by Luis Jaramillo
I often have ideas for restaurants. How about a barbecue restaurant called Pork Slope? If we expanded to Manhattan, we might name the second iteration Central Pork. By “we” I mean my restaurant group, the one I own in my imagination.
My husband Matthew is a partner in the group. One time while making tuna sandwiches for lunch I discovered we were out of Romaine lettuce. No problem. We had garlicky sautéed kale left over from dinner the night before. Why not replace one green with another? “We should put this on the café’s menu,” Matthew said as we ate, and over the years we’ve added other items. A couple of weekends ago I chopped up some onions and carrots and put them in a pressure cooker with borlotti beans, bay leaves, and kombu seaweed. When the beans were done, I stirred in some sautéed greens. The soup had a smoky, vegetal richness, and as I shoveled it in my mouth I could feel it replacing electrolytes and trace minerals. Voilà, hangover stew. I could see our future customers lining up out the door.
My experience in real restaurants is very limited. When applying for a job at a café in London I told the manager I’d worked as a barista, but this was a lie, and I was fired a few hours into my first shift. When my sister-in-law Virginia was in business school, she and a friend worked on a restaurant project together. For some reason—I was hazy on the details even then—my brother and I were roped into making a New Mexican red chile sauce. We bickered in the kitchen and the sauce turned out too spicy, virtually inedible, and that ended that experiment.
I’m a writer and a teacher of writing. Very often non-writer friends, acquaintances, and family members tell me their ideas for books, asking if I think the idea might work, meaning, how big do you think my advance will be? My response, always, is “Sounds great. You should write that.” Occasionally this produces results. My own mother came to me once with a novel idea. I gave her my usual line. A year later she had a manuscript. It was rejected from all the publishers she sent it to, so she went back to work. When she finished a second manuscript, she again sent it around. This book was picked up by a respectable press, selling well and winning several awards.
Putting the New Mexican chile sauce fiasco behind him, my sister-in-law’s business school colleague, Kenny Lao, went on to found a restaurant called Rickshaw Dumpling Bar. He opened a second branch, and then he added food trucks to his business. He writes, “Ideas are great, but they don’t open restaurants. It’s all about execution and tenacity. I have people come up to me all the time and say, ‘I thought of opening up a dumpling restaurant a long time ago,’ like they want credit for coming up with the idea.”
It often feels like once the idea has been had, the important work is done, and all that’s left is the receiving of checks and accolades. But Kenny is right, a restaurant isn’t only an idea, and neither is a book. A novel is thousands of ideas strung together into a coherent whole, typed word by word.
This weekend I noticed a “for lease” sign on a beautiful corner building in my neighborhood, across from the park. The space has wide plank floors and large windows. I can picture a long zinc bar along one wall and a pizza oven at the back. We will serve Italian snacks, meats and cheeses, salads made with what’s freshest from the farmer’s market, like fava beans, blanched and then tossed with peppery olive oil, a bit of lemon juice, and sea salt. It will take a long time for the restaurant to open. The space was formerly a cosmetics store, so there’s no kitchen. For the pizza oven we’ll need to build a tall chimney. Since this is Brooklyn, I’ll have to hire a fixer to manage the permitting process. And judging from what friends of mine have gone through, I’ll have to manage the fixer, who will disappear right when I need him the most. We’ll go deeply into debt, which will place a strain on our relationship, and we could very well end up broke and divorced.
That’s the other way imagination can go. I can conjure ruin as easily as success, even though neither are real without the work.
Luis Jaramillo is Associate Chair of the School of Writing at The New School and author of the forthcoming book The Doctor’s Wife.