My Restaurant Was My Life for 20 Years. Does the World Need It Anymore?
Forced to shutter Prune, I’ve been revisiting my original dreams for it — and wondering if there will still be a place for it in the New York of the future.
Credit…Philip Montgomery for The New York Times
By Gabrielle Hamilton
- Published April 23, 2020Updated April 26, 2020
On the night before I laid off all 30 of my employees, I dreamed that my two children had perished, buried alive in dirt, while I dug in the wrong place, just five feet away from where they were actually smothered. I turned and spotted the royal blue heel of my youngest’s socked foot poking out of the black soil only after it was too late.
For 10 days, everyone in my orbit had been tilting one way one hour, the other the next. Ten days of being waterboarded by the news, by tweets, by friends, by my waiters. Of being inundated by texts from fellow chefs and managers — former employees, now at the helm of their own restaurants but still eager for guidance. Of gentle but nervous pleas from my operations manager to consider signing up with a third-party delivery service like Caviar. Of being rattled even by my own wife, Ashley, and her anxious compulsion to act, to reduce our restaurant’s operating hours, to close at 9 p.m., cut shifts.
With no clear directive from any authority — public schools were still open — I spent those 10 days sorting through the conflicting chatter, trying to decide what to do. And now I understood abruptly: I would lay everybody off, even my wife. Prune, my Manhattan restaurant, would close at 11:59 p.m. on March 15. I had only one piece of unemotional data to work with: the checking-account balance. If I triaged the collected sales tax that was sitting in its own dedicated savings account and left unpaid the stack of vendor invoices, I could fully cover this one last week of payroll.
By the time of the all-staff meeting after brunch that day, I knew I was right. After a couple of weeks of watching the daily sales dwindle — a $12,141 Saturday to a $4,188 Monday to a $2,093 Thursday — it was a relief to decide to pull the parachute cord. I didn’t want to have waited too long, didn’t want to crash into the trees. Our sous chef FaceTimed in, as did our lead line cook, while nearly everyone else gathered in the dining room. I looked everybody in the eye and said, “I’ve decided not to wait to see what will happen; I encourage you to call first thing in the morning for unemployment, and you have a week’s paycheck from me coming.”
After the meeting, there was some directionless shuffling. Should we collect our things? Grab our knives? Stay and have a drink? There was still one last dinner, so four of us — Ashley and I; our general manager, Anna; and Jake, a beloved line cook — worked the last shift at Prune for who knows how long. Some staff members remained behind to eat with one another, spending their money in house. As word trickled out, some long-ago alumnae reached out to place orders for meals they would never eat. From Lauren Kois, who waited tables at Prune all through her Ph.D. program and is now an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Alabama:
2 dark and stormies
shrimp w anchovy
fried oysters (we’re pretending it’s a special tonight)
Leo Steen Jurassic Chenin Blanc
potatoes in duck fat
breton butter cake
2 black coffees
+ 50 percent TIP
Ashley worked the grill station and cold appetizers, while also bartending and expediting. Anna waited and hosted and answered the phone. Jake worked all 10 burners alone. I was in a yellow apron handling the dish pit, clearing the tables and running bus tubs, and I broke into tears for a second when I learned of Kois’s order. The word “family” is thrown around in restaurants for good reason. We banked $1,144 in total sales.
As our staff left that night, we waved across the room to one another with a strange mixture of longing and eye-rolling, still in the self-conscious phase of having to act so distant from one another, all of us still so unaware of what was coming. Then, as I was running a last tray of glassware before mopping the floors, Ashley leaned over to announce: “Hey, he just called it. De Blasio. It’s a shutdown. You beat it by five hours, babe.”
The next day, a Monday, Ashley started assembling 30 boxes of survival-food kits for the staff. She packed Ziploc bags of nuts, rice, pasta, cans of curry paste and cartons of eggs, while music played from her cellphone tucked into a plastic quart container — an old line-cook trick for amplifying sound. I texted a clip of her mini-operation to José Andrés, who called immediately with encouragement: We will win this together! We feed the world one plate at a time!
Ashley had placed a last large order from our wholesaler: jarred peanut butter, canned tuna, coconut milk and other unlikely items that had never appeared on our order history. And our account rep, Marie Elena Corrao — we met when I was her first account 20 years ago; she came to our wedding in 2016 — put the order through without even clearing her throat, sending the truck to a now-shuttered business. She knew as well as we did that it would be a long while before the bill was paid. Leo, from the family-owned butchery we’ve used for 20 years, Pino’s Prime Meat Market, called not to diplomatically inquire about our plans but to immediately offer tangibles: “What meats do you ladies need for the home?” He offered this even though he knew that there were 30 days’ worth of his invoices in a pile on my desk, totaling thousands of dollars. And all day a string of neighborhood regulars passed by on the sidewalk outside and made heart hands at us through the locked French doors.
It turned out that abruptly closing a restaurant is a weeklong, full-time job. I was bombarded with an astonishing volume of texts. The phone rang throughout the day, overwhelmingly well-wishers and regretful cancellations, but there was a woman who apparently hadn’t followed the coronavirus news. She cut me off in the middle of my greeting with, “Yeah, you guys open for brunch?” Then she hung up before I could even finish saying, “Take care out there.”
Ashley spent almost three days packing the freezers, sorting the perishables in the walk-in into categories like “Today would be good!” or “This will be good for the long haul!” We tried burying par-cooked chickens under a tight seal of duck fat to see if we could keep them perfectly preserved in their airtight coffins. She pickled the beets and the brussels sprouts, churned quarts of heavy cream into butter.
I imagined I would tackle my other problems quickly. I emailed my banker. For sales taxes, liquor invoices and impending rent, I hoped to apply for a modest line of credit to float me through this crisis. I thought having run $2.5 million to $3 million through my bank each year for the past two decades would leave me poised to see a line of credit quickly, but then I remembered that I switched banks in the past year. Everyone in my industry encouraged me to apply for an S.B.A. disaster loan — I estimated we wouldn’t need much; for 14 days, $50,000 — so I sent in my query.
In the meantime, I made a phone call to Ken, my insurance broker of 20 years, who explained — in his patient, technical, my-hands-are-tied voice — that this coronavirus business interruption wouldn’t likely be covered. He intended to file for damages, as he would if this shutdown had been mandated because of a nearby flood or a fire, but he doubted I would get any money. That afternoon, I saw the courtesy email from our workers’-comp carrier that the next installment of our payment plan would be drafted automatically from our bank in six days.
Knowing the balance, I snorted to myself: Good luck with that. I called Ken about this, and he got them to postpone the draw.
And then, finally, three weeks of adrenaline drained from me. I checked all the pilot lights and took out the garbage; I stopped swimming so hard against the mighty current and let it carry me out. I had spent 20 years in this place, beginning when I was a grad student fresh out of school, through marriage and children and divorce and remarriage, with funerals and first dates in between; I knew its walls and light switches and faucets as well I knew my own body. It was dark outside when Ashley and I finally rolled down the gates and walked home.
Prune is a cramped and lively bistro in Manhattan’s East Village, with a devoted following and a tight-knit crew. I opened it in 1999. It has only 14 tables, which are jammed in so close together that not infrequently you put down your glass of wine to take a bite of your food and realize it’s on your neighbor’s table. Many friendships have started this way.
What was I imagining 20 years ago when I was working all day, every day at a catering job while staying up all night every night, writing menus and sketching the plating of dishes, scrubbing the walls and painting the butter-yellow trim inside what would become Prune? I’d seen the padlocked space, formerly a failed French bistro, when it was decrepit: cockroaches crawling over the sticky Pernod bottles behind the bar and rat droppings carpeting the floors. But even in that moment, gasping for air through the T-shirt I had pulled up over my mouth, I could see vividly what it could become, the intimate dinner party I would throw every night in this charming, quirky space. I was already lighting the candles and filling the jelly jars with wine. I would cook there much the way I cooked at home: whole roasted veal breast and torn lettuces in a well-oiled wooden bowl, a ripe cheese after dinner, none of the aggressively “conceptual” or architectural food then trendy among aspirational chefs but also none of the roulades and miniaturized bites I’d been cranking out as a freelancer in catering kitchens.
At that point New York didn’t have an ambitious and exciting restaurant on every block, in every unlikely neighborhood, operating out of impossibly narrow spaces. There was no Eater, no Instagram, no hipster Brooklyn food scene. If you wanted something expert to eat, you dined in Manhattan. For fine dining, with plush armchairs and a captain who ran your table wearing an Armani suit, you went uptown; for the buzzy American brasserie with bentwood cane-backed chairs and waiters in long white aprons, you stayed downtown. There was no serious restaurant that would allow a waiter to wear a flannel shirt or hire a sommelier with face piercings and neck tattoos. The East Village had Polish and Ukrainian diners, falafel stands, pizza parlors, dive bars and vegetarian cafes. There was only one notable noodle spot. Momofuku opened five years after Prune.
I meant to create a restaurant that would serve as delicious and interesting food as the serious restaurants elsewhere in the city but in a setting that would welcome, and not intimidate, my ragtag friends and my neighbors — all the East Village painters and poets, the butches and the queens, the saxophone player on the sixth floor of my tenement building, the performance artists doing their brave naked work up the street at P.S. 122. I wanted a place you could go after work or on your day off if you had only a line cook’s paycheck but also a line cook’s palate. And I thought it might be a more stable way to earn a living than the scramble of freelancing I’d done up until then.https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/admin/100000007094925.embedded.html?
Like most chefs who own these small restaurants that have now proliferated across the whole city, I’ve been driven by the sensory, the human, the poetic and the profane — not by money or a thirst to expand. Even after seven nights a week for two decades, I am still stopped in my tracks every time my bartenders snap those metal lids onto the cocktail shakers and start rattling the ice like maracas. I still close my eyes for a second, taking a deep inhale, every time the salted pistachios are set afire with raki, sending their anise scent through the dining room. I still thrill when the four-top at Table 9 are talking to one another so contentedly that they don’t notice they are the last diners, lingering in the cocoon of the wine and the few shards of dark chocolate we’ve put down with their check. Even though I can’t quite take part in it myself — I’m the boss, who must remain a little aloof from the crew — I still quietly thrum with satisfaction when the “kids” are chattering away and hugging one another their hellos and how-are-yous in the hallway as they get ready for their shifts.
But the very first time you cut a payroll check, you understand quite bluntly that, poetic notions aside, you are running a business. And that crew of knuckleheads you adore are counting on you for their livelihood. In the beginning I was closed on Mondays, ran only six dinner shifts and paid myself $425 a week. I got a very positive review in The New York Times, and thereafter we were packed. When I added a seventh dinner in 2000, I was able to hire a full-time sous chef.
When I added weekend brunch, which started as a dreamy idea, not a business plan, it wound up being popular enough to let me buy out all six of the original investors. I turned 43 in 2008 and finally became the majority owner of my restaurant. I made my last student-loan payment and started paying myself $800 a week. A few years later, when I added lunch service on weekdays, it was a business decision, not a dream, because I needed to be able to afford health insurance for my staff, and I knew I could make an excellent burger. So suddenly, there we were: 14 services, seven days a week, 30 employees. It was a thrilling and exhausting first 10 years with great momentum.
But Prune at 20 is a different and reduced quantity, now that there are no more services to add and costs keep going up. It just barely banks about exactly what it needs each week to cover its expenses. I’ve joked for years that I’m in the nonprofit sector, but that has been more direly true for several years now. This past summer, at 53, in spite of having four James Beard Awards on the wall, an Emmy on the shelf from our PBS program and a best-selling book that has been translated into six languages, I found myself flat on my stomach on the kitchen floor in a painter’s paper coverall suit, maneuvering a garden hose rigged up to the faucet. I’d poured bleach and Palmolive and degreaser behind the range and the reach-ins, trying to blast out the deep, dark, unreachable corner of the sauté station where lost egg shells, mussels, green scrubbies, hollow marrow bones, tasting spoons and cake testers, tongs and the occasional sizzle plate all get trapped and forgotten during service.Sign up to receive an email when we publish a new story about the coronavirus outbreak.
There used to be enough extra money every year that I could close for 10 days in July to repaint and retile and rewire, but it has become increasingly impossible to leave even a few days of revenue on the table or to justify the expense of hiring a professional cleaning service for this deep clean that I am perfectly capable of doing myself, so I stayed late and did it after service. The sludge of egg yolk seeped through the coverall, through my clothes to my skin, matted my hair and speckled my goggles as my shock registered: It has always been hard, but when did it get this hard?
Two weeks after we closed, Ashley still had not got through to unemployment, and I had been thrice-thwarted by the auto-fill feature of the electronic form of the loan I was urged to apply for. I could start to see that things I had thought would be quick and uncomplicated would instead be steep and unyielding. No one was going to rescue me. I went into the empty restaurant for a bit each day to push back against the entropy — a light bulb had died, a small freezer needed to be unplugged and restarted. Eleven envelopes arrived, bearing the unemployment notices from the New York State Department of Labor. The next stack of five arrived a week later. And then another six.
The line of credit I thought would be so easy to acquire turned out to be one long week of harsh busy signals before I was even able to apply on March 25. I was turned down a week later, on April 1, because of “inadequate business and personal cash flow.” I howled with laughter over the phone at the underwriter and his explanation. Everything was uphill. Twenty-one days after we closed, Ashley still hadn’t been able to reach unemployment. They now had a new system to handle the overload of calls: You call based on the first letter of your last name, and her next possible day would be a Thursday. If she didn’t get through, she would have to wait until the next day allotted for all the M’s of the city.
Links to low-interest S.B.A. disaster loans were circulated, but New York City wasn’t showing up on the list of eligible zones. I emailed my accountant: This is weird? She wrote back with a sarcastic smiley emoticon: I believe it will be updated. It’s the government — they are only fast when they are collecting your taxes. The James Beard Foundation kicked into high gear and announced meaningful grants of up to $15,000 and with an application period that was supposed to last from March 30 to April 3, but within hours of opening, it was overwhelmed with applications and it had to stop accepting more.
Ashley texted me from home that our dog was limping severely. This was the scenario that made me sweat: a medical emergency. We could live for a month on what was in the freezer, and I had a credit card that still had a $13,000 spending limit, but what if we got hurt somehow and needed serious medical care? Neither of us was insured. My kids are covered under their father’s policy, but there was no safety net for us. Among us chefs, there have been a hundred jokes over the decades about our medical (and veterinary) backup plans — given our latex gloves and razor-sharp knives and our spotless stainless-steel prep tables — but my sense of humor at that moment had become hard to summon.
Meanwhile, my inbox was loaded with emails from everyone I’ve ever known, all wanting to check in, as well as from colleagues around the country who were only now comprehending the scope of the impact on New York’s restaurants. Hastily, fellow chefs and restaurant owners were forming groups, circulating petitions, quickly knitting coalitions for restaurant workers and suppliers and farmers. There were surveys to fill out, representatives to call, letters to sign. Some were turning their restaurants into meal kitchens to feed hospital workers. There was a relief bill before Congress that we were all urgently asked to support, but it puzzlingly left out small, independent restaurants even as it came through pretty nicely for huge chains and franchises. The other option, the Paycheck Protection Program, would grant you a loan with forgiveness, I learned, but only if you rehire your laid-off staff before the end of June. With no lifting of the mandatory shuttering and the Covid-19 death tolls still mounting, how could we rehire our staff? I couldn’t really use the loan for what I needed: rent for the foreseeable future and the stack of invoices still haunting me in the office.
And right when I started to feel backed against the ropes, I got a group email from a few concerned former Prune managers who eagerly offered to start a GoFundMe for Prune, inadvertently putting another obstacle in front of me: my own dignity. I sat on the email for a few days, roiling in a whole new paralysis of indecision. There were individual campaigns being run all over town to raise money to help restaurant staffs, but when I tried to imagine joining this trend, I couldn’t overcome my pride at being seen as asking for a handout. It felt like a popularity contest or a survival-of-the-most-well-connected that I couldn’t bring myself to enter. It would make me feel terrible if Prune was nicely funded while the Sikhs at the Punjabi Grocery and Deli down the street were ignored, and simultaneously crushed if it wasn’t. I also couldn’t quite imagine the ethical calculus by which I would distribute such funds: Should I split them equally, even though one of my workers is a 21-year-old who already owns his own apartment in Manhattan, while another lives with his unemployed wife and their two children in a rental in the Bronx? I thanked my former managers but turned them down: I had repeatedly checked in with my staff, and everybody was OK for now.
It would be nigh impossible for me, in the context of a pandemic, to argue for the necessity of my existence. Do my sweetbreads and my Parmesan omelet count as essential at this time? In economic terms, I don’t think I could even argue that Prune matters anymore, in a neighborhood and a city now fully saturated with restaurants much like mine, many of them better than mine — some of which have expanded to employ as many as 100 people, not just cooks and servers and bartenders but also human-resource directors and cookbook ghostwriters.
I am not going to suddenly start arguing the merits of my restaurant as a vital part of an “industry” or that I help to make up 2 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product or that I should be helped out by our government because I am one of those who employ nearly 12 million Americans in the work force. But those seem to be the only persuasive terms — with my banks, my insurers, my industry lobbyists and legislators. I have to hope, though, that we matter in some other alternative economy; that we are still a thread in the fabric that might unravel if you yanked us from the weave.
Everybody’s saying that restaurants won’t make it back, that we won’t survive. I imagine this is at least partly true: Not all of us will make it, and not all of us will perish. But I can’t easily discern the determining factors, even though thinking about which restaurants will survive — and why — has become an obsession these past weeks. What delusional mind-set am I in that I just do not feel that this is the end, that I find myself convinced that this is only a pause, if I want it to be? I don’t carry investor debt; my vendors trust me; if my building’s co-op evicted me, they would have a beast of a time getting a new tenant to replace me.
But I know few of us will come back as we were. And that doesn’t seem to me like a bad thing at all; perhaps it will be a chance for a correction, as my friend, the chef Alex Raij, calls it.
The conversation about how restaurants will continue to operate, given the rising costs of running them has been ramping up for years now; the coronavirus did not suddenly shine light on an unknown fragility. We’ve all known, and for a rather long time. The past five or six years have been alarming. For restaurants, coronavirus-mandated closures are like the oral surgery or appendectomy you suddenly face while you are uninsured. These closures will take out the weakest and the most vulnerable. But exactly who among us are the weakest and most vulnerable is not obvious.
Since Prune opened in the East Village, the neighborhood has changed tremendously in ways that reflect, with exquisite perfection, the restaurant scene as a whole. Within a 10-block radius of my front door, we have the more-than-100-year-old institutions Russ & Daughters and Katz’s Delicatessen. We have hole-in-the-wall falafel, bubble tea and dumpling houses, and there’s a steakhouse whose chef also operates a restaurant in Miami. There’s everyday sushi and rare, wildly expensive omakase sushi, as well as Japanese home cooking, udon specialists and soba shops. There’s a woman-owned and woman-run restaurant with an economic-justice mission that has eliminated tipping. Bobby Flay, perhaps the most famous chef on the Food Network, has an 125-seater two avenues over. We have farm-to-table concepts every three blocks, a handful of major James Beard Award winners and a dozen more shortlisted nominees and an impressive showing of New York Times one- and two-star earners, including Madame Vo, a knockout Vietnamese restaurant just a few years old. Marco Canora, who started the country’s migration from regular old broth to what is now known by the name of his shop, Brodo, has published a couple of cookbooks and done a healthy bit of television in the course of his career. He still runs his only restaurant, 17-year-old Hearth, on First Avenue.
But block after block, for so many years now, there are storefronts where restaurants turn over so quickly that I don’t even register their names. If Covid-19 is the death of restaurants in New York, will we be able to tell which restaurants went belly up because of the virus? Or will they be the same ones that would have failed within 16 months of opening anyway, from lack of wherewithal or experience? When we are sorting through the restaurant obituaries, will we know for sure that it was not because the weary veteran chef decided, as I have often been tempted myself in these weeks, to quietly walk out the open back door of a building that has been burning for a long time?
It gets so confusing. Restaurant operators had already become oddly cagey, and quick to display a false front with each other. You asked, “How’s business?” and the answer always was, “Yeah, great, best quarter we’ve ever had.” But then the coronavirus hits, and these same restaurant owners rush into the public square yelling: “Fire! Fire!” They now reveal that they had also been operating under razor-thin margins. It instantly turns 180 degrees: Even famous, successful chefs, owners of empires, those with supremely wealthy investors upon whom you imagine they could call for capital should they need it, now openly describe in technical detail, with explicit data, how dire a position they are in. The sad testimony gushes out, confirming everything that used to be so convincingly denied.
The concerns before coronavirus are still universal: The restaurant as we know it is no longer viable on its own. You can’t have tipped employees making $45 an hour while line cooks make $15. You can’t buy a $3 can of cheap beer at a dive bar in the East Village if the “dive bar” is actually paying $18,000 a month in rent, $30,000 a month in payroll; it would have to cost $10. I can’t keep hosing down the sauté corner myself just to have enough money to repair the ripped awning. Prune is in the East Village because I’ve lived in the East Village for more than 30 years. I moved here because it was where you could get an apartment for $450 a month. In 1999, when I opened Prune, I still woke each morning to roosters crowing from the rooftop of the tenement building down the block, which is now a steel-and-glass tower. A less-than-500-square-foot studio apartment rents for $3,810 a month.
The girl who called about brunch the first day we were closed probably lives there. She is used to having an Uber driver pick her up exactly where she stands at any hour of the day, a gel mani-pedi every two weeks and award-winning Thai food delivered to her door by a guy who braved the sleet, having attached oven mitts to his bicycle handlebars to keep his hands warm. But I know she would be outraged if charged $28 for a Bloody Mary.
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For the past 10 years I’ve been staring wide-eyed and with alarm as the sweet, gentle citizen restaurant transformed into a kind of unruly colossal beast. The food world got stranger and weirder to me right while I was deep in it. The “waiter” became the “server,” the “restaurant business” became the “hospitality industry,” what used to be the “customer” became the “guest,” what was once your “personality” became your “brand,” the small acts of kindness and the way you always used to have of sharing your talents and looking out for others became things to “monetize.”
The work itself — cooking delicious, interesting food and cleaning up after cooking it — still feels as fresh and honest and immensely satisfying as ever. Our beloved regulars and the people who work so hard at Prune are all still my favorite people on earth. But maybe it’s the bloat, the fetishistic foodies, the new demographic of my city who have never been forced to work in retail or service sectors. Maybe it’s the auxiliary industries that feed off the restaurants themselves — the bloggers and agents and the “influencers,” the brand managers, the personal assistants hired just to keep you fresh on “Insta,” the Food & Wine festivals, the multitude of panels we chefs are now routinely invited to join, to offer our charming yet thoroughly unresearched opinions on. The proliferation of television shows and YouTube channels and culinary competitions and season after season of programming where you find yourself aghast to see an idol of yours stuffing packaged cinnamon buns into a football-shaped baking pan and squirting the frosting into a laces pattern for a tailgating episode on the Food Network.
And God, the brunch, the brunch. The phone hauled out for every single pancake and every single Bloody Mary to be photographed and Instagrammed. That guy who strolls in and won’t remove his sunglasses as he holds up two fingers at my hostess without saying a word: He wants a table for two. The purebred lap dogs now passed off as service animals to calm the anxieties that might arise from eating eggs Benedict on a Sunday afternoon. I want the girl who called the first day of our mandated shut down to call back, in however many months when restaurants are allowed to reopen, so I can tell her with delight and sincerity: No. We are not open for brunch. There is no more brunch.
I, like hundreds of other chefs across the city and thousands around the country, are now staring down the question of what our restaurants, our careers, our lives, might look like if we can even get them back.
I don’t know whom to follow or what to think. Everyone says: “You should do to-go! You should sell gift cards! You should offer delivery! You need a social media presence! You should pivot to groceries! You should raise your prices — a branzino is $56 at Via Carota!”
I have thought for many long minutes, days, weeks of confinement and quarantine, should I? Is that what Prune should do and what Prune should become?
I cannot see myself excitedly daydreaming about the third-party delivery-ticket screen I will read orders from all evening. I cannot see myself sketching doodles of the to-go boxes I will pack my food into so that I can send it out into the night, anonymously, hoping the poor delivery guy does a good job and stays safe. I don’t think I can sit around dreaming up menus and cocktails and fantasizing about what would be on my playlist just to create something that people will order and receive and consume via an app. I started my restaurant as a place for people to talk to one another, with a very decent but affordable glass of wine and an expertly prepared plate of simply braised lamb shoulder on the table to keep the conversation flowing, and ran it as such as long as I could. If this kind of place is not relevant to society, then it — we — should become extinct.
And yet even with the gate indefinitely shut against the coronavirus, I’ve been dreaming again, but this time I’m not at home fantasizing about a restaurant I don’t even yet have the keys to. This time I’ve been sitting still and silent, inside the shuttered restaurant I already own, that has another 10 years on the lease. I spend hours inside each day, on a wooden chair, in the empty clean space with the windows papered up, and I listen to the coolers hum, the compressor click on and off periodically, the thunder that echoes up from the basement as the ice machine drops its periodic sheet of thick cubes into the insulated bin. My body has a thin blue thread of electricity coursing through it. Sometimes I rearrange the tables. For some reason, I can’t see wanting deuces anymore: No more two-tops? What will happen come Valentine’s Day?
It’s no mystery why this prolonged isolation has made me find the tiny 24-square-inch tables that I’ve been cramming my food and my customers into for 20 years suddenly repellent. I want round tables, big tables, six-people tables, eight-tops. Early supper, home before midnight. Long, lingering civilized Sunday lunches with sun streaming in through the front French doors. I want old regulars to wander back into the kitchen while I lift the lids off the pots and show them what there is to eat. I want to bring to their tables small dishes of the feta cheese I’ve learned to make these long idle weeks, with a few slices of the saucisson sec I’ve been hanging downstairs to cure while we wait to reopen, and to again hear Greg rattle the ice, shaking perfectly proportioned Vespers that he pours right to the rim of the chilled glass without spilling over.
I have been shuttered before. With no help from the government, Prune has survived 9/11, the blackout, Hurricane Sandy, the recession, months of a city water-main replacement, online reservations systems — you still have to call us on the telephone, and we still use a pencil and paper to take reservations! We’ve survived the tyranny of convenience culture and the invasion of Caviar, Seamless and Grubhub. So I’m going to let the restaurant sleep, like the beauty she is, shallow breathing, dormant. Bills unpaid. And see what she looks like when she wakes up — so well rested, young all over again, in a city that may no longer recognize her, want her or need her.
Gabrielle Hamilton is an Eat columnist for the magazine and the chef and owner of Prune. Her last feature was about old-school dinner parties.