I am in the process of opening a new restaurant.
For those reading this who have never been through that particular form of personal persecution, let me state here and now, you are an extremely smart individual to have chosen a field such as medicine, law, poultry processing, or waste collection.
For those born with the hospitality gene— that crazy chromosome hidden deep in your DNA that made you want to get into the restaurant business, that ever-present genetic factor that is like a voodoo hex combined with a witch doctor’s curse that hit you like a ton of ramekins the first shift you worked in your first restaurant job— you know exactly what I am talking about, welcome to my world.
This is my 12th restaurant opening as an owner, and my 15th since I was knocked over the head by that guileful stack of ramekins.
Opening a restaurant is one of the most stressful things anyone will ever do. It’s true. I’ve seen the studies. I would cite them here, but I’m too busy opening a restaurant to do the research. Trust me— even after 15— it’s very hard.
I know a good bit about running restaurants, but I still learn new stuff every day. There was a time, though, when I thought I knew it all.
“I’ll take verbal mulligans for $1,000, Alex”
Listed in the things-that-I-said-that-I-wish-I-could-take-back category of my life, under the subheading: “What was I thinking?” is an incident that happened three decades ago.
I was sitting in a barber’s chair, and the adjacent barber asked one of those what-do-you-want-to-do-with-your-life questions.
“I’m going to open my own restaurant one day,” I said.
“Really?” he said.
“Can you cook?”
“Yep,” I lied.
At the time, I was a 20-year old college dropout who was waiting tables for a living. The extent of my culinary experience had been cooking with an Easy Bake Oven I received for my sixth Christmas.
“How do you make your tartar sauce?” he asked.
Looking back, I don’t think it was a trap, or test, or even a trick question. The extent of his cooking experience was probably making one of the simplest of all condiments— tartar sauce. He likely wanted to know how his long-held family recipe held up to this future restaurateur’s. Especially since I was planning on opening a restaurant in South Mississippi, possibly the capital of tartar sauce on the planet.
The problem is, I had never made tartar sauce. I had made cakes using a 100-watt light bulb. I had made late-night beignets in my Fry Daddy using café Du Monde mix, but that’s about the extent of it. I didn’t even like tartar sauce. What I should have said was, “I’ve never made it before.”
That’s not what I did. I wanted to sound like someone who knew something about restaurants and food. I stalled, and stuttered, and finally said, “Uh, uh, mmm, Mayonnaise, pickle relish, and uh, uh, uh, cream of tartar.
It was a spur-of-the-moment desperate move in a situation where I should have just admitted ignorance. I had never used cream of tartar for anything. It was probably something I saw in my grandmother’s spice cabinet, the words fit, and it sounded official. Of course it made about as much sense as using a champagne cocktail to make cocktail sauce.
The barber, thought for a minute, shrugged his shoulders, and went back to work snipping someone’s hair.
These days I use cream of tartar to stabilize meringues. It works well. I occasionally make tartar sauce when hosting a fish fry, and capers are the only out-of-the norm ingredient I add into the mix.
Even after 30 years in this business, I am still learning. In conversations, I usually stick to things I know. Though there are a few things that I know for sure:
1.) Late night beignets are still as good as they used to be.
2.) There will be at least one person who reads this column who will try to make cocktail sauce using champagne.
3.) Somewhere, a retired barber is hosting a backyard fish fry and serving very stable tartar sauce.
1 1 /2 cups Mayonnaise
1 /4 cup Pickle relish
1 Tbl Yellow mustard
2 Tbl Capers, chopped
2 Tbl Green olives, chopped
1 1 /2 tsp Black pepper
1 1 /2 tsp Garlic, fresh minced
1 /2 tsp Garlic salt
1 1 /2 tsp Parsley
1 Tbl Lemon juice, freshly squeezed
Combine all ingredients, mix well and refrigerate four to six hours before serving. Yield: 2 1 /2 cups