Experiences The Chef

Pata Negra Saga Chapter 5


A funny thing happened during May and June. Spring got skipped and summer arrived fast, way too fast. Where was the transition between spring and summer? It seemed like lots of rain outs and unseasonably warm and humid weather. The same customers who were looking for solace in my cozy living room during the winter were now looking for the direct opposite – the great outdoors of New York’s sidewalk cafes, albeit filled with schmutz and noise pollution. Ostia, over in the west village, sports 24 outdoor seats. Packed. Tree, just one block east from me, has an entire backyard. Packed. Everyone is looking for some outdoor space to sit, drink and relax under a cool breeze.

Just down the street from me, Resto Leon opened its many windowed doors and looks very inviting. Not to mention they make mojitos and martinis too. Tough competition. Very inviting. Perhaps I would knock out my window too? Too time-consuming and costly. To top it all off, Terroir, the wine bar attached to Hearth one block east, earned a premier write up in the Times. A bit puzzling (they’re a wine bar not a restaurant) I’m sure you’ll agree, but it happened. They received one star from Mr. Bruni, responsible for the premier restaurant review column in the country. Terroir is home to a top notch chef and a sommelier, and that my friends is news.

Meanwhile, I worked, trying to build my business one client at a time. Some days I was very encouraged, and others not so much. With so many choices around, the warm weather, etc. Pata Negra slowed way down, almost to a halt. Then supply problems hit me. There was a trucker’s strike in Spain delaying the delivery of hams and other Spanish goods. Supply outlasted demand as there were no shoulder cuts of Pata Negra available left on the east coast. I scrambled to get one leg out of California, and that was just lucky. No importers had any ham left, and on top of it all a strike! My last shipment from Spain (about 4 kg) was confiscated by customs. Somewhere someone with a bad uniform is having a $350. ham sandwich. Somehow a ham that has been enjoyed for a thousand years is dangerous to American palate and sensibility. Historically the irony is just too much. What exactly is sprayed on our produce? How are our cows and pigs raised and slaughtered? These pigs roam the forest, eat acorns and that’s it. Nothing could be better for save for spring water.

With a shortage in Pata Negra, I had to shake up the menu. What started the change was a charity event I participated in for City Harvest where I had to provide one dish for 400 guests. The obvious choice was to do something with ham, but Bodegas Fermin was also invited and brought their own. So I switched to bacalao, salt cod. Not just any salt cod. The best from Cantabria, harvested by Giraldo. The stuff can be eaten raw. So a little olive oil, lemon juice, guindilla peppers – voila – cod sashimi. Aided by Chef Diego Gonzalez, we went through several pounds of cod. Judging from the line and number of seconds, it was a hit. The event was fun and I was glad to help a charity in some way.

And so the menu expansion continues. First cod, then spicy padron peppers from La Tienda in Virginia, chorizo with alubia beans, empanadas and cocas (flat bread) pizza of the day, and a salad (ok I scratched the salad – it is a ham and cheese bar after all). Gotta stay true to my own self. The tapas portion really started to shape up. Maybe shrimp and tortilla soon. But now it is July and dead summer, as everyone has hit the beach or the comfort of their AC. That’s precisely where I would be, if only I could.

The pizza guy next door to me takes the month of August off completely. My buddies over at Mac-n-cheese are heading to India soon as well. Has the block just given up?

There are still parties to be had, birthdays to celebrate, graduations, going away parties, etc. Actually I’ll probably close for the last week of August too. A little beach time is in order. In mid-August the arrival of the butt cut of pata negra is due and I will be promoting special parties to coronate the precious legs. In the meanwhile, come on down to check out the new menu, many white wines, the best sangria, and keep me from getting high on my own supply.

Chapter 5

In retrospect, it all happened as quickly as our transition from spring to summer. A little over two weeks to open a restaurant didn’t seem doable, but I really wanted to try. In my mind the most important thing was the food and wine followed by the staffing. The décor was just a nuisance I would deal with during spare time.

We hired Diego Gonzalez of Zipi Zape and Allioli in Brooklyn to consult on the menu and train the staff. Diego is an affable Galician, passionate about cooking who once earned a “27” from Zagat Survey for his work at the now defunct Alioli. I put an ad out for all staff immediately receiving a poor crop for the kitchen. One dishwasher quit the same morning. Another locked himself upstairs and fell asleep. I had to break the door down and almost called an ambulance. I fired him and he returned with two thugs demanding his pay. I kindly explained to them that I was willing to beat all their brains out for free if they didn’t leave at once. Staff just wouldn’t last. I hired three bartenders, two guys and a girl. The first chef we procured was a nice guy, but couldn’t hack it. Every dish was missing some key ingredient and we had to keep reminding him that clams and beans needs the clam part too. One week into training I was told by Lolo we had to let him go. That was the first time I ever had to fire somebody. Not a cool job. But something I guess owners are confronted with a lot.

I hired Sylvia, a designer friend of Lolo’s, to do the décor and employed my friend Lisa for all the artwork, logo, menus, etc. My to do lists had to do lists, as each business day meant one less thing I could get on time, as Christmas was approaching. I spent countless hours on the Bowery selecting glassware, silverware, plates, etc. I haggled prices, made deals, and tried to bargain my way for everything. I ordered pressed tin from Canada, a 22 ft. banquet couch and new refrigerators.

Meanwhile the pressure was building. Open. Open. Diego and Lolo were at one another’s throats. Diego wanted control of the kitchen, and Lolo wanted to add his two cents. The fights were classic. “You make for me one croquette and I will know what kind of a chef you are,” Diego aimed at Lolo. “You can’t even work for McDonald’s,” Diego fired. “You think you are Alain Ducasse,” Lolo would answer back. I had to separate them physically as they thrashed about in the storeroom. We had no completed menu and I had a staff to train.

Meanwhile there were other signs of trouble. Lolo was on top of me 24 hours a day, telling me that this was the restaurant business. I was buzzed. But I also realized that thing could be accomplished more efficiently with smarts and a plan. All I need was some experience to see where the short-cuts could be taken. Lolo wanted an old school menu and décor. I wanted to modernize. I wanted a cocktail menu. He wanted salt and pepper on the table. I thought our food was seasoned perfectly and was unnecessary. The wall. The long wall opposite the bar was cause for great debate. It was designed to be tin almost to the ceiling, with room for a shelf and then paint. But on the day of application (Christmas day) I went all the way up with it. The next day he was pissed. He felt insulted. He thought I disobeyed him on purpose. I was very confused. He disagreed about every decision I made. I had no choice,. There were hundreds of decisions to make on the spot and I had no time for consultation. I had a clear vision of a sleek new Spanish restaurant with style and flair and he wanted an updated version of La Nacional. Then I figured it out. He was upset that I was getting the job done without his help and that I took Diego’s side of the argument.

Diego and I spent countless hours bonding over food and cooking and life during this process. I was the buffer between the two and I Diego and I just clicked, spending hours over a bottle of wine discussing the menu, technique and our dreams and passions. Lolo was jealous and hurt. But the show must go on.

I had my friends come in to taste the food and give critiques. I ordered all the wine and liquor. I trained the staff. I painted, I fixed, I lost any semblance of a holiday. I worked thru New Year’s Eve and Christmas day up until 10 pm. The kitchen was a mess but somehow we got it to work, mostly from my collaboration with Diego and keeping Lolo at bay with other busy work.

We opened the day before New Year’s to family and friends and prepared for a New Year’s Eve party when for one evening I felt on top of the world, having accomplished that which I thought was not doable, enjoying the moment with a cigar and champagne, ringing in the New Year 2007 with wide-eyed hope and visions of success and achievement.

By Chef Mateo

Just a man in pursuit of all things delicious. Eat and Drink life!