Tuesday, December 21, 2010

My wine tour of Spain

In May 2007, I took my second trip to Spain (my first was a beach vacation to the touristy Malaga in the South). The plan was to meet my friend Chris, who was a line cook at Bouley with me in 2004, and travel from Barcelona to Rias Biaxas on a wine tour of all the wineries we could find. Not only did we share a love for good food and wine, Chris had helped me manage the machismo at Bouley when burly line cooks thumped their chests in my direction. We became great friends, and explored the dining scene in NYC as much as we could. Our trip was an opportunity for us to learn about Spanish wines, but also to discuss the potential of opening a restaurant together.

We traveled on a budget, and focused our money on wine and wine tastings. Though this meant that we camped every night for three weeks, we didn't fare badly at all and had fresh bread, cured meats, and a bottle of delicious wine every night, albeit cheap and served in plastic cups. In our down time we talked about launching our restaurant, which Chris envisioned to be upscale and multi-roomed (like Bouley) with a California-French menu. He had worked almost exclusively in fine-dining restaurants (Water Grill in LA, Bouley and Cafe Gray in NYC) and insisted that our restaurant be upscale and food-focused. Though my interest in the industry included more casual concepts (Hue and SushiSamba in NYC, and Le Pain Quotidien in LA), his excitement was infectious and I jumped into the plan as if it were my own. We spent significant time brainstorming at cafes throughout the country, and I developed a new-found appreciation for quality coffee.

The country was gorgeous, and we chose to follow our senses to explore it. We spent the first night dozing on the fragrant beaches of the Balearic Sea, and the last on the warm sand in San Sebastian. In between, we explored the grassy hills of Navarra, the wine cooperatives of the dusty and dry Priorat and Montsant, the traditional producers of Rioja, and the misty, sea-side family vineyards of Rias Biaxes. At all the wineries we visited, we were welcomed in to taste as if we were family. The producers were proud to share their love for the wines they represented, and we were eager listeners.

While in Montsant, we stumbled on the annual wine festival and tasted from about 20 different producers in the area. We were exceedingly lucky; the wine producers in Priorat are so small and focused on their craft that they do not often welcome visitors in to taste. In fact, we could barely find a soul to speak to in the major wine village of Gratallops. I loved the rich, concentrated, mineral-thick punches-in-the-mouth from old-vine Garnacha and got to taste some from some of the most celebrated producers in the country. Other standouts from our trip included a lovely white Rioja by Puelles, a chardonnay from Castillo de Monjardin, and a Crianza from Ramirez de la Piscina.

For me, this was the first time that I traveled to explore food culture. I was completely intrigued by the way the Spanish ate: frequently, in small quantities, and often with wine instead of vegetables! Every bar or eating establishment had at least a faint smell of cured ham. History, tradition, and cultural pride was written into every stone of every building and reflected in the care with which the Spanish took care of their product, from soil to plate.

Ultimately, Chris and I decided not to open a restaurant together. I felt that I needed a rounder, more technical approach to business so I went to Business School, and Chris moved to Guatemala. Though our plans did not pan out, I am grateful to Chris for sharing his love of Spain with me, for teaching me how to stay optimistic and strong in a mentally and emotionally challenging industry, for developing my palate and appreciation for fine food and wine, and for representing the voice of dissent against a world trying to beat down the little guy just trying to do the right thing.

Monday, December 20, 2010

About Teresa

I'm a 28 year old New Mexico native turned Angelino. I'm ambitious, stubborn and passionate about my work. My first job in food was right after I dropped out of college in the summer of 2004 on an organic farm. I had no previous work experience, my job up until college was to dominate the local soccer league and get noticed by some collegiate scouts who would then, hopefully, fund another 4 years of soccer. My job in college was to play soccer and make decent enough grades to continue to play soccer which would then, hopefully, propel me into a professional soccer career where I would become a national celebrity and take off my shirt in front of an international audience after capturing a world cup title. My life's work and soccer career was smashed, crushed and shat upon by my college soccer coach(s) who found the need to destroy my self confidence and keep me warming their benches for three years. The farm, my first job, was a gorgeous fig ranch nestled in the hills of Malibu called Vital Zuman. I worked harvesting, weeding the grounds, building giant walls out of hay barrels, and setting up and selling produce. The owner of the farm was a big man named Allen who always wore headphones and therefore could not hear and only yelled. He gave me my tasks everyday and I mostly worked alone which helped me do some healing after my soccer career went down the toilet. Allen encouraged me to taste everything to make sure I knew it was ripe enough to pick. My pay was seven dollars an hour plus a bag of whatever I harvested that day. I became a major fig addict and fell madly in love with organic, local, and responsibly grown produce.

The farm spiked my curiosity for the food industry so I set out for culinary school. I signed my life away at The Art Institute of Los Angeles which led me to my first real restaurant job in the industry. I scored a position as a grill cook on the opening team at Tender Greens Culver City, a casual organic sandwich and salad concept. Here I worked elbow to elbow with James Beard Award winning Chef Erik Oberholtzer and co-owners Matt Lyman and David Dressler. These guys changed my life. I got a major ass kicking at Tender Greens. I had the opportunity to see beautiful product and feel good about serving an honest, delicious product while serving five times their projected volume straight out of the gate. There is hardly a day that goes by when I'm in the kitchen that I don't think of Erik or Matt and all they taught me.
In my classic fashion I became disenchanted with my job at Tender Greens and wanted to take the next step to a full scale restaurant. I came upon Ciudad of the Food Network duo Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger. I forced myself onto their roster after dining at Ciudad for my birthday that year. Here I was hired as a pastry platter, which was annoying because the garde manger girl sucked and she knew I would have her job in a matter of months. I did, and moved on to learn as much as I could and push as hard as I knew how to push until I was able to run every station. When I could I was handed the "Paella on the Patio" gig, a weekly paella special which we cooked expo style. I loved this position, it gave me the opportunity to flex my creative muscles and score some brownie points with the upper management. After a year and a half and upon handing in my letter of resignation, I was promoted by the Director of Operations to Kitchen Manager at Mary Sue and Susan's modern mexican restaurant, Border Grill.
Border Grill afforded me the opportunity to learn more on the management side which I had no real experience. I worked hard and pushed to get up to speed with the other Kitchen Manager. I had a new found curiosity for the business itself and found myself following the GM around asking questions about food costs and shopping around for better produce and meat prices. I convinced the GM to sit with me once a week and teach me "the business", I called it Doug's school of restaurant management. I had not yet completed my courses at Doug's school before I was approached, once again, by the Director of Operations who offered me the opportunity to open and run the Border Grill Truck. As a young, eager beaver KM, the thought of running my own operation was a tasty one though I was not too thrilled it would be on a truck. Little did I know I was in for yet another ass kicking this time I was less willing to take it.
The Truck was an opportunity for me to collaborate with Susan and Mary Sue on the menu and once again show some of my talent. I was less thrilled when I met the operator of the Truck, Loretta Peng. Loretta was a scary, hard ass, MBA who made it clear from our first gig that she was not about to put up with a cocky little shit like me. Somehow, through all of carbon monoxide fumes on the truck we found some common ground...a love for the industry and especially a love for food. Loretta became my muse, my teacher, and my love on that truck. She pushed me professionally and personally like I've never been pushed. After the truck with the need for more and now a duo to be reckoned with, we set out for New York City.

Loretta knew the place so I felt I was in good hands. I had the romantic idea of working in a top notch kitchen under a brilliant chef and working my way through the NYC restaurant community. I landed a job at Jean George's new farm to table restaurant, ABC Kitchen. I was ready to soak it all up when Loretta's gig needed a chef in a bad way. I told Jean George thanks but no thanks and ended up diving head first into the project with Loretta. The restaurant Loretta was working on was a worker owned restaurant with a really compelling back story but unfortunately a ton of debt and burnt bridges. We had so much confidence in ourselves we didn't really stop to think that this place was dead to the food world and would never be resurrected. Instead, we rolled out a sexy small plates menu, hired a handful of amazing people and put ourselves out there. This was such an exciting experience for me as a young chef. I had complete control of where my food came from and ended up finding some amazing local, sustainable food vendors. My menu was simple, top quality ingredients with playful preparations and lots of flavor. If I learned anything from Susan and Mary Sue it was how to pull flavor out of just about anything. My menu was well received and flattering reviews were popping up all over the Internet. I felt validated and confident. The project unfortunately was underfunded and not supported properly by the owners and became a dead horse that I just wasn't into beating anymore. So back to LA it was....New York was too cold and stinky for me anyway.
So here we are, two passionate, insatiable people who just want to get it right and serve some really great food and do right by our staff, guests, and our community...we are both fiercely competitive, eager and ready...which to me sounds like the right ingredients to make a restaurant of our own.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Our track history together

Teresa and I have worked on two projects since we met in the summer of 2009. We started the Border Grill Truck in June with two employees (ourselves), and by December had ten employees and two to three trucks running almost everyday. Financially, we broke even in the third month and brought 28% profit to the bottom line. This is our truck from the Mundo Management offices in Downtown LA (look closely and you can see me in the driver's seat):

We were incredible taco slingers, and could feed masses in tiny bits of time. I think our record was 3000 tacos in a 2 hour timespan for the VERY hungry staff of Legal Zoom. In a taco truck showdown for Nancy Silverton's staff party, we beat the infamous Kogi Truck. This is us in front of Mozza Osteria with Nancy:

Though a very interesting (and unusual) business opportunity for us, we are restaurant people at heart. When we moved to NYC for my job, I managed to convince Teresa to help me on the project of resuming dinner service for COLORS Restaurant, a struggle worker-owned cooperative restaurant that had a fine-dining theme and a steak-house feel. We completely reconceptualized the menu around the ideas of local sourcing, global flavors (to stay true to the culturally rich past of the restaurant), and small plates. Our customers seemed to like our concept because we accumulated about 70 reviews averaging 4 stars on OpenTable in four months of operation. This is opening night:

We brought an unusual management style to our project. Namely, we cross-trained almost every single person on staff, whether back-of-house or front. Our goal was not only to streamline operations (staffing was so much easier), but also to develop people through increased line skills and ultimately, an ownership mentality. Nestor, a barback we promoted into a bartender position, helped us develop the cocktail menu:

Our menu and style of service was what stole the show. Teresa conceptualized the entire menu in less than a month, and came up with 3 seasonal menus over the course of our project. Superior product, exciting flavor combinations, and elegant presentations were what we were all about. Nowadays, we judge a restaurant by whether we'd be able to eat there everynight. We ate off of Teresa's menu multiple times a night, as did some of our friends:
Because we served small plates, the kitchen dictated when food would be produced (according to what was most efficient), rather than waiting to be told by servers when to start cooking. Traditional restaurants sometimes have trouble producing food in a timely manner when servers put orders in all at once. Because of our reversal, there was no such thing as a "wait time" for food; it came out in a steady and consistent manner that left no table waiting.

The experience was a great one in the sense that for the first time, we had complete control over the food, service, and messaging of a restaurant. Unfortunately, the restaurant wasn't just underfunded; it had negative funds from the start. Despite the daily frustration and stress of running an operation I argued should close, we were fortunate enough to have developed some invaluable relationships. Namely, Ben King came up with our digital and print designs, Patrick Ashlock shared his love and knowledge of artisanal wines, and Ayla Anaya organized our books, provided a third perspective when we disagreed, and became one of my best friends in the whole, crazy process.

Why now?

A few days ago, I went to the library to pick up a book on wine, and as I was looking for a particular call number noticed a book entitled "What's Stopping You". For all the very drastic steps I've taken in my life to become prepared to start a restaurant, you would think I'd thumb my nose at the generic rah-rah entrepreneurship books. Not true; I borrowed this book from the library:

In one of the first chapters, the book describes "trigger events," those (positive or negative) moments in one's life that makes her reconsider assumptions, the harsh words of her mother, whether to delay starting a business a couple of years in an effort to accumulate "experience." According to this book, I've had several trigger moments over the course of just a few months. My grandfather on my father's side and my favorite uncle on my mother's side passed away from (different) cancers within a month of each other. This was the first time I've experienced loss of this kind and in the emotional turmoil that ensued, I decided that I didn't want to allow my job to dictate when or whether I'm able to step away and spend time with those I love. In fact, I had to battle with my managers to get time off to see my grandfather, which finally happened only a week before he passed. And, because of this same job, I had to return to NYC for two weeks afterwards despite my uncle's worsening condition. At the end of those two weeks, I gave notice to my managers and returned to LA with no plans to work for them in NYC again. This is my uncle at my cousin's (his daughter's) wedding a year before he passed. He had a great appreciation for good food, like me:

The second "trigger event" is admittedly not much of an event, but rather an opportunity for me to read into circumstances and paint them as signs. Since (and for a couple of months prior) to giving notice at my job, I've been looking pretty aggressively for another opportunity, both in the non-profit world and in the restaurant industry. Though I've had several interviews, I've not yet received a job offer. Ultimately, I understand that it's a tough economy and I show little longevity or direction on my resume, but there are reasons for that: I'm an entrepreneur at heart.

The final "trigger event" is the only positive one. Because of my grandfather's death, I've fallen into a small inheritance. Though I've been fortunate to never have struggled in the way some struggle financially, I've chosen a path that has never allowed me the luxury of savings in excess of $10k at any given time. Though my parents have had the luck to be able to prioritize their kids' educations, we've had to take out loans to attend local public universities and our respective graduate schools. I still owe about $150k for business school. Despite this, I'm in a position where if I live in the most conservative way possible, I have about 6 months to plan and fund this restaurant. I'm pretty productive when given a goal and a challenge. Let's see what happens.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

About LP

I am a 31-year-old Chinese-American woman who caught the restaurant bug (for better or worse) seven years ago and decided to act on it. In 2004, I dropped out of an English PhD program at NYU to become a line cook at Bouley, the #2 NYC Zagat rated restaurant for food in 2004. I walked in with no professional kitchen experience, and I walked out six months later having obtained the Chef de Partie position on the fish line. It was luck that got me that position (the Chef liked my tattoos) and it was pluck that kept me there (believe me, I had to come up with some creative solutions to the problem of not knowing how to cook professionally). Despite my simplistic description, this was the hardest experience of my life - the physical demands of rushing and hustling the entirety of 72 hours a week plus the emotional stress of a precise, high-volume, and all-male professional kitchen in the culinary capital of the world would have broken any other sane female and forced her to go back to her office job. Instead, I experimented with a dozen other high-profile restaurants, looking for a food experience that would top my first AND a work environment that would not keep me on the verge of tears (get to know me, I'm not a crybaby). I settled for short periods of time in a couple of other kitchens, Picholine and Tabla, but ultimately decided that my two requirements might not exist in combination.

With a little luck in 2005, (the GM at the time was a foodie who admired my kitchen experience), I moved into the FOH with a serving and bartending gig at SushiSamba, a very popular Japanese fusion restaurant that had just been featured on Sex and the City. I made between $250 and $500 a night in tips, and in four months erased the $7k in debt I had accumulated by working for $400 a week in the kitchen. My luck ran out quickly because the GM left, only to be replaced by an arrogant hack who decided to weed me out. I walked out after being denied a break in an exceptionally busy 16-hour day.

Tired of the NYC restaurant scene, I returned home to LA to look for a job in management, where I might have a hand in making management more equitable. I applied for an entry-level position with Le Pain Quotidien in mid 2005 and again, found some luck when the hiring manager knew the SushiSamba GM who had hired me there (she left SushiSamba for Le Pain Quotidien). Though my experience at Le Pain Quotidien was not without frustration (I was forced to open a new location against my will, upper management was somewhat of a "boys' club"), I made the most out of my experience to become one of the strongest managers in the LA region. More important than launching my management career, Le Pain Quotidien provided the opportunity to put together my own teams; I learned to match diverse personalities that summed to teams that hum. It’s hard to describe, but good team dynamics are some of the sexiest elements of the restaurant industry to me.

In all of my restaurant experiences, I had never been enabled to make truly positive working environments for myself or my co-workers. I have heard the most derogatory language used towards restaurant workers, and I disagree that the industry is without intellectuals or talented workers. In an idealistic move intended to enable me to change circumstances in the industry (both for myself and others), I applied to, and eventually was accepted into, the 2008-2009 accelerated MBA program at Columbia Business School. The program was a lot easier than I would have expected given that it was filled with fancy finance guys from Wall St. In my opinion, it is harder to manage people successfully than to put together financial projections for multi-million dollar mergers. Though I never learned anything useful about people management, I did gain a lot of confidence around numbers, specifically Accounting and Finance. Because I graduated in a recession, I couldn’t realize either of the goals I had in going to business school: to gain the investor interest to launch a restaurant, or obtain a high-paying consultancy position so that I could accumulate the cash or fund-raising experience necessary to eventually launch a restaurant.

In mid 2009, I returned to Border Grill, my employer prior to business school. In starting up their mobile catering operation, I experienced the same mismanagement I struggled against in my entire career in the industry (i.e. poor wages, long working hours, micromanagement). But I also met Teresa, a talented and stubborn young sous chef with so much potential and passion for the industry. Her enthusiasm and positivity was infectious, and I wanted to be near her all the time. Though she had a lot to learn herself, she was the first person in a long line of managers I felt had something to teach me. She was bold enough to tell me what she thought of my management style, and what she told me resonated with how I wanted to grow professionally but never allowed myself to do. I fell in love with her tenacity, her fierce loyalty, her generosity, her understanding of how food speaks to the soul, and the energy we created when we worked together. I trusted her work completely and loved that she brought something unique and fresh to the management of our teams. When I received an exit opportunity, we seized the chance to move and experience NYC together.

The opportunity was to work for a non-profit organization dedicated to improving conditions for restaurant workers. My job was to turn around a struggling worker-owned cooperative restaurant. If successful, I would receive 10% of profits, and the knowledge that I was finally running a restaurant that valued hard-working employees. I shouldn’t have been so na├»ve to think that things are as they seem. The restaurant was over $1mm in bank debt (which I knew about going in) AND $70k in vendor debt (which I didn’t know about going in). When 3 years of $50k/month grant funding dropped by half only 2 months after we launched dinner service, I needed the entirety of the $60k in start up capital I was granted to keep us afloat through the summer season, which is notoriously deathly for the NYC restaurant industry. What was worse was that I never had complete control over my team composition. When I realized that my hard work went to employ – and would, if the restaurant became profitable, make rich – a manager I completely opposed, I knew that the only situation in which I could compel my employees to grow, work hard, and experience a healthy and supportive working environment would be one that I would create with Teresa.