The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Come On Fry Young

Kitchens Of Extinction: The Desperation Of The Doomed Restaurateur
Sam Herlihy , October 3rd, 2014 11:59

In the latest Come On Fry Young food column, Sam Herlihy ponders about the endless rebranding, disastrous menu diversifications and off-the-scale levels of bravery that is the lot of the restaurateur

I never wanted to throw a party. Ever. No way was I slipping into my sweet dark denim bootcuts, Duffer St George high necked fleece and rubbing some hair wax in my fringe, only to wait, like a dumb dog owned by a commuter, by the front door waiting for people to show up.

I did sometimes have parties but I didn't throw them. People just came round my parents house. We had a garage where you could smoke. There was a pool table that was covered in ash, beer spills and sometimes sprawled teenage girls with teenage boys groping them. It was a middle class Playboy Mansion, with less implants, no hot tub, no porn barons, no porn stars, less porn, fewer drugs, fewer STDs, no grotto, no tiki-bar, and it wasn't a mansion.

I can't be the only person for whom hosting a party would involve convulsing waves of panic, nausea and hot stinging bile splattering the oesophagus. There is nothing more sad, more lonely, more pathetic than waiting in a balloon strewn room, alone. The cheeks even redder than usual. The cliff drop plummet in the guts, the slow, creeping realization... no one's coming. Dear God, how to fathom and process the shame of it. No one's coming. No one.

This is why I could never open a restaurant. Watching unsold food rotting in the fridges. Half drunk bottles of wine souring into vinegar. The damn Buena Vista Social Club record rolling back to the start again. It's mellow Cuban jazz inflected bilge sonics never muffled by crowd noise. Standing by the front door, pleading eyes at passers-by. Come in! Two for one special! Pre-theatre prix fixe! Artisanal Kurdish donkey milk ice cream tasting menu! Hepatitis C benefit dinner! Gourmet burgers! I thought this was a homely Italian neighbourhood place? Not anymore! Now we got puppets! Veganism! Bingo! Young offenders making fucking gnocchi!

Rent is due. Rates are due. Wife is due another damn child I'll have to support. The underemployed waiters are stealing from the near empty till. Pawing at the coppers, stripping the bones clean. Lines of credit twisted and confusing like a bin full of uneaten spaghetti, congealed and grim. The fish will keep 'til next week. Save the bread. Reheat it. Reheat the lamb. Refreeze the chicken. Redo the awning. That's why we're headed out of business. The awning is wrong. If we just drop another grand on a new awning, we'll be busier than bloody Byron Burger. The awning is the problem. I knew we never got the awning right. Bad awning equal bad business. Change the font. Change the name. Don't have a name! It's mysterious now, and hip. Not being able to find something makes people feel hungry and flush with cash. If they can't find us, every blogger in town is going to write a million words on our wonder. We really need to commit to this new concept, man. Lets hide! We'll literally hide so when anyone comes in, they'll think we're shut! No one's done that before. It's unique! We're going to be rich you doubting motherfuckers! Hang on.... Now I'm hiding from my creditors, employees, wife, my own tired red faced reflection in the mirror from which I'm Dysoning long lines of bad cocaine. Now I'm hiding from the Yardies who gave me credit on their shoddy ass coke.

Now I'm dead. Shouldn't have played hide and seek with a bunch of hardbitten drug dealers. I can't believe no one dug my awesome awning. Philistines just wanted fucking Byron Burgers.

I think people who open a restaurant are brave. Like mercenaries. Cash for gunplay ex-forces loonies picking up a cheque in the Central African Republic. Probably more brave than mercenaries. What's the worst that can happen if you're a mercenary? Death, maiming, post-traumatic stress disorder? That triumvirate of torment is bad times for sure, but shame? The shame and acute embarrassment of the failed restaurateur is worse.

There's a place on the road home where I've watched the desperation of a restaurateur begin, evolve and crescendo. I drive past every single day. Every day you can trace the fevered desperation boiling in the owner's skull via the medium of roadside advertising. Every additional chalkboard, A-Board, posterboard, is another leap into the churning ocean of shame and dejection.

It began with Sunday roasts. Out of nowhere, a Sunday roast was available. People driving past, taken with an unbreakable urge for roast potatoes, overcooked meat and boiled vegetables, could now swing their cars into the car park and tuck into some gravy soaked bollocks.

Sales were clearly weak. The next week they had spruced up the goose. Now the board stated their use of 'Local' ingredients and a choice of meats. Despite no doubt shoveling a flock of overcooked fowl into the bin now they wanted to tip a flock of desiccated unsold lambs in there too.

Next up, Halloween. The Sunday lunch crowd clearly weren't spraying their cash around and they needed to make a ballsy move. Celebrating the pagan festival of ghosts, witches and mummies, outside they stacked a rusty tractor trailer up to it's rusty haunches, with pumpkins. You could eat pumpkin pie in fancy dress. You could nozzle down some "Gently spiced pumpkin soup, with a cheesy crouton" while whittling a spooky pumpkin lantern, dressed as Tutankhamun. You fancied a "Pumpkin stir-fry with Asian Flavours"? They had it. You had it, while getting a bat face-painted on your soy sauce spattered visage, dressed as Freddie Kruger.

They tried keeping Samhain rolling on for a few days past October 31st. It didn't work out. Driving home a few days into November I saw a pillar of black smoke rising from the place. When I got closer, I saw a dude in blue overalls and a SARS mask tossing rotting pumpkins onto a gargantuan bonfire. They burned half a tonne at least. It was a horrific Jack Skeleton from The Nightmare Before Christmas holocaust.

Clearly a re-think was required. It was time to make like Sufjan Stevens on the situation; They had to get real and get right, with The Lord. After dancing with the devilish Pagan nonsense, they needed to find God. They decided to call in some Christian cash. These folks were determined to get some serious pre-Lent gluttony going on. Shrove Tuesday in the house motherfuckers. “Pancakes Available All Day” read the sign.

Shrove Tuesday came and went. Despite the utter lack of pilgrims parking up their Mondeos and chowing down on some flat batter treats; the sign still stands. Pancakes available three six five days a year people. You have a crepe need in October? You have a desire for a frying pan full of whipped up flour, egg and milk on the Summer-ass Solstice? I know just the place.

At least some tiny part of this idiocy had to have worked. The sign is still there. The following summer, the three hour queue of traffic heading for the beach could still pull in and partake. They even set up a roadside Calor gas cylinder and a burner to whip up some batter for the beach-heading hordes.

The other reason to pull in and chow down that summer: “Local, Simple, Seasonal Menu”. That was more like it. Playing to the middle ground. Telling it like it was; inbred, dumb, and tomatoes in July. Why the fuck did they have to subtitle it with: “Served in our new garden-dining room! Come play in the incredible Maize Maze!”

Next to the words “Maize Maze” was an incredibly inept cartoon of a terrifying sort of corn-ghoul in dungarees, chewing on a piece of straw. They could have stuck with the local and simple thing. That might have worked. Instead they panicked and threw up a reference to a 'Garden Dining Room' and a heinous image of some sort of hillbilly, self cannibalising wheat-based maniac.

The Garden Dining Room? A square of breeze blocks stacked up to waist height. On top of this rickety wall, the ribs from a polytunnel rudely bent and nailed into some railway sleepers to form the world's least impressive arched ceiling span. At each corner of the 'room', a dry looking miniature pine tree in a concrete trough. The tables were planks of splinter filled wood which stunk of creosote and pigs. The chairs, Argos white plastic garden chairs circa 1988, algaed and mossed. From this sweet vantage point, while waiting for your fare, you could watch a few bored and sunburnt kids clambering over the Maize Maze; twelve dirty hay bales crudely arranged around a disconnected water fountain with fibreglass cherubs. There was a single dead end and a single correct path to the center of the wheaten labyrinth. The only way you could possibly fail to locate the centre of the puzzle in a matter of seconds, was if you actually dropped dead. However, it was so tiny that you could possibly pitch your corpse forward as you fell and you would still have a fifty percent chance of reaching the goal with your falling skull. Headbutting a crap fountain, dead in the middle of the world's worst route based conundrum.

At this point, I think they just gave up. I wasn't taking any pleasure in the collapse. I'm mocking the gang I know, but only because it baffles me. Ignorance comes out swinging. Previously they'd throw up a theme (Sunday lunches/Samhain/Corn Cannibals etc) and despite all signs pointing to doom, they'd stick it out for a while. Now, they were seemingly just hurling out whatever rabbitbrained thought came to them.

A few highlights from the downward spiral follow. Each was advertised on another A-board at the roadside.

Lasagne. Seriously. Lasagne. A stack of old pasta sheets, sloppy white slop and sloppy beef. Fuck you and your Nonna. Lasagne is about as clown shoes a dish as is possible to make. Thai Green Curry. No dish more English, more bloke, more thick. A weird form of Jamie Oliver colonialism. Taking what was once a proud Thai staple and reducing it to this, coconutty sugary dreck. Buy a jar of paste, toss in some battery farmed chicken breasts artlessly hacked apart with your Ikea Chef's Knife, blunt as a butter knife, pour in a can of coconut milk. Boil hard 'til the chicken is nice and dry. Serve over microwave rice and then throw your Next-wearing, Radio-1-listening, book-avoiding, dumb ass, off a bridge.

All-Day Breakfast. Why? Who actually wants to eat breakfast in the afternoon? Fried eggs past midday is just messed up. What has gone wrong in your life that it's come to this? Driving along pondering on just how awful your existence has become, you see an A-board in a horde of A-boards. Among the competing items trying to lure you in; Maize Maze, Sunday Roast, Pancakes, one offering grabs your rotten soul somewhere deep in it's marrow: All Day Breakfast! Times are tough, are painful, are a dizzying tumble down to some near unimaginable suffering but here lies salvation. Toast. Beans. Black pudding. Eggs. Happiness. Hope? Nope, you day-breakfast gorging freak. Get up earlier, eat breakfast at breakfast time and don't be a moth to a day-breakfast flame. Learn what a morning is you weirdo. Lunch at midnight? Dinner at six AM? Don't take on Time itself you miserable egomaniac. Hungry in the afternoon? Eat lunch, eat high-ass tea, not breakfast . Breakfast time, much like positivity, dreams of a better future, self-acceptance and inner-peace, is way back in the past for you. Accept it's gone and drag yourself onwards you wretch.

It's still there. Some days it looks busy. Most days it doesn't. Sometimes you see the owners carting another sign out to the roadside. The last one advertising 'Baby Animals'. In amidst the food offerings it seemed like they were offering a juvenile beast feast. My wife went to check it out. No young animals were being served up. They wanted parents to come by with their offspring and then sting 'em with a kids menu. They had a dusty pig in a dry pen and some guinea pigs in a sweltering greenhouse. The guinea pigs lolled about, fur matted with sweat, eyes drying out. The pig ate dust. It didn't encourage my wife to hit up the dining room.

Risk is more than a sweet military-themed boardgame. The risk you should be worried about when opening any business, particularly a restaurant, isn't financial. Anyone can lose money. You can lose money walking down the street, falling from your pockets or nicked by a monkey in a fez trained by some wily Mumbai street jaffar. You can make a dodgy investment in anything, bet on a horse with a wheezy lung, get suckered in a ponzi scheme your brother is running. The risk that should send anyone of sound mind running full pelt in the opposite direction from a restaurant business, is the risk of shame.

That flick Shame, with the Bride of Mumford and the droid from Prometheus in it, with the massive dong. That script was all wrong. There's no shame in wanking loads, boning loads, getting blown by a dude. Show off that massive dong Droid! They should have dropped all of the sex stuff and turned the big-cocked droid into a failing restaurateur, casting around for a way, any way, to save his rapidly sinking restaurant. That is real shame. That's why I have not a single idea why I'm planning on opening a restaurant. Goddamnit! I'm the massive donged droid! Pancakes available.