Those of you, who know me, know that my active fantasy life includes more scenarios than President Clinton's military record and his love life combined. Among the fanciful delusions that whirl in my head is that of Chef Seamus Muldoon presiding over a restaurant filled with devotees of truly epicurean, white trash cooking, like galantine and grits with country ham gravy, with black eyed peas and rib eye steak - 2,897 calories, not including cocktails, beer, wine, bread and butter, salad dressing, dessert, after dinner drinks and cream and sugar in your coffee. Every table would have an emergency telephone auto-dialed to 911, and an under table defibrillator.
During 1992 and 1993, Himself seriously considered the Houston restaurant market and the restaurant market out in the country whenever he was not trying cases all over the country. He even had a case in Flint, Michigan, where Roger Smith's version of how Generous Motors should be run turned the community into a wasteland of unemployed people who had been conditioned by the United Auto Workers union to refuse any work that paid less than $ 28 per hour, including benefits. It is a place where rabbits and other pets are raised for their meat, and where he met a lady in a shot-and-beer joint whose nickname was "Buick". The noble citizens of Flint had, by special enactment, been made exempt from seasonal hunting and fishing regulations so that they could revert to hunter-gatherer status. The local magazine features the "Rabbit Fancier's Guide to the Great Restaurants of Gennessee County, Michigan", containing also recipes for such as Coca-Cola marinated rabbit, spit grilled over a fire in a 55 gallon drum under a freeway overpass ("I-75 Rabbit"). And if you prefer seafood, there are recipes for fish caught just downstream from the Dow Chemical plant.
Flintonians hitch-hike into Detroit so that they can press their frozen faces against restaurant windows and watch other people eat. For the most part, they are too weak even to rob someone and thereby obtain sufficient funds to purchase a meal. This can be seen as a blessing, for what good is one meal to a person who then has to go back to Flint to get more food stamps.
Fortunately for the Flint visitor, there is a little bit of Germany about 30 minutes north, called Frankenmuth, Michigan, where a restaurant called The Chicken Solution boasts of serving 6,000,000 a year. In its little tourist souvenir shops you can buy all sorts of chicken souvenirs, including lampshades made of chicken skin, cockscomb aphrodisiacs, and so on.
The search for the right Texas restaurant centers upon the Businesses for Sale classifieds and upon business brokers who have hundreds of restaurant listings just like realtors have residential listings.
Sellers of restaurants are a colorful amalgam of paranoiacs and thieves. Why anyone who is trying to dispose of a money losing restaurant would be worried that his competitors are answering his ads so that they can pry into his secrets defies explanation. Many actually demand some "good faith" payment before they will show you the financials. There must be people who will fall for that or else why would they do it? Digging out the financial history for the last 3 to 5 years is a chore, because they usually show that the seller's motivation is not his health or retirement as he first stated, but the plain fact that sales are down and profit is small or absent. We saw ads and brochures proclaiming sales and profit levels that had not even the remotest relation to the truth. Sophisticated restaurateurs don't buy these places, or the quality of salesmanship would be higher. The buyers of these operations are usually idiots, mostly cooks, to whom these ridiculous statements are addressed.
Humor abounds in the theater of restaurant vetting, replete with ritual signing of confidentiality agreements, pretext visits posing as customer or bill collector or private investigator, to get the stories from the waiters, bartenders and cooks about the manager and the owner, as well as to check out the food and service.The bartenders are the best, because they know the place is for sale and are giving away drinks to enhance their tips income during this denouement, all the while trying to ingratiate themselves seeking future employment in case you are the buyer. As though you would keep them on after observing them give away so much inventory.
The sellers are no smarter than their dupe buyers. They will ask $ 400,000 for a restaurant that loses $ 5,000 per month and carry the note themselves with the restaurant as the collateral. And they wonder why it is that they keep getting the restaurant back. You go figure it out!! Immigrants are the easiest prey, especially the third world types. The seller lies about sales and profits, usually saying that there is a lot more money in the business that the IRS never knows about, and the buyer lies to the seller about his ability to pay and creditworthiness and his restaurant experience in the old country. The down payment is the last money the seller ever gets and the best money he has gotten out of the restaurant in years. The buyer gets his down payment back by not paying rent, sales taxes, withholding taxes and suppliers for a few months or more, just before he disappears into some dark and stormy night. In economics this is known as equilibrium.
If the buyer does manage to turn the place into a profitable operation, he may keep up payments after his fashion unless things change. In some cases the restaurant is just a cover for a drug operation any way, and the seller may or may not get it back from the DEA.There are thousands of little neighborhood restaurants for sale in Houston at any given moment. Some are good opportunities. Most are not. In one situation the owner made his money in credit card fraud, selling the restaurant when Visa and MasterCard finally put him on the shit list. In another, the seller decided to make his personal, extreme views the house rules. He had Rush Limbaugh promotions, gave poor or no service to any minority, and advertised that your first drink is free on every visit if one of your relatives was a crew member on the "Enola Gay". It was called The Republican Club and had the GOP elephant logo on its facade. Interestingly enough the GOP never complained.
Houston is the best restaurant town in the world, without exception. There are over 8,000 restaurants in Houston. The topless bars gross $ 100,000,000 a year. 1994 restaurant sales were about $ 4,000,000,000. In 1994, the 3 leading topless bars had over $ 6.5 million in mixed beverage sales. 70% of these restaurants are table service places. The average Houstonian spent $ 959 in restaurants in 1994, and there are 4,000,000 Houstonians.. There were 214 new restaurant openings in Houston in 1994.
Muldoon's target was a family restaurant with full bar service, focused upon a fairly affluent suburban clientele, with rotating ethnic dinner specials enhancing a solid American menu, appropriate music of the featured culture of the evening, intelligent, considerate service and a wine list that is excellent and affordable.
Remember that for over 30 years Muldoon had pissed away his earnings on good food and drink in hundreds of the best restaurants, and knows what goes into a good meal. This plus the fact that all who had supped at his largesse proclaimed him to be the highest Epicurean, gourmand and cook, offering if ever the situation arose to write checks in support of any restaurant venture he might attempt. Yeah! Right!
All of which brings us to Belinda, the restaurant's namesake, benefactor, and the pride of Texas womanhood, whose lover was Seamus himself. She, who must be admired, obeyed and loved, embodied the highest and best attributes of the true Texas woman - lovely, smart, sociable, likeable, strong willed, hell of a good shot with pistol, rifle or shotgun, always ready to compare unfavorably the anatomy of any man against those she had known before. And so it was her persona that imbued B.I.'s Texas Cafe with its elegant yet homey personality. She alone was smart enough to be scared to death about the venture, and it was she who, after each day's work at her own office, came home to do the accounting, the tax reporting, the payrolls, the payables, and all the paperwork with which the government afflicts small business owners, also coming to Brenham on her weekends to help out, issuing commands left and right to all of us who were laboring in the trenches, deprived of consortium by the absence of Himself who was away in Brenham cooking and training the rustics in the arts of fine gastronomy and service. Those who romanticize restaurant ownership know nothing of the administrative burdens that make the happiest events diminished by that which an overbearing government imposes.
The constant litigious odyssey of Himself, covering a route from Houston to Baltimore to Seattle to Flint Michigan and places interstitiated for administrative or discovery purposes, culminated on Christmas Eve, 1993, winning 3 and losing one that year for clients who, in the case of those in Indiana will be forever dear to him, and in the case of the Texan, will remain a memory of how lacking in grace a person can be who came into wealth fortuitously, even though he was the recipient of a very tough victory in a most unusual jury trial. In the Flint case, a wastrel son who had run a company into ruin was suing my client, whom he falsely claimed to be an infringing competitor, hoping to fund an extension of his dissipation of opportunities and wealth. That scoundrel was represented by one of the few intellectual property lawyers whose shenanigans and willingness to claim anything, true or untrue, has been twice memorialized in scathing opinions by the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. At one deposition, the wastrel's own wife caused him to fall apart and blow his story by offering to go get him a Coke, using the name of her boyfriend instead of his own. Among their little tricks was the production of ten years worth of financial data that they had shuffled like a deck of cards. I had him re-sort them under oath, page by page, at a two day deposition that left him in a state of collapse, only to be followed the next day by a deposition in which I let him explain every engineering drawing contained in a file drawer which he produced just to waste my time. We got better cooperation after that. To those of you who think that a waste of time and money, I can tell you that we saved more than we wasted by teaching the lesson of what happens when you fuck with Muldoon.
In Seattle a group of Canadian high roller, bottom feeders bought a merged bank's bad loan portfolio for pennies on the dollar and decided that my client had conspired with one of these debtors to defraud the bank. I got the case in February and the scumbags gave up the week after Thanksgiving if we would agree to drop our bad faith litigation claims. Texas bankers, I am happy to announce, do not have a monopoly on stupidity, and the bars of the states in the Pacific northwest have the same slime at the bottom of their barrel that you can find anywhere else.
In Baltimore, a franchisee who had bought the best franchise in the entire system decided not to renew the franchise agreement and not to comply with the post expiration covenants to which he had agreed. As several other highly successful franchisees of this Franchisor were coming up on renewal time and were watching what happened in this case to decide whether they wanted to non-renew and fight the post expiration covenants, this case was of enormous importance to my client. That trial ended in our victory in late November also, and the size and scope of the win was enough to make the others decide they wanted to renew for another ten years rather than fight. By Christmas morning, having done a two year survey of the Houston restaurant market, plus an examination of what was available in every worthwhile country town within 200 miles to the west, and being totally exhausted, the decision was made to act on the dream of a restaurant.
There was, the following Sunday, an ad for a country restaurant in a beautiful historic building (actually, as it turned out, two adjoining historic buildings) in the lovely town of Brenham, Texas. Brenham is 95 miles northwest of Houston, on the main road to Austin. It's a little country town (pop. 13,800 at the time), surrounded by rolling hills among which sat small ranches owned in the main by retired wealthy Houstonians. In addition to the cattle, they raised Emus, a tough inedible bird thought to be the next gastronomic bonanza because the meat had almost no fat (the breast meat, that is), which also was why the damn stuff was so tough that you had to marinate it in gasoline for two weeks before your could eat it. It was the big investment scam of that period. People bought into the Emu raising business thinking it was going to be the next fad diet mainstay, only to find that it never went anywhere commercially, and the cost of maintaining the birds overwhelmed the market price for the meat. This resulted not only in the loss of many an investment, but also in the release of the damn things into the wild so as no longer to have to pay for their upkeep. They breed like the Irish and run out onto highways, causing wrecks and injury, destroy crops and generally behave as though they had but one more hour to engage in a lifetime of sexual frenzy. In the same area, people also raise exotic wild life, known as Texotics, axis deer, red deer, ostriches, zebras, gemsbocks, Thompson's gazelles and, quaintly enough, miniature horses. You know - those things that go into the little cans of Alpo. They also raise an adequate amount of hell. 60 miles down the road is College Station and Texas A & M University, which has the only convenient shop to purchase crotchless panties for sheep, Frederick's Of College Station. At Texas A&M, people actually cultivate the art of being polite, friendly and helpful, which has made College Station the town with the greatest quality of life rating in the state, and the University rated as among the top 10 in the nation. It is a wonderful place, having been founded to educate Texas farm and ranch children past high school. It is said that the first semester of one's freshman year is taken up entirely with personal hygiene.
Well, to get back to the point. we decided to ride up there one Saturday for lunch and to look the place over. It was perfect!!! It was gorgeous!!!! It was a gastronomic disaster. I fell head over heels in love with it. Belinda said the only thing wrong with it was what we knew best how to fix - the food and the service. On the first visit we were only customers, giving no hint of any interest in the place or of any knowledge even that it was up for sale. On the second visit we made a point of meeting the crew and received a reluctant tour of the kitchen when we said we had seen the ad in the Houston Chronicle offering it for sale. They were caught off guard, and we had to overcome resistance to our seeing the kitchen - and upon seeing it, understood why the reluctance. The kitchen was a toilet! Sanitation was not a word in the local lexicon. Getting it to western standards of cleanliness would be a herculean task. It took a team of seven hard working Mexicans a month to clean the kitchen, working with harsh chemicals and even shovels to remove the grease and grime of years. We were determined not to open until the place was spotless, knowing that, as out of towners, the health department would never allow us to get away with what the local owner was doing - or rather not doing. Ultimately, we got it to reasonable anglo-saxon standards, but lost the month we wanted to get it into a groove before the Bluebonnet tourist season hit.We opened into the teeth of Bluebonnet blooming season and were a clusterfuck with four rotations per meal per day.
One of the strange loves of my life is to grocery shop. Buying a restaurant's initial food and ingredient inventory was simply orgasmic. Oddly enough, there were very few mistakes. I bought the wrong catfish, thinking I would have the time to final prep them and save money. WRONG!!! They weren't usable as fried catfish fillets, but made a wonderful catfish chowder. Fresh, whole chickens continued right to the very end, both for fried chicken and for a Greek roast chicken stuffed under the skin with tons of fresh garlic and rosemary and/or oregano, served whole for two with a wonderful Greek or Caesar salad. We ran a stock pot every day, which gave us wonderful, lucious soups and sauces, all made fresh every day - nothing kept over night for the next day. I started making soups and sauces every morning at 4 am. When it became really hot in mid summer and we 86'd the hot soups, people complained because our soups were so good. People bought our soups by the quart and gallon for take out. Bread was a problem. In the beginning I brought 40 loaves a day of fresh baked baguette. It was resoundingly rejected by the locals as "stale bread", and they demanded we go back to the soft bread and fresh baked biscuits they ate every day of their lives. When the city dwellers and europeans came in from time to time and were served sliced white commercial bread ala super market, or biscuits, with a Caesar salad, they complained loudly. You can't please em all, can you?
We made vegetables that absolutely could have won prizes. We had country veggies, like fresh black-eyed peas cooked along with turnip greens in the same pot likker with ham hocks and lots of black pepper, and rice cooked with chopped mustard greens in lucious stock like a risotto, and barely blanched fresh asparagus and broccoli in lemon butter sauce, with garlic parmiggiano mashed potatoes, and assorted risotti, the likes of which rural Texas has never seen and may never see again.
We kept a steady marinade of olive oil, garlic, oregano, lemon zest and black paper in which we dipped everything that went on the grill, be it fish, pork chops or pork loins, steaks or whatever. On the grill everything was hit with a broiler spice mix of my own divination. Our pork loins spent ten minutes on a very hot grill and were then finished in a hot over, with a black pepper crust, then served in a bed of sauced mushrooms with everything from the array of veggies just described to sautéed spinach in garlic oil with grated parmiggiano reggiano.
We never bought steaks. We bought roasts from which your steak would be cut as you ordered it. Our best steak was a ribeye, the juiciest and tastiest of all steaks. Strip sirloins were largely for Steak Diane. French tourists called our steaks roasts, as they eat steaks so thin you can see through them. We took beans to new gastronomic heights, cooking them in rich stock, not water, seasoned with assorted fresh peppers, garlic, herbs and andouille sausage. We bought the biggest shrimp we could find, hand peeled and deveined them and served them bar-b-qued, fried, broiled al'italiana, sautéed in garlic oil with fresh basil over pasta, etoufee and ala creole. We introduced cioppino to Texas, a rich Portuguese seafood stew, offered at half what you would pay for it in San Francisco, only to be told, "Hell, we ain't paying that kinda money for no bowl of soup." People constantly asked how come our seafood didn't smell fishy, and were amazed to be told that a fishy smell was from bacteria and that they should never eat fish that smelled fishy.
The basic menu changed every month, but the off menu specials changed every week, and there were always four of them to choose from. There were seventeen dishes on the regular menu, from soups and salads, including an award winning pasta salad, several kinds of sandwiches, fried chicken to die for, steaks, chops, catfish and shrimp, and the best damn bacon, jalapeno jack cheeseburger in the world. We had a children's menu that was a loss item so parents didn't have to pay a babysitter just to go out to dinner. The kids got a great meal for less than the sitter would cost and dessert was free. Keeping the old folks from trying to order off the kids' menu was a constant struggle. Many people stalked out when we wouldn't let them eat off the children's menu. Many of these were busloads of blue hair types who would come in in groups of 40, insist upon sitting together at joined tables, insist upon separate checks and never leave a tip. They were not missed.
We lost a chunk of business when we refused to allow the local edition of the klan to meet in our upstairs dining room as they had under the former owner. We hired college kids, of all races and creeds, and wouldn't dream of having scum like that being served by those very fine, if stupid, kids.
Staffing a restaurant out in the country is a daunting task. There is a college in Brenham, so there is a vast labor pool of drunk teenagers who will show up for work if nothing else is going on that day. None of them, of course, know anything about handling food except for pizza and hamburgers, nothing about any wine that doesn't come in a box, table settings, stemware and how to handle it, that you have to know the menu of the day so you are not running into the kitchen constantly asking the chef what's on the specials tonight and pissing off your customers with your ignorance, that you must place a dinner plate so that the main item, meat or fish, is directly in front of the customer, with the veggies and potatoes to the left and right away from the customer, where a bread plate goes, to remove used and no longer current items from the table as the meal progresses, to look at every customer on your station every time you are in the dining room in case someone needs something and you can be of service, to clear plates and used tableware away after the meal is completed, without stacking it or, God forbid, scraping it in the presence of the customer, so the customer isn't sitting there staring at a table full of dirty dishes, to handle stemware by the stem to avoid getting fingerprints on the bowl of the wine glass or snifter, to clear and clean the table immediately after customers leave so that a new customer can be seated at a clean table, that if a lady's breast falls out of her dress, you don't put it back with your hands, but with two warm soupspoons, to help each other out when things are rushed. The only thing that worked on these kids was management by assassination, quickly and ruthlessly weeding out those who wouldn't or couldn't accommodate the new regime. Fresh made coffee had to be stirred in the pot so that there was even tasting coffee throughout, not strong on the bottom and weak on the top. Coffee and hot tea cups had to be filled with hot water to heat the cup, then emptied and the coffee or tea poured in, to assure that every cup of coffee or tea was served hot, not tepid. They had to be taught not to go for a smoke during service hours. They had to be taught to bring more rolls, water, coffee, tea without customers having to summon them to do so. They had to be taught simple courtesy and to refrain from standing over and ogling pretty girls sitting at a table, while ignoring other customers. They had to be taught to come to work clean and in clean clothes. During tourist season we hired extra bussers to expedite service and clear tables quickly. I had constantly to repeat that tips grew as the customers' perception of their evening as having been a good time was enhanced. When tourist season waned, the damn student waiters wouldn't clean off their tables anymore, having decided that they had been elevated to the status of waiter and no longer had to do such things. One, leaning against the wall while a messy table lay before him, was told to get it cleaned off immediately, and responded "I'm a waiter, not a busboy!" I told him he was not a waiter, but a fucking college student. That a waiter would have already had his station policed up so he could get another seating and earn another tip. Some stole tips and were out of there summarily. An assistant manager had her daughter running end of the day tapes and doing daily sales reports for two hours, that a four year old could do in five minutes, all on the clock until I put an end to that.
When one evening a waiter came up to me and said, "God, Seamus, they're tipping 20 %", I knew I was accomplishing something. They were learning. You can't run a restaurant if you're not an excellent teacher.
Staffing the kitchen was much more difficult than the front of the house.There is no competent cooking help in the country. Country cooking, as the term is loosely used, is the worst crapola in the world. Everything is over cooked or greasy or over cooked and greasy. Everything has fat in it, more than what might be necessary to impart a subtle richness of flavor. Natural ingredients are avoided whenever some ersatz powdered, processed "convenience" substitute is available. Commercial mixes and chemical coagulants, garbage to which, as their directions say, you simply add water and stir, are the rule. Why do you think people buy so damned much Alka Seltzer? Why chop an onion and make your eyes water when you can just throw in some onion powder. Why crush, peel and chop garlic when you can throw in some garlic powder or garlic salt? Why run a stock pot for hours every day, simmering and reducing for rich soups and sauces, when all you have to do is mix a commercial flavored base with water and throw in some vegetables (left over from yesterday) and some scraps of meat (leftover from God knows when)? After all, isn't soup just veggies, meat and salt water? People in the country don't look as bad as they do from eating well. Did you ever think of that? Sure, inbreeding has played a significant role in their appearance. Sure, all the pretty girls leave for the big city to find a job and a husband who doesn't smell like goat shit all the time, leaving the rest behind to make ugly babies. But what they eat affects their appearance, especially between their shoulders and their knees. And it affects their health. When you look to hire kitchen help in the country, you are looking at a labor pool of minimum wage, uneducated, unmotivated day laborers who have never been exposed to any theory of good cooking or to any product of good cooking or to any technique of good cooking. If they aren't going to work in your kitchen, they will be working mowing lawns, digging ditches or collecting welfare. They have no mechanical aptitudes either. If they did they could afford not to work in your kitchen. Graduates of the Culinary Institute of America do not there abound. The best you can hope for is maybe somebody who was a cook in the Army or in prison. And in the Army and in prison, they cook with powders, bases and instant mashed potatoes and all the rest of the same shit that sells Alka Seltzer and Tums. Hell, you would be better off if they just crushed a few Tums into the gravy and used that as a thickener. It also has calcium. To me, country cooking is epitomized by things being fried to death or, in the case of veggies, boiled in salt water and fat for so long that everything worth consuming is dissolved into the water, which by that time has evolved into "pot liquor" or rather, "pot likker", and the tradition among country folk of drinking the pot likker to get the vitamins. If you don't believe me, take a ride out in the country and have lunch or dinner at MA's HOME COOKIN COUNTRY RESTAURANT, and pay attention to what they put on your plate. If there's a gas shortage, why just eat some of their beans.
Now that you have had the introductory course of what you deal with in hiring kitchen help in the country, we can turn to building a staff for the back of the house at B.I.s Texas Cafe in Brenham, Texas, a lovely little German town with a parade downtown at least once a week, and where you can smell the money when a local pays his tab, because he had to go dig it up out of the ground where he keeps it hidden.
Everything at B.I.s Texas Cafe was made from scratch. Soups and sauces were made fresh daily. All veggies were fresh, not canned, not frozen, not even canned beans. Beans were put to soak every night so they could start cooking at 4 am when Chef Muldoon walked into the kitchen. There was some recipe engineering, mostly for the sake of good health. We used almost no eggs, almost no cream, and substituted vegetable emulsifiers with very low fat, cholesterol and salt numbers. Nobody ever knew they weren't eating some heart attack on a plate creamed, egged up sauce. We used lots of olive oil, fresh herbs and garlic. The herbs came from my garden at home.We introduced romaine lettuce to Washington County, Texas. It took Brenham Wholesale Grocers six weeks to get romaine lettuce into the pipeline, and then even some local supermarkets started handling it, on a strictly trial basis, you know. Once when Belinda had to run to the store because we were running out of romaine lettuce, she was asked by a local lady standing behind her in the checkout line what that green stuff was, and told her it was romaine lettuce. To which she replied, "Does it taste like real lettuce?" Real, not instant, garlic-parmiggiano mashed potatoes were first tasted at B.I.s Texas Cafe, and have not been tasted again in Washington County since it closed. Saltimbocca alla Romana, Garlic stuffed Greek roast chicken, grilled pork loins encrusted with any of five different seasoning mixes, all original, fish and shellfish that were fresh and not stinky, prepared ten different ways, combinations of ethnic dishes in cross cultural experiments that would never work if you tried to combine the actual people of those cultures, graced our plates constantly. Your steak was cut to the size you wanted and prepared exactly to the doneness you wanted. Wines were inexpensive, but delicious, White wines did not die in coolers day after day, but were room temperature and chilled upon order, so that the taste of the fruit was at its peak flavor. There was soft music, and the dining room and bar were simply gorgeous, like a movie set. If you sat there you expected that at any minute John Wayne would walk in taking Maureen O'Hara out to dinner. It was Muldoon's idea of the ultimate heaven.
But, back to staffing the kitchen. Nobody in the country can cook like this, so Muldoon cooked everything himself. At 4 am there is no prep help available, so everything that went into what had to be started at 4 am to 8:30 am had to be prepped by the Chef. Knives flew like lightening, chopping, slicing, dicing, Mirepoix sautéed and then simmered in stock, reducing, reducing, reducing. Aromas wafted. Around 7 am Turtle would stick his head in just to take a deep breath and say hello and demand a meatball sandwich be ready for his lunch at 11:30. Our first kitchen, back of the house staff members were a challenge. Hosea the dishwasher was with us almost to the end. He could only pronounce single syllable words. His big sister was named Pam, so every woman was called Pam, even Belinda. It took her a while to remember that he was speaking to her when he said Pam. He couldn't say Seamus or Muldoon, so I told him that my nickname was Pig, and that he could call me Pig. That brought a big smile, as he never thought he would ever have a boss he could call Pig and not get fired. Out of respect, he learned to say "Mista", or, rather, "Missa", and called me Missa Pig. His little sister was a prep person, or was to be trained to become a prep person, except that she was always late for work and was let go rather quickly. The Moose became the prep person and the sandwich man, largely upon his claim to have worked in kitchens at Texas A&M University over in College Station for 8 years. The Moose is six feet five inches tall and weighs about 300 pounds, and has a marvelous personality and sense of humor. He lasted to almost the end also and left in a fit of frustration over being unable to remember what goes into a Niceoise salad which he had made hundreds of times, saying "Mista Maldoon, you kin shove dis job up your fucken ass!" He was thirty-five years old and had never seen or heard of a club sandwich in his entire life. I made him one, and he fell in love with it. From then on I had to watch him, because he would deliberately mess one up every now and then so it couldn't be sent out into the dining room and he could eat it himself. Left alone with the makins of club sandwiches, he would be dead in a week. And later, when a waitress ordered a B L T, he came over to me and asked, "Mista Maldoon, wha dat is?" One evening I couldn't find Hosea. I asked Kenneth where Hosea was and he got a sheepish look and said he wasn't sure, looking out of the corner of his eye to signal me that Hosea had left by the back door. It seems someone from a slash and thrust beer joint down the street had stuck his head in the back door and informed Hosea that his old lady was in some hassle down at the beer joint. Of course, as would any gentleman, Hosea left to go rescue his old lady, who, truth to tell, could beat the shit out of anybody in town, including Hosea. I rounded the corner just in time to see Hosea entering the Slash and Thrust in his B.I.'s career apparel (apron). As I approached the front of the place, out came Hosea and his antagonist and his old lady, knives drawn and blood in their eyes. I yelled, "Hosea! Did you punch out before coming down here and leaving your station?" Whereupon he assumed a very apprehensive expression and said, "You lucky my boss man come down hear, cause I gonna slice your ass!", turned and went back to the restaurant. From that moment on the Slash and Thrust became known, at least to us, as Chez Hosea.We had to put baby proof inserts into the electrical outlets around Hosea's station, because he liked the thrill of sticking knives and forks into them and we thought he was going to be electrocuted standing in water near the dishwasher and playing with fork tines in the electric sockets. Moose was bright, but incapable of sustained focus. Every night when he went to sleep somebody punched his "delete" button, and everything he knew simply was no longer available to him. He had to be taught everything over and over again, even when the consequences of forgetting meant personal injury, as when he couldn't remember to curl his fingers in when chopping veggies and would regularly cut himself badly. I spent more time patching up his hands than the local emergency room doctors did on everybody who came in all week. He was large, strong and constantly frustrated at his inability to do things easily. His size and strength worked for him in every job except opening a plastic bag of hamburger buns, or cutting a sandwich without breaking the bread into pieces, or peeling a hard boiled egg for a Niceoise salad, which he could never keep segregated in his mind from a Greek salad and a Caesar salad and a chef's salad. He couldn't differentiate between feta and parmiggiano cheese, cheddar and mozzarella or american cheeses. He couldn't be taught to read the specials every night and familiarize himself with what went into each or how the plates were to be set up for each. I gave him a raise and some praise in hopes that affirmative, supportive instruction would compensate for his lack of concentration, but it would only last for a week, and then we would be right back to learning salads all over again. No one could be trusted with expensive inventory. All the shrimp, fish, chicken, beef and pork had to be prepped by me. There was practically no theft, but that was because I was constantly present. The former owner bought steaks, was rarely there, and when steaks were ordered, the customer was told they were out of steaks that night. When we were negotiating the takeover of the restaurant with them we had an experience at dinner like that. The owner had just bought steaks that day and knew that 18 steaks hadn't been sold before dinner, but the cook, who I called Mr. Steak, insisted there were none until they were found way back in the cooler wrapped up in Mr. Steak's sweater. Mr. Steak had the nerve to come around every now and then and apply for a job as second cook.
In April I got lucky and got a real second cook. Everything started to work like the proverbial Swiss watch, smoothly. The busiest rush hours went smoothly - for a week. Then they had a county wide drug bust in Washington County, and my wonderful second cook was dragged out in chains ten minutes before dinner hour. I called Belinda in Houston, who was always complaining that I had no stories to tell her every day, to tell her the news, and she had already heard about the bust on the radio on the way home from the office. They didn't mention our restaurant, thank God, and I was back to cooking solo. I lost almost 30 pounds in B.I.'s Texas Cafe. Everything in a restaurant weighs at least 40 pounds. Rice comes in 40 pound bags, potatoes in 70 pound crates, flour in 25 pound bags, and so on. Everything you need requires retrieval from a weighty container, and I was getting in shape. I had to move so fast so much of the time that I rarely got to sit down and eat a meal other than breakfast. I would just live on a taste of this and a taste of that and share a busted club sandwich with the Moose from time to time. Also I had to abstain from my celebratory tendencies until after closing, by which time I was so tired that I could barely make it through half a martini. I became young and strong again like I hadn't been in many years. My doctor was amazed when she and her husband came up for dinner. She said she had no idea I could move so quickly. When I took a weekend off, closed the restaurant and went to my daughter's high school graduation in Michigan, she saw me and yelled, "Daddy, You're so skinny!"
One of the many lessons I learned at B.I.'s Texas Cafe I owe to a gay second cook named Wally. I had always been homophobic, had extremely negative views concerning homosexuality and lesbianism, and would never hesitate to voice them at any forum, appropriate or not. Wally was an outstandingly competent person in the kitchen, and he meant the difference between having a harmonious, well functioning back of the house and my simply working myself into a state of collapse. He won my respect, taught me a number of things in the kitchen that I do today (relating to food), and taught me to be tolerant and respectful of his expertise and to ignore our differences. And he had a wonderful sense of humor, having once said to me, "Mr. Muldoon, I like that mushroom sauce better than pussy." That really was not a compliment on the sauce, because he didn't give a damn for women.
What we did in that restaurant represented a total change of pace and character. The building was simply magnificent. The only thing we did to that was clean it. The former owners of the restaurant were a locally prominent doctor and his wife, who had another business to run as well. Although they were in the restaurant several times a day, they weren't operators. That meant that between the manager, the cook and the bartender, they were being robbed blind. The restaurant should have been very profitable at its volume under their ownership. It was totally out of compliance with the local fire code and the local health code, but he was a local bigshot and nobody would ever issue him a citation. We knew we could never get away with that, but what had to be fixed came to more than his asking price, so we never came to an agreement. I knew he was going to just walk away if he couldn't sell it and that his buyer would need the landlord's approval, so I went directly to the landlord. He and I hit it off very well from the start, and in the end it was his preference for what I wanted to do with the restaurant that made him turn down another buyer and lease directly to me as well as fix everything on the fire department's punch list. The health department's concerns were all tied into the filthy condition of the restaurant, something I simply had to deal with myself. It took a month to clean it, using mucho labor, but I was more persnickety about cleanliness than the health inspector, and when we opened it was immaculate. One of the most hilarious bargaining sessions occurred at dinner there one evening with Belinda and I, Doctor and Mrs. Doctor, having dinner, trying to talk about the selling price, and this big rat runs out of the kitchen and scampers around the dining room terrifying everybody and helping drive the price down. Mrs. Doctor was in a state of collapse, and I think it was at that moment they decided just to walk away from it if a buyer couldn't be found immediately. Word spread around town that they were going to simply close it, and Belinda and I went up there the next weekend just to stand across the street and see if it was opening or what. As we stood there, an old man who turned out to be one of many notorious town gossips, came and struck up a conversation. I asked him if the food across the street was any good, and out tumbled everything he knew, or thought he knew, about the restaurant, its food, its manner of operation and its owners. He said, "You know, Mister, there was some stupid sumbitch lawyer come up hear from Houston to take the place over, and that damn woman run him off."
The biggest part of the business day for the restaurant under its previous ownership was what I called the Bosnian Buffet, an all but guaranteed trip to the emergency room for $ 3.99. There was fried chicken, fried pork chops, fried fish and some canned stew concoction, with boiled to death canned veggies all gussied up with handfuls of black pepper and some bacon grease, a salad bar with never washed veggies, out of which someone told me they saw a grasshopper jump into a lady's face one day, causing her to faint. And biscuits! And gravy that soon congealed into a cracked glob looking not unlike the surface of the moon. The kitchen staff put it out every day at 11:15 am and never looked at it, refreshed it or replenished it again till it was wheeled away at 2 pm. It would not have titillated the appetite of a Somalian, but people in Brenham ate it. The staff rolled it out every lunch time and plugged it into the wall right under the dining room thermostat. Nobody ever cleaned up after any shift. The walk in cooler smelled awful - it could make your eyes roll back. There were no trays under anything stored on shelves, so whatever dripped, dripped onto the shelves and the floor and simply rotted there. The only effort I saw exerted regarding sanitation was one time when Mr. Steak told me how he could wash the stink off an old piece of fish so you couldn't tell it had gone bad. That steam table kept the air conditioning running at full blast and the electricity bill out of sight. We abolished the Bosnian buffet and alienated all the $ 3.99 people for a while.We also abolished chicken fried steak, a batter fried piece of cheap tenderized beef smothered in cream gravy, invented to increase the incomes of the local cardiologists. Every place in Texas serves chicken fried steak, so our not having it didn't exactly infringe upon any national icons. We had veal (or rather pork) parmiggiano and told everybody it was Italian chicken fried steak, and they liked it a lot. You can make every veal dish with pork, save money, have the same or better taste and not have to deal with the animal rights activists who make a fuss over veal, but for reasons I don't understand, don't give a damn about hogs.
We also lost some of the locals when we abolished "house accounts" friends and colleagues of the good doctor who owed more that the entire accounts payable ledger total and were never going to pay at all, much less remain current. We took cash, credit cards and personal checks. In the country you do not need Telecheck at a nice restaurant. Nobody wants their name associated with a hot check in a small town where everybody is looking for a story to talk about for weeks on end. Between the House Account deadbeats and the white citizens' council, we alienated quite a few local bigwigs.
Brenham, Texas is home base to the best vendor in the world, Brenham Wholesale Grocery Co. I will never understand why anyone would even try to compete with them. Their prices are fair and their service is unbelievably good, even though they are a really huge operation. While Sysco and their ilk tell you they won't take an order under $ 200, even if their truck is stopping right across the street anyway, and that they come to town twice a week and you have to over order to avoid outages, Brenham Wholesale will take any order, deliver daily, and have an order in your kitchen before lunch if they got the order by 7 am. They had a sales rep named Ron Bozart who not only came by to sell stuff, but had his own network of people in the food business in town so that if you needed something because of a breakdown, he could borrow it from another restaurant and let you use it until you could get repairs or replacement. The man saved my bacon a number of times, and I was very happy to get on his list so he could come in and take anything I had that wouldn't put me out of business if another of his accounts needed it. That's one thing about business in the country that is priceless and that doesn't exist in the big city.The Budweiser distributor was the only vendor that came close to being that helpful. Now the Budweiser distributor makes more money in one morning on one stop at one supermarket than he will at B.I.'s Texas Cafe all year, but they treat you so well you're actually embarrassed. The Bud man got our liquor license for us when nobody else could accomplish anything. We had done all the necessary stuff and the license was issueable, but in Texas licenses are issued by location, and a new one isn't issued for a location until the former licensee returns his license to the commission. Doctor and Mrs. Doctor, angry that we didn't buy the restaurant from them, refused to turn in their license, and the commission wouldn't do anything to help us. But the Budweiser man is every bit as big a shot as the local sawbones, and he went over and told the croaker that he was costing him beer sales to the restaurant and that was no way to spite a friend. It worked. And they know the tricks of the trade, too. They can make six cases of beer totally occupy a fifteen case cooler to frustrate other brands from getting in there. I had to rearrange the cooler to get Miller, Coors and Paulaner lager. We had Bud, Celis Golden and Bud Light on tap. Celis is/was a craft beer that is the best tasting beer made in America. It is made in Austin by an old master brewer family, and was recently bought out by one of the big brewers who will probably cheapen it to please their beancounters.
We had a wonderful landlord who is an antiquarian. He had furnished the restaurant beautifully, and he knew that I was absolutely in love with it. There was a man, Turtle, who worked with him that I miss very much and am very happy to see on occasion to this day. Turtle is a master restorer of antique furniture and buildings. He knows every woodworking technique used by every great furniture maker for the last 400 years and can duplicate the techniques of them all. In person he is great company with a good sense of humor, and he is a sensible, fair man. I always kept a case of Heinneken in the cooler that was dedicated to Turtle. He always gave me a hard time about the weirdest things, like insisting that I serve meatball sandwiches. One day he came in for lunch with our landlord and I told his waiter to announce at his table that the lunch specials that day included meatball sandwiches, having sent someone down to Subway to buy a meatball sandwich. Turtle didn't believe I would ever serve meatball sandwiches, and was really impressed at the gesture of friendship until he bit into the damn thing and realized he had been had and that it came from Subway. The whole dining room cracked up.
We learned many things in Brenham, Texas at B.I.'s Texas Cafe. We learned that we really did know what we were doing and that the same restaurant anyplace else probably would have been a smashing success. We never got enough of the local millionaires to make it what we wanted it to be. We learned that our seasonally study was right on the money and that we should have insisted on running the place by our plan and not given in to the landlord. There is enormous seasonally, annually and by days of the week in Brenham. We wanted to open Friday through Sunday and build out from there into the rest of the week, which was so slow that it didn't pay to turn on the lights. Our working capital would have gone much farther had we done it our way, and we should have insisted on that. We might have been able to afford to advertise on the only highway sign that became available while we were operating. We might still be there if we had. The restaurateurs who have followed us have all been more experienced, but none has done as well as we did. Today there is no restaurant in Brenham that is even safe much less good, and people tell us they wish wish we were back there. I do too. We had some really hilarious moments. We had an enormous St Pat's Day dinner planned and advertised it on the voice of the Brazos valley. We made a lot of Guinness stew and delicious corned beef and colcannon and had several large cakes baked with our name and logo on them and had all the help on duty. Eight people showed up, all sent over by the Budweiser man as his guests. We sat there and ate well and gave away one hell of a lot of food. Why did we think anybody gave a shit about St. Pat's Day in a town full of Germans? I called Belinda one day to announce that we were going to have ladies night, because in Houston ladies night brings in all the guys and there's great business. And then Belinda reminded me that Houston is where all the good looking women are, and that Brenham ladies are not going to bring men into our bar. She knew what she was talking about. I'm glad I listened to her.
The more we proof read this story, the more typos we find, but the more other vignettes come back into memory. Brenham is at the lower end of tornado alley in Texas, and we got tornadoes rolling by and fierce thunderstorms. The electric utility in Brenham predates LBJ's rural electrification program, and every storm knocks out either the entire city electrical system or, at least, everything electrical in the restaurant. The system is so feeble that a kevlar/plastic balloon getting loose and hitting a transformer wiped out one of our busiest Bluebonnet festival afternoons. With a dining room full of people and our operation going hell bent for leather, and a 45 minute wait for a table, we lost it to a balloon hitting a transformer. Of course when that happened, everyone walked their tab. The utility truck people said they'd have it fixed in 20 minutes, but then they told us they had to send to the next county for another transformer. You know what that did to us. Belinda went out and found the shopowner who had decided to sell those damned balloons outside her store that day, and I thought the woman was going to be beaten to a bloody pulp right there on the spot.
Very profitable periods could also be ruined by an old lady doing a twisting half gainer down the steps by the cash register. Twice a waitress came running into the kitchen screaming that a little old blue haired lady had set another high dive record down the steps and was lying there moaning loudly, disturbing all the diners and yelling for an ambulance and a lawyer. All you have to do is dial 911 and you get both an ambulance and a lawyer. On one such occasion, one of our genius waiters decided that the old girl on the floor was only faking or suffering from, at worst, some soft tissue injury. So the idiot sat her up on a bench, aggravating her situation greatly. Later her son called to say that mommy was just then being wheeled into the operating room for hip surgery, and what were we going to do about it. Being only a cook, I forwarded the inquiry to the Boss lady (Belinda) who called our insurance company, which denied her claim, and we never heard about it again.
We were the first restaurant in Washington County to make any money on yuppies. Yuppies have their own cultural events, you know, where they do a lot of weird shit dressed up in silly yuppie outfits. They ride peddle bikes around wearing those spandex Italian panties (the men and the women) and have things called "fun runs". Never in my whole life have I ever thought of running as being "fun". They have a night-before ritual to such events in which they eat lots of pasta. They call it "carbo loading". Tell a waiter in Washington County, Texas to make a window sign that announces a "Carbo Load Special Dinner", and they look at you like you just crawled out from under a rock. In Washington County they know spaghetti, but the had no idea it had carbohydrates in the damn thing. Sounds like some kind of commie plot to ruin spaghetti, like putting fluoride in public drinking water to reduce tooth decay. or adopting daylight savings time, or some other nefarious, seditious, perfidious scheme that only a Bolshevick would think up.
We had Washington County's only case of First Degree Rapo that season. First Degree Rapo is a psychological game in which a woman entices a man or men into making a sexual overture to her so that she can make a big fuss and claim the man is assaulting her, and get her husband or boyfriend to beat him up or cause some other kind of grief, like an arrest. We had a husband-wife waiter-waitress team where the young wife was very appealing and the husband was a big idiot. One day, in a downpour, she came to work in white tennis shorts, a white blouse, and nothing underneath, soaking wet. Nothing was left to guess about, and the effect was remarkable. They were both fired on the spot in what has been described to me as one of my less gracious and diplomatic moments.
Why on earth would a downtown restaurant advertise in a nudist colony? Now that's a damn good question, don't you think? It ain't exactly like they're going to get on their bikes and pedal their naked little selves downtown on Saturday night for dinner, or that they have anything to shop for downtown that would bring them into the place for lunch, with us rushing over with a towel to put on the chairs so they wouldn't be sitting on cold wood with their bare asses. Just another stupid advertising decision made because it was cheap and because it was at least humorous. I mean, hell, maybe they get dressed to go out for dinner. You never know. There is this nudist colony near Brenham, and it sells advertising on its placemats. Each place mat has a map of Brenham and surrounds in its center, with numbered stars to indicate where the advertisers are located whose ads appear around the edges of the place mat. We had star number one. I later learned that they had put the restaurant on their hit list because some years before our landlord had flown over their nudist camp in a small plane and dumped leaflets on them advertising the restaurant. Apparently, in response to the bombing attack, they had begun to patronize the place and to come by to sell advertising, which had always been bought. I even heard that once they had booked a party there, in the buff, which caused the place simply to "close for private party" on the particular evening. I don't know whether any of them ever came to dine with us, because no one ever came in naked. If they came clothed, I wouldn't have been able to tell, right? On the back of these place mats their camp rules were printed, things like "Always take a towel to sit on for reasons of hygiene.", or "Gentlemen playing leapfrog must complete their leaps."
I know we were taken in on at least one occasion when we had just opened, and, in retrospect, it was hilarious. It was before we had gotten our liquor license, so we had a policy of telling people to bring their own beer and wine which we would serve without set up charges, to build good will, so to speak, until we got our liquor license. We were setting up for dinner on a Friday when a couple came in and asked for the person in charge. I was fetched from the kitchen and greeted them, and was told that they were travelling Texas doing a video travelogue about beautiful old Texas landmarks, and that they wanted to include our restaurant in their project. Well, as you might imagine, old idiot here was suckered in right then and there. They said they wanted to do it the next afternoon, just before dinner and that they would come and set up their camera and sound about four o'clock, and that we'd be done by about five at the latest, including the interview of Belinda and me. They said they would appreciate dinner being comped. We said OK. I told them about our bring your own wine policy and received a very pumped up, stiff back response about how they were Christians and didn't drink any alcoholic beverages. Very emphatic they were. To which I responded, "Then you probably won't want the Lesbian frog leg special that we're having tomorrow, either. They taste just like chicken, you know." I thought Belinda was going to kill me. The help standing around, as help usually does at times like that, quickly dispersed, giggling and snickering into their sleeves as they went. But sure enough, the next day they showed up with their little recorder and mike and their minicam. As they panned around the bar and dining room areas, (I'm sure without any film in the thing) Belinda and I followed them, pointing out this and that little tidbit of interest, making up something about each thing for the sake of context. That was followed by a one minute interview about what our vision of the restaurant was. Thereupon they quickly put the equipment into their bags and ordered the biggest steaks I ever cut in the whole time we were in business. They left promising to let us know when the film was available, and we never heard a word from them again. Of course they never left a tip, either.
There are a lot of people I have to thank, most of all Belinda who sacrificed more than anyone else in the world so I could make a try for my dream, and some I still have to pay back, like Ed Maiorine, my room mate in college and Pat Moran, my former law partner, who backed me in the most important thing I ever tried to do in my life, and Jesus Christ for more than I can ever say or account for.
Now it's back to rebuilding a law practice, slowly and painfully, but getting there. I like trial work. It's like an intellectual fist fight in my specialty areas, and that turns me on. But if the phone rings tomorrow and somebody says they want to do a restaurant and would like me to join them, I'm out of here. It was the happiest and the healthiest time of my life. I know I can't make the kind of money in the kitchen that I can make in court, but that really doesn't matter. You probably don't even understand what I'm talking about, because it comes to very few people to ever have the chance to be that happy. In a heartbeat.
By Seamus Muldoon, Himself
Home :: Site Map
Copyright © 1997-2017 All Rights Reserved