This is a chapter from my book "In the Weeds". the story of the Metropolitain. I am currently editing.
With just a month of business under our belts, we were due for our first inspection from our friends from hell at the Health Department. Surprise attacks from those guys were as welcome as the thought of a root canal on Christmas day. We had the misfortune of opening the Metropolitain at a time coinciding with the local Health Department being overhauled by a highly motivated woman with a seemingly enormous Gaufrette chip on her shoulder. Her name was Csar, and she would become the most dreaded, most feared sight for any chef in town.
Csar wielded incredible power, especially in the opening of the restaurant. When she laid out the hoops for the opening we did our best to jump straight through them, offering her the same respect we had for our elementary school principle who ruled with an old piece of oak.
“Yes, ma’am , no ma’am , what ever the hell you want ma’am can we please
open the restaurant NOW!!”
We never said that, we sure thought it, though. After finally securing the CO, or certificate of operation, from her, we went straight to work ignoring her promise to return within a month to see if we were being good little kitchen boys. That first visit was okay, despite a laundry list of demerits for lack of paper towels at one hand sink, the bartender handling cash then cutting bread, Vincent using his hand towel to wipe his hand, using a regular glass to drink from ( who dreams this stuff up?) plus some other minor things. We received a score of 72, a C where I come from, considering the silliness of some of the infractions, we were happy with the passing grade..
We never understood their pickiness, the policies from left field, the constant probing. It wasn’t like were picking up stray cats using them in the pate, Vincent and I were professionals cooking our hearts out and the quality and freshness of our food was without question priority one. The last thing I wanted to hear was of some customer spending the night praying to the porcelain god after dining on our Roasted Veal shoulder with Lemon Vanilla sauce.
Her second visit could not have come at a worse time. We were facing our first graduation weekend, an annual invasion of mothers, fathers, grandparents and Uncle Charlies of every graduating senior from the University. During these weekends, the town would swell with an additional sixteen thousand people all looking to dear ole dad to shell out a couple hundred bucks on a night on dinner for the clan. The fathers didn’t seem to mind, given the fact that junior was finally finished with college and more or less out of Dad’s wallet. We were prepared for our share of the onslaught and by Thursday night, our small set of refrigerators were stuffed every which way with extra amounts of salad greens, Veal cuts, Tuna, prepared desserts, duck breast, fish. There was no organization, only squeezing the various shapes as to somehow fit in order to stay cold. All we needed was for Friday night’s service to arrive so as to dent the massive inventory back to a manageable level.
Csar arrived Friday afternoon.
After picking apart our incredibly busy lunch service just as she had the month prior, she preceded to the back to find our overstuffed coolers. The look at her face was as if she had discovered Holocaust evidence.
“We have some serious issues here.”
The serious issues were raw duck breast stored in a pan on a shelf above the salad greens which were securely in plastic bags. I knew we were guilty, but it wasn’t like the duck was sitting on top of the arugula dripping its purpleness all over the place. I couldn’t argue, she was technically in the right, not to mention really pissed and I suddenly had visions of her erecting a Closed sign in the front window, ending our dream right then and there.
Oh! Did I mention that my wife had just given birth to our second child two days prior? Never mind.
She sat us down and thoroughly went over each and every infraction as we desperately “Yes ma’am No ma’am” our asses off. She gave us a stern warning and promised to return in seven days! We didn’t care if she wanted to return the seven hour of the seventh day for the next seven years, we had survived, we were still in business, still cooking and awaiting what would surely be out busiest weekend to date. We did the weekend, although it wasn’t nearly as busy as we had hoped, returned the kitchen to a normal state of affairs, and awaited the next Friday’s inspection with a crew-cut corporal type of seriousness. All other matters of business became secondary, there would be no new food creations for that week, no whole animal carcasses, fancy dessert attempts, nothing. The general was coming and we needed to spit shine our kitchen or else.
For some strange reason, Csar actually smiled during that next inspection, she left the normal picking alone, and bothering to only inspect the refrigerators. She enjoyed the power, the outpouring of respect and the ass kissing we bestowed upon her. She was there for barely twenty minutes, and we would not see Csar again for six months, at which time she would discover another major bone to pick with us.
To say we opened on a shoestring would be an understatement; most of our tattered equipment was either left over from Fat City or bought from a failed restaurant slash bookstore we raided upon its funeral. Our grill was had for fifty bucks, the Hobart mixer $250, the Garland range, $200. The manager of the failed establishment had sold us a mountain of small wares including pots, hotel pans, utensils, spices, knives, chocolate white and dark, and cast iron skillets still roaming the kitchen of Bizou today for a cool one hundred. Our frugal ways coupled with the lack of kitchen payroll outside of the dishwashers hastened our business firmly in the black from the get go.
So it would seem logical that the argument as to whether or not to purchase a new piece of equipment costing in excess of six grand would be a lengthy one. Vincent had developed a love affair while working with this particular machine in France, and was steadfast in believing we needed it. I was more than just skeptical, seeing how this machine was going to cost the equivalent of 1/6 our entire initial capital outlay to buy and open the restaurant. Furthermore, this piece of equipment was not mega sized refrigerator or freezer, high end range or oven, or even a new hood system. It was not a new HVAC, a company truck, commercial water heater, dishwasher or even keg cooler. The machine in question was a single purpose R2D2 look alike.
It was an ice cream maker. A six thousand dollar ice cream maker.
The official name of this guy was Ott-Swiss, a European freezer compressor surrounding a stainless 3 quart chamber containing a Cuisinart type blade that spun some many hundred times a minute. Vincent swore this baby would make us money in the long run, saving time over the cheap electric very whiny ass plastic disposable model constantly grinding away frozen custard were currently using.
I was less than convinced.
After three months of seven day a week nagging, my partner wore my stubbornness down to the point I actually watched a demonstration of the machine and soon was writing that check for slightly more than $5500 (we got a deal!).
We also made a large improvement to our dessert menu as the ice creams became creamier, the sorbets dreamier. If you ever had the opportunity to taste a cantaloupe, peach, melon or any other sorbet which had a natural mealy pulp from our Ott Swiss, than you had tasted a piece of pure heaven. The internal sharp spinning blades pulverized the fruit while it blended it with the small amount of sugar syrup used to sweeten. It didn’t take long for me to forget about my initial reservations on the purchase and realize Vincent was right in lobbying for the purchase of this machine.
“What is this?’ Csar inquired fifteen minutes into her first inspection since the fiasco of graduation weekend. It was Wednesday, a mellow afternoon and a full 45 minutes after lunch service. The wait staff was gone, so we would not be busted for them picking their noses, the coolers were ¾ full and well organized, and frankly it seemed Csar was having a hard time finding faults in our kitchen this inspection.
“That’s an ice cream machine!” I proudly declared.
“What are you putting in here?” She quizzed, obviously puzzled by the sight of this machine, something no one else within a 150 mile radius owned.
“Custard, you know, we make the custard and then pour it into this ice cream machine and it freezes it.”
“Really?” was her first response, and the she gathered herself.
“You realize of course, its illegal.” Csar informed us. “Its illegal to prepare you own ice cream in the state of Virginia.”
Vincent and I stood silent, stunned. Surely she was kidding but it was hard to imagine Csar ever laughing or joking about anything, aside from the closing of a restaurant.
“Illegal?” I returned.
Now, killing your landlord, robbing a bank, molesting 10 year olds, seemed illegal. Even here in Virginia, in 1990, slavery was illegal, punching someone in the face, embezzling church cash platters, possessing pot, driving under the influence, spitting on the downtown mall cop, trespassing, urinating in public, exposing yourself at your father in-laws’ company picnic, all illegal. But making ice cream? What fucking genius dreamed up this law?
I could just envision the debate on the state delegate floor, a heated one where opposite sides fiercely debated the merits of their arguments, filibusters lasting deep into the night, open, half eaten melted containers of Ben and Jerry’s on the speaker’s pulpit, sticky white plastic spoons everywhere, sugar buzzed grown balding men slurring arguments through their southern gentlemen accents. Finally the verdict, no restaurants can make their own ice creams from scratch, they must purchase the watery ice milk mix from the state subsidized dairy and freeze the dairy mart’s quality crap and call it ice cream.
Oh boy, that’ll set our desserts apart from the competition. I was envisioning our desserts having the same qualities as those churned out by a half baked seventeen year old with his ball cap positioned sideways on his head while working the slop machine at the local Dairy King.
There would be no “Yes Ma’am” on this count. Vincent and I dropped our heads in defiance and kept on cooking. Csar could stick her instant read thermometer anywhere she wanted; she could write us for as many silly infractions as she pleased as long as we were still cooking dinner that night. She could lecture us on the dangers of bacteria until the mad cows came home, but one thing she could not do is tamper with the quality of our food. She knew by our reaction we were not rolling over on this one, she would need reinforcements.
A few days later the big guy arrived, or at least he was introduced as the head of state board of health from Richmond, the capital. He didn’t look so official, an open collared plaid shirt and khakis, worn loafers placed him placed him in as a local retiree in some small town coffee shop rather than at the helm of state health Gestapo. But there he was, sporting his very own instant read thermometer clipped to his breast pocket, manual in hand, descending upon us with the official code, the word of god according to these bacteria nerds.
“Chapter 10, Section G, page 14….” Psalam 12 blah blah blah
“…restaurants are not allowed to manufacture ice creams from raw dairy products.”
Score health czars one, young talented entrepreneur chefs zero. The chief had spoken. Csar and her hero had left, mission accomplished. They had saved Charlottesville from the horrible possibility of eating homemade vanilla bean, caramel, rum raisin, green tea, banana nut, toasted pecan, mint chocolate chip, banana coconut, anise, milk chocolate, or any other lovable concoction of ice cream Vincent and I would dream up.
No sooner had the latex gloved duo left the restaurant Vincent was on the phone with the local dairy ordering a case of vanilla ice cream mix. Upon its arrival, we opened the case, retrieved one of the four cartons and emptied half it contents deservedly down the drain of our 3 bay sink. We returned this carton to the shelf in the fridge and placed it in front of another unopened one. The other two were tossed in the dumpster. Vincent pinned the receipt to the bulletin board in a can’t miss location and returned the kitchen.
“Sure looks to me like we’re using that product.”
We would repeat this drill once a month, all the while making our ice creams to the delight of our customers. A year later we found a local farmer producing the most luscious free range eggs which turned our honey laced vanilla bean ice cream a rich pale yellow. In the twelve years following the visit from Csar and her hero, not once did she or any of the other health inspectors touch, taste, or inquire as to the contents of our ice cream.
Score the culinary free world 2, heath inspectors 1.