I have always loved the restaurant business.  My professional life has been dedicated to the kitchen, the people of restaurants, the ingredients and their source, the process and the adrenaline, the service and an opportunity to make people happy, and of course those plates as they slide down the pass.  There are, of course, restaurants and there are restaurants.  I have been impressed and disappointed in many from those exclusive fine dining establishments with food that should be admired for its beauty to greasy spoons with the best burgers you will ever find.  I have been dismayed by some who attempt to be something they are not, or who feel that a name or location are enough to lead to success.  They are all part of my passion for the preparation and service of food.

I have worked in and in my later years consulted for operations where it was the hope of profit that drove all decisions and been part of those who aligned with a higher calling, a calling that led to success on a whole different level.  These are the restaurants, the chefs and cooks, the servers and bartenders, and the owners who knew that what they did for a living was really important.  “Build it and they will come” was more than a cute phrase from the movies – to these folks, a higher calling meant that cooking is a privilege, service is a way of life, and the chance to work with others and express their own love of restaurants was paramount.  Ironically, in so many of these operations – financial success comes because of this higher purpose.  When profit drives all decisions then a restaurant will lose its character, its soul, and its potential.  Profit is not the means to an end, it is the end brought about by the means, the heart, the soul, and a love of that plate.

Whenever I take the time to pause and reflect on my time working in restaurants and participating in restaurant experiences, I tend to categorize them as wow experiences, surprising experiences, and special experiences.  Hands down, it is the special experience that is most memorable – the operation that moves to the beat of a drum that keeps time with the higher calling objective.

So, what is this higher calling?  Well, it’s not one thing, it’s not something that can even be outlined in a business plan, or for that matter predicted at all.  It’s more a realization than an objective.  It happens when those involved in a restaurant stumble into the life of service, the importance of tradition, the sense of community, and the connections that are possible over a plate of food.  Maybe you haven’t thought about this before, but I have.  It is very likely that you have experienced it, supported it, enjoyed it, but never gave it much reflection, but I have. 

It’s that local apple orchard that decided to offer warm cider and fried apple and pumpkin donuts to people lined up to purchase a peck of MacIntosh, Cortland, or Honey Crisp apples.  Happy customers told their friends, and their friends told their friends.  Suddenly, more family members are joining in to help sell the donuts and add pies and quickbreads to the menu.  Slowly, but surely the grab and go becomes a sit and enjoy hand carved sandwiches on homemade breads, with a glass of cider as a few neighbors, smiles on their faces, joined the family in an effort to meet the demands of a growing business.  People in line are laughing and connecting with others from town as this apple orchard becomes the place to be on a Saturday or Sunday.  This is a place with a higher purpose.

It’s the corner Italian restaurant that has been around for three generations with a menu that rarely changes: it’s predictable, consistent, and fabulous.  The sauce has been handed down from great grandmothers and the bread doesn’t come off the back of a delivery truck – it is made on premise every morning starting at 3am.  IN the back of the kitchen the owner’s mother, now in her 70’s came back to work, to help, and to be a part of the music of the kitchen.  She is hand forming meatballs and rolling out linguini, tortellini, and ravioli.  The same flavor profile used for the past 60 years.  When you walk in the restaurant as a patron you can smell the Bolognese simmering, the meatballs caramelizing, and the salt water used to soften cheese curd for fresh mozzarella.  Nothing fancy, plates are not overly manipulated, the servers are not pretentious, and you can buy a bottle of wine for less than $50.  This is memorable, this is what it means to enjoy a meal at a restaurant where people care about those who work there and those who raise a glass full of hope and good cheer.  This is a place with higher purpose.

It’s the neighborhood food market that has controlled a corner of your town for decades.  You know, the one where the isles are too narrow for people to cross paths, the produce looks like it was picked a few hours ago, the meat case is bright and clean packed with beautiful red steaks and roasts, vivid pink pork loins, chickens with a few pin feathers still intact, and sausages that were made on premise by a butcher with a well fed belly, white bib apron, straw hat, and hands that are big enough to palm a basketball.  It’s a place where the dry goods shelves are filled only with the best of the best, the fish is packed in ice and you know that it was pulled from the ocean that day or the day before, and the cashier, owner, and deli slicer all know your name.  “Try a slice of prosciutto, it will melt in your mouth.”  This is a special place where quality, service, and sincerity are always on the menu and price is judged in relation to value.  This is a place with a higher purpose.

I remember that little bistro in a quaint French village where the owner was the host, the server, and the cook.  Where six tables were all that could fit and they were always full.  Where the menu was there, but rest assured, if you wanted something different and they had the ingredients, it was a pleasure to cook for you.  I think back to that Greek breakfast operation tucked away in a storefront in mid-town Manhattan for fifty years where your morning eggs were cooked to ordered and delivered to your table before you could read the headlines on page one of the New York Times.  This is the place where your coffee cup was always full, where the check was delivered before you had to ask, where after a few visits the waiter remembered what you wanted and placed the order for you.  I remember the twelve-seat operation in the French Quarter of New Orleans that served only gumbo, but man was it extraordinary.  The staff was a husband-and-wife team, with help from parents, children, and even grandkids who learned to clear tables before they made it to high school.  How could I ever forget the takeout only pizzeria that prepared incredible Neapolitan style pizza, throwing dough, and stretching it into perfect circles, spreading sauce made three times a week, virgin olive oil drizzled over fresh pulled mozzarella, sauteed wild mushrooms and thinly sliced prosciutto, topped with leaves of fresh basil and a sprinkle of crushed red pepper.  A father and son and lone dishwasher/box folder were able to crank out hundreds of extraordinary pies every day while carrying on conversations with nearly every customer. And I will always remember that eighty-year-old artisan bread baker whose wood-fired oven bakeshop was tucked away on a farm that was impossible to find unless you had a guide.  A place where baking bread was a religion that took center stage in his life.  A few hours of sleep were interjected at various times throughout the day in between, mixing, feeding the starter, bowl proof, shaping, tending the fire, and baking those crisp crust round loaves with rich, sour dough centers, filled with fermentation holes, as they were pulled from a 500-degree hearth.  He sold 280 loaves of one kind of bread, six days per week.  The bread was delivered by neighbors to local grocery outlets in exchange of a loaf or two to take home. These are places with a higher purpose.

There is so much to love about the restaurant business, but it will always be those operations and operators with a higher purpose who win my heart and my on-going support.  They do it for the love of cooking and baking, and in honor of the farmers, ranchers, and fishermen who supply exceptional ingredients.  They do it to bring the family together, and they do it for the joy of being important to the community where they sit. This is that higher purpose.


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