Diana Kudayarova and Tse Wei Lim are unlikely restauranteurs. On the cusp of their thirties, they didn’t go to culinary school, didn’t grow up gourmets and didn’t even start cooking until later in life. Diana’s grandmother said cooking wasn’t for modern women; Tse Wei’s thought he would “screw it up.” The couple started their cooking adventure as a project they could experience together. First, they started learning how to cook: by scrubbing potatoes in restaurant kitchens, learning how to milk cows on rural farms, and simply–through trial and error. Eventually, they had a supper club where they served strangers gourmet meals in their small apartment. Finally, they decided to open their first restaurant, aptly named Journeyman. In a hidden Somerville alley. During a recession. A big recession.
Despite these significant challenges, Journeyman is booked nearly every night (a few months ago they were even forced to turn away Somerville’s Mayor Curtatone). It’s a small space with warm walls, complete with indoor herb garden. Fancy tablecloths are eschewed for brilliant stemware and endless amuse bouche. Each night a new menu is produced that reflects the season and the tastes of the chefs.
When PRK met the chefs on a Monday evening (their day off), they were wrapping up a wine tasting event. They seemed happy, if not somewhat exhausted. The couple has agreed to post their news, challenges, epiphanies, cooking wisdom and general thoughts each month here on Public Radio Kitchen. We start today.
Diana Kudayarova and Tse Wei Lim
PRK Guest Contributors
The first time we felt like a proper restaurant was when Meg, our general manager, commented in frustration that we were running out of tables long before reaching our posted seating capacity. It was two in the morning, and we were having our usual late night debrief. We sipped at stubs of wine, nibbled on bread and leftovers, discussed the service of the night past and prepared for the night to come.
It was around mid-November. We had opened Journeyman, a small restaurant in a back alley in Somerville, on September 15th. After the first hectic week, when we all staggered home shell shocked and exhausted at the end of service, late-night manager meetings became a routine. There was much to discuss. There were troubles with expediting (the fine art/contact sport of making sure diners get the right plates at the right time). There were troubles with silverware. With wine pairings. With menu printing. With the timing of staff meals. And now, in mid-November, there were troubles with table management. Journeyman has 36 seats, eight at the bar and 28 at modular tables that could be made to sit 2, 4, 6, 8 or, if we were to really push it, 10 or 12. Groups of 3 sit at tables that could just as
easily accommodate 4. Get enough reservations for an odd number of people, and the restaurant is at capacity with many chairs standing empty. If there were textbooks on running restaurants, this would be a textbook problem.
It took us two months to get to table management.
As first-timers in the restaurant business and first-time business owners, we spent the first eight weeks figuring out things altogether more basic: when and where to order ingredients and supplies, how to run payroll and, of course, how to make the food our guests ordered and bring it to their tables. The kitchen arranged and rearranged service stations, learned faster ways of plating a salad of twenty individual ingredients and figured out a way to get these twenty ingredients – and many more – into the restaurant on time. The front of house staff learned to polish glasses, time wine pairings, and brew three coffees and five teas at once. All of us suffered through several revisions to the expediting system, collapsing shelves in the utility closet and malfunctioning bathroom locks.
The basics – making sure diners leave fed and happy – are still the biggest things we talk about, but now, in month 3, we seem to be moving past the stage of constant triage and into normal problems. Things aren’t entirely settled yet, but there are things we no longer need to think about – the best path from the kitchen to table 3, the ordering schedule, whether we need to polish silver mid-service. We still feel weeks, if not months, away from running truly smoothly (and finally being able to take a day off!), but we feel like we’re struggling to improve now, rather than just struggling to survive.