NYC Diaries Part IV
~ People ~
A few days after Anita left for Houston and with Abel still in the hospital, the fire alarm at Pondicheri suddenly went off. It was a terrifying piercingly loud clanging sound that echoed throughout the space. I did two laps around the restaurant to make sure nothing was actually on fire then called our dispatcher to report a false alarm. The dispatcher asked for the password, explained that Abel was the account holder and unless I knew the password there was no chance of the alarm stopping and he had already dispatched the fire truck that would cost us around $900. I immediately bust into tears, told the dispatcher that Abel was in the hospital undergoing terminal cancer treatment and unless he wanted to call St. Luke’s Hospital in Texas, we could not get the password. The alarm stopped and the fire truck never showed up. It was at that moment that it sunk into me that it was time for me to grow up and run this business no matter how sad or scared I was.
Staffing in the hospitality industry in NYC is a ravenous royal beast. Casually glance at Craigslist or any other hiring websites – there is always a hiring frenzy, with many restaurants constantly looking for cooks, bartenders and managers. I knew the mettle of a restaurant was upon its people, not just its food. I had watched my mother build an amazing team at Indika and first hand, experienced her opening staffing challenges at Pondicheri in Houston. In New York, the issue seemed a hundred times worse. With this huge restaurant serving three meals a day seven days a week, there were endless shifts to fill. And yet, I was determined to find a core team that shared my values. For the first two years, I practically lived in the restaurant covering one position after another. Customers used to joke with me asking if I lived at Pondicheri and I would politely laugh back hoping that they couldn’t see the hell that was going on in my life. Disillusioned after months of staffing issues, I wondered how much I would have to continue lowering my standards to create a workable team.
Here are some of my worst memories ~ a fully functioning alcoholic bar manager who enchanted me with “secret recipes”. Another who got into a physical brawl with a customer and the police hauled out. Two line cooks who pulled out a knife at each other at the end of the night I had to hastily pacify. A kitchen manager who liked to sit in the cellar office making lists of things we did not need, secretly waiting for the produce truck delivery guy who she had a crush on. Line cooks who would work for less than a day, quit and apply for unemployment insurance and the paperwork that ensued. A bartender we fired who broke in one night in a ski mask and stole all the cash in the restaurant. And the dishwasher who holed himself into one of the bathrooms every few hours, smoking pot. None of these incidents are terribly unusual for the restaurant business but I was navigating them amid trauma and the grief of knowing that I could not be back in Houston to spend time with Abel. Anita, shell shocked with her new reality would come into the city, never being able to stay more than a few days yet wanting to make menu changes that I simply could not uphold. My mother’s free wheeling free spirited ideas clashed with my take-no-prisoners organized stance and the tension between us began to grow. By the end of that first year, knowing I had limited support from Anita, I taught myself every station in the restaurant from how to make cocktails, pour wine to dropping a naan in a 600-degree hot clay oven because this was the only way I could extract the best out of my employees and gain their respect.
It seemed like the building was always playing tricks with us. At random times, rainwater would gush through the floors and we’d be flooded with 2 inches of water everywhere. Our air conditioning contractor sabotaged the system in a fit of anger on his way out and refused to honor his warranty commitments. When it rained only at a certain angle, water would start pouring over a back corner sometimes over irate guest’s shoulders. And certain lights that would go into a flickering frenzy at random times in the middle of a busy dining room. At times, we began to wonder how many balls we could catch in a day. But none of this brought more stress on us than the Health department. They’d show up at the busiest times and slap us with thousands of dollars in fines for small petty offenses, a great way for the city to collect money from new and naïve small businesses. It took us two years to turn our ‘grade pending’ board into an ‘A’, a small victory.
Eventually we began to attract better caliber of people. The first good line cook who walked in felt like a ray of sunshine. After a month with us, he brought his wife, cousin and uncle. A mother of three who had been abandoned by her husband determined to make a better living for her children became one of our best line cooks. Speaking limited English with heavily accented Bengali, she had been battered and abused by the city, going from door to door looking for jobs. The line cook with a speech disability but amazing intuitive powers and military style discipline always showed up on time, rain or storm. The prep cook who loved to give sermons to anyone who’d listen but rolled the most exquisite samosas at a blindingly fast pace and honed our dosa batter recipe to the glorious place it is now. Yet the constant lack of good kitchen help combined with extreme competitiveness in New York always left me with nervous nightmares of cooks quitting for more money, an issue that many restaurants in the city continue to face.
Customers were another story. As in Houston, we always considered our regulars our rock stars and built many a regular over the next two years. The city worker, who showed up every few days to sip on turmeric soup for hours but chose to never leave a tip. Determined to have a good relationship with our landlord, we invited them to come enjoy our food after which Glen came in weekly to enjoy the Chicken chaat salad calling it the best salad in the city and lamenting why there was not a line out the door just for it. The architect, who ate with us every single day of the week and even informed us when leaving town. And then there was the hostile banker who insisted I had over cooked his salmon and who I defiantly argued with, much to my mother’s horror. A month later, he came back, gave me a hug and became a regular. The hairdresser, who considered a Pondicheri cookie as part of her daily morning ritual or the yoga teachers who flocked in to enjoy our green dosas brought me so much joy. The meditation guru who brought in his team for weekly lunches and the business partner to Danny Glover who conducted every meeting at Pondicheri became some of my favorites. And our claim to fame being Dr. Deepak Chopra whose family adopted us as their resident restaurant for dinner parties, birthdays and more. Rita Chopra paid us the greatest compliment, calling our food the best ‘ghar ka khana’ meaning home cooking.
By this time, with extreme workouts, intermittent fasting and strict diets combined with chemotherapy, Abel’s health was on the mend, he was back to his pre-cancer weight much to his doctor’s surprise and we were growing optimistic of his remission. Little did we know a small elective surgical procedure just months later would threaten to take his life.
Until next time,
Ajna + Anita