Monday, November 30, 2009

Why Even Bother?

Within only a few months of operating I had to ask myself why I was even bothering to continue. The type of people who blurted out, “Yuck!” upon seeing unfamiliar food, had never seen fresh spinach, and who professed to hate ‘spice’ were never going to eat anything better than a frozen, deep-fried portion of chicken ‘cord on blue’ slathered in powdered, reconstituted ‘hall in days’ sauce – most likely with a side of French fries. I really had nothing to offer them.

I was tied into a lease, however. If I decided to call it quits then I would loose my entire investment instantly. It had taken so long to open that by this point I only had another fifteen months to go. If I could at least stem the negative cash flow then I could auction the equipment and consider the proceeds of that auction to be my wages for those fifteen months. It wouldn’t be much as far as hourly wages were concerned, but I also felt that I owed it to myself to see if I could find a niche for some fresh cooking in that little town. Most of the rude and tactless rednecks had stopped coming by for lunch, so at least I wasn’t having my cooking regularly insulted anymore. Coffee row, however, was beginning to seriously tax my patience.

On the plus side, I found strength in the few culinary explorers who did delight in having some variety so far out on the Canadian prairie. Most of these customers had, for many years, given up on the idea of dining out except on the rare occasions that they traveled to Cuspidor. Others were simply travelers who decided to look for downtown Humbug regardless of how well hidden it might have been. My favorites, however, were the born-and-raised Humbuggers who just plain refused to be Humbugged and longed to expand their horizons.

Progressive Humbuggers were amazing, if not a complete contradiction. Some had never left the confines of the little rural shire in which they were born but they kept their minds free from the bland prison through literacy, specialty cable channels, and personal culinary exploration. I’ve always enjoyed watching open minded people taste a new dish for the first time. It’s amazing to actually see their mind grinding away at the new experience, trying to discern a completely alien combination of texture, flavour, and aroma. Such people will often sit back after the first bite and just savour the experience, running it through in their mind until it becomes a bit more familiar in their memory before setting back up and taking another taste.

Sometimes, a first experience with a new food just doesn’t push the right buttons. Fully appreciating a new dish may require taking some time away from it, even weeks, before returning to find that the palate now identifies with it. Other times it’s just an acquired taste that is not worth pursuing. Whichever direction a new experience goes, I just can’t express how satisfying it is to be able to guide an adventurous person through it. One of my greatest delights was finding how many of these progressive Humbuggers just fell hook, line, and sinker for extra virgin olive oil. They seemed to be able to pick it out in almost every dish and definitely noticed the difference it made to the quality of even the simplest stew. It gave me such hope to discover that a palate left untrained for so many years could so quickly adapt to new flavours when the mind was willing to absorb the experience.

Some of the travelers, and other more experienced diners, so quickly identified the tastes of quality ingredients and fresh preparation that I all I could do was smile. The menu was far from gourmet, but the basic tenets so strongly professed by the late James Barber delivered me far from mediocrity. Just pick some good ingredients, don’t try to be fancy, and you can’t go wrong. Having the proof confirmed from one discriminating diner to the next really made my day – even if I wasn’t making any money. I just couldn’t believe that every single person who just happened to be traveling through town when they stumbled across my bistro found the food so satisfying while almost every single Humbugger literally just looked at what was being served and exclaimed, “Yuck!” The dividing lines of taste were so definitive that I actually came to view any insult thrown at my food by Humbuggers to be equal to the highest compliment of socially competent, literate people.

One by one I began to notice some regular customers coming back. There weren’t many of them, but they were so enthusiastic about what I was doing that it really did make it all worth while. There were couples who drove as far as 80 kilometers just to have lunch. I made a point of sitting with some of these customers on occasion, when it seemed appropriate, and we seemed to match wavelengths so well that I felt like many of them were friends. As someone who really doesn’t like people all that much, I would like to highlight just how much someone has to mean to me for me to consider them a friend.

I could just never understand why other people, who seemed completely unable to enjoy food in any capacity, even bothered to dine out at all. Why would someone go out to eat when they want unseasoned, pre-processed, gray food? Why not just open a can at home? I believe I will never know.

One of my most intriguing customers was a woman whom I called ‘lunch reader lady’. She came in almost every week and usually twice per week. She was quick to review the menu and very definitive in her selection. She almost always sat at the same high table and read a book, both while waiting for her food and while eating. I quickly surmised that she really didn’t want any conversation at all and just truly enjoyed the little bubble she created for herself with her book and her meal. When she finished with her meal she just remained engrossed in her book for several minutes. As I would remove her empty plate she would give me a simple but direct compliment like, “Thank you. That was delicious.” That was that, and there was no more. She would finish the chapter she was reading and then walk out without a wave or a ‘goodbye’.

If every restaurant customer was like lunch reader lady then the restaurant business would be a very lucrative, although lonely, business. Having one such customer, however, just sparked the imagination. I often found myself imagining that she was a food critic. As I imagined her writing a review of my food I just hoped she wasn’t a scout for any food shows hosted by Gordon Ramsay. If that mad hatter ever walked in my front door I am certain I would run, screaming, through the back door. And when I say ‘through’ the backdoor, I mean there would be a frantic silhouette cutout of me missing from the door itself.