I’m back to my roots – not the familial ones, but the culinary roots. Back to the kitchen; back to mise en place; back to herbs and produce for hours – picking apart dirty basil and chopping my way through piles of tomatoes, each time figuring out how to do it a sliver faster. Also (because obviously), I’m back to Spain™. It’s been four years since I moved here the last time (which was actually my third time moving to Spain), to work in a couple of fancy restaurants in Bilbao. So much has happened since then. Found my footing as a full-time food writer in New York. Changed apartments no less than four times. Got married in the Catskills. Got married again (to the same guy) in Spain. And now I’m back. I’ve come full circle – again – and because of my nature, and the nature of the guy I chose as my husband, I’ll probably continue spiraling through this life, inventing and reinventing my professional self, building a home and then leaving to create a new one somewhere else.
We’re opening a seasonal sandwich shop next to the beach in Colonia de Sant Jordi, Mallorca. Coincidentally, I came to this tiny town many moons ago, before I even met G. The name will be Joan y Cati – Joan, which is G’s middle name, and Cati, which is my nickname in Spain. We threw out a bunch of different names, but landed on this one because we felt there was something sweet about it – like a mom-and-pop-shop that’s been on the block for years. And though it’s not even a sit-down restaurant, and we’re far from a bustling metropolis, there’s still so much to consider. So many decisions to be made. So much werk to be done. It’s not all sexy, either. A lot of the work is waiting — for your turn at the wood yard; for vendors to respond to your order requests; for the refrigerator guy to fix the fan on the second-hand cooler with open shelving. A lot of the work is also just being — with yourself and a pen and a kitchen scale, and figuring out exactly how much garlic belongs in your salmorejo (apologies to the friends I garlic-murdered before I perfected the recipe — it’s much better now).
As we slowly and steadily work toward our target opening date (July 1), I’m thinking about all of the lessons I’ve learned in my career up until now, both in restaurants and in food writing, and the words that have stayed with me.
I think about the interview I did with Ashley Merriman, and how she said she loves the work of being a chef more than the food itself – “I like the act of coming to work and the ticket machine and the chopping and the lifting and the cleaning and the cooking – the actual act of cooking food.” I love the work, too (though my petite ass isn’t much of a lifter), and I love feeding people things that make them feel full and good. And I’ve learned by now that I’d prefer to do it in a place where I’d like to eat every day, rather than a Michelin-starred restaurant where the food is sooo precious.
I like the act of coming to work and the ticket machine and the chopping and the lifting and the cleaning and the cooking – the actual act of cooking food.
I think about a “Women Leaders in Food” talk I went to in Chelsea, and how Maya Jankelowitz (co-owner of Jack’s Wife Frieda, which happens to serve my favorite granola bowl in NYC) said that when she and her husband were creating their menu (mere weeks before opening the restaurant) they just sat together and wrote down every dish they ever loved — from anywhere in the world. So that’s what we did. G and I sat down with my journal and made a list of every sandwich we love – the falafel at Mamoun’s Falafel in Greenwich Village; the curried chicken salad on baguette from La Basile in Paris; everything bagel with cream cheese from the Monticello Bagel Bakery; bocadillo de calamares from any bar near Plaza Mayor in Madrid; bacon, egg & cheese on a roll from any bodega in NYC; the salmorejo toasts topped with oily tuna and hb egg at Bar Alfalfa in Sevilla; the Scuttlebutt from Saltie in Brooklyn (sadly closed); avocado toasts; jamón y queso; jambon beurre; PB&J with sliced banana. Then we chose the ones that made sense to put on our opening menu given the local market, kitchen logistics and our strong preferences. Por ejemplo, there’s no way I’m opening a sandwich shop without a curried chicken salad sandwich on the menu.
I think about the sous chef at Septime, who told me, during my daily prepping duties — you have to imagine each bite. “Each herb, or each piece of lettuce,” he said, picking up a leaf from my pile and taking an imaginary bite, “should be one mouthful.” I stopped cutting the herbs too large. Marie, the commis, stopped scowling at me before service. Nowadays, with each dish I create, I think about each bite. Will each bite contain a bit of everything? Will the bread be too flimsy? Will the jamón be too tough to bite through and then slide from between the bread, pulling innocent bystander tomato slices with it – I hate when that happens.
I think about working at Mina, across from the Mercado de la Ribera in Bilbao, and the tid bits of information learned from each supplier who brought food through the door. I remember the portly old fishmonger, who proudly showed me an octopus, then explained to me that they’re the healthiest thing you can eat; how the fatty layer surrounding each tentacle is gelatin, which basically makes your body run better – healthy oil for the machine. So when I go to the market, I ask questions – which tomatoes do most people choose for salmorejo, and can this “curado” cheese be substituted for that, and is it really worth the 38 euros per kilo for the jamón iberico de bellota or can we just use jamón serrano?
I think about the chef de partie at Nerua who sneered at me for recoiling from boiling oil and told me to cook with no fear (as he snatched a burning piece of tempura from the deep fryer). I’m not on his level (a psycho), but I try to cook with less fear. I think about a fellow stagiare at Nerua who asked whether we could get the handles of the kitchen drawer just a little bit cleaner – let’s make them perfect, he said, and together we continued scrubbing until they shined like new. It’s easier to cut corners, but then, at the end of the day, that’s the kind of work you want to do.
Kinda like Fight Club: the number one lesson is listen to everyone else’s lessons. So all of these lessons and anecdotes I hold in my brain every day as we soldier on. And I’ve come up with a few of my own, too. For example, keep going. When you’re not sure what to do next, just do something. There are a million things to do. And when the shop opens, there will continue to be a million things to do. That’s the new status quo of your professional life. Make lists every day. Choose the priorities. And keep going.
It’s a lot of pressure – when you come to the precipice of finally doing that thing you’ve fantasized of doing for years. You want people to love it so bad, and you’re prepared to be crushed if they’re like – meh. But at the end of the day, we’re just making sandwiches (plus a few feel-good salads and a couple of baked sweets). But yeah, maybe I’m overthinking it. And maybe there’s another lesson there – don’t overthink it. Work hard. And be grateful to be back.
FOLLOW JOAN Y CATI, AND YOU’LL GET A FREE SAMMICH AT JOAN Y CATI, I PROMISE.