We live in a world of superlatives!
I wake up every morning to a string of emails telling me what is the best of this or the best of that, what cannot be missed, the ten things that I absolutely have to do before I ever this or that again; the last five things I’ll ever have to read, to understand all there is to understand, I guess?
That one’s been coming through a lot lately. It’s tempting, to read those last five things. I’ve resolved each year for the past almost ten to read more. I keep failing, allowing all sorts of busy to get in the way. Maybe I should just read those last five and be done with it; move on to a new resolution, maybe an easier one.Tempting.
But not really. It’s really just stressful. It can’t all possibly be true. If the ten best beaches of this week are just replaced by ten new ones by April, I’ll never keep up. If there’s a list of the five most important reads of all time; how do I keep receiving a new list called the same thing? I don’t know how to make the emails stop, so I just get better at funneling them away as quickly as they come in. Although, I am now plagued by fear of missing something that I actually did need to know and spend at least an hour a week carefully but quickly skimming through the folder of cast aways.
The world of restaurants is the world of superlatives but on 1.5x speed. The way I took to “reading” my audiobooks for a while before finally admitting that while I was checking the complete box faster, and more frequently, I wasn’t really listening to anything at all.
The best restaurants of all time, of the country, of the world. The best restaurants of the month, the season, the moment. The RIGHT NOW. That’s one I can at least understand changing so frequently. Right now doesn’t last for long.
The best new restaurants, the best new chefs. The best restaurants run by people under 30. The best restaurants with a fireplace. Those are all lists I’ve been lucky to be a part of at least once over the past few years. I appreciate them all, except one.
I once woke up to a text message on Valentine’s Day, after prepping all the night before for one of the busiest services of the year, from a PR company encouraging me to get all my friends to log on to their computers and smartphones to vote for me as… Hottest Chef Of The Year.
Yes, hottest. Yes, like that. Yes, me.
That’s a category I’m happy to have seen retire. I am sure that I’d feel the same even if I had won the pageant that year.
When we were busy planning and building Juliet, Katrina and I didn’t have much time to think in superlatives. We took our project very seriously as we set out to turn our once favorite neighborhood coffee shop into something more closely resembling a full service restaurant, but on a very small scale. A scale our little company could afford. A scale our little space would accept. We took our work, and ourselves very seriously. We just weren’t sure how seriously we should expect to be taken.
It didn’t take long for us to know that we should be ready to accept more than we first expected. We opened to some fanfare that we were ready for; that any fresh project from a known cast of characters in the ever more popular food industry should be ready for. Before the opening buzz settled, something changed.
First it was the reviews. The weekly paper came first, and we allowed some expectant suspicions to boil up slowly. Then Sheryl Julian, the award winning recently departed 30 year editor of the Boston Globe food section, walked in. They could have sent anyone. Close behind her was Corby Kummer of Boston Magazine and The Atlantic, etc., etc.
“Three stars.” “Jewel box full of surprises.” “Boatload of refined technique.” “Ambition and skill of a destination restaurant.”
We had yet to secure our liquor license.
More superlatives followed. Best this. Best that. We were past the initial buzz phase now, and now these things started to feel good. We had put a few systems in place, hired a manager, had begun training the would be sous chefs, and actually had the time to click the links in those emails, realize they were about us, and share them with our friends.
Bon Appetit named us one of the fifty best new restaurants in “America.” A designation I had a lot of trouble swallowing because a) I couldn’t believe it! That was the sort of list my mentors sometimes found themselves on and b) they seemed to have left out most of the countries in America, as only the USA was represented.
I came to terms with both of those realities and celebrated the news with our staff. Spring turned to summer, generally a slow time for restaurants; especially new ones. We weren’t slow, and every third guest came in clutching one of those articles or at least mentioning them.
This was a difficult time for me as I straddled the dueling emotions of wanting to celebrate each unexpected victory but being mostly paralyzed by the new perceived expectations they brought. Juliet had been built by us, for us and our neighbors. Before we had time to learn how to use it; it was picked up by the neck like a show dog on the way to the groomer; laid out, scrubbed and brushed, tied with a bow, ready to be repackaged, and trotted out for everyone else.
The other names on those best of lists were names I had heard of. The headliners that we were inches from in the newspaper columns had worked for the stars.
Then just before Christmas, after a lull in media attention in general — for the holiday? Cold weather hibernation? Election season fatigue? Election result terror? — In quick succession by the same publication we were named again one of the best new restaurants of the year (of 8, we were the only new company on the list) and then I was named one of the best chefs in Boston (of 4).
A few days later Zagat named Juliet one of “Boston’s 25 Most Important Restaurant Openings of 2016.” After a year of coming to terms with the glossy finish that greeted us so regularly, something about this one stopped me, and I couldn’t share it right away. I had to stop and think about this one, a lot. Typing this now, I haven’t even discussed it with Katrina yet.
What is important?
Are we important? Can restaurants be important? Should restaurants be important? Is ours?
Well, not for cooking alone. At least not in our opinion. Thankfully that seems to make a difference. When Katrina was named one of Eater’s Young Guns earlier this year, they noted her eye for design, warm service, and palate for wine. But above all that they held her up on a litter of social justice. When I was named a finalist for BostInno’s 50 on Fire, extending our reach beyond just the restaurant industry, cooking was discussed; but so was a commitment to mentorship and excellence in professional development.
A wedding we hosted, Juliet’s first, brought a former employee across the country to visit us, as a guest this time. He was seeing the new restaurant for the first time, he almost ran me over with his enthusiasm. Conor was a first time cook when he entered our organization and was now well on his way to distinguishing himself in a difficult job in Seattle. He cited his experience with us as making it possible. I told him there are a lot of places to learn.
“Not like the way I learned with you.”
At a holiday party hosted by a current staff member last week I found myself in a conversation with her husband that eventually led itself back around to previous jobs, hopes about future jobs, and current jobs.
“So many of us have had to sacrifice some portion of our ideals as the realities of rent and expenses set in. Especially in restaurants I’ve seen”
“You are giving people a chance to do what they want to do in a way they can feel good about doing it.”
If I had been tasked with writing the list, I don’t know that I would have titled it “Important.” But maybe it’s for the best that I’m not the one writing it then. Juliet is certainly important to us; the work we do here, the way we do it, and the ideals that drive us to do it differently. I couldn’t be more grateful, if a little uncomfortable, that it is so quickly important to so many others also.
And now that I really think about it, those chefs in the articles alongside us, turns out I’ve worked where they’ve worked. I know because I have heard of them, and I suppose they’ve probably heard of me too.