NOTES ON A BROOKLYN STREET
By Rona Sarita
Chapter 1: I married a chef
We share a similar antisocial behavior. When he’s not in his kitchen, he sleeps, watches movies, listens to music. I take long walks after dinner, hike and hug trees. I like intimate conversations with close friends over dinner. I like the comfort of our home after I've swept our floors and wiped our countertops. This was us before we owned a restaurant. We no longer have likes and habits. Now we work, sleep, work. Now we have a dream that—through our own sweat and sleeplessness—we make real.
In our earlier days, Jesse didn’t like to go out to eat because he was overly familiar with the service industry. Deciding on a place to eat meant combing through restaurant reviews, Jesse discounting the ones in which the reviewer wrote too much about the ambiance and not enough about the food.
Dining out with him was like having dinner with a food critic. He couldn't help but criticize servers who placed a meal with the protein not facing the guest or diners treating the busboy rudely. He could also identify in one bite if the sauce was scorched or over reduced or some other minuscule detail I couldn’t recognize. In his defense, if the food was good, he was the first to admit it.
I often dined out without him, preferring to wander aimlessly into a bar serving food or meet up with friends at a place of their choosing.
I bartended and waitressed for many years during my extended college experience. Jesse and I met while working at the same restaurant. I was in my last few years in the hospitality industry, transitioning to a cubicle life where I would spend four years suffocating, safe but lost.
We were way past our youth when we decided to open a restaurant. I left my cubicle and we dove into what we believed would be an incredible adventure. We knew it would be challenging but the series of events that occurred were extreme circumstances we were not prepared for; a negligent landlord, city permit delays, a questionable architect and a year long delay for our liquor license.
I was never meant to end up in the kitchen as a line cook. I had no prior experience for this job, but we couldn’t afford to hire a line cook because we’d spent that money building out our restaurant. Working professionally with my husband in his kitchen was never on my list of things to do.
I loved my grandmother and aunt’s way of cooking—recklessly tossing things into a pot until it all came to a finish. In our Guyanese village on the Essequibo Coast, we had unsharpened knives and unrefined techniques. We made coconut oil from the abundant coconut trees on our land. We didn’t have grocery stores, much less restaurants. There was no such thing as dining out.
There were quite a few rum shops. One could walk into the ground floor of someone’s house and buy a bar of soap, a pound of sugar, a bottle of orange soda, or some food if the owner was cooking. Mostly, people sat around tables drinking rum and beer at these places. So the word for “restaurant” was “rum shop”.
When I left home as a teenager it was never my dream to work in restaurants but I did find myself through all the people I worked with and the customers I served. I learned not to take the luxury of going to a restaurant or sitting in a café for granted. I still look into the eyes of servers, bus boys, and food runners. I hold their gaze when I thank them.
I married a chef and became a line cook. Together we own a restaurant in Bushwick with a 5-star Yelp rating. Together we moved in with my parents in Queens during our second year of business because our 5-star restaurant ruined our credit and dried up our bank accounts. We sank every dollar we had into the restaurant, while our personal bills went to debt collectors.
The misconception is that we’re successful, if one defines success as owning a business. The truth is we’re broke, yet we are still here. We show up to work every day because we have to hope that something will come of it one day, soon, we hope. We hope but we don’t know, and in some strange and circular faith, we keep going because we can withstand this struggle by doing what we love.
It’s 4:59 pm and I step outside our restaurant to pull up the gates. Jose stands on the corner of Jefferson Street and Knickerbocker Avenue, to the left of our restaurant, operating his hotdog cart.
“Buenas,” he says.
“Buenas,” I reply.
He waves me away after I unlock and remove the padlock, wanting to help me pull up the gates. I put the A-frame on the metal grate, then look up to see if the pigeons are circling their coop on the rooftop on Wilson Avenue.
Mike from the halfway house on Flushing Avenue walks by. “Hi mama, how you doing today?”
“Hi, Mike.” I smile.
He asks if we’ve thought more about his offer to invest the $700 he recently came into. “Mike, you’re better off keeping your money,” I tell him for the fifth time. This place is a sinking ship.”
He won’t take no for an answer. Even though he knows Jesse will refuse his offer again, he wants to talk to him. He comes back inside the restaurant with me.
The first guest arrives and sits at the bar. I serve the shaggy guy an Espolon Silver on the rocks. Since my bartender is late, I serve a few cocktails, then run back to the kitchen, then back to the bar until she arrives. I chat with the shaggy guy about how long the restaurant’s been open.
“Do you know the owners?” he asks.
“Ah, yea,” I say as I walk away urgently to tend to something else.
Most days I say nothing about who I am. I don’t want to be the owner of this place. I don’t take pride in being the owner. I am mostly stressed.
I overhear Jesse saying to Mike, “Brother, keep your money. That’s your money.”
“Yo, why wouldn’t y'all let me help?” Mike yells. “I love this place and I want it to succeed. But seriously though, y'all gotta get here earlier and open up for lunch, ya know.”
Jesse and I look at each other and take a deep breath.
This was our reality before a virus claimed our livelihoods and my first name. What happens next is beyond my imagination. I would like to see small businesses win this battle because there is no room for community in a world of fast food chains and Starbucks. I don’t know if we will have a restaurant in a few weeks, but I do know that even a massive financial loss is insignificant compared to the end of my existence on this earthly plane.
I have my existence and the question of what it means. I have a life—carved out by sweat and belief—and for that much I am grateful and proud. But I question whether I’m living my truth. My family didn’t have much when I was a child but I had the world; the ocean and landscape nurtured me. I was guided by intuition until I lost that connection in the complexity of adulthood in this city.
When I consider my truth, I ask myself, What do I want to do with my life should there be no hoops to jump, no applications to complete, no questionnaires, no fees or follow up phone calls?
Chapter 2: Kitchen Lessons
Technique is important to deliver that restaurant quality cooking. Cut the carrots in a diagonal, rolling and slicing, rolling and slicing. This will make sure the vegetables stay in place on the cutting board and not roll off onto the floor. Edges, you want edges.
“Wait for the pan to get hot, wait for the oil to get hot.
Wait for the onions to caramelize.
Wait for the garlic to cook.
Wait for spices to toast.
Wait for the tomato paste to cook out.
Wait for the stock and the wine to cook out.
Wait Wait Wait.
We've got to get this back on the fire, I can taste the tomato paste.”
Standing near me in the kitchen of our apartment he followed with,
"Could you cut the onions smaller next time and that was way too much parsley."
I grew up with women in the kitchen, a village of women cooking, baking, sewing and making things – it was the only time they were in control of anything. It was difficult for me to relinquish my adoration of the matriarch – to relinquish my own lineage – to the disciplined, intact, artfulness of a chef. It's a lifelong habit to break, tearing spinach leaves apart with my bare hands like grandma taught me; dumping things into the pot with satisfaction, the splashing satisfaction, throwing more spices into the pot instead of toasting them, and just, well just being a part of a group of strong women, survivors really, who didn’t have the time or luxury to worry about "crowding a pan".
My reluctance to learn classical techniques from a trained and skilled chef who happened to be my husband was tolerable at home. It became a problem though, in the kitchen at 191 Knickerbocker when I became a prep and line cook because we didn't have room in our budget to hire any additional help. I had to learn the ways of the kitchen, the grueling cut throat kitchen that is the complete opposite of everything I was raised with.