PLEASURES AND PLACES
by LEONARD JAN MITCHELL
WHEN the Atlantic asked me to explain some of the responsibilities of a restaurant proprietor, I did not know where to begin. I am not sure that I know where to end either, because everything, large or small, in a good restaurant is important. Here, at any rate, are some of the considerations which come foremost to my mind.
First, it seems to me, is the buying of food of the very best quality available. The core of food purchases is always meat. A buyer must make sure that the loins, ribs, and other beef products are of prime quality and proper age. (Three and onehalf weeks is considered the proper age — the meat is just getting tender without acquiring a gamy flavor.) He sees to it, also, that the eye is large and properly marbled.
As to veal, it has to be Detroit white veal out of milk-fed baby calves. Lamb is corn-fed spring lamb only. Pork we buy from a supplier who has served Luchow’s for thirty years and who knows our specifications. He remembers, for instance, that our pigs’ knuckles must weigh 1½ pounds each — a cut that is slightly more than a knuckle and includes part of the shoulder, which is the most tender part. In buying smoked pork loins our man makes sure that they are lean, because the meat has more flavor than the fat portion when smoked.
Game is another essential item. I find the fresh-killed Canadian hare to be the best, but it has to be delivered packed in ice rather than frozen. We prefer the Wisconsin deer, as they are properly fed and the meat, lends itself well to aging, which is most important. The domestic partridge is more desirable than the English partridge. Guinea hens are selected by the color of the meat: if it looks bluish, the hen is usually tough. Our geese come from the Far Western states, as they have to be stall-fed stuffed geese which cannot be developed in the state of New York. The liver from these geese we use for our homemade pâéte de foie gras, for which there is no substitute.
We buy the ducks and chickens according to the season and from various parts of the country. The best chickens are those raised in Scroon Lake. They are kept on wire mesh and are not allowed to run around on the ground. They have only white meat. The Long Island ducklings are best at 5½ pounds, and the buyer must be sure that they do not have excess fat at the expense of meat.
We never let frozen fish come into the house — only fresh fish: though it is 25 per cent more expensive, there is no comparison in taste. Our salmon are sent in by air express from Gaspé, Canada; the crabs from Maryland; brook trout from Colorado; red snapper and pompano from Florida; English sole direct from the British Isles. Once a week I go to New Jersey to select the fresh-water eels to be smoked for one of our specialties. And in buying Nova Scotia salmon and sturgeon, we select only center cuts from young fish. We always go to the Fulton Fish Market ourselves and pick out the fresh local fish rather than order by phone. When in season, the carp that is most suitable weighs 6 pounds, and these are kept alive in our own basins. For our Herring in Dill Sauce the best size is the six to a pound.
Every lobster shipment is checked on arrival to make certain that all the lobsters are alive: all that are not kicking viciously are boiled immediately, and never, never is a dead lobster used in any form.
Next in importance are the vegetables, and there are many grades for each item. Asparagus from California is the most tender and most tasty; the next best comes from Pennsylvania. That from Jersey is tougher and sandier — the sand almost seems to grow into the stalk. String beans have to be flat and green. Carrots are sweeter from the West Coast, and that is also true of the iceberg lettuce. We get large onions from New Mexico and Texas. The Southern Virginia spinach is preferable. For potatoes, always of course the Idahos, and other kinds according to the season in various parts of the country. We purchase apples, berries, and other fruits also according to season. For serving fresh, the best always seem to come from the West Coast — particularly the strawberries, which are much more expensive but which are in a class by themselves.
Cheeses are purchased according to the age of the individual cheese, and each is tasted to make sure it is just right. As for groceries, their quality is determined largely by size, weight, and taste.
We import many foodstuffs — brislings from Norway, smoked hams from Westphalia, Senfgurken from Bavaria, lingenberries from Sweden, cepes from Normandy, sardines from the Mediterranean.
Many hours of the day are spent in buying supplies; it also takes a considerable amount of time to check them in. We have to be at the delivery entrance to see that the merchandise delivered is exactly what was bought. Me then weigh everything and check the prices on the invoices to see that they correspond with those quoted. This process fills a good hour and a hall each day.
After this sort of work, the restaurant man goes to the butcher shop, to the fish butcher, to the vegetable preparation room, to the cold kitchen preparation, to the actual ranges, and sees that the right cuts are being used for each dish that is being made, He makes certain that the spinach is soaked and washed at least three times; that the hamburgers contain no fat and gristle; that the Sauerbraten gravy has just the right body. In other words, he keeps tasting foods all day long — a constant job every hour of the day. One of his duties in the morning hours is to check the bake shop; and at times he samples the mixes before they are poured into the bake pans and judges the quality of the mix and whether any other ingredient is needed. He will have to pay particular attention to the preparation of the house specialties — the Rote Gruetze, the Hazelnut Tart, the Apfel Strudel.
There are various yearly festivals of special interest to the patrons of Luchow’s — the Bock Beer festival, the May Wine Festival, the Venison Festival, the Goose Festival, and others. My own work obliges me to watch for these occasions and for all holidays; all require special foods and special beverages, and we have to give a lot of advance notice abroad and in this country for the deliveries to come in on time.
Luchow’s is always associated in the minds ot its patrons with beer. August Luchow introduced to this country the Wuerzburger Hofbrau in 1884, and the slogan “Down Where the Wuerzburger Flows” was composed in honor of the restaurant. We now carry seven kinds of draught beer and fifteen of domestic and imported bottled beers. Each week we use one hundred barrels ol draught beer, maintained at a cellar temperature of forty degrees. When our draught Wuerzburger comes in direct from Bavaria, we do not start drawing it immediately but rest it for three days in the cooler.
Cleanliness of pipes through which beer is drawn is most essential, and the coil system has been taken out because of the difficulty in cleaning coils; the pipe system is used exclusively. Each draught beer has its own set of pipes, because different pressures are needed for each type of beer. For instance, beers which are imported are of greater age and have a natural froth; the older the beer the greater the froth. In setting up the correct amount of pressure for the pipes, all these factors must be considered, including the correct length for the pipes of each beer. Our pressures vary from sixteen to eighteen pounds, depending upon the type of beer.
Our pipes are cleaned by running water through them until the water is clear, then running through a cleaning solution made especially for us, which is left in the pipes one hour. Again water is run through until it is clear; then the pipes are blown out with fifty pounds of pressure. Our tanks are cleaned by hand, as this has proved the most effective way. the success of the pipe system and our cleaning system has been proved by tests of not drawing one beer for three days, and when drawing the test beer finding it in ported condition. In less effective systems and methods of cleaning coils and pipes the beer will not stand more than twenty-four hours without becoming dark and cloudy.
One of the pre-prohibition beers that were a specialty at Luchow s was Salvator — known also as October beer, for the month it first is drawn in Germany each year. This beer was reinstated at Luchow’s last year and was served from the Venison Festival in November through the Christmas holidays. This beer has a particularly strong and tangy flavor and is very popular.
The direct supervision of employees, which has to be handled with some skill and knowledge of human nature, makes heavy demands on the restaurateur’s time. With 165 employees on the stall, he has to deal with 165 individuals. Although all know their work, without the proper superintendence mistakes would occur. Since most things are cooked to order, the chef is in front of the range at all times to ensure the proper timing of the preparation and the pickup of the dishes by the waiters. Just as essential is the supervision of the dishwashing department — if too many dishes pile up during rush hours there will be considerable breakage, and if the machine is overfed the dishes will not come out dry. The restaurateur checks the underside of the dishes to see that there are no spots, and if there are any they will have to be soaked overnight. He checks the silver room and sees that, in collecting the silver for polishing, nothing is overlooked — sometimes a few pieces of silver are hiding in a drawer, and if these get into circulation with the freshly polished pieces they are unpleasantly conspicuous.
The proprietor makes sure that all the cold food is served only on chilled plates and that hot food comes out sizzling hot from the kitchen; that if an extra piece of parsley or lettuce is needed to make the plate perfect in appearance it is added; that no waiter loiters around the kitchen while the food on his tray gets cold. Everything is cheeked in the iceboxes each day and no leftovers are placed in them. Although practically all our foods are prepared to order, if any prepared food is left on the ranges it is offered as a choice to the employees for their meals and never utilized as a leftover.
The cleanliness of the house is a constant concern. The restaurant man must look under and on the tops of shelves for dust and watch for water or grease spilled on the floor, so that it may be taken up immediately, for spilled water or grease is one of the greatest causes of accidents, He checks temperatures in the kitchen to see that the ventilation is adjusted for the comfort of the kitchen employees. He watches for the possibility of running out of any dish listed on the menu and sees that it is listed on the kitchen blackboard before it does run out, so that no customer will be disappointed after ordering it.
He must be certain that the help’s shower rooms are kept in spotless condition. He makes sure that the laundry is counted, that the pots and pans are scrubbed and shined, that the coffee is freshly ground, that the motors in the building are running all right, that the repair and maintenance work which is constantly going on is progressing as it. should — along with the countless other tasks necessary to keep the back of the house in smooth working order.
A good part of his day the proprietor spends in his office discussing publicity and advertising, deciding which charities are worthy of requested donations, checking bills, okaying weekly and monthly statements, studying his food and liquor costs.
During his office hours he makes up menus with the chef, offering not only popular dishes on the table d’hôte menu, but surprise out-of-season items as well, shipped perhaps from Cuba, Brazil, Germany, or Holland. He also makes up the menus for banquets. Always in mind is the fact that in a restaurant seating a thousand persons, service must be carefully planned to prevent overlapping. Banquets and family gatherings are often arranged a year in advance. Parties celebrating birthdays must have a surprise birthday cake or a bottle of champagne sent to the table. (Often our musicians play a dozen “Happy Birthdays” in an evening.) Telegrams and gift s go to old patrons who are celebrating birthdays elsewhere.
The proprietor also plans Christmas presents for patrons and employees, selecting them with thought for individual tastes. He works out a system of employee bonuses, based on seniority and importance of position, in such a way that no one is offended. He must spend time with his accountants, negotiate union contracts, keep appointments with representatives of supply houses for china, silver, stainless steel equipment, glassware, and so on. He will sometimes have to settle quarrels between employees. With all these details, he must plan his days in advance and sometimes be aloof, because as many as three dozen butter-and-egg dealers can descend on him in one day.
There is a heap of correspondence, including many requests for recipes, to which he must reply. He will have to watch the payroll constantly, seeing to it that all stations are covered but that no stations overlap, for the payroll these days can quickly eat up potential profits.
During the main rush hours the proprietor has to spend time in the kitchen and dining room and bars, and this means a lot of walking. In both the bars and the kitchen he sees that the waiter does not have to wait for his orders. He supervises the food and bar checkers, so there is no possibility of collusion. He checks the service of the waiters and sees that the customer is happy and enjoying his food. He observes what foods are not completely consumed by tin’ patron and decides whether the portion was too large for that particular patron or not to his liking.
The proprietor must be very strict about the service of the waiters, making certain that patrons are always served from the left and that the waiter never reaches in front of them; the waiter must never touch a glass on the run, and silver is to be touched at the handle only. The waiter’s clothes must he clean, his trousers in good press, and he must wear a fresh shirt for each meal, with a crisp white tie. The proprietor sees that the bus boys are constantly removing soiled dishes and that the patron never has to wait for butter service. Complaints are few, but if there is an item which does not please the customer it is to be replaced immediately and without questioning. The captains and not the waiters take the patrons’ orders, and sometimes when the reservation phone keeps ringing because everyone is too busy to answer it the proprietor has to go to the headwaiter’s desk and take the reservations himself.
I should perhaps explain my own entrance into the restaurant field in the United States. While visiting Washington, D.C., in 1940, I patronized Olmsted’s and liked it so much that I was prompted to inquire about the ownership. I learned that it belonged to an estate and was managed by an attorney, and that it could be bought. Negotiations were started which ended in my acquiring the place, and it all worked out very comfortably.
I first visited Luchow’s nineteen years ago and was much impressed by its decoration, size, menus, and clientele, and I kept coming back to it through the years after that. After the war I asked Victor Eckstein, the proprietor, if he would eventually want to retire. In the latter part of 1949 he told me he had decided to do so. When we had agreed upon terms — and the stockholders, who were determined that the tradition of the establishment should be preserved, were satisfied, after their rather rigid examination of my ability as an operator — I purchased Luchow’s and I have been happy ever since.