Last night, I chose to rub salt in a wound that had not healed over as much as I had thought.
I had heard on the grapevine (from my manicurist—the resource library for all of the county's juiciest gossip) that one of the major restaurant players in The Next Town Up The Road had recently lost its chef. Using what deductive powers haven't yet been compromised by my chronic state of overwork and undersleep, I put two and two together and guessed that this was where California Chef had landed. So, last night, husband and I made a little "market research" field trip up the road to see what was shaking.
And yes, there was my ex-chef, toiling away in the open kitchen of the pizza restaurant-cum brew pub-cum comedy club-cum whatever else will put butts in the seat, which has also been struggling to add "dinner house" to its list of various personae. And while I am the first to admit that, in our-pint-sized demographic, success is built upon how many market niches an eatery can successfully fill, Pizza Pub Up The Road has enjoyed about as much success in the dinner house category as has the Hot Flash Café.
There are reasons for this; reasons that became more abundantly clear to me during the ten months I personally struggled to morph the Hot Flash Café into something that would optimize California Chef's talents. The truth of the matter is, there is an extremely limited market, out here in the exurbs, for what California Chef does best. He can make beautiful, tasty, trendy food. And that, unfortunately, is not what our customers are looking for in a local restaurant. They want clean, friendly, edible homey stuff. If a restaurant can kind of nudge them toward the 21st century without their knowing it, they're good with that. But they are definitely not looking for nouvelle cuisine out here. If they want trendy, they make a day or night of it and go into "The City." Or they go west to one of the more upscale communities on the beach.
When California Chef took his leave of us, it didn't take me long to realize that he had to leave…that we were never going to be able to make proper use of what he had to offer. I thought, "Okay. Failed experiment. Chalk this one up to experience and move on." But as cantankerous and hard to get along with as the kid had proven to be, I had made a sizeable emotional investment in him. I really believed he had talent and a bright future, even if it wasn't with my restaurant. As much as, in the end, his leaving was obviously best for everyone, it was not painless for me to see him go.
If only he HAD gone on to somewhere that his talents could be nurtured and properly utilized. But, no—he's at a stupid, small-town restaurant of ambiguous identity that is really just a bigger, more ambitious version of the Hot Flash Café. Churning out humdrum food that is NOT his, to keep the unimaginative patrons happy, while straining to attract a market that does not exist with specials like "Halibut Picatta."
My greatest regret with California Chef was that I worked elbow to elbow with him for ten months, and couldn't teach him a damned thing. I knew I had little to offer in the way of teaching him how to cook, but I had hoped I could impart some wisdom about how to run a kitchen, how to assemble and relate to a staff, even what kinds of food might appeal to our demographic. Seeing him last night, ramming his head against the same brick wall he'd encountered (erected?) at the Hot Flash Café, it really brought home to me how utterly deaf and blind he was to anything I had tried to impress upon him during our short and obviously fruitless association.
Within comfortable commuting distance to the city of Portland and its exciting up-and-coming culinary scene, California Chef chooses to go…sideways. Or even backwards.
It was a blow my bruised heart was less ready to absorb than I thought…