Fourth in a series.
Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse the same year I opened The Ordinary. She named her restaurant after a character in a film by a French director she admired. I named mine after -- well, nothing. About that name -- The Ordinary -- I liked the definition: a public house that served a fixed meal, at a fixed time at a common board. Of course, that was absolutely nothing like what I ended up doing with the joint. I also liked the irony since I had nothing ordinary planned.
The two restaurants were just a couple of miles apart, but worlds apart in terms of clientele and cuisine. That gulf grew as time went by. At the time the only interaction I had with that group was going to a spaghetti party held by the Chez Panisse crew; it turned out they had someone they wanted me to hire. We were both interested in organic gardening and sustainable agriculture. Her focus -- and her location -- was a lot better than mine. And of course, Chez Panisse is still there. The Ordinary has followed Gertrude's famous pronouncement: there is no . . . Ordinary there.
The first thing you should know about The Ordinary is its location: on a side street off a side street in North Oakland, smack dab against Berkeley. It had all three of the components for success in a restaurant, with the slight addition of a modifying adjective after each, location (bad), location (worse), location (worst). With a catchy name like Ordinary and a rotten location, hey, how could it fail?
The building was solid and tall. Thick concrete walls. A smaller, newer building stood in front of that one, and the two were connected by a roofed stoop. We made the front building into the kitchen and office, with a loft above the office. It had originally been a power station or a water pumping station (I heard both), but I don't know about all its various historical incarnations, just the two immediately preceding my occupancy. In better days it had been a day care center. Immediately before I took it over it was a mess -- trashed -- a crash pad for hippies attending the California College of Arts and Crafts, which was just a few blocks away. The inside of the building was broken up into a dozen or so small rooms painted with a series of psychedelic murals. The first thing Campbell and I decided to do was dismantle all these rooms and open the place up. We filled about four large dumpsters. A loft that covered approximately half the square footage of the larger building became the upstairs dining room. Campbell was very handy with his hands; it would be an exaggeration to say I was a "rough" carpenter.
The second thing you should know is that I didn't have enough money to open a restaurant. I had never opened a restaurant before. (I have since opened a dozen; some are actually successful.) I had no clue what I was doing. The Ordinary was my graduate degree. But, I could cook good. I had cooked professionally. Hell, I'd been to France! The trip to Paris had made up my mind to be a cook. I had devoured the Larousse and Escoffier's Guide Culinaire. I read the Picayune Creole Cookbook and The New Orleans Restaurant Cookbook, and literally dozens of others, both professional and amateur. (If you've read any of my other maunderings you know I have this misplaced belief I can figure out things by reading about them.) I even subscribed to many of the USDA's agricultural bulletins -- crop reports, commodities bulletins etc. -- they used to be free, folks. I was a pretty good pre-Internet researcher. I was energetic. And I have always been a fan of the impossible. I like to plunge into things before too many people tell me all the ways it can't be done. In the years since, I have had many students smitten with what I call "The Restaurant Fantasy." I certainly was. Stripped of all its decoration "The Fantasy" is basically the belief that if one is passionate about cooking and has a strong work ethic, one can be a restaurateur.
So. I had no equipment and a very limited budget. I decided auctions might be one solution. At the first one I attended, I bought a large antique brass cash register that had been electrified: 350 bucks gone. So. I was underway!
Because of the heft of the building, I decided I needed a very large bar for scale, but had no clue where to get one. Browsing the San Francisco Chronicle one day, I noticed an ad mentioning that there would be many things for sale through The San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, as they were demolishing a number of old downtown buildings. I called and was told to come on down. The director was a lovely middle-aged woman who handed me a set of keys to vacated bars and restaurants. I set off wandering around and peering into boarded-up buildings.
One of them was really dark inside, but I wiped away some of the city-by-the-bay grime on the window and saw what appeared to be a bar. I went in and was blown away: a huge bar ran nearly the length of the building. It was obviously very old, and still had the full tile trough along the bottom front bar. I had brought a flashlight. I peered up under the front of the top rail and saw there a kind of decal: "Brunswick Balke Collender Company." This meant nothing to me at the time. Man, this was it: the bar I needed. The back bar was 15 feet tall and the whole thing was about 35' long. It had four square columns supporting a three-foot tall full-length pediment. My brass cash register would look great in the middle of this thing. The only question was money.
I returned the lady's keys, and asked what the procedure was if I found something I liked. I gave her the address. She allowed as how she had to put an ad in the paper and solicit bids. She gave me the bid forms, and said I had to bring a cashier's check for 1/4 of my bid amount. The ad ran a week later. I think she liked me -- it was a very small, nondescript ad, saying something like "old bar for sale."
I was in her office on bid day. I had a cashier's check for $500.00, pretty sure I would lose my bar. I waited in her office until the last minute to see how many competitors would show up. Nobody. At the last second I filled in the amount of my bid on the form: $500.00. I don't think she was happy with me, but I got it! Now, I just had to figure out how to move it without destroying it. I called Campbell.
This find turned out to be a greater decor boon than I ever could have hoped for. Campbell had an old Dodge pickup, and we were going to section the bar to transport it. We made a plan and set about carefully dismantling the bar. On breaks I wandered about the building. Bonanza! It had a basement, where apparently they had held furtive card games. Eighteen massive round wooden tables hunkered in the dark -- we saw all this with flashlights, as the power was off -- cloaked in padded felt. The tables became the tables in my bar and downstairs dining room. When we removed the felt, we discovered the padding was newspapers from the 30' and 40's. We saved them, and with a coat of shellac, they became the wallpaper in Sangria and Pickled Eggs. There was also an ancient refrigerator with the compressor sitting on top. Turned out, it worked. This became the first reach-in in my kitchen.
I'm pretty sure I wasn't supposed to take anything out of that building but the bar.
We were almost finished with plundering and pillaging the place -- in fact, we were on our last day -- when an old gentleman with a cane doddered up and introduced himself as the joint's former owner. We asked him about the bar, and he told us that the owner before him had bought it from the Palace Hotel, which had decided to remodel after the rocking and rolling in '06. It had been brought around the horn.
After a day of demolition , I often cleaned up and went back to San Francisco with Campbell -- North Beach, mostly. My favorite joint was Vesuvio. I sipped Pernod at the bar and occasionally stumbled across the alley to browse at City Lights bookstore. I bought Howl there and read it while perching at Vesuvio -- I'm sure I wasn't the first. Yeah, I admired the beatniks. Another bar I enjoyed in North Beach was just up the street from a neat little Basque restaurant, and was frequented by a bunch of lesbians. I used to idle away the hours in there playing pool with the ladies. They kicked my ass.
I also loved Vanessi's on Broadway, part of a neighborhood that's rife with good Italian restaurants. Vanessi's is peculiarly San Francisco Italian. Anybody who knows the Bay Area will recognize the "Joe's"-type joints: combination lunch counter with stools and a cooking area behind the counter and white tablecloth restaurants. I always sat at the counter; I liked to watch the cooks work. Veal piccata and scampi were two of my favorites here. Vanessi's is just up the street from what was called America's first topless bar, The Condor, at Columbus and Broadway. Carol Doda was very big there. I think you might trace the proliferation of plastic tits on display everywhere in the good old USA to this time and place. But the Beats beat the tits there, and before them came the Italians.
On San Pablo, The Pot Luck was a really nifty little joint with a great wine list. They had a several-course "gourmet dinner" on Monday evenings. Brace yourself -- it was six bucks. I ate there every Monday I possibly could. Ed Brown, the founder, closed the Pot Luck shortly after I opened The Ordinary. I went to the subsequent wine auction and bought several wines for The Ordinary, including a sparkling wine from Beaulieu that everyone assumed to be over the hill. I bought 3 cases of half bottles for $1.00 per bottle. It was the best sparkling wine from California I had ever had.
I was learning all I could about health and fire codes – what I really needed to know was the bare minimums for everything. My budget was already feeling the crunch. I only had about $9,000 to do this with. (Yet another way Ms Waters outdid me -- she had ten.)
I was still studying and reading. I had come up with a concept and a menu: dishes from my New Orleans youth. Campbell and I painted and built and cleaned for a few weeks. Suzan and her friends helped me strip and refinish the bar out back of The Ordinary. Campbell and I rebuilt the bar and he built a great wine rack out rough redwood. We built tables for the upstairs dining room and put shutters on all the windows. Later on, George, who was really into gardening, prettied up the outside of the joint a bunch. Lots of flowers. I dug up a big rectangular section of the asphalt, about 10' by 30', out back and we planted a garden around a little pool I built. I bought a couple of koi -- carp to you fisherman -- and stuck them in the pool and called them Heckle and Jeckle. Planted water hyacinths so the fish would have shade. I built a gazebo under an acacia tree. I built an arbor and planted it with bougainvillea. We set up tables under it and served lunch out there.
It seemed like we were making progress, but I was running out of money. My good friend, college teacher and now noted cookbook author, Denis Kelly, made a small investment in the deal. I borrowed $2500.00 from the Co-op Credit Union. I was going to be able to get the doors open.
It didn't take long to figure out that I was going to have to have music to keep the place open. I met a lot of musicians during this period (I think I mentioned my song writing thing in an earlier story). Even before I opened they were asking about live music. My original plan was no, but I did have an old upright piano, which I put in the joint. I had also purchased a Revox reel-to-reel tape recorder for aid in writing songs. One day when Campbell and I were working, we went to get a cheeseburger for lunch (the best food for building restaurants). While we were out, the basics of my sound system and the Revox were stolen. I went out and bought a pistol -- a .38 police special.
What always pissed me off is the place became better known for the music than the food (although New West magazine did say I made the best salad in the Bay Area).
My office -- behind the kitchen, under the loft, with only a curtain separating it from the kitchen -- served as the green room for the musicians. (I usually fed them a bowl of jambalaya or gumbo.) Furnishings were just a mission-style couch, a desk and a couple of chairs. On my desk was The Drinking Gorilla; the laughing box (the only remaining part of some scary laughing doll); a framed antique sepia-toned photo of a naked man and woman in a standing soixante-neuf position, he holding her up; and assorted business-related stacks of paper. The Drinking Gorilla was a battery-operated toy gorilla that was supposed to lift his glass and drink, then recycle the beverage in a loop. The glass would fill up automatically and the procedure would repeat -- except he malfunctioned and missed his mouth with the glass and spilled the liquid all over himself. I had to keep him in a bowl to avoid a mess. I would turn on the laughing box while he was drinking. It was a metaphor for me. If anyone asked about the photo I would say it was the only photo I had of my mother and father together. This usually shut them up.
I bought the food. I went to the Oakland produce market -- just south of Jack London Square -- a couple of times per week. Since I had to be there early lest the big supermarket buyers gobbled up everything, I usually just stayed up. It was dark when I would arrive and light when I left. My regular purchases were avocados (we could get all kinds there – Fuertes, Bacon, Zutano and, of course, Hass), artichokes, onions, tomatoes, lettuces, celery, whatever fresh herbs were available and citrus fruits. Always on the lookout for okra.
At first, I was lost there, and easily tricked, but I did a whole lot better after I socialized a little with the guys. This meant having an after-work drink or two with them. (Naturally, there was a bar smack in the middle of the market.) "After-work" for them was about 6:00 am, and this made for some long days. The regulars -- mostly Italians, all produce guys -- introduced me to Fernet Branca one early fall morning, claiming it was great for a hangover. They laughed their asses off watching my face as I struggled to keep it down -- and to keep my cruller and black coffee from anointing the top of the bar in chunky taupe hues. It's a bitter beverage, folks.
I would totter away from the market and head to downtown Oakland and a place called The Housewives Market, a great European-style place with a Louisiana slant: dozens of open stalls hawking produce, meats, seafood, sausage, and cheeses. I don't know how it came about, but there was a large contingency of black folks from Louisiana in Oakland. The seafood market had buffalo and a freshwater drum called gasper goo (supposedly from the French, casse burgau -- "mussel breaker"). They also had fresh crawfish, blue crabs and shrimp -- all from Louisiana. Next to this seafood stall was a sausage stall. He made my andouille and boudin blanc, both of which I had on my lunch menu. I bought some of everything.
Joe Pucci & Sons Seafood was also in downtown Oakland, and sometimes I would swing by and see what Steve Pucci had that day -- usually good prices on Mexican shrimp and oysters.
Now it was about 9:00 am and I was ready to begin my day.
Once, I bought a couple of goat kids from my meat guy to barbecue for a wine dinner we were having. At first I got just one, nicely dressed and all. But we got a lot more reservations than anticipated, so on the morning of the dinner I called and asked him if had another. He said, "Yeah, but . . . " I told him I'd be right down -- where I met the meaning of "but." My meat guy was on his way out the door -- he had my goat, but he really had to go. The thing was, this kid was looking a lot like a live baby goat. Oh, it was dead, but only very recently expired -- I suspect it had been alive when I called. Its entrails were intact, it had hair, head, all the fixin's.
I had already prepped the first one, and had it lying on a shelf in the walk-in. I hung the newcomer on a meat hook in the walk-in while I thought about what to do with it. I set a bus bucket under it to catch anything it might exude, and reminded myself to replace the burnt-out bulb overhead soon. It was nearly lunchtime. I was sitting in my office right next to the walk-in. My early waiter -- Jimmy, a little teeny gay guy (and a great waiter) -- came in, said hi, and started setting up the waiter's station. He went to get butter, cream and, you know, waiter's station stuff, and disappeared behind the refrigerator door. A loud crash immediately preceded a blood-curdling scream. Hmmm, guess I forgot to mention the dead goat hanging in the middle of the walk-in. He had stepped in the bus pan, slipped, grabbed the beast and pulled it down on top of him. After lunch I took it out, hung it in the gazebo and skinned, decapitated and gutted it. We had a good wine dinner that evening.
As long as we're on evisceration, I'm reminded of a cocaine dealer quite near The Ordinary: Hugo, a swarthy, stocky Hispanic. He called me one day and asked me to come over to his third floor walkup and help him with a little problem. I huffed and puffed up the stairs. He opened the door and welcomed me, ushered me past a couple of scantily clad young ladies -- they were always around dope dealers -- and into the dining room. There on the table, lying on a bed of newspaper, was a dead deer. He had no back yard to take it to and wanted me to do a number on it right there on the table. I told him it was going to be a hell of a mess. It was. I did it. He paid me. Not money.
Spencer cooked and tended bar and helped with just about everything. Denis did a few stints. The lunch shift was the one that was killing me. Often I had not slept at all. This was the period during which I began my now lifelong habit of the afternoon nap. Spencer and George tended to come in around the time I was completely exhausted. They saved my ass for a few years.
The bar was very busy on weekends and I usually helped out after I closed the kitchen. Spencer and George became bored with checking ID's. We were under constant assault from minors -- the music brought them in. So they started checking fingernails instead. I think it began with just the suspected minors, but grew. When someone ordered a drink they were asked to present their fingernails and were told that if they were clean they could have a drink. It befuddled them.
One Friday night, we were jamming behind the bar. The noise was deafening, but when the phone rang around midnight, I could still hear it. It was Bunkie.
He said, "Joseph, I have it!"
I said, "Well, I hope you feel better soon."
"No, I'm not sick. I have the answer!"
"To what?" I gingerly queried.
"You have the answer to everything?"
"I'd love to hear it."
"Everything is everything. It's all so clear now."
"That's it? Everything is everything?"
"Yes, that's it."
"What kind of drugs are you taking?" I was trying to listen to this over the sound of the music.
"Just a few hits of acid."
"Oh, maybe a dozen."
I thanked him for the answer to everything and suggested that he go lie down a while. He was missing in action the next day. Later, we got the report from the cops. Bunkie had tried to manually uproot his neighbor-lady's tree shortly after he got off the phone with me -- seems it blocked his light during the day. It was about a foot thick. And oh yeah, he was naked as a jaybird. After he'd been out there grunting and mooning her for a while, she called the cops. By this time he had decided he was, if not the, at least a god. He was handcuffed, upside down naked in the back seat of the cruiser, kicking and warning them all the way to the looney bin that vengeance would be his. They kept asking god not make so much racket.
All the while we were cranking out good fresh food, and got a couple of good reviews. One evening a producer of a radio talk show came in for dinner. He liked it a lot and asked me if I'd like to come cook one night on KGO radio. I said sure. (I say that a lot, don't I?)
The show was on at 1:00 am, but at the time I think this was the most powerful station in the Bay Area. I packed up all the stuff I needed to make gumbo and shrimp Creole, put in a couple of bus tubs along with pots and pans and a couple of bottles of red wine, and headed off for Baghdad by the Bay. They actually let us in -- I had my girlfriend with me.
The host was toting a large sheaf of papers and reached out to shake hands with me. He dropped the sheaf and the papers went everywhere. As he bent, and I bent to help him pick them up, I whiffed a really strong smell of scotch. Whoa, I thought. This might not be bad after all.
We started talking and I, cooking, and pretty soon the phones were ringing off the hook: calls from Canada to Mexico. In the middle of the night? I answered a lot of questions about New Orleans and cooking Creole food and then popped the wine. I had been told we were supposed to be on for 20-30 minutes.
Two and a half hours and two bottles of wine later -- the host was kind enough to help us with the wine -- we were done with our radio cooking show. There had been dozens and dozens of calls. Most of them were not from the Bay Area, though, and I had no idea if this would have any impact on business. I hadn't eaten all day, and was really drunk. We drove back to Oakland.
The phone started jangling at 7:00 am and didn't stop all day. Apparently, there were a lot more insomniacs than I ever dreamed existed. We did four times the business we had ever done in a single day: the best of times and the worst of times. We were blown out of the water and had people waiting for hours. I think we made an equal number of friends and enemies that day. The air in the kitchen was thick with an irritable string of fucks and shits and goddamn yous. Perspiration flew about the stoves as we fired volley upon volley of Creole cuisine at the waiters. It was war -- war that feels so damn good when you win it. When it's all over: one of my favorite things about cooking in a restaurant. A shiver runs up my jaded old backbone every time I think about it. Everyone who loves it knows exactly what I mean.
Finally, we had a brief fling with becoming an international naval power: The Ordinary Navy. I bought a boat, dry-docked in the Oakland Marina -- close enough to the A's stadium that, if the wind was right, we could actually hear the game. Stoned, we scraped and painted the hull and heard the Oakland A's win the World Series. Spencer and George were shade tree mechanics and were going to work on the engine. Alas, much like the Ordinary, the boat -- a 40-foot captain's gig -- never quite floated.
Joseph Carey, aka ChefCarey, is the author of Creole Nouvelle: Contemporary Creole Cookery and Chef on Fire: The Five Techniques for Using Heat Like a Pro. He cooks, teaches and writes in Memphis, Tennessee.