The Strange, Sad World of Restaurant Auctions

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Sara Jenkins


Editor's note: The is the second piece in a series in which Sara is chronicling the process of opening a new restaurant, Porsena. You can read the first piece here. Or click here to try her Abruzzese-style pasta with lamb sausage and bitter greens.

While I wait for the gas to get turned on, there is a kitchenful of stuff to buy, and one way I am trying to do that is with restaurant auctions. In this economy there are a lot of them. Today I go to my first one, a dreary little Italian restaurant in the West Village that had been in business since 1978.

It's pouring rain and humid, which doesn't help cheer anything up. Sebastian, my chef de cusine (or bureau chief as he prefers to be called), shows up with me for the preview inspection. First thing I notice is that they have an A from the health department in the window. It's a pretty new letter-grade system that just went into effect, and everyone is sweating about it. I'm surprised because the place is a little dingy to say the least. The dining room has been emptied out and on the tables around the edge are stacks of kitchen smallwares: pots and pans and ladles, plates, full salt and pepper shakers, really beat-up shitty aluminum pans. Moët & Chandon champagne buckets, cheap glasses, stainless steel creamers.

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Sara Jenkins

We make our way into the kitchen, which looks as if they were still cooking and serving dinner last night. There's oil in the fryolater and knives strewn about the counter. The dishwasher drain is filled with food waste and a guy is running a dirty mop around with a sharp smell of industrial cleaner. There are two old Italian guys cleaning out the last of the food, some industrial packages of frozen lasagna and some insipid pitted green olives. I am really puzzled now as to how they got an A. Especially since the restaurant world is abuzz over how one of the big four-star French places has recently been awarded a C, although they have two weeks to appeal and I am positive they will get an A upon re-inspection.

We see an industrial electric cheese grater we want and a beautiful wooden butcher block that looks basically unused. "It's maple," whispers Sebastian. "How high will we go?" The refrigeration is old and cruddy, the espresso machine nothing special, there's really nothing else we want. I'm hoping the old guys are psyched to be selling everything and planning a relaxing retirement back home in sunny Abruzzi, but I might be projecting. We wander out to the bar area and Sebastian starts measuring the bar fridge even though it's clearly way too big for us. This brings him to the attention of two repulsive older goombas who seem to specialize in buying up large equipment at auction, cleaning it up, and reselling it. They ignore me and whisper away at him, pushing their business cards into his hand.

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Sara Jenkins

We decide to go find a coffee and go over what we've seen and what we want besides the butcher block we don't really need but must have. Even though the auction is supposed to start at 12, it's closer to 12:30 before the auctioneer in a cheap suit arrives. He stands on a ladder in lieu of a podium and starts rattling stuff off. I buy the one cast-iron pot that's good and that I know I can restore to gleaming beauty for five bucks. I am pleased and then bid up to five dollars on the hotel pans. I think I am getting 20 hotel pans for 5 bucks and am really pleased with myself. When the auctioneer asks me to put down 100 bucks I realize I am buying them for five dollars apiece. I am less impressed with myself but it's still a good deal so I don't feel like a total moron. Plus now that everyone has seen me pull out cash from an overstuffed envelope, they're wishing they had been pressing their business cards into my hand, not Sebastian's.

Somebody actually buys the shitty sauté pans and the salt and pepper shakers still full of salt and pepper. It's kind of boring and sad. I notice how stained and grubby the carpet is. We actually get the cheese grater and the butcher block for the price we wanted to spend. I am amazed. Most of the people bidding seem really seedy, but there are one or two clean-cut serious restaurant people who are not hungry, surprisingly, for the same things I want.

Just like that it's all over. We pay and leave. We have a wine tasting to get to, and I am saddened by the overall grimness of the situation, the cheap hustlers, the sad old men, the lack of beauty attached to a cuisine and a vocation that can be so stunningly beautiful.

Recipe: Abruzzese-Style Pasta With Lamb Sausage and Bitter Greens

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Sara Jenkins is based in New York City, where she has developed a reputation as a fine rustic Italian chef. She runs Porchetta, an Italian sandwich shop, and Porsena, a casual restaurant focusing on classic Italian pastas. More

Sara Jenkins is based in New York City, where she has developed a reputation as a fine rustic Italian chef. As Mario Batali put it, "She is one of the few chefs in America who understands Italy and how Italians eat." Sara is also the author, with Mindy Fox, of Olives and Oranges: Recipes and Flavor Secrets from Italy, Spain, Cyprus, and Beyond, released by Houghton Mifflin in September 2008.

The daughter of a foreign correspondent and a food writer, Sara grew up all over the Mediterranean, eating her way through several cultures and learning to cook what appealed to her. She began her professional career in the kitchen with Todd English at Figs in Boston, then went on to work as a chef in Florence and the Tuscan countryside, as well as on the Caribbean island of Nevis, before returning to the U.S.

In New York City, Jenkins became chef at I Coppi, earning that restaurant two stars from The New York Times. After similar turns at Il Buco, Patio Dining, and 50 Carmine, she began work on her own cookbook.

In September 2008 she and her cousin Matthew opened Porchetta, a storefront in the East Village focusing on porchetta, a highly seasoned roast pork common in Italy as street food or festival food sold out of a truck as a sandwich. Porchetta has been wildly successful in New York City, both with gourmands and ordinary folk alike. Porchetta was awarded the top spot in Time Out New York's "100 best things we ate in 2008" and also received a four-star review from New York magazine.

In 2010, Sara Jenkins will open Porsena, a simple and casual restaurant down the street from Porchetta focusing on classic Italian pastas.

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