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On the House: A Time for Spreadsheets; a Time for Travel

This is the second installment of On the House, biweekly essays by Joshua Lewin, illustrated by Katrina Jazayeri, documenting the opening of their first permanent restaurant, Juliet.

Juliet, under construction.
Juliet, under construction.
Photo (and illustration below) by Katrina Jazayeri

"The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes."  —Marcel Proust

The Boston-area restaurant community is coming to terms today with abrupt news of the death of chef Geoffrey Lukas. Geoff was a close acquaintance and early supporter of our efforts. He shared much of our affinity for deeply understanding the traditions that inspire our cuisine and influence our restaurants in other ways as well. He was present at the event where we nervously announced Bread & Salt as a company to a group of friends, fans, and local media around our table for Persian New Year 2014. That was a major event for us when we produced the same pop-up one week apart in both Boston and New York City.

Geoff enthusiastically cooked alongside me for the Boston leg and threw in his own creative efforts behind the entree course, a delicious duck with grains and garlicky greens. He couldn't join us for the New York stop because he was on his way to Iran.

A few months later I was off my post at Beacon Hill Bistro and planning to take Bread & Salt from pop-up production to full-on hospitality company. Six months after, we took on our first full-time contract to open "Bread & Salt at Wink & Nod." A full year later, all the effort we poured into Persian New Year paid off big when we were invited to cook that event for the James Beard House. We arrived in New York City with a great plan, a tested menu, and a full energetic staff.

The year before we were just two over-extended individuals leveraging the help of our friends and supporters to launch a new company across two great cities. Geoff was there for us then, and we'll remember his help on that day, along with his continued support, for years to come. As we continue to share our current progress in building Juliet, seeing plans realized that are years in the making, I’d like to dedicate this edition of On the House to Geoff, another traveler. I’d like his friends and family to know how important his efforts were to us at a crucial time and how much we appreciated the effort shared between us.

The sun was already hot by mid-morning as we watched a mule-pulled tour wagon clod to a stop at the corner of Bourbon and St. Philip streets. Lafitte's Piano Bar. Two nights before, Katrina and I enjoyed a purple voodoo frozen daiquiri from Lafitte's. Not likely to ever drink one of those again. But lots of people will, and now we know what it’s all about. We took it to go. Sipped it while crisscrossing the darkened streets of the French Quarter. The experience was rich with novelty. The simple joy of immersion in something you simply cannot do back home.

With that novelty still fresh in our memory we laughed as the tour guide took requests from her delighted passengers. Five voodoos, two world-famous Cajun bloody marys, one hand grenade (that's right), and a handful of Abita, brewed about 30 miles north of the city. I’d never had one until we checked into our Airbnb in Tremé and found the refrigerator pre-stocked with it.

The bartender arrived cart-side and dispensed the drinks.

"Thanks, Mary."

"Yeah."

"Whatcha doing tonight?"

"Working."

"Damn. All day, too?"

"Yup."

"Well, we’ll see you around here again then."

The conversation was halted by a simple command; cart and passengers disappeared around the next bend. Friendly and simple, natural. Like so many similar conversations we’d played witness to over the past few days as streetcar conductors called out to coworkers and friends driving alongside, or neighbors crossed paths and reacquainted themselves over intersections and from balconies.

That was our last morning, book-ending a short trip to New Orleans. The (long) process we've embarked on to build Juliet is exhausting and all-encompassing. Generally exciting, although at times surprisingly rote. It's important to have something to look forward to. Imperative that we keep ourselves fresh as stacks of paper pile up with official-looking stamps and signatures. Checklist after checklist completed, or nearly so, only to be added to once again. Most of it important, educational, fulfilling, or even fun as we learn daily and develop a fuller understanding of our business. Some of it carries the risk of burnout along the way.

When we can, we sneak away.

It would be easy for us to hover over the details onsite. But as demolition wraps up and the shape of our plan begins rising in the new framing, most tasks on site are better left to the professionals. Our presence at times is at best distracting. Not that we don't observe and contribute along the way. We do. Heavily. Providing clarifications on measurements, clearances, and the placement of eventual equipment among other things. We’ve done a lot of planning and discussing to get to this point. There is a time for oversight, and there is a time to allow action to progress unencumbered. In moments of the latter we exercise with no triviality the option to engage with the world outside of our neighborhood. God knows when we’ll have the opportunity again, so when we can, we sneak away.

This travel allows time to collect and record — things as well as experiences. Both importantly influence our method of hospitality as we collect, process, refine, and remember those things which become, or maybe have always been our favorites, destined to be shared with our neighborhood at Juliet. Without taking the time to  experience new things, we'll stagnate over these spreadsheets and documents. A two-dimensional life does not a fun and immersive experience make. Our vision for Juliet is a place to celebrate those collected experiences and share them through the menu, the service, the design, and the overall experience of just being in the place. There is a time for spreadsheets, and there is a time to keep our experiences fresh. It would be a mistake to ignore either one.

I love to travel, but it's also possible I'm not so good at it. It works for me. But I can only imagine what it must be like to observe my process. I am a reduced to a comma string of contradictions from the moment I swing the front door closed, maybe even long before. I relish the unexpected but somehow am brought to my knees the moment any bewilderment enters into my experience of a developing situation. I strive for the authentic in any new place but am driven mad at the risk of missing some important attraction in the same. I prefer to enter a new experience without the crutch of the bulleted list, but from the moment I step on the subway, bags in hand, the fear of making the wrong turn hangs a low cloud. A cloud which threatens to spill a storm of fraying nerves like hail all over the thing, grinding the expected joy of indulgence to a chore to be overcome.

As we dashed out the door on this latest pursuit I carried my requisite overfilled bag, stuffed with clothes I won't need and books I won't open. A novel (two actually, and a third stored on my phone), two non fictions, one cookbook, the latest issues of two or three magazines — which I am as unlikely to open in flight as I am at home.

I want to have room for every great idea I’ve ever dreamt up.

This all parallels neatly to my unfolding experience of planning and building at the restaurant. I want to have room for every great idea I’ve ever dreamt up. A line for all of our favorite ingredients and dishes on the menu. A countertop in every variety of marble or floor finished in every shade of stain to catch my eye. Deciding on a built-in seating arrangement in one corner eliminates the possibility of a communal adjacent. Paneling the walls in one fashion means… But the bag can’t fit everything without busting its zippers.

Early on, our vision for Juliet was nearly complete, informed by our experiences as guests and sometimes staff at restaurants around the country and the world. There were many routes to see our eventual vision through. Lack of tools and strategies is never an issue for me. Narrowing the collection though — another story. I never want to leave any favorites behind.

Juliet illustration 2

We knew Juliet had to serve various types of customers daily. We pulled together various design ideas to provide the commuter-friendly experience necessary at our transportation hub of a corner of Union Square, while at the same time preserving some space in the restaurant for guests looking for a more leisurely experience. The eventual solution was to provide plenty of space for those casual customers to enjoy us everyday, while creating some seating right over the action in the kitchen for a limited number to pull up a chair and enjoy fuller meals.

Breakfast, lunch, or dinner, prepared with the care and attention to detail they’ve come to expect from our company. Instead of carpets and upholstery and gilded mirrors, we’ll punctuate this experience by bringing the customer up close and putting on a show. The entire kitchen is designed around this performance for a small audience while the remainder of the restaurant functions for a different customer altogether. We hope and expect to find a lot of crossover between the two groups. Generously sharing everything we love about two styles of dining out of one beautiful space. We’ve built a level of modularity into the visual design of the dining areas as well. A collection needs some rotation, and this flexibility will allow us to have room to celebrate and display our favorite visual elements with the same dynamic nature of a daily printed menu.

We get used to a calendar that doesn't account for things like weekends — and dinners with family.

Embarking on this trip, we left immediately from our weekly construction meeting. That's Tuesday, 11 a.m. Weekly reflection is necessary. Constant gauging of the progress of the week prior; setting and adjusting expectations for the week to come. Monday is no good for this. In restaurants we get used to a calendar that doesn't account for things like weekends — and dinners with family. Any time is a potential and valid work hour. But for now, we aren't operating a restaurant. We are managing a project that requires input and coordination with contractors, subcontractors, signage manufacturers, floor installers, city clerks, and fire inspectors. Most of those people answer the phone on Mondays, rarely on Sundays. Lots of information flows on Mondays. That phone call we've been waiting days (weeks, months, ...) for is bound to come in. Monday is a day of readiness. So we have the meeting on Tuesday.

This latest meeting was a productive and important one. We had the opportunity to measure progress following the first full week of real construction. A plan is one thing, but you learn a lot when you start tearing holes in things. We made important decisions about where walls begin and end, plumbing routes, equipment location. And flooring.

The subcontractor for the flooring came through the door ready to work, about fifteen minutes before our meeting finished. Unscheduled. Technically an interruption. In this case a welcome one. My unease about decision-making throughout this restaurant building process? This man has none of that. Resolute in his knowledge, he does floors, and he is ready.

"So, you'll need about an eighth inch all the way around. Well…you'll need to look at height tolerances here."

"Right."

"If you can, you'll want to do it three times here. Yeah, this will be great. We'll get this figured out no problem here."

"We'll have hardwood for these last few feet here."

"Ok, great. So you'll need a transition."

"We have this salvaged flooring here."

"Yeah, perfect, just run it the opposite way here; then we'll install a metal strip. Almost no height. Cool."

"Anyway, yeah, here are some color samples. And some pictures of some finished work. Look, you do whatever you want with the color, but I gotta tell you, just stay away from these light grays here. Trust me, they'll show everything. I like the red, here."

So I have a color to choose, but otherwise that's done. We do our best to surround ourselves with good people throughout this process. People who can listen to what we are trying to do and aren't afraid to let their experience show as they bring our vision to life. We like to think we do things a little bit differently. Juliet is a very personal project, and we're putting a lot of our collective favorites into the framework here. Not every part of this process is neon lights (some of it is) and murals and marble counters; we have a lot of simpler realities to contend with as well. It's easy to fall into  the status quo when it comes to basics. Like floors. We've recruited an enthusiastic team, ready to tackle status quo with us. Juliet is different. From the floor up.

A few hours later in New Orleans the passengers of the mule cart have enjoyed their drinks from solo cups and finished their tour of the French Quarter. We are back on the plane. A dog barks. Below deck somewhere I guess? Stored with the luggage...I don't remember ever hearing that before. I won't forget it now. It's seared into my memory along with overhead views of the Mississippi River.

The barrel of the windsock on the tarmac is horizontal, looking like the siphon of a geoduck clam. Flashes of Seattle in my memory and an afternoon tea tasting four years earlier that has influenced our plans for tea service at Juliet. The tail wind will bring us home even faster than we got here to begin with. It'll be Friday evening before we land. Just another work day to us, and we are heading full on into a productive weekend. Will we choose some counter tops and tile in the upcoming week? Come closer to finalizing menus for opening day? Maybe. There are labor models to run and re-run as our first employment offers go out to key staff. We don't have much chance to swing the hammers right now. But we've got good people on that too, and we have plenty else to do to bring this project further to light.

The plane levels out after an aggressive ascent and we sail over puff ball clouds. I am reminded of the last takeoff we enjoyed, the beaches of Nice giving way to clear blue ocean as far as the eye could see. So clear the ocean floor was visible from far overhead. Mussels ordered by the pound and carafes of rose as the horns blew of nearby of ships bound to or returning from Corsica. Of vegetables a la plancha for breakfast in the open markets of Barcelona. Coffee by the pot, omelet fine herbes, salade aux camembert, and late-night steak frites in a Parisian cafe. Any cafe. More domestic memories too, of the places that upon experiencing them become imprints on the mind, referenced with ease through keyword associations and regular daily experience.

I recall the two-part essay I read on the flight south, some years old, Francis Lam’s reflections on iconic New Orleans spot Cafe Du Monde in Gourmet Magazine. The tactile memory of the grooved tin can initiated a flood of experience so much more than any particular coffee shop should ever aspire too. No matter its tourist value. The steak frites enjoyed the night prior at The Delachaise, outdoors, with a great sightline to the passing St. Charles Streetcar. Late at night, after a traffic delay rerouted us from our original plans. The only steak frites to ever really evoke Paris in my memory.

Away from work, away from home. The third place. The neighborhood place.

I daydream of the day a two-part memoir emerges in honor of our cafe which is more than a coffee shop, not yet built. The fruit of not just our labor and our technical skill. More than the sum of our experience. The place where you meet the people you know on neutral ground. Away from work, away from home. The third place. The neighborhood place. The place that you wander into almost without thinking because it is a part of your daily local experience. Or as a traveler, the place that everywhere else you go just reminds you of. I’ve been traveling the neighborhoods of the country and the world. Tasting what they have to offer, listening, even cooking alongside their inhabitants when they'll indulge me. The sum of those memories, applied to our technical skills in cooking and hospitality, will be available and inspiring new ones to our own neighborhood soon. But first, the floor.

Juliet

21 Union Square, , MA 02143 (617) 718-0958 Visit Website

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