You Can't Just Run Off to Hanoi: A Restaurateur's Struggles

By Sara Jenkins
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mikecogh/flickr


To read more pieces in Sara's series about her new restaurant, Porsena, click here, or click here for her recipe for "family pasta."

I really should have moved to Hanoi instead. For the past four weeks, in the constant blur of opening, that's been the thought swimming in the back of my mind. It's been my default runaway fantasy for almost 20 years, even after I finally went to Hanoi.

Having grown up in the lap of luxury in the third world (I would argue Italy was very third-world in the seventies) I always imagine returning to that when times are tough. I fantasize about the huge old colonial apartment that's pennies to rent, the house staff that costs nothing, and the culturally rich and exotic lifestyle that is ever so much more entertaining than the mundane details of working and juggling home and career that goes on in my own very familiar culture here. It's like you are living in the movie, not watching it, but because it's not your country or culture you can duck out whenever you want. It's the great secret to why being an expat is so alluring. As a foreigner you are not expected to participate in the cultural norms of your adopted country, and since you are not in your country anymore you don't have to participate in your own norms either.

The beauty of the restaurant business is surviving the odds, conquering the waves, and pulling it all back from the brink of the jaws of hell.

Since I obviously haven't run away and all fantasies aside I am unlikely to, I am still reeling from just how much work it is to get a restaurant up and running. I discovered the first week that we are woefully understaffed in the kitchen and quite unprepared.

Neither Sebastian (my chef de cuisine, or "bureau chief") nor I is very good at practicing until we actually have to start performing. We didn't spend weeks cooking our way through the menu, refining how it's all going to come together, come off the line, and go out to the tables. We didn't think of whether we had milk pitchers or olive oil cruets or dessert wine glasses or not. It didn't occur to me that seating a table of eight people at eight o' clock on a Saturday night and allowing them to order willy nilly off the menu could bring the line to a screeching halt as we struggle to put out their food and the rest of the dining room's. I forgot that cooking dried pasta to order takes time and if you make a mistake it takes even more time. I forgot that if I was the only person who knew exactly how I wanted everything cooked I would have to train each cook, which is sort of impossible when you have three cooks in three different positions and you are open for business and you also have to expedite.

The one thing we do have is a great waitstaff that really know what they are doing and rise to the occasion in order to make it work. I made my cousin Matt work the door the first two weeks so that he could be nice to all our friends and family who came pouring in and I could be left alone to snarl in the kitchen and sulk when things were botched—or when the orders just poured in, leaving me to wonder whether I was misinformed and perhaps the restaurant had 120 seats, not 60.

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Courtesy of Sara Jenkins

Everything that can go wrong, it seems, does. The computer screen froze up the first night we were open and we had to use handwritten dupes on random scraps of paper because we don't actually have order slips. Sebastian nearly burned the place down when his half-smoked cigarette ignited a desiccated wreath a friend of mine brought me as an opening gift. The wreath ignited the trashcans and soon the full dining room had 15 of New York City's bravest tromping through to extinguish the blaze in the back courtyard. I briefly considered tweeting about it but realized I can't actually put the food up and tell funny stories at the same time. Maybe later, but not day three.

Our young pasta cook, who is doing an amazing job, hurt his hand and was out for four days just when we thought we were finally managing to get it together. The chef Nate Appleman came in one night because he lives next door and he just left the high-profile job he had. Sebastian and I wondered if he'd like to take over. It could be a Nate Appleman restaurant and I'd go live in splendor on very little money in that fabulous marble-tiled colonial villa in Hanoi, no problem. Sebastian said he'd be very happy just being a bartender in a divey East Village bar with no real stress or demands. But we don't run away and we don't give up because we really love to cook and the beauty of the restaurant business is surviving the odds, conquering the waves, and pulling it all back from the brink of the jaws of hell time and time again.


MORE ON PORSENA'S OPENING:
Sara Jenkins: The Wine List
Sara Jenkins: On Dried Pasta
Sara Jenkins: Sad Restaurant Auctions

We are putting up the food better and better and more and more the way we want it. When the pasta ragu comes up in the window and I hand it to the runner it smells like Italy to me. It smells like Sunday lunch at my neighbor's kitchen table. The pasta with clams reminds me of Sundays at the beach in Fregene (near Rome) before the water was too dirty to swim in. And, best of all, people are happy and enjoy the room and the food. When the farm table in the kitchen gets its food the table goes quiet as everyone digs in. People come up and tell us how much they enjoyed it and how happy they are to have us in the neighborhood, how happy they are to come in and enjoy the pasta. Ultimately that's why we do it and continue to do it and don't run away. The deep satisfaction that comes from putting out the food we want in the way we want and having our customers be as happy with it as we are. No third-world lifestyle with villas and servants will ever come close to that.

Recipe: Porsena's Family Pasta

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2010/12/you-cant-just-run-off-to-hanoi-a-restaurateurs-struggles/68590/