By Robert St. John
This morning I read a Business News Daily article that listed the most stressful jobs in America. Enlisted military personnel came first, firefighter, second, and airline pilot, third. Police officer landed in fourth place. I wouldn’t argue with any of those rankings.
Broadcaster came in fifth. I’m not sure I agree with that. Before I got into the restaurant business, I spent four years as a radio station disc jockey. I can tell you that, other than the first couple of shifts— when I was so nervous, I was physically shaking— it was one of the easiest jobs I’ve ever had. With apologies to all my friends in the media, I’m not sure broadcaster even belongs in the top 50 of most stressful jobs (with the definite exception of war correspondents in the field). Newspaper reporters came in seventh. I don’t agree with that one either. Public relations executives also made the top ten. Sorry but I must argue again. I am sure they were thinking of crisis management in a PR sense, but that is situational. Taxi driver came in at number 10. Last week I was in several taxis in New York. Those guys didn’t seem worried about anything.
There was no mention of restaurateur. It just goes to show you that, Simone Johnson, the author of the article for Business News Daily, has no clue as to what is involved in the opening a restaurant, or its daily operations.
Event coordinator did come in at number six. I get it. I’ve done a lot of catering over the last 40 years, and in addition to the hundreds of little things that can go wrong during a major catering event (we almost blew up the garage of a wedding reception once— another story for another day), you are typically dealing with people at their most anxious. Most people don’t entertain very often so it’s a stressful thing. In turn it becomes a stressful thing for the event coordinator. So, for the purposes of this column, I will assume that event coordinator also includes restaurateur, which puts those of us crazy enough to be passionate about this profession as the sixth most stressful job.
I’m in the middle of my 24th restaurant opening in the past 40 years. I believe it’s truly one of the most stressful things anyone could ever do (or at least sixth most stressful). I imagine from an outsider’s perspective one would look at opening a restaurant as, “why not just teach the cooks the recipes, tell the front-of-the-house staff how you want them to serve the tables, and just let guests file in.” How awesome it would be if it were that simple.
The opening of a new restaurant is demanding, taxing, tiring, fraught with potential disaster around every corner, and I love every minute of it. There are so many moving parts and so many opportunities to drop the ball. Though the older I get— and the longer I stay in this business— I see those as opportunities to win guests over. Mistakes are going to happen, and especially during the honeymoon period in the early stages of a restaurant. It’s not about the mistakes, it’s about how the mistakes are handled. If four decades in the restaurant business has taught me anything, it’s that a bad guest experience, handled properly at the table, can turn into a situation that wins a customer over, and sometimes more so than if they just enjoyed a flawless meal. It’s not about the mistake. It’s about how the mistake is handled.
This most recent opening was a unique one. We took over an existing restaurant in Ridgeland, Mississippi that had been in business for 12 years. They shut the doors one day, and we took over the entire restaurant the next day. Two weeks later— after a major deep-clean, some redecorating, re-concepting, service training, and recipe and menu development— we reopened with a new concept.
Our primary goal, from day one, was to retain all the current team members. We paid them through the entire two-week shutdown, and I am proud to say that we were able to keep every member of the team employed. That made this opening a little easier than most, but when you get down to it, everything is new because we brought in new recipes, new menu items, new cocktails, new systems of service, new point of sales systems, and new culture. Ultimately, it’s a new deal.
The restaurant is named after my friend, Enzo Corti, who lives in the small town of Barberino-Tavarnelle in the heart of the Chianti region of Tuscany. Enzo is a fourth-generation wine and olive oil merchant who embodies everything I love about Italian food and culture. We have patterned our restaurant— and its approach— after his zest for living, exuberant charm, and infectious personality.
The food at Enzo is part American-Italian and part authentic Italian. I decided to pare down the inaugural menu due to all the restaurant-opening reasons I stated above. We’ll start off with limited offerings and work our way into a more extensive menu. The main items we will be adding in the coming weeks will be more authentic Italian dishes. Many of those dishes are ones I learned during my travels to Italy. Some came from my son who worked as a chef over there, and others I learned from restaurateurs across the country, but mostly in Tuscany.
I am tired. At 60, I don’t quite have the stamina I did when I was in my 20s. But that’s not going to stop me. I do, however, believe I work smarter these days. I don’t know how many more restaurant openings I have in me, but we have a few more concepts in the works and even more on the drawing board. We want to keep creating opportunities for our team members to advance and move up.
In the end, I consider myself fortunate to have found a career that is also my hobby. It’s not work to me, it’s just what I love to do. I am weary, but more importantly, I am grateful, and I am blessed.
Porcini Mushroom Soup
3 quarts Mushroom stock, heated
8 TB Unsalted butter, divided
¼ cup All-purpose flour
¼ lb. Dry porcini mushrooms (soaked and reserved from the mushroom stock recipe)
½ cup Shallots, minced
2 TB Brandy
2 TB Kosher salt, divided
½ TB Ground white pepper
1 TB Fresh thyme, chopped
2 TB Sherry vinegar
In a one gallon stock pot, melt 4 TB of the butter over medium heat. Once melted, add the flour and whisk constantly to combine thoroughly and prevent scorching, about 2 minutes. Slowly add the heated mushroom stock 1 cup at a time, combining thoroughly each time until all the stock has been added. Continue to heat this on medium-low, stirring occasionally, until it has reduced to 2 quarts.
Meanwhile, melt the remaining 4 TB of butter over medium heat. Add the shallot and stir until softened, about 2-3 minutes. Add the mushrooms, 1 TB salt, white pepper and thyme and continue cooking for 6 minutes. Deglaze with the brandy and continue stirring until brandy has cooked out completely, about 3-4 minutes.
Transfer this mixture to a food processor and pulse for 1-2 minutes. Return to the pot with the reduced stock and bring to a simmer for 10 minutes. Puree this mixture until smooth with a stick blender or in the food processor. Finish with remaining 1 TB salt and the sherry vinegar.
Yield: 1 gallon
Robert St. John is a chef, restaurateur and cookbook author.