the unsung heroes of provisions
As we just rounded the corner of our first year here at our little café, I’ve been looking back on all of the people who have helped to make this special place what it is. I get a lot of credit for it (deservedly I might add) but I simply could not have done it without the help of this amazing community of folks who have stepped up and provided unwavering support. I am going to highlight a new person every so often, to show you the faces and tell you the stories of the unsung heroes of Provisions.
WHITNEY SMITH - Potter, Artist, Writer and all around Renaissance woman, but most importantly FLOWER TENDER OF PROVISIONS. Whitney Smith is amazing. She has a pottery studio just a block away and we became fast friends as soon as we met. One of the things I love most about Whitney is that she is brutally honest and exceptionally confident. We’ve always kept the café full of fresh flowers but we used mason jars and our arrangements were, let’s say, subpar. This really bothered our ol’ pal Whit. So now she goes to the farmers’ market every Saturday and picks us up gorgeous seasonal flowers. She harvests from her own garden as well. Every few days she comes in and freshens up the bouquets, how amazing is that? She also made us - MADE US - really sweet little vases to go on each table (for free which is another reason she is our hero.) Whitney said that “mason jars are bullshit and they’re not made for flowers and I will be so pissed if I see you using them again”. She makes really gorgeous art (seriously go buy her stuff www.whitneysmithpottery.com) and she keeps our café looking beautiful. Thank you Whitney! We love you and we will feed you warm scones until the end of time.
I haven’t written in awhile
To say that I have been busy is an understatement. I will not talk about it for long because it’s so boring. In fact I won’t talk about it at all. Here’s what I will say however. LIFE IS SO INSANE. There are multitudes of novels and articles and essays written about this very thing but, pardon me, this is my first time around. Last night me and my boy Joe worked the kitchen for our Midwestern Fish Fry dinner. It is not a job for 2 people. It is a job for 4 people. But all we had was ourselves so we put on some metal music and set ourselves to it, as one (or in this case 2) does. By the time our first Black Flag song had finished we were way deep in the shits. If you’re not a kitchen person, being way deep in the shits isn’t entirely bad, but it does mean that you don’t have time to wave and smile at all of your friends who are watching you through the kitchen door windows as they are ordering their cold beers and hot dinners. It means our noses are to the grindstone and while we are not failing, we are busting our asses. So many people have never done this kind of work, and I hope they thank whatever god they thank that they haven’t. At one point last night there was so much oil on the ground (we were working quickly and inefficiently for 45 minutes and it messed up the whole night) that when we walked by the fryer we just stopped walking and slid. Just slid on through. When we had a moment to laugh about it, we did. But for the most part we spent all 3 hours of our dinner service in the shits. Another sign you’re in the shits is when your stoner metalhead coworker starts to curse at the ticket machine. I don’t care what industry you’re in, when your colleagues are talking to inanimate objects you’re in trouble. I woke up this morning and I realized several things about my ever evolving business and specifically myself: I need more help. I am not a line cook. I should drink more water. I can’t believe this is all happening. So then we get back to LIFE IS SO INSANE. I don’t have any insight or advice I can provide. I am quite in the shits here myself. Thanks for joining me, don’t have your feelings hurt when I can’t come out and say hi, keep eating my food, and most importantly try to keep yourself out of the shits for at least half of your day!
Many many years ago when a restaurant called Pizziaolo opened down the road from me in Oakland, I was very excited to take my family there to celebrate my Little Grandpa’s birthday. You see, I had a Little Grandma and Little Grandpa and I also had a Big Grandma and Big Grandpa. Were you so lucky?!? I doubt it. Anyhow, Little Grandpa was the last surviving grandparent and I got to enjoy being an adult with him in a way I didn’t get to with the other Bigs and Little. When he lost his license I would pick him up once or twice a month and take him grocery shopping. He would never cease to bitch about how little my car was (a Mazda Miata) “goddamit kid could you have gotten a car lower to the ground?” and he drove me crazy, but he had a great sense of humor and I miss him (all of them) terribly. Anyhow, I was probably 23 years old so taking my family to dinner at Pizzaolo was kind of a big deal. It was hard to get reservations so I planned weeks in advance. The cost was appalling to someone on a preschool teachers income (another life folks, another life). And it was the coolest place in town. So we arrive at the restaurant for our 5 pm reservation (he was old) and were promptly sat at a lovely booth. The restaurant to this day remains one of the pretty dining spaces in the Bay Area. The waiter brings us fresh baked Levain with house churned salted butter. The ice water is served in the sweetest little glasses, everything is perfect. We place our order and I get a few small dishes to share with the table and my Little Grandpa orders his dinner, “YEAH, I’d like the meatballs”. The waiter responds “excellent choice, just to let you know the meatballs are served in the traditional Italian style with a sauce but no pasta” to which my grandpa looks over at me appalled and loudly proclaims “COLIE!! I THOUGHT YOU WAS TAKING ME TO A NICE PLACE!” For a second I wanted to crawl under the table and die. After that feeling passed we all started laughing so hard. He had a point! And us Hodges are known for many things, one of which is not being a particularly quiet people. The waiter looked shocked but maintained his composure and shuffled back into the kitchen. Little Grandpa is going on and on about “what kinda goddamn place you bring me to, meatballs with no spaghetti” 15 minutes later our dinner arrives as the waiter quietly sets down grandpa’s meatballs, on a big pile of fresh pasta.
I’ve since opened my own cute little place and in honor of my Little Grandpa, this week we’ll be offering Meatballs AND Pasta for our take home dinners.
Provisions Ducks. It’s officially a thing.
So I get a text from a friend of mine who recently purchased a home that was full of junk. I don’t mean like, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, I mean real bonafide junk. Anyhow, the text is a picture of an ugly ceramic duck cookie jar and it says “Do you want this duck? You could put your dog biscuits in it for Provisions”. To which I respond “no”. I don’t want an ugly ceramic duck in my cute little café. I’ve worked hard to make it look the way it does, I can’t lower my standards for this duck.
A few hours go by and I decide to wander out front to take a look at the café and make sure that everything is as it should be. And there’s the goddamn duck, right smack dab in the middle of my (increasingly less cute) café. This is pretty funny, I’m chuckling as I carry the duck out to the sidewalk for some lucky Vallejoan to take home with them. Fast forward another couple of hours and I walk into the café to grab a coffee. The duck is on the shelf and is now wearing a sign around it’s neck that says “I have a complex because my owner says I don’t belong”. OK, so this is getting really funny and now people are coming in and taking selfies with the duck. So the duck stays. The next day I come into work and there are 2 more ducks. And so it goes. The ducks have a Facebook page. They have their own hashtag. People are coming in just to see them.
It’s been a few weeks since the arrival of the first duck and I’m both horrified and proud to announce that the ducks keep rolling in. On Halloween a duck appeared on my sidewalk sign wearing a beard. Today, the day after the elections, 3 little ducks appeared with signs around their necks congratulating some local politicians on their successful campaigns. Now listen here people, and listen good. This story I’m sharing with you is not a cry for more ducks, I don’t like ducks and I don’t need more of them. I’m merely sharing a funny thing that has been happening here at 300 Virginia Street in beautiful downtown Vallejo.
But I wouldn’t be mad at you if you went on to Facebook and followed the ducks there!
provisions - the first months
Ok, so I opened a little café here in downtown Vallejo and it's been amazing. We've been super busy and it's a steep learning curve but all has pretty much fallen into place.
However there's this really beautiful thing that has happened that I wasn't anticipating. I have given 3 kids their very first jobs.
The first one that I hired was interested in washing dishes but he would "ultimately like to learn how to cook". Oh sweetheart, that's not exactly how it works but I like your spirit. The second one was interested in working the front counter with me, such a wonderful soul. She started at a time where we were quickly hiring and then immediately letting people go. One afternoon she looked at me and said, wide eyed, "are you going to fire me too?" Oh, bless. The third one has just started today and I went in to check on him and he said "I've only been working for one hour, but it feels like I've been here all day." Dude, tell me all about it.
This has brought up so many memories of my first job at a fine dining establishment called, wait for it, Dandy Dogs. Yes Dandy Dogs is where I first cut my culinary teeth. The owners were raging alcoholics who trained me how to cook all of the food, assemble the burgers and dogs, make milkshakes, run the register, wash the dishes, you name it. After my third day there, they left me alone. I don't mean that they were bothering me before and simply let me work without disruption, what I'm saying is THEY LEFT ME ALL ALONE. I walked in at 10 to help open the shop and they handed me a key and the phone number of the local bar where they would be for the remainder of the day and told me to "call if there's an emergency". And then they walked right on out the door leaving 15 year old me to run the entire business by myself. So lunchtime comes around, and there's a line snaking out the door leaving me flipping burgers, grilling chicken, frying fries, taking money - you know RUNNING A RESTAURANT ALONE. For my holiday bonus that year they gave me a Salami. Because that's exactly what a 15 year old child who is running your restaurant, alone, would want for her holiday bonus. When I came home from work that night with my salami, my mom laughed so hard that she cried.
While I can't promise the kids that I've hired a salami for the holidays, most of them are going back to school in the fall and will be departing their first summer job, I can certainly promise the kids that I will not abandon them to run my little café all on their own.
I've been wanting to talk about Tony's death since it happened just a couple of weeks ago, but I haven't been able to speak about it without my voice breaking. I don't want to be one of those people who visibly mourns a celebrity that they didn't even know, so I've clammed up, kept my head down and focused on opening a café (yes! that's another story in itself!). But today I am ready. I am raw and open and tired and I want to talk about Tony.
I read the news at an ungodly hour in the morning, audibly gasped and threw my phone down on the bed. I immediately felt 3 things: very, very sad, a little sick to my stomach, and slightly concerned that I would now have to face this horrible day having been awake since 5:15. For those of you who haven't spent a lot of time in kitchens surrounded by chefs and waiters and dishwashers and all the other weirdos who haunt restaurants and catering companies, his story may not be as compelling as it is for those of us in the industry. But for those of us who for whatever reason are sadistically drawn to this career, he was a beacon. He wrote his first book, Kitchen Confidential, and he did what a lot of us are secretly pining for: To escape the day to day physical hardship that is kitchen work. To be smart and clever enough to rise up and out of an economically challenged job. To be our own true selves without selling out. To be Tony. It looked like the life of Riley. And I suppose that's the most heartbreaking part for me in this whole story. That in the end, no matter how great it all looks, we have no idea. Maybe staying in the grind that is kitchen work is okay. Perhaps traveling the world on CNN's dime while eating and drinking all of the things with all of the people is just as, if not more, trying than making some scones and burning yourself and laughing and cursing in a kitchen.
I didn't know you Anthony Bourdain, but I admired the shit out of your writing and humor and honesty and style. I hope you're resting in power and peace.
What to not say to a chef
First off, just to clarify, there are a lot of people in the food industry who cook food for a living but are not chefs. They call themselves chefs because it sounds better than saying “I’m a cooker of foods” or “I do food cookery”. I myself have always identified more with being a cook than a chef – but that’s probably a discussion best had with my therapist.
So the first thing people ask when they find out that you’re a chef is….oh gods it even hurts to type it…..”So what’s your favorite thing to cook?”
Oh. My. God. No.
A lot of chefs can be quite scary and rude and ill mannered, so if you make the mistake of asking this question to one of them, it won’t be pretty. Those chefs usually aren’t out in public, so don’t worry too much about them. But for those us who know how to behave outside of a kitchen, we have to politely smile and give you some canned response. But you know what the real answer is? My favorite thing to cook is nothing, because I’ve been cooking for 5 thousand years and I’m very tired and I’m just standing here trying to be polite and keep standing even though I’ve been on my feet for the past 14 hours. When I’m finished with work, I don’t go home and cook (sorry husband) and I certainly don’t want to talk about it (unless you’re also a chef and then that’s all we’ll talk about).
So my advice is, the next time you meet a chef and you feel the need to ask them a question, ask them what their LEAST favorite thing to cook is. We can be very honest with you about that.
Our dear friend Kirk Saunders
13 years ago I was helping to open a small restaurant in Berkeley in what was then a brand spanking new food court in the gourmet ghetto. There were 5 other restaurants all undertaking the painful process of starting up at the same time. I was chatting with one of the executive chefs and I casually said "your new line cook is so cute". Not thinking he would tell the guy what I said, I went back to making broths and organizing our new pantry. About an hour later, the cute line cook comes over with a tiny crème brulee made in an egg shell for me. And for the next few months, like little birds, we would walk over small, perfect treats that we concocted for each other.
A shot glass with lobster bisque and fresh truffles. Wild mushroom pate. Rosemary roasted almonds with piment d'splette. It gave me something to look forward to at work and this cute line cook soon became one of my best friends. I've watched him become a husband and a father, switch careers multiple times (including being a goat farmer). I've also watched him struggle with cancer, one too many times for his beautiful heart to handle. I just found out that he will be transitioning in the next few days, and I ask that you all hold this lovely human and his family in love and light. It was an honor to be your friend, Mr. Cute Line Cook, and I will continue to honor your amazing spirit by offering up perfect little bites of food made with love. Rest in power my friend.
A Brief Story About Working in Our Kitchen
I was driving home from work the other night and it occurred to me how lucky I am to be in a position where I have some control over who I get to spend my working life with. What a gift that is! Now that's not to say that I can control what mood they will arrive in, or, for that matter, what mood they will leave in. But I get to hire people that interest me.
That are kind.
That have a great work ethic.
And most importantly, people that are funny. If I'm going to spend 10 hours a day working hard and putting out fires (not literally, thank god) and feeling overwhelmed, I sure as hell need to make sure that we're laughing as we get through it.
For those of you who've never done it, working in a kitchen is not a normal workplace. It's another world with its own language, often written in Sharpies on masking tape and intentionally misspelled to make your coworkers laugh when they find it. Often so subtle that it takes weeks to figure out the joke. Sometimes the joke was only funny to the person who wrote, it really doesn't matter. This is what a small section of our pantry looks like right now...
So we usually begin planning for our pop-ups about 3 weeks in advance. It takes a lot of consideration, arguing over who's menu ideas are going to be the sexiest while also being the easiest to execute. It's a task that I've done with lots and lots of different chefs and it's one of my favorite activities. I have a chef (who to protect their identity will remain nameless) who has decided that when they're stone cold sober, they write the most difficult menus. But if written after a couple of beers, the menus are things of absolute perfection. I totally agreed but questioned why they thought this was so, and their response was, "After a couple beers, I begin to doubt if I'm really actually good enough to pull anything off, so the menu becomes more approachable". I laughed so hard that I cried. That is some real kitchen truth.
We have to balance pride in our work, our egos about our food, the expectations of our guests, all while somehow cranking out delicious food that people will have hopefully enjoyed deeply. And if they didn't deeply enjoy it, you have to pray to god that they will be kind enough to not leave you a shitty review on some social media site and ruin your life forever. Deep sigh. This job is difficult. So I surround myself with people I care about, who also care about me, and we create a really dysfunctional and incredibly fun little family.