuously pushed back due to delays in construction-the most common problem with a restaurant opening. The new date for Lee Lounge’s opening was Valentines Day-one of the busiest days in the restaurant industry well off the mark of the booking for The Visa Infinite dinner. When I arrived in Toronto, Lee Lounge still had paper in the windows. The organizers of the Visa Infinite Dinner were appropriately apprehensive about the cancelation of their sold out dinner. Susur had just arrived from Eric Ripert’s Cayman Cookout and was slated to be in Hong Kong the day after, before heading to Abu Dhabi for a guest spot at the World Gastronomical Congress. (Nothing other than what appears to be a frantic start to 2011 for Susur Lee). By the time I had unpacked my suitcase Susur had given the green light and dinner was on. The guest list included some of Toronto’s finest palettes including some of Canada’s most influential food writers and was hosted by the legendary James Chatto

( Susur introduced the menu course by course- a brave undertaking as it took him out of the kitchen for critical moments. Dinner was presented in typical Susur style, reversing the order of his dishes presenting the heaviest first then lightening them up course after course. The food was delicious, the presentations playful and smiles abundant on the patrons faces as they explored a flavor adventure. Susur had done it. While the paint was still drying on the walls and without the benefit of rehearsal he made 120 people very happy. And in only the way Susur could, he wrangled the beast with technical mastery. Kudos to these gentlemen for accomplishing what I deemed unthinkable. Although these men are very different, they tamed their beasts, conquered their monster and found their place on higher ground.