April 20, 2024

You’re the Boss: Fire Closes Start-Up Restaurant

The long-awaited summer season was about to begin.Courtesy of Southfork Kitchen.The long-awaited summer season was about to begin.
Start-Up Chronicle

Friday night went suspiciously smoothly. The first night of the summer season flowed without incident, without anyone waiting, without a single disgruntled guest, staffer or friend. Spectacularly smooth. I was waiting for the first shoe to drop. Never happened. The hospitality flowed both ways, from staff to sun-drenched guests and back to the front of the house. Everyone was relieved to feel summery, even if or especially because we had skipped spring.

For us, the eight months spent preparing for this inaugural ball suddenly felt like a normal gestation period. No labor pains. It was going to be a memorable Memorial Day weekend. If smoking were permitted in the restaurant, I might have handed out Cohibas. We had 100 guests. With an $87 check average. You do the math. A guy could get used to this.

That same guy could also sense a foreboding behind the equipoise; he knows a dark cloud surrounds every silver lining.

Saturday night we had another 100 reservations and expected a couple dozen walk-ins; reservations for the next week were filling up apace. The high tide was rolling in and the staffers, front and back, were surfing it. Morale was good. Confidence was tall. Money was about to nourish our sustainable lives.

As I walked out of the house for the evening shift, I said to my wife “I’ll see you at the restaurant later. Last night was so cool, don’t be surprised if you walk into some fireworks.”

Driving to the restaurant, listening to the cheerily cynical “Uncle John’s Band” on the radio, I heard the phone ring. It was Chef Joe: “I don’t want to alarm you, boss, but there’s something wrong in the kitchen.”

There was smoke. There was the smell of burning wood. And this was in a smallish kitchen that always had smoke and smells. Were this a movie, there would have been organ music, quiet, slightly dissonant chords, building slowly, inexorably. There were no alarms, no flashing lights. We checked the basement and checked the roof. Time stood still as the chefs scurried to every nook and cranny with flashlights and prayers. We checked the walls, inside and out. We were hoping it was some passing anomaly, a smoldering fish ember that would burn itself out and let us return to the lovely business at hand. We knew what a phone call to the fire department would mean.

Two cliches danced on the floor of my numb skull: “Better safe than sorry” was twirling “where there’s smoke …”

We called the fire department. Two men in uniforms walked into the kitchen and looked around. I heard: “Evacuate the building.” I was motionless for a split second. “I said evacuate the building — everyone, now.”

We walked from table to table and calmly asked guests to please carry their drinks into the parking lot, that there was nothing to worry about. That was both true and not. Behind the stainless steel wall, in the cavity behind the ovens, inside the fire-rated dry wall, spreading to the two-by-six wooden studs, something was smoldering. Behind the steely façade, in the fatalistic part of the psyche, somewhere between my heart and my wallet, something was smoldering all right.

Like everyone else, I was quarantined to the parking lot. I walked about, offering glasses of fresh water and mini-disquisitions on the perverse nature of humor in the universe. A kaleidoscope of sights passed before my eyes with almost no sound, save the spooky organ music in my head. Firefighters swarming like bumble bees, gloves swinging hatchets, hoses snaking around corners, firefighters climbing ladders, a well-dressed couple with martinis and stunned faces, whaler’s hooks tearing at the kitchen ceiling, smartphones used as cameras, firefighters on the roof, a woman grabbing my hand empathetically, ladders digging into copper gutters, faces half-hidden by cellphones, firefighters revving up chainsaws, firefighters cutting through cedar shingles, firefighters tearing apart an exterior wall, firefighters dousing the fire shooting from the new hole in the back of the restaurant.

I looked away. I saw tears flowing down the faces of cooks and busboys. I hugged Chef Joe. More than the cold-water trucks and the hot flames, more than dread or anger, I was struck by the emotions. Managers and back servers, hostesses and bartenders. God only knows what personal baggage they brought to this scene, what losses they had experienced, but they sure felt connected to this place, this mass of wood and steel and fireproof drywall. Restaurant people are never really comfortable outside of restaurants. Especially on a holiday. Especially on a holiday on the first night of summer in the Hamptons. And here they were, watching their summers go up in smoke.

Lara had grabbed the reservation list before her exit and was calling each and every person. Veronica was calling Sunday night’s guests. They wanted to know what to say. “What can we say?” I said. “We had a small fire and we will be closed for a while, until, until …” I was suddenly transported back to city hall and begging for renovation permits and construction applications and health department sign-offs. All the hellish memories I had successfully repressed came flooding back like P.T.S.D. For a spark of a second, I thought I saw the devil dancing on the roof just above the flames.

When the fire was extinguished, when the firefighters were finished cleaning up the debris, when the guests were permitted to drive away, the fire marshal wanted to talk. He apologized for any unnecessary damage. I told him the job was excellent, the destruction kept to a minimum. I asked him who was to blame. I had five fingers on each hand and was ready to point impolitely at someone, anyone, everyone, to assign responsibility, exorcise guilt, collect money. We have cooked a thousand meals in this same kitchen on these same Garland stoves.

Tonight, there was a fire. Tonight, there had to be a reason.

“Fire is a funny thing,” said the fire marshal, expecting no laughs. He said everything was up to snuff, every letter of the law had been followed, and we could essentially rebuild the kitchen in exactly the same fashion. After we got permits and passed inspections.

Chef Joe pulled me aside. “Did he just say what I thought he said? That everything was built according to code and we could rebuild it exactly the same way?”

You don’t have to be Smokey Bear to find a grand canyon in that logic. I pressed the marshal on his declaration. He pointed to two screws that were virtually pointing back at him.

“Those two screws,” he said.

“We have 20 screws in the wall,” I said. “They hold up the pots and pans.”

“But those two screws, they got hot and they conduct heat, and they started the fire in your Sheetrock. Those two screws.”

Two screws. There are too many punch lines, too many plays on words, too many blue screw jokes. You can write your own.

Fire is a funny thing.

I wish I were in on the joke.


Here is a list of 10 things for which I am grateful after the fire:

1. Grateful for no injuries.
2. Grateful for minimal damage (so far).
3. Grateful for a staff that is loyal and true.
4. Grateful for fires that ignite during service and do not secretly smolder until the middle of the night.
5. Grateful for a volunteer fire department that is fast and professional.
6. Grateful the first flush of media reports were accurate and without malice.
7. Grateful this was not part of July 4 fireworks.
8. Grateful for insurance (so far).
9. Grateful for a charred sense of humor.
10. Grateful for 22 non-hot screws.

Bruce Buschel owns Southfork Kitchen, a restaurant in Bridgehampton, N.Y.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=029db6e9edb7411020b120b98fa1e9ef

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