Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Battlesong of Christie Rafanan

I have been trying write about my experiences at Oxheart unsuccessfully for months now. This is because I don’t ever feel like I can do it justice. The experience is mind altering. Earth shattering. Life changing. I have written and deleted over 20 pages. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to fully articulate it. There is one thing I can say though: Christie Rafanan deserves more recognition. While Justin and Karen were cooking in fancy kitchens in Napa and abroad, Christie was honing her skills in a similar fashion in the front of many great front-of-houses. She’s a complete goofball. She replaces the lyrics of songs with “meows” and slaps my hand when I’m trying to use the calculator at work, which makes me insane. But when we hear the doorknob turn at 5:30 PM every night, the goofball melts away to reveal one of the most fiercely intense service people I have ever worked alongside.

Oxheart is a chef driven restaurant: the ratio of cooks to servers is 2 to 1. To this day, I am still right there with you, staring into the kitchen, bewildered at the complexity and efficiency of that machine. I hope that everybody in that kitchen is feeling the love, as they work freakishly long hours, and are generally pushing themselves full blast both physically and mentally. That being said, I wanted to take a second to talk about the other side of the equation: the dining room.

Service is an often-undervalued area of expertise in this town, and I think it is of the utmost importance that we celebrate great managers and service in general. It’s easy to overlook, because the best service is the kind that isn’t in your face. You’re never for want of anything, but you don’t feel smothered. Your needs are anticipated. It is profoundly difficult to strike the balanced between a relaxed atmosphere but also build a system that is military-precise.

Even more overlooked is the importance of setting up the dining room before service. Mapping out the evenings reservations intelligently is a goddamn art form. You never see this part of the process, but it has unquestionably affected your dining experience both positively when done well, and jacked it up when done poorly.
Moreover, all of us in the front of house need to constantly be looking at the systems we put in place and saying “How can I make this better (or cleaner, or faster)?

In these regards I am personally capable of doing an ok job. An adequate job. But that really isn’t why any of us signed up for Oxheart. We signed up to break our fists on the face of destiny and pour every ounce of our hearts and souls into that building. We have the right people for the job on food, and presumably I’m a decent beverage director. But we needed a similar level of intensity devoted to service. The answer was meowing at us the whole time.

Christie is the front of house manager for Oxheart. Formally she is a manager, but even before that was her title, she has been the vanguard of service in the building since day one. It takes a special person to be truly great at service, namely an obsessive attention to detail. As Justin and Karen tweeze the final garnishes onto plates of expertly roasted potatoes and flawlessly executed tarts, Christie is writing a floor map that is not only near perfection, but has contingency plans for when things go awry like tables changing in size or coming in late. She is hitting the ground running well before service, and then driving service like she stole it at gunpoint. When I get tired I move slower. When Christie gets tired she actually moves faster. She notices the tiny details that I overlook, and puts together systems to deal with them.  I am continually flabbergasted by her skill as a serviceperson before, during, and after service.

I am devoting so many words to this because people will tell *me* they really enjoyed the service after their dinner. Don’t get me wrong, I had something to do with it as one of only three people in the front of house. But do me this favor, if you’re walking out of Oxheart and you feel that warm glow of hospitality in your heart, take a moment to realize that Christie Rafanan played the major role in refining that part of the experience to what it is now.

Now I have to go be a jerk to her to balance out all this nice stuff I'm saying.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012


Santorini was the one that got away.

Santorini stuck out like a sore thumb in the crowd. She dressed like a bug in the amazon trying to indicate to predators that she was poisonous. Hair was always messy. But she spoke like someone who knew what was going on. She was just as bored as you at that bar. She handed you a drink she didn’t like (a Stinger), ordered a Tom Collins, and started asking you questions that she already knew the answer to. She was testing you. And for some reason that you still can’t fathom to this day you made the cut. So you became friends.

You didn’t think much of it at first, but after a while, you knew this was more than a casual acquaintance when your text conversations went till 4 in the morning. When you noticed your heart sinking as the phone beeped with a text from someone who wasn’t Santorini.

You went to that party at the thunderdome warehouse, where you puked in the garbage disposal in that gross kitchen (she held your hair for you, very nice of her since you smelled like a compost heap). She walked you back to her place. All you remember saying was “they had scary paintings” and sitting down on the floor. Next you woke up with a blanket on top of you and a pillow under your head. You sat up and your whole body hurt. You smelled lemons and pancakes for the first time together. She made those puffy german pancakes. Your mysterious new friend could cook.

Do you remember those motherfucking lemon pancakes? Of course you do. Because that was the exact moment that you fell madly in love with her.

Who was she? Where did she come from? As best you could tell she was like, half Samoan, half Israeli. At least half Israeli would explain how she had what one that FBI agent on the news dubbed “an expert-level understanding of Krav Maga.” You never got around to discussing things like where you both came from. The phone lit up with assignments:

“Let’s get wasted at the zoo and scream at the animals. I hate giraffes.”

“How many pickles do you think we can eat at once?”

“Let’s just settle this with a kite battle in the park. I think I have enough powdered glass left for two kites.”

“I think my purse is big enough to sneak this leftover chili into a movie theater. Want to join?”

Sometimes you would just blather on and on about the most inane things. Sometimes you would just get in the car together and drive in silence. For hours. After a while, it became clear that you were both hanging out with each other as a form of escapism. What is she trying to escape from? You caught yourself wondering on multiple occasions. Then it started coming together.

The first time you found a gun in her apartment she played it off. “Self defense.” It had a silencer. An extended magazine. A custom trigger. It was loaded with black talon rounds. They say the police reports catalogued over 30 controlled weapons in her apartment. Guns. Explosives. One of the lawyers even insinuated she had chemical weapons. All you ever got were the rumors.

The more questions you asked the more distant she became. It was awful. The spontaneous riot of fun you used to have was blunted by the knowledge that she had something to hide.

You remember her meeting you at the dandelion fountain with gelato. Of course she made it. Lemon gelato. She sprinkled sea salt on hers. You will remember that gelato for the rest of your life. She said she wasn’t sure how long she could be friends with you. You fought back tears and said, “This is the best gelato I’ve ever had in my life.”

“Kid, you’re telling me you found a silenced sub machinegun under this girl’s futon and you didn’t think that maybe something was up? Is your sense of self-preservation that fucked? Or are you keeping something from us?” 18 hours of interrogation. You were delirious. At one point they threw coffee on you. It stained the funny t-shirt she bought you.

You never got that moment. You never got to tell her how much she meant to you. Maybe it was because you were scared you’d drive her away. It was enough to be friends with her you said. You only got to say it once, under the wrong circumstances.

It all happened in an instant. They say traumatic moments get blurry easily. She was the most visibly upset you’d ever seen her. She was packing her bags. Going somewhere for good. You caught a glimpse of a passport. “You aren’t supposed to be here. I said if you came here I’d kill you.” She snarled. You started following her into the next room. She pulled a shotgun out from under the bed and slung it on top of a duffel bag, reiterating:

“I said I’d kill you.”

You heard car doors slam outside. The lights cut off. “Get on the ground.” In monotone. Something crashed through the outside gate door. You couldn’t see anything, but you heard the che-chack of the shotgun. “Are the cops coming for you?” Your voice was shaking.

“Not cops. Cops have sirens. Flashing lights. You have to get out of here. You can’t hold your own like this.”

“I want to stay. I love you and I want to stay. Give me a gun.”

“You wouldn’t know what to do with it.”

Her hand reached out from the darkness and touched your face.

“If you love me, you’ll run. Out the back door. You have maybe 15 seconds before they close that exit off. Go. Please.”

The police found you passed out in a ditch 5 miles away. They sat you down for 18 hours and asked you if you knew who Santorini was. If you knew she worked with multiple terrorist organizations. If you knew what the pages and pages of code in her apartment went to. You didn’t know the answer to anything. That one detective almost punched you in the face when you said she made good pancakes. They said she was number 9 on “the list” for a while. That the reward for turning her in would have been astronomical. They wouldn’t tell you what happened to Santorini.

“He was probably just an insurance policy. Like a potential hostage or something.” They rationalized, laughing.

Nothing hurt as bad as the knowledge that she was gone. Sometimes you go back to the fountain. You learned how to make lemon gelato, though you never got it to be quite as good as her recipe. You were grateful you knew her. And you will spend the rest of your life wondering who she really was, if she was a villain or a hero. If she loved you back.

If you’d like to know what I’m talking about, go buy yourself a bottle of Domaine Sigalas Santorini. It’s made on the island of Santorini in Greece. Made from the Assyrtiko grape, Santorini is grown on volcanic soils. The vines are woven into baskets to protect the grapes from the powerful winds that blow through the vineyards.

It tastes like lemons, with a bitter finish.