NYC Diaries Part III
- Opening -
After bulldozing my way through the final construction and permitting process, we received our certificate of occupancy mid-July 2016 and started making plans to open. I had flown in a small opening team from Houston and they went to work getting things set in place. Opening a restaurant is much like having a baby, expectations are sort of there but much can go wrong. Once the initial euphoria subsides there comes a time of reckoning with new reality when the baby wakes up for the tenth time one night. At least with children, eventually they grow up and go off on their own with an initial predictable pattern of no news is good news until they show up when they need something. For a restaurateur, that moment of reckoning comes within the first two to three months when your third dishwasher hire for the week quits in the middle of a busy weekend shift. Restaurants, even grown up ones remain like children, well behaved over time but in need of incessant attention.
Always wanting to put our money on food and people, I was never a subscriber of loud advertising or public relation firms. Hiring someone to go whisper sweet nothings about us into the ears of press agents felt murky and an affront to our integrity. At Indika over a period of over ten years we had received hundreds of unsolicited glowing articles from The New York Times, Time magazine to plenty of local press. With Pondicheri in Houston, we did hire a firm to help us yet the best press we received came from the relationships I had built personally over the years. But I had been warned that New York was different - if you don’t speak up, nobody would notice you, I was told. So we hired a small well-regarded public relations firm to send out opening notices. Nomad being more of a working neighborhood, we decided to first open for breakfast and lunch.
The days in and around opening I noticed uncharacteristic mood swings and random angry tirades from Abel. Having dealt with a lifetime of digestion issues, he had gone through many diets to deal with unexplained abdominal discomfort. Doctor after doctor assured him he was in perfect health yet he sensed something was wrong but could not put his finger on it. One time on a trip to Paris he stubbornly refused wine and bread, the two main reasons I had wanted to go to France! I created the lemon bar one day when he begged me to make something sweet with avocado, almonds, vegan and gluten free. It went on to become our biggest selling cookie. Another time I made up the honey mesquite cake when he wanted to abstain from sugar but eat honey. Chalking Abel’s behavior to the stress of construction and opening, I did not pay much attention and kept my eye on the ball of finalizing opening menus, given that we were now onto summer. Then one day, he was on the floor writhing in excruciating abdominal pain ~ again, we blamed it on chronic indigestion and stress. I had a restaurant to open but sensing that something was seriously wrong, Abel booked a flight back to Houston two weeks later.
Opening day was almost here and my team from Houston was making necessary preparations. I foolishly allowed a well-intentioned management expert to turn opening hiring into a human experiment ~ spending hours interviewing folks and taking in people from all walks of life with minimal experience. From the twenty people hired as our local opening team, eighteen were gone within three weeks, one remained a year and another stayed with us until we closed last month. A friend muttered in my ear weeks later, management grads like to give recommendations from behind a computer but don’t like getting their hands dirty.
The second week in August we opened for dinner. I was distracted and distraught and after the traumatic construction process, what should have been a joyous time turned into a nagging premonition. Few days after, Abel collapsed at home with renal failure and made it to the emergency room just in time. My time was spent trying to train opening staffing and experiencing deep issues of guilt for not being back in Houston. Friends in the business warned me that finding cooks in New York was tough but I did not realize the extent of the challenge. It seemed like almost everyone who had come in our door had little desire to learn how to cook, wanted to shuffle from one foot to another and do as little as possible to earn the hourly wage. Trying to teach folks to cook especially the spiced nuances of Indian food was an exercise in frustration.
Abel remained in the hospital for almost two agonizing weeks while the doctors stabilized his body and ran tests. At first the prognosis was virus infection to worst-case scenario being stomach abscesses. He had always been in great physical shape so I refused to even entertain the idea that there could be something seriously wrong. But it was much worse, as we found out one early morning that September. An oncologist walked into his room and coldly informed him that he had stage IV colon cancer rapidly spreading to his lymph nodes and liver and roughly six months left to live. Our worlds fell apart and I jumped on a plane back to Houston.
The next few weeks were a blur to both Ajna and I. Despite her having no initial intentions of working at the restaurant but knowing hired help was only going to do so much, I handed the reins over to her before I left. I remember doubling over in shock when I saw Abel at the hospital, frail and weak and looking at me with big accusing eyes ~ having lost almost thirty pounds in three weeks. Refusing to accept the prognosis, we brought him home with tentative plans to stall chemical interventions and instead try a life style turnaround with an entirely plant based diet. A man with tremendous discipline, within two weeks he was in better spirits, going for long morning runs and vowing to beat the cancer. I knew my presence and support in his life would be key to his recovery and I agonized about how I would manage my time between the two cities.
I made a quick trip back to New York where I found Ajna desperately trying to hold the team together. My Houston team that had chosen to move and open New York Pondicheri was frustrated with the local hires lack of discipline, consistent tardiness and unwillingness to learn. While running up the stairs one evening trying to teach one of my cooks a process, I slipped, landed on my right hand and broke my wrist in three places. Sheepishly I arrived back in Houston with a cast now limited in my ability to help Abel.
A few days later we got a call from the New York Times that a review by Pete Wells was about going to go into print that week. What, so soon? I know the Times had published reviews of restaurants, sometimes scathing ones within days of opening but why the rush? We had received plenty of press with local publications announcing our opening with great fanfare. Even the New Yorker, calling our food ‘Nirvanic’ had put us on the top of the Indian restaurant boom that fall. Back to the Times, while I was grateful that they showed up but was it right to review a restaurant after less than two months of opening? Has any food critic actually worked in a restaurant or attempted to understand the human cost of what it takes to open a business, especially one in New York? Shouldn’t they be the adults in the room and have the grace to have the last word on a new opening? I’ve been a lifelong fan of the Times ~ during pre-internet days my brother would mail me their food sections monthly but I did not understand this rush to judge. Even in Houston, our star food critic Alison Cook had waited six months before walking into Pondicheri. But who was I to decide that? The review came out ~ we got two stars with plenty of kind and a few unkind words, which in my heightened state of emotion felt like mean jabs of arrows piercing through my heart.
What the review did do was boost business and bring in the mobs. It’s interesting to note that in a city known for some of the brightest minds and independent thinkers, so many folks flock to places one person recommends. Many New Yorkers tasted our food for the first time, fell in love and became regulars over the years. Some rejected us in a New York minute when we did not meet their needs. Business continued to be good for months after as Ajna and I reckoned with what our new reality was, given my need to spend more time in Houston and her looming responsibility to carry the weight of this restaurant. I knew in my heart that Abel’s recovery was going to be directly proportionate to my presence but I also had a responsibility to be at Pondicheri. Our life was about to get even more challenging.
Until next time,