Dreams and nightmares of a former restaurant chef: Part Three – theberkshireedge.com

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I’ve found wondering and reflecting have increased as I sit unemployed on the doorstep of my septuagenarian years. This situation resulted in two previous stories I’ve written for this space under the title of “Dreams and Nightmares of a Former Restaurant Chef.” I suppose, this being the third such entry, we can now call it a series if you’d like. I’ve written these as glimpses into my experiences in the restaurant industry for those who have never worked in a restaurant and as possibly shared similar experiences for those who have.

You might think they’re a form of therapy for me, but I’ve had enough of therapy, thank you. Since I left the restaurant business as a career 30 years ago, there’s enough time and space from these experiences that they seem as if they almost happened to a different person, which, in some ways, they did. I mostly look back at my life in the restaurant business with a combination of amusement and bewilderment that I’m still here able to tell these tales.

This recollection began as we were coming into this last Columbus Day weekend. At first, I sat wondering on that doorstep if there will even be a weekend called Columbus Day in the future. As my attention turned to reflection, I began ruminating about a Columbus Day weekend that took place at the Captain Linnell House, my family’s restaurant in Orleans on Cape Cod, in the late 1980s. Before describing the events that took place that night, I think it may be best to set the stage.

Bob Luhmann, second from left, and his family in 1985, from left to right: Dave (father), Katie (mother), Jon (brother), Judi (Bob Luhmann’s wife at the time). Photo: Carson Chesler/Provincetown Advocate

There’s little doubt a family-run business amplifies the positives and negatives of a business partnership. In my family’s case, it was my older brother and I who primarily made the decisions regarding its operations. In the most relevant and simple terms, my older brother ran the dining rooms and was responsible for the day-to-day business operations while I was the executive chef. Our relationship at its most positive was that we could easily be of one mind. We simply knew what the other was thinking and were able to quickly put into action any decisions we had to make without a lot of discussion. All of it, our lifelong relationship as brothers and shared DNA, helped make the relationship work in this way. At its most negative, also due in part to our lifelong relationship as brothers and shared DNA, our relationship involved consideration of fratricide by both of us.

Those of you who have been in a family-run business and particularly in a high-stress business such as the restaurant business may know of what I speak. Those of you who have not might consider watching the 1996 film “Big Night” starring and directed by Stanley Tucci. At times the film comes remarkably close to describing my brother’s and my relationship as well as how keeping a restaurant viable while attempting to maintain some semblance of integrity and dignity can lead to desperation and absurdity. This story is a snapshot of one of those times.

Virtually anyone who has been in the restaurant business in a summer seasonal area, such as most of the Berkshires and Cape Cod, knows that Columbus Day weekend is the last call of the summer season. For our restaurant, and most others in these areas, we could count on some intermittent business spikes between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve and a few weekends here and there after that, but any consistent robust business was finished until the next summer season, which really doesn’t begin until July 4. Therefore, it was vitally important to squeeze as much business out of the summer season as possible.

On the Sunday, as I recall, during the weekend in question, we had booked an early evening wedding for 70 into our function room/music lounge and had 140 reservations for our dining rooms. The timing of the wedding was a first for us. The bride and groom had their hearts set on having their reception at our restaurant, but not during the day when we would normally host wedding receptions. My brother was able to strike a compromise to have the entrees served at 5 p.m., allowing the kitchen just enough time to reset for dining room service beginning at 5:30 p.m. They also agreed to vacate the room by 7:30 p.m. so the room could be reset as a music lounge for our entertainment that night beginning at 8 p.m. All of it was tight but doable, even though the wedding stretched our maximum capacity for serving meals in an evening.

We were counting on everything working seamlessly while trying to squeeze as much business as we could out of that last weekend of the season. That was our first mistake. It all looked good on paper but, as we’ve all learned, life is not lived on paper. Our old nemesis Mr. Murphy, wielding his dreaded law, would have more than a little to do in how events unfolded that evening.

It began with the weather gods being upset with us for some reason. That evening, Cape Cod was forecast to get hit with a Nor’easter. Our restaurant was less than half a mile from Cape Cod Bay, so we would feel some of the stronger effects of the storm. As weather reports began to be broadcast of an impending major storm, my brother’s reaction was to fume and howl at the weather reports, which I felt was pointless and perhaps angered the weather gods further. My reaction was to do what I always did during his meltdowns over events beyond our control and organize the kitchen, prepare the food for that evening’s service and avoid my brother as much as possible.

Some of the difference in our reactions lay in the fact he was the one who had to determine how to pay the bills and I was the one who had to ensure the smooth operation of the kitchen. However, we were also quite different personality types. My older brother didn’t just wear his emotions on his sleeve, he announced them with a bullhorn. Being the middle child, I tended to fatalistically shrug and accept the cards dealt, a reaction that could drive my brother crazy, as he felt I didn’t care.

This was the dynamic in play as we served the wedding entrees promptly at 5 p.m. with the winds beginning to howl outside. Somewhere around 5:30 p.m., just as our first guests of the evening were arriving in the dining rooms, the power went out. In the kitchen, we were equipped with battery-powered emergency backup lighting by a single unit with two low wattage floodlights that dimly lit the kitchen. However, without a generator — our second mistake — no power meant no dish machine, no hot water, no exhaust fans, no working refrigeration and no lighting in our walk-in cooler. We, of course, had no idea how long we would be out of power and we had dodged a bullet not having experienced a prolonged power loss in the eight or nine years we’d operated at that point.

The first reaction of most of the waitstaff was to approach it with amusement and as an adventure. The dining rooms were now only lit with the same emergency lighting and somewhat oversized oil lanterns on the tables. As an aside, the oil lanterns were somewhat oversized, as we had learned by that point that anything that could be slipped into a purse or pocket not only could be stolen but would get stolen. They were of great benefit that night, as the wicks could be lengthened providing greater light and giving the dining rooms an increased romantic feeling. It was positively serene for our guests in the dining rooms.

Image courtesy foodonthebrain.wordpress.com

Meanwhile, in the kitchen, I attempted to stay as cool as I could while sensing an impending disaster. I began strategizing how to wash a tsunami of dishes, glasses and silverware coming back from the wedding needed for our dining room service without the prospect of a dish machine. I instructed the dishwashing crew to scrape and stack the plates and we filled two of our largest stockpots with water to be heated on our range for our pot sink. Of course, this was all occurring as the first orders started coming in from the dining room.

As the evening wore on, things began to fall apart in the kitchen. The emergency light batteries wore out, as did the batteries in the two flashlights we had sometime around 7:30 p.m. in the middle of the busiest part of dining room service, plunging the kitchen into total darkness and necessitating bringing up lanterns from the lounge as the wedding party departed. Some of the waitstaff were beginning to break down in tears out of frustration trying to find what they needed in the kitchen as they groped their way around in the gloom.

The dishwashers were occupied, doing their best, handwashing the dinnerware needed to continue serving meals, but it was a losing battle. With the dishwashers occupied as they were, I set up an impromptu pan-washing station in the utility sink next to my sauté station in order to have pans with which to cook. My wife, who was expediting orders and coordinating with the dining room staff, held a lantern over the sauté pans so I could see what I was cooking as we frantically attempted to keep up with the orders while we took turns washing sauté pans. I was beyond being able to control the mayhem with events spinning out of control all around as I struggled to cover my station. I was not one to lose my cool and I wasn’t prone to lashing out, but it got to the point, when staff asked me a question amidst the bedlam, I resorted to three-word answers such as, “check over there,” “figure it out” and “I don’t know.”

The Do Lung bridge scene in the movie “Apocalypse Now” came to mind during this pandemonium as time virtually stood still. In the scene, Martin Sheen comes upon the Do Lung bridge enveloped in total chaos and a soldier firing furiously and ineffectively at an unseen enemy. In the scene, Martin Sheen asks the soldier, “Who’s the commanding officer?” and the soldier replies, “Ain’t you?” I became that soldier at that moment.

Moments such as these are called being “in the weeds” in the restaurant business. There are other names, but I doubt they’d make it past my editor into print. We were all struggling while deeply in the weeds, but somehow or other, just as the sun always comes up in the morning even if you’re not able to see it, we were able to make it through. In the end, we scraped and stacked dishes and soaked pots and pans to be washed the next day.

Afterward, I made my way down to the lounge, still without power, for a much-needed drink or few. While I was commiserating with some of the waitstaff over the night’s events, the power came back on sometime around midnight. While there, one of the waitstaff told me one of the most surreal moments he encountered was watching my brother with the telephone in the middle of the mayhem. We had two lines coming into the restaurant that were still able to connect without power; however, the phone required power to ring. He watched as my brother was holding the phone up to his ear while pressing the buttons controlling the lines back and forth, back and forth on the chance anyone was calling to see if we were open.

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