Friday, March 7, 2014

Friday Night is Alright ...

Friday night. The night the line cook should never call off, but he does, and it doesn't just sting, it cold cocks you so hard it's makes you dizzy. You don't have time to be dizzy, you were already in the weeds, before shithead called in sick, now you have to double time. Thank the food lords that chef is on the line, prepping with us or we'd be screwed. But that's what chefs do.

Friday night. When the sommelier and cellar master bust ass for three hours putting away the day's orders, so servers can waltz in five minutes late (hey, late is fucking late. And, ya know what ... on time is late.) so that those dedicated wine professionals get to repeat themselves about tonight's wine specials, and these aren't everyday wine specials, these are extraordinary wines, brought in for a chef's dinner. But we'll wait, while you take off your coat and get settled. I'm sure Vega Sicilia doesn't mind your disrespectful ways. Plus, our arms need to rest because they are tired from making sure we stocked the wines, to set you up for success on Friday night.

Friday night. You have to miss your sister's wedding rehearsal dinner, because by some sort of miracle you've been gifted the opportunity to have a rare Saturday night off, to attend your sister's wedding because your General Manager does in fact care about your well being, and doesn't want your family to hate you for not attending said wedding. How does your GM know that your family will hold it over your head for your entire life that you missed the wedding? Because your GM has paid her dues, worked her way up from hostess, to server, to bartender, to assistant bar manager, to manager, to sommelier to general manager, and made huge sacrifices in her life to be in a position to offer you a Saturday night off. Cherish that shit, there's no complaining about missing rehearsal dinners, it's Friday night.

Friday night. All of your training is about this night. It's the end of the week for the "real world" jobbers, and they've spent the week either being told what to do or telling someone else what to do and that equals stress. Major stress. Stressed guests. Because no one takes Friday night yoga. More drinks. Not eating. Now eating. Full book of reservations. Walk-ins. Regular's last minute plans. Dishwasher breaks. Toilet over flows. Kitchen needs hands. Bar needs hands. Front door needs hands. Dish pit needs hands. Weeds. Weeds. Weeds. Friday night.

But ... Friday Night is Alright ... because this is what we do. We survive. We thrive. We don't quit. We're stubborn like that, quitting is easy and we don't like easy. The toughest guest, in the end, is our favorite guest, because we're pleasers, we're here to please you, take care of you, in every way possible that we know how. And we like it. Because we're pleasers. We want to feed you. We want to pour you a drink. We want to take the edge off your week. Because we're pleasers. Through all of it ... no show line cooks, entitled servers, awesome dedicated servers, rockstar line cooks, requests off, schleping cases of wine, serving you, pleasing you, having each others backs, getting each other out of the weeds, breathing deep when we're out of the weeds, selling exceptional food and wine, and locking the door at the end of the night on this place we call home ... we love it. Friday Night is Alright.


 

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Thank you, for the Lessons in Excellence

Charlie Trotter changed the restaurant game, he was a visionary on the culinary cutting edge, but it didn't stop in the kitchen. Chef Trotter was about the ultimate guest experience, and you felt it every time you walked into his restaurant.

We all have a debt a of gratitude to pay to Chef Trotter, our dining scene in Chicago and throughout the hospitality world would not be where it is today, without his dedication to pushing himself, his restaurant and his staff in a direction that in our current climate many think is commonplace. The man was a wizard with vegetables, among other proteins and delicacies, and was farm to table before any of the media and marketing gurus hated or over used the phrase. Chef Trotter cared about every aspect of your dining experience, from the moment you walked in the door to the pouring of the last pairing, he never wanted you to forget your time in his namesake brownstone, and you didn't.

As one friend said after Chef Trotter's passing, the role of the modern sommelier would not be where it is today without this man. Chef Trotter was masterful at teaching his staff empowerment, self-motviation, discipline, leadership and a toughness that you need to achieve success in a grueling business. We as a community have all benefited from Chef Trotter's teachings as many of his disciples moved on into the food and wine world, and shared his tenacity from front to back of house. Upon hearing the news of his passing, I was stunned and didn't really know what to say to anyone about such a loss. As I remembered my meals and wine tastings at the famed restaurant, I reached for one of the many books in the library behind my desk, and within reading a few sentences, I knew exactly what to say ... thank you. Chef Trotter's lessons reach far and wide and I want to thank Joseph Spellman, Linda Milagros Violago, Robert Houde, Paula Houde and Serafin Alvarado for conveying those lessons and making a one time young and inexperienced girl care about every aspect of service to a degree that I never thought possible. Thank you Chef Trotter, for the Lessons in Excellence.

Monday, October 28, 2013

The Most Important Job

Any small business owner will tell you they wear many hats and play various roles in day to day operations to help with the success of their venture. In our case at Vera, Mark and I start with the roles of owners and work our way down the chain of command everyday, carrying out tasks in departments of accounting and janitorial, and in between the bookends of running the business we also manage to put together some good food and wine that our guests tend to enjoy, all the while having a bit of fun.

There are few days that go by where guests don't ask me 'What is your favorite wine on the list?' and while there is no secret on my love for Sherry, you'll hear many sommeliers say that picking a favorite wine is like picking a favorite child. And it's true, because if you've curated a list such as the one I have at Vera, you love all the wine, for different reasons. On the business end of my life, people also ask 'What is the hardest part of being a business owner?' and that question has endless answers, as each day is always different, and a task that is difficult today, wasn't a dilemma yesterday. That question got me thinking about what is my most important job, the most vital role to my business, and life, whether it be dealing with employees, guests, purveyors, partners, the community, friends, family, mentors and proteges, what is the most important job ... and unlike being able to pick a favorite wine, there is one job that is most important, being a good listener.

Yes, listener. It's the most important job you have, no matter any position you work, in any industry, anywhere. Listening. Listening. Listening. We live in a world where everyone is screaming out their story, both virtually and in real life, and amongst so much clutter, you have to ask yourself ... is anyone listening? The same world, where everything can be looked up on the interwebs, is one where everyone is formulating an answer, before the individual they are in a "conversation" with has even finished speaking. And if you ask the person, in that same "conversation" to let you finish they almost always get offended. Listening, let's you gain knowledge, knowledge is power ... so no, talking, talking, talking isn't going to prove how smart you are in any subject. And here's the thing we're all guilty of ... at one time or another, we've all been bad listeners. Not adhering to the job that can help us the most in our job, whether it be a line cook, sommelier, chef, owner, husband, wife, friend, mother, father, daughter, son, sister, brother ...

My grandmother used to tell me 'You have one mouth and two ears for a reason', looking back, I now know that was her "gentle" way of telling me I should shut up. And for a girl today, that does have to talk and interact with thousands of people, I'm going to take my grandmother's advice once again and work a little bit harder on being a good listener ... because it is the most important job.

Monday, October 7, 2013

And It's Still All Good ...

Sherryfest recently took place in NYC, and sadly joining the festivities this year was not an option. Staying home and running our business, is not only the priority when turning down an opportunity to attend fun events, it's the priority every single day. A small business that is two years old, is still in fact a child that needs nurturing, hand holding, supervision, discipline and everyday attention. For some, turning down trips and parties would deter choosing to own a restaurant, as many people see the work as too demanding and thankless. And don't get me wrong, owning and running a restaurant is hard work, really hard work, but I love it ... and as the restaurant gets older, I love it more and more, no matter the trials and tribulations that come along with everything from sweeping the floors to filling the seats. The best part about turning down those weekend parties, is I get to throw one everyday, a party where guests willingly pay to join in the good times, I'm grateful more than words will ever express, and this life is quite enjoyable. No, being a sommelier and owning a restaurant isn't only about wine tastings, it does involve a good amount of work, both physical and mental that you must be exceptionally tough to handle and stay in the game. But I do get to eat and drink for a living, which continually pushes me to learn, train my palate and have a little fun in the process. The trips will still come and one day I'll get to go back out and play, for now I'm going to stay home and hold my baby's hand a little while longer, while she turns two years old. The support over the last two years has been extraordinary, I'm honored and humbled by it everyday, and it is in fact that support that keeps the lyrics of Notorious B.I.G. in my ears ... "And It's Still All Good ..."

 "We used to fuss when the landlord dissed us
No heat, wonder why Christmas missed us
Birthdays was the worst days
Now we sip champagne when we thirst-ay
Uh, damn right I like the life I live
'Cause I went from negative to positive
And it's still all good ..."
~ Notorious B.I.G.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Sherryfest

Early influences in life always have a way of filtering back into adulthood. As a young child, I became enchanted with tea, which is still my morning and afternoon beverage of choice, rather than coffee. My passionate connection with tea began sitting at the dining room table with my grandmother while our loose leaf orange tea brewed in her powder blue and gold flecked teapot. At an early age I'm sure the flavor of my tea was much more about the three or four sugar cubes I added to my great grandmother's antique tea cups, atop their matching saucers. Today, the sugar is much less, if any, and the antique tea cups and saucers are tucked away in storage but there is never a morning while my Ceylon Nuwara Eliya brews, that the pastimes of my family enjoying tea do not come to mind.

Sensory memory can be powerful, and it took months and months of being mesmerized by Sherry before I realized that one of the main reasons I was drawn to this historic and diverse beverage revolved around my early years of enjoying tea (and later years of enjoying tequila). I fell head over heals for Sherry on first taste years ago, but it wasn't until tasting some rare Amontillado and Palo Cortado more recently, when tea descriptors crept into the mix that I realized the connection. And not shocking, Sherry just like tea (especially to Americans) can be a tough sell. There are stereotypes and misconceptions of Sherry and tea, yet both are seeing quite the resurrection in beverage programs throughout the country. Sherry recently received much celebration, from those professionals around the world who are more than passionate about changing the face of Sherry, at Sherryfest in New York City. In addition to having Bodegas from the rich bounty that is Jerez, another facet of Sherryfest was absolutely exhilarating ... a new book on the subject, 'Sherry, Manzanilla & Montilla' by Peter Liem and Jesus Barquin. 

It's exciting to see a modern, authoritative book on the subject of Sherry, that also includes Montilla as it is quite important, despite it not being included in the Jerez DO.

Hanging out at Terrior is never dull. The knowledgeable staff pulled out a few tricks, since I carry most of the Sherry they had on the shelves. Macvin du Jura ... Sherry has some competition for my affection.

The Grand Tasting at The Ace Hotel followed by lunch at the Gramercy Tavern bar. Cheers to GT for embracing quite the Sherry selection.

To say most of us were like kids on Christmas morning would be an understatement. Red and green from El Maestro Sierra, pure bliss.

 Have you ever walked into a room that was intoxicating with its energy? Aromas of Sherry will do that to a room full of wine professionals ... times ten.


Rocks, incredible aromas, and the glow of Sherry.

Sherryfest proved that the once celebrated beverage is on a serious comeback, no longer being painted into a sugary sweet corner. From the east coast to the west, restaurants are taking Sherry off the back page of wine lists and retailers are sharing the good word of Jerez with their many, loyal fans. And while Sherry may still be a tough sell, with the writing of Peter Liem, as well as quite the undertaking in the New York Times from Eric Asimov, here, here, here and here ... it looks like Sherry might be shedding that one note song of sweetness, and showing its true colors.

Want to get in on all that Sherry has to offer, check out those hot spots in Chicago showcasing the diverse fortified wine here ... and take a class on the subject, details at Vera.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Grateful Reflection

The holidays and new year always bring about much reflection, and in a time when so many have seen recent tragedy, this year's reflections are grateful ones, that fill both my house and business.

Celebrating our one year anniversary at Vera was quite exciting, and believe me there was a moment of ... 'Phew, we made it!'. As I look over my shoulder at the year gone by, I see the twists and turns of learning, teaching, inspiration, disappointment, frustration, long nights and even longer days, optimism, friendship, love and most of all hope. Dreams may come true, but they don't continue without dedication to your craft. That same long look over the shoulder also has me nostalgic for a few days gone by in the hospitality industry, yet conjures hopefulness for the future. 

Professions of all sorts reference the phrase 'separating the men from the boys', where the superstars stand out from mediocrity or what seems today to be the norm. In the hospitality profession (yes, it is a profession that people choose to follow as a career), there is a huge "class difference" in those that take the world of hospitality serious and work the craft from those that dump on and/or take the business of restaurants for granted. 

From the outside looking in, owning a restaurant probably seems glamorous ... it looks like we're hosting a well stocked party every night and I wish I could tell you that it is in fact a glamorous life, but it's not. Don't get me wrong, there are amazingly fun (and tasty) moments in the hospitality business, but at the end of the day, that is exactly what it is, a business and working in that business with grace is an art. So, if you've worked a successful corporate job your entire career and are thinking of retiring and opening a bar, because you think it would be fun ... and that running a restaurant or bar is a hobby, here's a newsflash ... you're not about to retire! If you want your "little hobby" to be successful, you're about to work harder and tax your body and mind more than you ever did at that desk job. Not to shit on your corporate career, but that is exactly what you're doing on mine when you think so little of hospitality work. That same attitude of retiring to own a bar, seems to take hold with so many Americans that are out of work. If I as a successful Sommelier and Wine Director get laid off, because my position has been eliminated due to budget cuts, I wouldn't think I could get a job working as physical therapist for the Notre Dame football team, just because I'm an ND football fan. Why? Because this craft takes years of education, training, certification, research of emerging trends, more education, care and dedication. Guess what? So does being a hospitality professional, whether that is as a Chef, line cook, back waiter, busser, bartender, manager etc., so why do you think when your day job doesn't work out, that you can "just get a job waiting tables". While dining in restaurants may be commonplace, successfully running them and working in them isn't. There are different levels of training, education, care, dedication, certification and hours of hands on experience that hospitality professionals must engage in throughout their careers. So, just because you threw a fabulous dinner party, do not think that you can work in a thriving, successful, well run restaurant ... it's truly not that easy. 

But the attitude towards the business of restaurants and bars unfortunately does not begin with the outsiders of hospitality, it begins with those of us who work in it. Again, if you're a physical therapist do you go to work drunk? Do you have a couple drinks with two hours left to go in your work day? When your clients come to see you for an appointment, after they've had their knee inspected do you have a shot together? If you're an exceptional, professional physical therapist and you've had a rough day in physical therapy and you get your pay check do you go out for seven hours, drinking and snorting all that money up your nose? I'm going to go with answering no to these questions. So, why because we serve alcohol in a sociable, lively environment, do so many in the hospitality business think so little of the profession that they come to work wasted, get wasted at work, get wasted every day after work, snort $100 worth of a night up their nose and then get shitty when they don't make $300 the next night, to compensate for their own bad decision  making? Enjoying oneself for an evening or two out on the town is one thing, to not respect yourself or the hospitality profession enough to work in it sober is one of the many reasons that other businesses don't take us (those who work the craft and enjoy taking care of people) seriously. Unfortunately, this isn't the biggest problem of the profession, though it is a cancer to any restaurant or bar. The biggest plague to restaurants and the attitude in and towards them, is mediocrity. The attitude of good enough, will destroy any business and restaurants are no exception. Before signing on 1023 W. Lake, we looked at hundreds of locations, and one of which is a restaurant that is still open. Mark and I had to look at the location early in the morning, after the restaurant had been open the night before. To say that the restaurant was disgusting would be an understatement. Chunks of food on the floor in the dining room from the previous night's service. The service station had dirty linen lining the shelves that held plates, glasses and silverware, linen that wasn't dirty from one service shift, dirty from weeks of shifts. A huge cigarette urn, for the employees, graced the walk from the back door to the patio which guests would have to walk by to enjoy outdoor dining. The owner even mentioned, as a selling point, that there was a dedicated area to smoke for employees. The decor looked like a cross between a bad 80's movie set and a bar in your favorite college town. Clearly, no one in the building really cared much to pick up food off the floor, to have a clean, inviting atmosphere for when purveyors walk in to do business, as well as when the doors open for guests. It's also no surprise why this restaurant is for sale. Of course, there are a zillion reasons why businesses don't succeed, including great restaurants, but if you control the controllable at a level of excellence, then it makes managing other aspects of your business easy, to a point of success. 

So, yes I'm grateful, as are those professionals that work with and around me for not letting mediocrity seep into my business as we take on our second year. Yes, you do have to sweep the floor entirely so there isn't chunks of food left for the mop to push around. Yes, you do have to come to work sober. Yes, you do have to study food, wine, service and hospitality, on a continual basis. Yes, you do have to come to work and have an appearance as if you're going on a first date. Yes, you must follow trends and new innovation in the hospitality world. Yes, you have to put out the best plate at 5:00 pm and 10:00 pm. Yes, you must smile and be inviting at all times to guests in my restaurant. Yes, you must provide more than good food, good wine and good service because that isn't enough anymore. Yes, you must create exceptional moments for guests, because hospitality is a form of entertainment. Yes, you must create menus without typos. Yes, you must answer the phone with a smile, because guests can hear it in your voice. Yes, you must provide an honest service to the guest and not over charge them for items to line your own pockets. Yes, you are expected not to steal from the house. In turn, I will treat you with respect, give you the tools you need to do your job, feed you (very, very well), pay you more than a fair wage, provide an education for free that individuals pay hundreds of dollars for, allow you to work with amazing food, wine and more, and hopefully provide you with the opportunity to make choices to lead a life of quality. If that makes me hard to work for ... then so be it, because I won't be bullied by mediocrity and my business mirror shows me a grand image of  grateful reflection.


Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Dig

One of the foundations of this blog is wine, makes sense, as the wine and service industry is the underpinning of much of my career. And while I love to geek out on wine, food, pairings, small production large format bottles, Sherry and exclusive summer rosés, the majority of the time, while running the business does allow me to work with these treasures, I rarely have the opportunity to write about them in a public forum. Instead I share stories of wine makers and farmers with our guests everyday, and encourage everyone to embrace a full experience at my wine bar and restaurant, whether it be to pair Fino Sherry and Boquerones or Rosé Bubbles with tomatoes and Manchego cheese.  But everyday doesn't get to be all Fino and Flor, Chinon and Chocolate Chip cookies... nope, sometimes owning a restaurant is messy.

Last year, during various terrible rain storms many of my friend's restaurants flooded. During one such evening, I watched a dear friend in a lovely outfit she had worked the floor in all evening roll up her sleeves and bail water, it wasn't pretty, yet she kept smiling her way through it ... because there wasn't (and isn't) an alternative, when you're dedicated to your craft. After a recent down pour in the city, many restaurants again went through something similar to last year ... water, damage, loss and countless hours of repair and time spent on and reacting to a problem in which most business owners find themselves powerless. Is this a natural disaster? No. And in the wake of the storm that is about to descend upon a community that showed much resilience just seven years ago this week, I know how fortunate I am to only have lost some product and time. But when you put your blood, sweat and tears into a business, where the thought of a "day off" never really exists, you might get frustrated and want to quit after a night of dealing with your offices taking in copious amounts of water, because it would just be easier. But instead you do one thing ... you dig. You dig deep into your soul, and figure out why it is that even the worst days can't keep you from continuing on with a dream. You dig for that dedication you have for your team and figure out, where do we go from here and how can we always do things better. You dig for wisdom and understanding, whether it be from within or with those by your side, those that dig deep within themselves and follow their own dedication, which allows them to be inspired. You dig for the energy that hard work truly demands, hard work that challenges your body during a fifteen hour day and your mind to take care of the business and still throw a party for your guests no matter the challenges that may face you in the basement.

Storms, literally and figuratively, always have a way of working back into a calm. After weathering a bit of a storm, I spent a little less than two hours finding a bit of inspiration, from a movie no less, and of course I am not alone in this response to Jiro Dreams of Sushi. While the account of Jiro needs no specific commentary, I will say these few points on a movie that made a few storms seem like a light fall mist ... if you don't "get" this movie then you don't have what it takes to survive in a successful restaurant, this is a movie that should be required viewing for anyone who claims to be a true hospitality professional, because it covers something beyond passion which is dedication and craftsmanship, and lastly ... while Jiro is one of a kind, as is his restaurant, he made me remember why I dig. Cheers!