Thirty-one years ago, I came back to Tucson from Italy with my tail between my legs. I’d failed to get a work permit, spent all the money I had to my name, borrowed even more money from my parents, who eventually forgave the loan out of a mixture of love, generosity, and I think pity as well. I went to grad school and began one of the graduate degrees I didn’t finish (though in fairness to me, the program I was promised would eventually take shape in the French and Italian Department never came to fruition.) I taught Italian 101 and 102. And I parked myself in the kitchen at Boccata.
I worked the line there, with Jeff Azersky, who ran the kitchen, and Jim Murphy, whose last pit stop was at Boccata before going moving to upstate New York to attend the Culinary Institute of America, despite the fact that he already knew more about food and cooking than likely most of the faculty there. That was a solid line- Murph on the grill, me on saute, and Jeff in the middle doing everything else.
I’m remembering those days because of late, it’s looking more and more like I’ll be back on saute, and I’ll assure you, I’m rusty. When Feast first opened, I worked the line every day, but Feast has quadrupled in size over the years, and, like Janos Wilder and Dan Scordato, I’ve spent less and less time on actual production and more and more time shaking hands and kissing babies, neither of which is advisable these days.
It turns out that while Tucson restaurants were crippled by the pandemic early on in not being able to seat people indoors, then by the slow summer off-season, we’re now crippled by the exodus from the foodservice industry. Two years ago, if we placed an ad, we’d get a dozen or so applicants, all of whom had years of experience. Now we get one or two, usually from people who’ve worked in a buffet or a coffee house and would like to try their hand at running ten or twelve burners simultaneously. It’s grim.
Jeff and Murph went off to open Kingfisher together, along with John Burke and Tim Ivankovich, who worked with us in the bar and the dining room at Boccata, respectively, and even now that John lives in Texas and Tim is, as they say, no longer with us, they both continue working the line over there, and they have my utmost respect for doing it. Figureheading is good work, but being the one putting the food on the plate is why we all stick with foolish business. And as much as I miss it- cooking at the Dish was amazing because there were only two of us cooking in a miniscule kitchen, and I’m as proud of that food as any food I’ve ever made- I don’t miss the stress, the cuts and burns, or the ring of salt left on my shirt as it dried at the end of the night. It’s not easy work. You have to love the food, and you have to love the pressure.
So now here we are, restaurateurs who’ve limped through the pandemic only to discover that the lifeguard has blown the whistle and everyone’s gotten out of the labor pool. The few stragglers that are left are driving up the cost of labor, as well they should, but they’re doing it while restaurants have less earning power than they’ve ever had. So if you see less of me when you come in, it’s because if I spend all my time checking on guests, I’ll be checking on people with no food in front of them.
If you flip through your Rolodex or scroll through you phone, or find a scribbled phone number on a slip of paper and it belongs to a line cook, let them know we’re looking. I do still love that feeling of an even flow of tickets, where each pan is ready just as they need it, and I’m working in lockstep with someone like Jeff, who’s plating what I’m handing off and calling new orders, firing older ones, telling me what I’m dragging, what refire needs to happen, tidying the edge of the sloppy plate I was too busy to make perfect. But I love seeing you all, and making sure that the entire crew, front and back, are working like a choreographed amalgam of ballet and square dancing, too, and talking wine, and knowing who got back from seeing the grandkids for the first time in a year and a half.
So send those saute cooks our way. We’re a pleasant enough bunch, and most people stick around for years. That probably means there are worse places to work.
Today, though, i’ll be set up in the back of the kitchen with my camp oven and my portable burner, a glass and a bucket, talking wine with four Southern Arizonans who’ve dispersed themselves to far-flung lands, as we present today’s wine tasting.
And the way to log in, come 3:30, is to click on this link or type in these numbers:
Doug Levy is inviting you to a scheduled Zoom meeting.
Topic: Local boy does good
Time: Aug 29, 2021 03:30 PM Arizona
Join Zoom Meeting
Meeting ID: 831 0805 5105
There are a couple of other things in the works as well, like the specials we’re offering for the Jewish New Year, which begins at sundown a week from tomorrow, so food will be prepared cold for you to pick up, with heating instructions. You’ve got a few days to order, and the menu looks like this:
And we’re working on our next donation run- I’m communicating with a couple of people from a couple of organizations to juggle food donations while we wait for more youth on their own to start showing up at Youth on Their Own,
but I’ll announce those as I negotiate a time and a place to drop off a few hundred more meals.
The September menu won’t begin until the 7th of September, since that’s when the first Tuesday falls, so you’ll have one more week to get your squash blossoms, assuming our deliveries don’t bring us blossoms that look like what they tried to pawn off on us last Thursday. Anyway, for eight more days, the menu will look like this,
and we’ll let you know what it looks like thereafter once next Tuesday rolls around. I look forward to seeing you on the screen, and in the dining room as well, at lunch OR dinner now, even if you have to politely pretend you’re not seeing the salty sweat-ring on my shirt.