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On the House: An Old Dream Finally Begins to Take Shape

This is the fourth 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

"Some people see things that are and ask, Why?
Some people dream of things that never were and ask, Why not?
Some people have to go to work and don't have time for all that."
—George Carlin

Late fall some years ago I was reading along to the Boston Globe food section with my aunt and grandmother. The restaurant I was working at, to which they lived nearby, was the subject of the weekly dining review, a column I had read diligently for years. I still do.

My restaurant career, allowing for some gaps along the way (as well as some creative license to avoid incriminating any past employers), had already spanned close to 12 years. Likely as many job descriptions as well as I made my way from dishwasher to busboy and followed that path to front-of-house manager. Eventually I made my way back through the kitchen. As the sous chef now of this restaurant, I was responsible for, well, all the plates written about. At least to some degree. Their execution, of course, less than their creation.

Then I'd begin a long day at the cutting board.

My day would begin by discussing pros and cons from the previous night’s service with the chef. Next, a quick check on the quality of any prepped items remaining, followed by a glance at the lists detailing the work that the staff would need to complete before heading into another busy evening. More often than not, I’d make a few changes to what I saw there, and then I’d begin a long day at the cutting board.

Beef butchering gave way to fish fabrication as I would rush to complete these major tasks in the relative quiet of the early kitchen, pastry production cooks keeping me company with light conversation before the majority of the staff arrived an hour or two later. Once the day was in full swing, my attention was diverted regularly to clarify recipes or check the quality of work underway. If the day demanded, I might patiently walk a prospective job applicant through the basics of how to get around in our kitchen. After the tour, I would have to tie up at least one eye the rest of the day, watching to make sure one of his hands didn’t slice off a piece of the other. Not that that was terribly likely. See it happen once, though, and you’ll make sure it never does again. All the while I remained centered at my cutting board, dicing garnishes, checking portions, and otherwise preparing one of the line stations to be ready for service while overseeing the rest.

That’s a lot of work, and it takes up a lot of time. My family knew how much I was working. Reflective of an endemic problem in our industry, they were likely concerned about how much I was earning for that effort as well. It wasn't unusual that I might turn to them for small loans to cover rent and other minor expenses.

I might have anticipated their reaction halfway through reading the largely positive review when they realized my name wouldn’t be mentioned anywhere in it.

Had I thought about it, I might have anticipated their reaction halfway through reading the largely positive review when they realized my name wouldn’t be mentioned anywhere in it. I, of course, would have been terribly surprised if it had! Before I had time to grasp what they might be thinking, though, my aunt was already fuming that I hadn’t gotten any credit. It took a minute, but I got my head around her argument and quickly talked her down.

I was just happy, after a decade-plus of working around the open flames, noisy hood vents, and likely grease burns of kitchens all over New England, to have a management role in a restaurant featured in a full-page review in the paper of record. A good review, too! I was second in charge of a restaurant covered by the press, and the press liked it! Soon I had her wincing along with me at any minor jab in the remaining paragraphs, as if it had been an attack on me alone. Named, or not.

The next day I walked into an impromptu meeting upon my arrival at the restaurant. The chef, managers, and owners got together and read the review aloud, its positives and negatives weighed and discussed. For the rest of them at the table, this was a time-worn standard operating procedure. I let my excitement pass without letting on too much once I recognized this wasn’t a high-five session. They’d all been through this before.

"Guys, the Boston Globe just ate all our food and wrote about it." A voice in my head. "Growing up we didn’t even read the Boston Globe. Now I’m in it! Kind of. And not in the police blotter either!"

I didn’t pay close attention to that meeting. I was stuck in my own head. I took the time to process my excitement and get my work face back on. It was a Thursday, which would be a busy night and would open us up to two or three more busy days as we wound up for and charged through the weekend. So that event came and went. The review was written; we read it. We liked it, mostly. We went back to work. Thirty minutes delayed too, and I had a lot of fish to cut.

That excitement, buried as it was under a pile of shallots, carrots, celery, potatoes, whole fish, and pork pieces, over and over again, never quite subsided. It just got pushed to the side as I got on with keeping the food coming out of the kitchen to match the vision of the chef and the standards of the owners, happily playing my part.

Juliet illustration 4

A year or so later that memory was playing out in my head as I was offered the top position at that same restaurant. The one that got attention, full-feature reviews from the premier newspaper (as well as many others). Reading that review that day, my excitement hadn’t taken me as far as a real moment of "what if that were me they were writing about?" Of course I had imagined it, dreamt it, hoped for it someday. Someday was always a lot further than today. I had run kitchens before as I built my resume. A chain restaurant here, a pub there. Taking the experience for what it was before making my way back into the ranks of small independent restaurants. Where the food is better, the hours longer, and the pay...variable.

There I was, though, my name slipping onto the coveted last line of the single page menu, and quickly one of the weekly papers wrote about it. Just a paragraph. My aunt taped it to the wall, a three-inch square of text underneath a 12-by-16 portrait of her crossing the Boston Marathon finish line the previous spring. She is generous and indiscriminate in her ability to celebrate accomplishment. Additional press followed, including, eventually, a full review of my own merit in a major outlet, followed not long after by a small revisiting by the Boston Globe reviewer herself.

I was too busy for thinking like that.

As it was reading that original review, when that first paragraph came out, I didn’t have much time to think about what if I did this for myself someday. My own restaurant. I was too busy for thinking like that. But sometimes at night, asleep, I could dream about it.

Here I am, though, again. Juliet is well on her way to being built and closer to being ready to welcome our first guests. At the beginning of what is now more than a year of planning, Juliet was a dream with little grounding in daily reality. Our staff was toiling nightly in Boston, halfway through a six-month contract at a busy downtown cocktail bar — our first major steps. We were preparing to take to the road to cook at the James Beard House. Hell, we hadn’t even seen the first of the February snows that would have us spend half our prep hours shoveling for most of a month. Juliet was still a pile of someone else’s plywood.

When I started writing this column six weeks ago, so she remained, a pile of plywood. Our plywood this time, maybe half of it in the right place. Studs became exposed as walls came down and powder kicked up. Floors leveled, chalk marks spelled out crude representations of what someday would be a drain, a counter, an electrical outlet, a door. Somehow it looked even less a reality at that point than it did sketched by Katrina on graph paper.

Who doesn’t enjoy seeing their work take some real shape after laying weeks of foundation?

Last week a lot of that changed. We passed our first round of inspections, the rough inspections. Happening partway through the building process they cover electrical, plumbing, building (more plywood), and even a screw inspection. Pass, pass, pass, pass. Once those are out of the way, the space starts to take on its eventual character. It’s an exciting time for us and for the builders. Who doesn’t enjoy seeing their work take some real shape after laying weeks of foundation?

Almost immediately the subcontractors arrived to finish the kitchen walls in their characteristic glossy white. Plasterers arrived; studs and framing disappeared behind boards ready for paint. Better choose a color.

Eight-inch shiplap boards went up, window to wall, from baseboard until about six feet high. A small shelf was installed to wrap the dining room at shoulder height, a row of pinnable board and a custom modular hanger next, all designed to give Katrina instant ability to change the visual details of the restaurant as quickly as we can change the menu. Finally, boards for a few feet more. Now that looks even better than the picture.

Counter framing was re-measured and secured, ready to accept a counter top, which we still have to decide a material for. We're behind on that. Speaking of behind, we better choose some light fixtures, and it’s about time to decide on the tables and chairs. We have some options, but thankfully we are running out of time!

On Halloween Eve I walked in the front door to watch a mass of blood-red liquid seep from one far wall until it reached halfway across the kitchen floor. Surprise, our floor is bright red, and no quarry tile in sight.

Suddenly weeks are falling fast. What was hardly an idea a year ago, a dream the year before that, and a joke not five years back, is now nearly built. Maybe those reviewers will come in here to write about this one someday. Maybe soon. Maybe not at all. I have a lot to think about still before we worry about that.

Juliet

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

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