One Year After Opening Porsena, Its Chef Shares a Few Lessons

By Sara Jenkins

Sara Jenkins is good at change, and drama, and do-or-die behavior, but now that it's a must, she's finally learning how to stay focused

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Its been just about a year since I opened Porsena, and the hubbub has died down. I no longer come into work frantic to produce the food and make sure I can get it to the paying customer in a timely fashion. The space has grown and turned and settled into itself. I have enough storage space and enough plates and enough glasses and I think I have the bread and linen order figured out. We've been inspected twice by the health department and managed to get our all-important A. My staff is well-trained and methodical, the routine of their days punctuated by odd projects I throw their way like pickling, curing pancetta, and trying to make the perfect kibbe for a major event.

The challenge isn't about just making it work every day. It's much harder and less obvious. The challenge now is to keep myself and my staff motivated.

I stay above as many of the petty arguments that erupt as I can, stepping in when I need to, but generally finding that it's better if people work their jealousies out amongst themselves. People seem ready to kill each other one week, and the next they are moving in together. It's part of the challenge I have discovered in restaurant work; we work together so closely that it's hard not to be sucked into people's emotional drama. But as the owner and the boss, it's much better if I don't.

The challenge isn't about just making it work every day. It's much harder and less obvious. The challenge now is to keep myself and my staff motivated, to keep us curious and interested and committed to putting up the 2,000th lamb sausage as beautifully and carefully as we put up the first.

One of the ways I go about this is making sure we stay curious with the specials. Because I chose to create a menu that didn't change with the seasons, it has fallen on our specials to capture all the glorious seasonal produce around us -- though I did take a stand against ramps this year. I am a little tired of the mania about them, even though when they first show up in the gray, cold spring I too hunger for them. But I hunger for them then in their first weeks when they are young and tender and not too strong. Quickly seared on the flat top and served with a dollop of lemony aioli, I love them. But in June, when they have become big and tough and overpowering, I really don't like them, and I really don't want to eat them pickled three months later even if I can. Instead, I like to move on to garlic scapes and young tender garlic shoots, to the sudden profusion of leafy greens, and, of course, asparagus. And I don't ever really get sick of fresh local asparagus.

So working through the seasonal produce without simply making the same thing over and over again is one way to stay curious. The other is to do really different things in the restaurant, like a Roman dinner to coincide with my acquisition of a new Roman cookbook in Italian. I read it hungrily, with its descriptions of the culinary traditions of the city I love most in the world. I had never thought about it, but of course it makes sense that in the capital of Catholicism the Catholic dietary restrictions were followed more closely than anywhere else, bringing us no end of recipes featuring salt cod and chickpeas. I love reading about the history of Osterias both as social and political centers. I lived in Rome as a child and a young adult, and a lot of what I observed around me I never questioned. It's delightful to read thoughtful pieces about the hows and whys of Rome to give some context to my memories.

As the owner and the boss I have to remember how my mood affects everything in the restaurant. If I come across as bored and unfocused, it gives permission for everyone else to be. At the beginning of summer, when we have our first achingly slow night and all I want to do is sit out back drinking wine and reading my Twitter feed, I rally everyone to remember that a slow night gives us an opportunity to really take care of everything with skill and focus. It means we have the time to really inform someone about the wine, and maybe convince them to try something unknown. It gives us a chance to prepare a more elaborate special, one that on a busy night couldn't be executed properly. We need to look at a slow night as not boring but an opportunity to cook and serve better. It's Pollyannaish, and as a deeply cynical person who is used to deflating peoples' balloons it's a new role for me, the cheerleader. But it works quite well, and everyone approaches their job with a renewed sense of purpose.

Me included. Staying focused is a learning experience for me. I am good at change, and drama, and balls-to-the-walls do-or-die behavior. Keeping a steady course has always been a challenge to me. As soon as one thing is settled I am on to the next, never quite satisfied and always thinking I will be satisfied only when I get to the next thing. I'm finding out how to pace myself and remain interested, even when nothing very dramatic happens. The restaurant fills up predictably and then empties a few hours later equally predictably, and all it wants from me in the interim is a guiding hand at the wheel. As chefs or restaurant workers I always think we are adrenaline junkies -- eminently capable as long as a deadline looms, but not trained to just keep everything moving hard on an even keel. It's why I admire chefs like Alfred Portale of Gotham Bar and Grill and Eric Ripert of Le Bernadin: they've been doing the same thing in the same restaurants for years, but not in a bored, running-in-place kind of way. They manage to keep delighting and enticing their customers new and old, and to be still excited about their cuisine and their profession.

I too hope to be as fresh and happy with Porsena nine years from now as I was the day I opened. While it's not the most overt challenge I've ever faced, it is perhaps the most difficult.

Image: Sara Jenkins.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2011/10/one-year-after-opening-porsena-its-chef-shares-a-few-lessons/246663/