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On the move
Luke Broussard hustles condiments to a table during brunch at Early Girl Eatery.
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Ali Caulfield glazes maple-bacon doughnuts at DOUGH.
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Charles Whalen (left) and Travis Dray (right) at Early Girl Eatery have to move quickly to keep ahead of brunch orders at Early Girl Eatery.
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Two moves ahead
Philip Hamilton, a line cook at Bouchon, has to do several things at once to stay ahead.
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Far from the finish line
Stacy Strong (background) will walk several miles while serving diners in Bouchon's small dining room.
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Brighten up the room
Lucas Taylor's smile at DOUGH in Asheville demonstrates the power of providing positive customer service.
Philip Hamilton has been a line cook at the popular downtown Asheville restaurant Bouchon for nearly three years. He’d never worked in a kitchen before he got the job. Now, his hands and forearms bear the burns and scars of moving quickly to prepare as many as 200 plates a night. Hamilton loves the intensity of the work.
“It begins the moment you walk in the door to get your station ready,” he said. “You’re scrambling to get all your stuff together. Half the battle is having everything in front of you.”
But no matter how well one is prepared, something breaks down.
Years ago, soon after Laurey Masterton started her Asheville catering business, a man called to book a surprise anniversary party for his wife. The five-course supper for about 30 people was to be a made-from-scratch experience that replicated one he and his wife had had in Italy 25 years ago.
The task was simple enough for Masterton who had helped her parents run an inn in Vermont and knew lots about preparing food for large groups of people. About a month before the dinner, the man called to change the day to a Tuesday. Masterton moved the paperwork in her calendar. Then he called again to say, no, he wanted to have it on Monday after all. On the day of the party, the man called to ask what time she was coming.
“I put him on hold,” Masterton said. That’s when the panic set in—she realized she’d forgotten to move the paperwork back a day. She did a quick inventory. The fresh trout wasn’t scheduled to be delivered until the next day. The cooking staff for the event wasn’t expected until morning. Masterton exhaled and walked into her catering kitchen. She got everyone’s attention, told them they had a crisis on their hands and that no one could go home.
She picked up the phone again and told the man she’d be there at 6 p.m. Over the next four hours, she and her crew scrambled to get everything they needed together and prepared. Masterson and crew arrived at the party with only minutes to spare. She cooked the last few ingredients just before the party sat down to eat. The meal came off beautifully, she said.
“None of the guests had a clue,” she said. “It was, like, terrifying.”
One night in early January, Hamilton was cooking in Bouchon’s narrow kitchen when one of the oven doors fell off. Having constantly suffered opening and slamming shut as kitchen staff fire meals of cordon bleu or roasted half duck, the door’s hinges couldn’t take it anymore. Diner’s orders began piling up as even more people streamed in. Fortunately the kitchen had more than one oven, so the three-person kitchen crew changed their cooking choreography and kept moving.
“Anything can happen like that,” Hamilton said. “You have to be calm.”
It takes a certain kind of person to work in the food industry, someone who can kick it up a notch when they have more things to do than fingers on which to count them. Like emergency room docs and racecar drivers, servers and kitchen staff thrive on the busiest moments of the night.
“Pressure, pressure, pressure—we all feed off that. I don’t know any food and beverage professional that doesn’t love that,” said Stacy Strong, a server at Bouchon who has worked in restaurants for more than 20 years. “We all want to be Mach 4 with our hair on fire.”
The best in the industry are able to shut out distractions. They have one job to do at this one moment—get that second glass of wine to table six—and then they’re off to the next crisis. Food service professionals can out-prioritize, out-organize and out-categorize nearly anyone in the dining room. There’s an oft-used expression—“in the weeds”—to describe the feeling of being overwhelmed. “There’s no better expression,” Strong said. “You’re just surrounded, and you have to figure your way out.” She remembers a night long ago when she was working in a restaurant on Hilton Head Island. “I was so busy and people were being so mean,” she said. “I’m also very sensitive. The next thing I knew, I was in the walk-in, in tears.” The restaurant’s owner was incredulous that Strong chose the refrigerator as a place for a meltdown and told Strong to get it together. You can do this, she told Strong. “And I went out there and I did it,” Strong said. “Everybody has bad days.”
The Green Sage Coffeehouse & Café in south Asheville sells a lot of omelets—for which there are only two burners in the kitchen. Sunday brunch can be brutal. Cooks at different stations are working quickly, talking rapidly, even curtly. “We all have thick skin here,” said Ed Cohen, general manager. “You can’t break down or freak out. All that does is slow all those tickets down.”
As downtown Asheville becomes increasingly known for its culinary scene, more and more patrons come to town looking for a table at a local hot-spot and a dining experience to go with it.
Early Girl Eatery on Wall Street in Asheville is known as a “high-volume, turn-and-burn” kind of place, says server Kristina Costa. There’s almost always a wait to get a table, even more so for Sunday brunch. Like a buffet, diners offer up a little bit of everything—they’re hungry, happy, hung over, out with friends or trying to impress the family. And some are keeping tabs.
Costa was in the Early Girl kitchen filling a drink order when the host seated two pairs of diners, two men and two women, in her section. Costa took drink orders from both tables, dropped off the women’s drinks first and then moved on to the men’s table. “It takes no time to take a two-top’s order and I didn’t know who was seated first, so when I dropped off the men’s drinks, I took their order,” she said. “As I was walking to the kitchen, one of the women storms up to me and says, ‘do you realize we were seated first?’”
Costa didn’t intend any slight. She put the men’s order in and returned to take the women’s order. They demanded to know if their food would come out first. “They were rolling their eyes at me,” Costa said. “What’s forgotten when people go out to eat is that the server is a person too. You wouldn’t treat your doctor like that.”
The attitude is a reflection of the common assumption that restaurant workers haven’t done much with their lives, Strong said. More than once, diners have been talking about their European vacations and tell Strong she should go too—which she has, several times. Strong and her fellow servers are more interested in a different kind of tip—cash. Servers in North Carolina only make $2.13 an hour in wages.
At Early Girl, servers pool their tips, which spreads the joy of big tips and evens out the pain of small ones. While one memorable diner handed out $20 bills to all the staff, another family that Costa helped get oriented to town, even drawing them a map, left only a few coins on the table. Brandon Cremisio has been a server and bartender at The Lobster Trap, a fresh seafood restaurant in downtown Asheville, for about three years. He’s an energetic young man who enjoys interacting with his patrons and providing good service. But his positive attitude doesn’t always keep him out of the red. One table left him $2 on a $70 check with a note saying that everything was wonderful but that they were broke.
“I guess that’s better than leaving me to think I did something wrong,” Cremisio said.
That same night another couple was seated, boasting a hearty appetite, Cremisio said. “I thought, awesome—not only am I going to get a higher check average, but when people have that kind of attitude, I like it. I mean, sweet, you’re here to get down. I can help you with that.”
The couple ordered a large meal, had a wonderful time, and upon receiving the check, left cash on the table and walked out. They left $125.70 for their $125 bill. Cremisio actually lost money on the deal because he had to pay out a percentage of the ticket to his bussers and hostess.
Part of the culture of restaurant work is trading war stories like these. Lots of restaurant people hang out in restaurants when they’re not working. The culture and the ambience are reasons they’re attracted to the industry, so they like going out as patrons as well as professionals. One morning over coffee, the bartender at downtown’s Aloft hotel shared a story with Strong from Bouchon.
The hotel’s restaurant makes its own sausage. Paprika is one of ingredients, and as paprika tends to do, it gives the sausage a reddish color. When a diner cut into her sausage and saw red, she insisted it was undercooked. The bartender explained about the paprika, but the diner wouldn’t hear it and insisted that the bartender take the sausage back to the kitchen. He did. The second piece that came out looked burned, he said, but the diner still saw red. So once again he took it back. This time the cook deep-fried the sausage—there wasn’t a trace of any color other than brown, and with that, the diner was happy. “Some people can get really mean, but you can’t take it personally,” the bartender said with a smile on his movie star face.
There’s something to that cliché about servers being out-of-work actors looking for a role. The best servers are able to turn grumpy tables into happy tables. Good improvisational skills are imperative to the job. Masterton’s previous work as a theater stage manager and lighting designer was good training for catering, she said.
“At 8 p.m., the show happens, no matter what. You have to be ready,” she said.
Each table is different and calls for a different approach.
“You just have to perform,” said Cohen of the Green Sage. “There’s no not doing it. You don’t want the guest to be unhappy.”
Bartenders, servers and hosts are tableside sociologists, observing and cataloguing human behavior.
“You see everything—people that talk to themselves, or to friends that are not there,” Strong said. There was a lawyer on Hilton Head who would come into Strong’s restaurant every day and order the same thing. Every time he’d ask if it came with a Caesar salad, which it did, every time.
Brian Ross owns DOUGH, a new prepared food market and bakery/café in north Asheville along the lines of Foster’s Market in Durham, N.C. or a Dean & Deluca in New York. Ross is the chef and teaches cooking classes.
“So my stepfather is our biggest investor. In the beginning, he used to perch himself in the front of the counter and watch. And he said, ‘I can’t believe how much you guys walk. You just don’t stop moving. Your feet must be killing you,’” Ross said. As a gift, Ross received a pedometer. Each day’s automatically set goal was 10,000 steps. After one of his teaching days that started at 6 a.m. and ended at 10 p.m., Ross had logged 21,000 steps—15 miles.
The physical toll of walking, turning, and lifting so much gives Ross a sore back. His pastry chef, Ali Caulfield, who starts making pastries at 4 a.m. each day, developed hip problems. Ross tends to forget to eat. While he tastes his food to make sure things are coming out like he wants them to, he’s too busy to sit down for a meal. Caulfield has to remind herself to drink water. “You forget to go to the bathroom,” Ross said. “And then you remember, and all you can do is just stand there.” In an effort to care for their bodies, Caulfield and Ross go to the same chiropractor. Ross wears orthotics and takes enzymes.
Getting older in a business that calls for strength and stamina, Strong isn’t feeling as stout as she used to feel. She can still work, and do it well, she said, but only because she’s learned to do it more efficiently. At the end of the day, she’s ready to clock out. “Used to be, I wanted to hang out and chat with everybody,” she said. “Now I want to go home to my dog.”
Bouchon’s Hamilton said that maturing has its advantages. He doesn’t get as upset when things break down. He’s learned how to work around the surprises that come up every night. He savors the experience now, he said. As the orders fly in and the plates fly out and the pressure seems unrelenting, he’s more present with his work, more focused and yet more detached, knowing that he’s a part of a system that runs best when patrons don’t notice it at all.
“The moment you slow down or hesitate, you lose momentum,” Hamilton said. “You’ll have a board full of like 20 tickets, and you’ll hear that printer printing out more, and you’re thinking, how in the hell am I going to get all this food out? And an hour later, you’re done and you’re like, I don’t know what just happened, which is fun—I like that. It’s nice to escape into that.”
Chef Laurey Masterton taught others to seize life’s joys
One day years ago, chef Laurey Masterton sat down on the sidewalk next to employee Monroe Moore to watch the sun set.
Laurey’s Catering and Gourmet To Go was moving. Though just across the street, Laurey’s new location was miles from where it had begun. Masterton remarked how the move—so small, yet so large—felt like a metaphor for life.
“This is a story I heard her tell as well,” Moore said. “She’d say that moment of us sitting on the sidewalk that day was about the importance of being present. And that that happens especially when you stop what you are doing.”
A widely admired pioneer whose motto, “Don’t Postpone Joy,” could be seen on bumper stickers throughout town, Masterton was a key figure in downtown Asheville, N.C.’s renaissance. In 2010, her work teaching children about culinary gardening led to her selection to help Michelle Obama launch the Chefs Move to Schools project, part of the Let’s Move initiative to end childhood obesity.
A three-time cancer survivor, Masterton was undergoing treatment and making plans for a video to accompany a new book when she died this February at age 59. To many friends and the community at large, her death seemed sudden.
Masterton moved to the area in 1987 to work with the N.C. Outward Bound School but came to realize a love for food. She started a catering business in 1990, cooking out of the kitchen in her tiny walk-up apartment until she opened Laurey’s, as the business affectionately was known, on Biltmore Avenue. At the time, the major thoroughfare into downtown lacked cache; however, Masterton was convinced that good food and a warm place to gather would attract good people.
“Certainly her establishment has been the stopping point for friends, family and students and just about everyone I know in the artistic and food worlds,” said Susi Gott Séguret, who directs the Seasonal School of Culinary Arts in Asheville, Sonoma, C.A., Ithaca, N.Y., and Paris, France. “It was impossible to live in Asheville and not know her.”
Masterton often taught at the culinary school. “Each time she brought an element of simplicity and warmth that was really priceless,” Séguret said. “In this world where so many egos abound, it’s rare to run across a person so positively approachable.”
Her dedication earned her the respect of her peers.
“You never went to a Laurey’s event where you didn’t leave feeling better than you arrived,” said Mark Rosenstein, former owner of The Market Place, another pioneer of Asheville’s daring and well-developed food scene. Though Rosenstein and Masterton never cooked together, he attended many events she catered. “You couldn’t do a better job,” he said. “The quality of the food, the creativity in presenting it, the professionalism of the staff—she was totally committed.”
Masterton similarly was dedicated to her community, working with students, such as those at Isaac Dickson Elementary School in Asheville, helping them harvest vegetables from the school garden to discover the joy of fresh food well prepared. After Masterton went to Washington, D.C. in support of the Let’s Move initiative to end childhood obesity, some three dozen local chefs signed on to the initiative as well.
Masterton learned to cook at an early age, helping her mother Elise in the kitchen of the inn her parents ran in Vermont’s Green Mountains. She hoped to run the inn one day, but both her parents died of cancer when she was 12. She shuttled from one household to another until she went to live with her oldest sister. Her disrupted childhood taught her about the preciousness of each moment.
Masterton was an avid advocate for cancer awareness and fitness enthusiast. She biked 3,100 miles across the country in 2009 on behalf of the Ovarian Cancer Foundation and later founded, JOY!Ride, a nonprofit that supports Lance Armstrong’s LIVESTRONG program through the local YMCA. The specialized program helps individuals who have undergone radiation and chemotherapy treatments work with trained Y staff members to begin to rebuild physical and emotional health. She would later find out she had colon cancer.
“The last time I saw her,” Séguret said, “I passed her in the street in front of her shop. She was in a hurry, but she stopped to show me her head. It was bereft of hair, but that didn’t seem to bother her. She was as glowing as ever and seemed invincible. The lesson that goes along with that is, do whatever it is you want to do now. What on earth are we waiting for?”
For more information, visit letjoyride.com.