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On the House: Flakes of Snow, a Quiet Hum, and the Next Chapter

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

Juliet, through the window.
Juliet, through the window.
Photo (and illustration below) by Katrina Jazayeri

"Even though I had nothing, in the traditional sense, to qualify me as a chef or a business owner, I had something convincing and compelling from my early twenties. From that era with the chicken, and my dad shouting at me from the back steps, and me wanting to sleep the long permanent sleep. I had something from that time."  —Gabrielle Hamilton, Blood, Bones & Butter

Twenty minutes after I first sat down to write this, my fingers were quivering over my laptop keyboard as my body temperature was slowly dropping. I could have gotten up to turn the heaters on. I sat directly below one of them. We have two, at opposite ends of the long white-walled corridor that is the dining room at Juliet.

I sat frozen in my seat feeling a combination of dread and excitement that combined into paralysis. I have a to-do list so long that completing an item on it, blacking it out in sharpie on index card or bisecting it with a clean line of a number 2 pencil across a legal pad, doesn't leave me with any of the usual elation, instead only providing a reminder of how insurmountable the mountain of tasks appears. I used to live for the feeling of completing these lists, one line at a time, meticulously but efficiently and ahead of schedule, leaving plenty of time for running new food cost models and labor strategies, developing recipes, writing thank you notes, and practicing things like online networking and social media. I haven't felt that kind of joy of proficiency for some time now. I don't remember the last time I wasn't carrying over line items from one day's list to the next, reconciling them into categories of still relevant or too late.  The terms and tasks are often unfamiliar now. Anything extra is rushed through at the very end of one day or very beginning of another.

My eyes were frozen in place. The cursor was blinking irregularly. Had the computer frozen too? No, there it went.

That evening brought the first snow this winter, unless the few slowly falling flakes I saw the day before while running along the Charles River — part of a mix of rain and slush and bouncing hail stones — count. I'm not sure that they do; no one else seems to have seen them. I haven't been sleeping much lately. Who knows what I saw. I was actually so tired, or preoccupied, at the time that I ran my intended route in reverse and somewhere between three and four miles I jerked alert from a ten-minute daydream quite unsure of where I was for longer than a moment.

It's easy to find my way back to Juliet, though, so without thinking about it too hard, that's what I did. The restaurant is quickly accessible from a number of major roads serving as a center point for commuting routes passing through Somerville and Cambridge, as well as Boston and beyond. Picking up any of those roads is simple, and then it's never more than a few miles back to the tall windows, currently adorned with paper leaves, that look into the restaurant. Or look out of it, if you are inside enjoying a hot cup of coffee while waiting for your bus on a cold day.

If you live in the Union Square area, there's a good chance you make at least occasional use of that bus stop, which is visible from where I start or finish my morning run. A sight that is also visible to me from my place at the eight-foot stainless steel table that we had custom-built as the centerpiece of the kitchen, and therefore the restaurant. Early in our planning stages, we realized, in Katrina's words, that "custom is not in our budget." We splurged, though, for a few front and center accents like this table, the redwood counters, and an antique store find that became a custom light fixture, the first one you'll see looking in through these same windows. Those windows have been papered over since April. Most of them still are. However on Christmas Eve we pulled the paper down from two of them, leaving the almost-but-not-quite-complete room on full display.

I begin and finish most of my runs from these windows now. Katrina's lightbox "Juliet" sign glowing from the inside looks particularly impressive at sunrise, which is good, because soon I'll be seeing a lot of sunrise. I fell in love with the idea of "service all day" over half a decade of serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner at Beacon Hill Bistro.

I hate to close. Restaurants, especially ones with big windows and open floor plans set in busy neighborhoods, should be open as much as possible. It's been almost two years, though, since I had to perform like that. Since then I've come to appreciate sleeping in too. Or at least beginning the morning with hot coffee enjoyed slowly, and some time to read, run, write, or otherwise do something that isn't the thing I'll do all day.

I quickly forget about that, though, looking through these windows, the sign illuminating the room around it. The rest of the lighting hanging quiet, a medley of carefully selected but easily installed track and pendant pieces which delineate the room into its various practical parts even though there is no actual separation. The kitchen equipment was delivered and installed over the course of the past two weeks. There is a gallant formation of unseen undercounter refrigeration units humming away along each wall and under each work surface.

I imagined I could hear the hum of those units from the outside. I couldn't, but the sound is stamped in my mind. It catches me now each time I open the front door of the otherwise silent building. For months the sound of Juliet was saws, and hammers, and drills, and brown paper lunch bags crumpling or two-liter bottles fizzing off upon opening as contractors and subcontractors stopped for lunch. Then for weeks the sound of Juliet was silence as we waited for deliveries and watched them quietly installed. Then one day the the hum of the low-lying equipment replaced the silence. That gentle but apparent reverberation will be a short-lived signature and will soon be drowned out by running water, stacking plates, orders called out, silverware on china and the tap tap tapping of knives through onions, shallots, garlic, carrots, celery, and herbs. But for now, we hum.

The snow indeed fell that night. I think I've seen Juliet without snow for the last time before our now-imminent opening. Our last poppy has withered, as if on schedule, seeing us through just about to the the completion of construction. Tomorrow our electrician will be on site to finish his crucial work that will allow us to begin calling for inspections. We'll call, but won't expect much movement in that direction until the first week of the new year. We'll enjoy one more holiday with family, and each other.  A rare treat. We'll savor it as best we can and try for a few hours to put checklists out of mind.

There are plenty of details to still to complete. All important, but none comparing to the magnitude of the construction phase that is now ending. We have some paint touch-up and other carpentry finishes to oversee. We have to lower a custom table by a few inches. Not sure yet how we are going to pull that off. Right... that table. Staff handbooks to edit, vendors to contact, photos to stage, forgotten equipment to track down and purchase, window cleaning to schedule. There are to-do lists two pages long to burn. I have a new bright shiny oven; I can toss them right into it now.

On the House illustration 8

It was hard to pull a quote for the top of the essay this time around. I've been reading Gabrielle Hamilton's memoir for the third time this week. Crammed (along with a half dozen other books, again) into a weekend bag on a recent trip to New York City.

I've read and reread Gabrielle's work often. I could paste a few sentences off every third page as an epigraph and each would fit. The first time I read the book, the chef I was working for had just given a short and abrupt, at least to me, notice that he was leaving. I read twenty sleepy minutes at a time during my morning commute to the restaurant where I was suddenly working seven-day weeks, 14 hours per day, which lasted about two months until the chef could be replaced. I put my name in for the job but wasn't promoted. I know now to thank god I wasn’t. It took most of those two months to finish reading; I fell asleep every few pages.

Gabrielle spoke to me directly then and still does now. It's the story of an individual exorcising her past through diligent work in the kitchen. Work that evokes ghosts long dead and premonitions of her future. Work that at times she might prefer to leave behind but which she always finds herself back in the middle of. As far as I can tell, for the better.

She became something of a patron saint in my eyes. I found direction quickly in her story and meditated on the chapters there regularly. When the restaurant finally replaced the chef, and when I had finished training him, I finally took three days off. I ran to the bus station, Blood, Bones & Butter in hand. I wasn't in New York's East Village two hours before I was eating at Prune.

An hour and a half later I walked out disappointed. To this day I can't explain exactly why, but it hurt. Like I had just waited at the tomb three months for Jesus to pop out and then reluctantly walked away unfulfilled. The food was great, the service was good, the restaurant design was charming, maybe beautiful.

But I went looking for pilgrimage and left a casual tourist. Which was probably part of the problem. Management of expectations. I was looking for religion in a restaurant aspiring to (and succeeding greatly in securing) neighborhood greatness. Prune was just fine. I though, had some searching to do. And plenty of time in which to do it.

On this most recent trip I was headed back to Prune, where I am happy to report I had a fantastic meal shared with wonderful company. One that will be remembered for a long time, hopefully as long as I will remember anything. The tables have been moved around a bit from the floor plan that was there years ago. The heavy iron table bases, distressed mirrors, friendly staff, and tiny open kitchen are the same, as is most of the menu.

It was exactly what we wanted. A simple procession of one woman's favorite things. Radishes, well salted with butter. Egg, cooked hard, on mayonnaise. Beans, gently cooked, but long enough (immediately setting them apart from the majority that are not), and floating in their smoky broth adorned with a few sliced sausages. A perfect salad of nothing but mustard greens to finish, dressed up with pantry staples, in this case a few of our favorite things: garlic, lemon, anchovy. If the neighborhood weren't pressing from the outside trying to get in, we might have begged for a thick slice of cheese and another half-bottle of wine and prolonged our respite. We'd had our turn, though, and gave up our table, wading out into the clear East Village evening.

I wonder if I can be so lucky one day to share the kind of stories that inspire a whole career, the kind of restaurant that even dares to set expectations that rival religious experience, even if later to fall short. Luckier still to make good later on those expectations, once properly clarified. To touch a life or two in such a profound way while making memories for the guests we seek to reach every day, the ones who live in our neighborhood. My neighbors.

This will be the end of On The House, at least as far as Juliet is concerned. Eater might have preferred more facts and figures. More: today I did this, yesterday I did that. Sometimes my staff might like a little bit more of that too. Sorry Eater. Sorry staff. I can’t operate that way. What happens right now doesn’t mean anything to me without understanding how it fits into what’s gone before and what might happen next. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading. More importantly, I hope you feel like you know us a little bit better and so might enjoy our next chapter even that much more.

The first time I thought seriously about a restaurant of my own was also in the snow, just a few years before the impending snowfall that day, standing in front of those windows into Juliet. Like, a for-real restaurant of my own. Not the bed-and-breakfast I planned to retrofit into my sister's (unheated) side porch bedroom, or one of another dozen half-cooked ideas I had to make money cooking and serving food before I was 15.

It was fun and fulfilling to stand there and look back on that cold night, three stories above Beacon Hill where the thought that this could be possible someday first hatched. Fun to realize how many ideas from that night did indeed become some small part of what we've now built. More fun still to think how many ideas from those childhood years have poured their way into the foundation here as well. Most of it of course is much different than what I envisioned that evening. Whatever it is, it is ours. Nearly ready. Partially on view. While I do often now find myself in this temporary paralysis of nerves, I know and am looking forward to the cure. Soon, very soon, I'll step back behind my cutting board to put head down and return to the work that found me while I was searching for something different.


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