How I Got Started In The Restaurant Business – Tofu Cowboy
It was August of 2012. We had just told my mentor that we would be doing the restaurant thing with her in Millarville. It was a chance for me to get my food off the small screen of The Aimless Cook out to a brand new audience. More importantly, it was a chance for me to validate my cooking skills to people that were going to actually pay to eat it. This wasn’t the first time I’ve made food for people. I’ve done it for a long time through the years. The difference was that this time, it was my brand of food, my style, and my place. Jo always tells me she thinks I’m very critical of my cooking and it’s true. I am my own worst critic, but the fact is, I have to be. This isn’t a dinner party for a few friends. These are strangers that have nothing to lose from telling you what they really think of the dining experience you’re about to give them. It’s about putting your best foot forward, facing the people, and giving the best damn thing they’ve ever eaten. Isn’t that what every chef aims to do? If the answer is no, what’s the point?
We felt that if we were going to be committing ourselves to this venture, we should check out the place we’d be working out of. So we drove out to the country to check out the market. It was a hot and sunny day and the drive was a pleasure with its rolling countryside, galloping horses, and serene farm houses on this picturesque slice of rural paradise. As we approached the racetrack, volunteers were out on the highway, directing cars to the parking area like we were at the Stampede grounds before a hockey game. Seriously? That moment, it clicked in that Millarville had a huge following. Friends have always told me about this place, but I would never have believed it until I saw it with my own eyes.
When we approached the concession building, what we saw was a shitshow. Basically it went down like this: People lined up to order their food, which was relayed to the kitchen which was abuzz with what looked like 20 teenagers, running about to cook and expedite with no logical system in place. It was every man (or woman) for themselves. Somewhere along the way, the orders were brought to another window where another line of people waited to pick up their food. It took anywhere from 30-45 minutes to get anything to eat. When all was said and done, you were left with some cheap pre-cooked, pre-wrapped crap in a bun, wondering what would happen if you spent your last 45 minutes differently.
Immediately a smile came to my face. I thought that if we can deal with this volume, crank out some good food, and make it affordable, we’re gonna kill it here. Listen to last-year me. haha.
A few days later we were talking about what we saw. Ms. Mentor had previous experience as a vendor there for a few years so she had an idea of how the volumes were throughout the season. Basically she said the same thing – we have to make sure that waiting time is minimized and that the expediting is efficient. With no previous kitchen of my own, this was brand new territory for us. Managing a place of our own, creating a system in the kitchen that could be operated with a minimum of staff and serve huge volume was going to be a special feat.
With the whole food truck movement going on, it was apparent that street food was gaining traction and popularity in the food world. At the time, I was reading some great books like David Chang’s Momofuku and Anthony Myint’s Mission Street Food. They not only proved that great things can happen to people that love what they do, but also proved that you could do it outside the box. These books couldn’t have come at a better time. I was inspired to make my own story.
Let’s Tarantino back to the first day after the changeover. It was a cold October morning and the crowd was mostly made up of locals, vendors, and hardcore shoppers. A lot of them had no idea what happened to their familiar concession, and on top of that, the menu prices had been the same for the past 10 years. We all knew that if we were going to be going in there, that our food in addition to the drinks would be in need of serious changes to make any money for the Millarville Racetrack and Ag Society (MRAS). To add to the confusion, the concession was now shared by 5 independent vendors, each featuring their own menu. I wouldn’t say that the morning was utter chaos, but there were a lot of old-timers, locals, and regulars ordering pancakes at the wrong window, or asking why coffee was up to $3.
The tell-tale signs that a customer coming to Eats of Asia is brand new:
- awkward movements toward the menu board with an air of trepidation
- non-commitment, or half commitment to standing in line – the ‘one foot out’ stance
- the silent perusal of the menu board, the glance to Jo, and the second perusal
- they order Breakfast-on-a-bun
Jo’s role at this point is crucial. She breaks the ice with our customers with her unique (white) perspective on our brand of food. If I had a title for what she does at the front of house, it would be Impromptu Culinary Cultural Liason. Since it was Fall, our specials were Curry Laksa and Bibimbap. Our regular rice bowls were Coconut chicken adobo, Kalbi (Korean short rib), and Kalua Pork* (Hawaiian-style pulled pork, traditionally made in a pit called an “imu”). Our snacks were Chicken bites (basically Japanese style fried chicken karaage with a choice of 3 sauces) and Shanghai rolls (aka lumpia).
Top 3 questions a new customer will ask about a new cuisine experience:
- Is it spicy?
- What’s in the _________?
- Is it spicy?
I remember at one point in the afternoon, a local rancher was eyeing an order of laksa I was bringing to the pick-up window. He said it looked good and asked me what was in it.
“Well, it’s a Malaysian rice noodle bowl with a coconut curry broth. It’s topped with fish balls, chicken, tiger prawns, fried tofu, bean sprouts, fresh cilantro and lime.”
“That sounds good, but TOFU!? This is Alberta, man!”
To my surprise, the most popular item of that day was the Curry Laksa. We had an unbelievable day that surprised the hell out of me. The dishes I thought would do okay, did the best. Bibimbap was our other star dish. During service, Jo would always yell the orders back to me at in the kitchen. Everytime we had an order for for Bibimbap, she would yell, “Bibimbap!!” followed by Ms. Mentor cracking up next to us at her window. This still continues today. To my utter surprise, the Kalbi bowl didn’t do as well as I thought it would, as we were in the heart of cowboy “cut me a slab and I’ll ride the rest home” country. Jo did a fantastic job connecting and engaging our customers. I would say that she was our 3rd star of the day.
Throughout our relationship together, she has slowly been converting to eating like an Asian. Since moving in together, the cupboard has steadily been going through that change where the number of plates decreases and the number of bowls radically increases. The cutlery drawer has an extra slot packed with chopsticks. The dishwasher also exhibits the need to be Asian-friendly with it’s homemade chopstick holder made from a yogurt container with holes cut in the bottom. Also, her tolerance for spice has increased from Frank’s red hot, to sriracha, to the full strength of a Laab Gai with it’s fiery bird’s eye chilies. I think it’s safe to say that her perspective on Asian cuisine is unique in the way that she can translate her journey of discovery to people that ask the same questions she did.
Our first day of service was far from perfect. In a short 5 hour span, the perception of time is warped. The only time that exists is NOW. The past is too late and the future is not soon enough. Waiting 2 minutes for something becomes an eternity in the mind of a cook. Waiting 3 minutes for something on the grill becomes a marathon as the tickets start to stack up and you look at the growing line outside your window. On the other hand, adrenaline starts to build up in your system and you start to feel ‘high’. No kidding. Many chefs love this feeling and just roll with it. It’s probably why the kitchen always brings us back. Emotions at this point are heightened, patience grows short, and every question or reasonable request becomes an annoyance.
“Can I get that last order well-done?”
You ever see menus that have no substitutions? I’ll get into that can of worms in another post.
*apparently, I later found out that people thought that Kalua Pork was some kind of ‘boozy’ pork that I had braised in the famous coffee liqueur. Sorry folks, that’s Kahlua.