big Chef Bill Fuller, January 2019
So here we are, on the Other Side of opening Alta Via. For about four months the restaurant sucked us in with that insatiable New Restaurant Appetite. In the beginning, everyone was working on it alongside our regular jobs. Ben Sloan and Jen Johnson, the Executive Chef and the General Manager, began to work on the concept while they were at Kaya and Eleven, respectively. In January, they were able to shed their positions and focus solely on Alta Via. Ben began to work diligently on dishes and recipes, Jen began work on the details of service, uniforms, dining room organization, and all the thousand and one details that make up everything outside the kitchen of a restaurant. Jen Fisher and I worked with them as we could, getting pulled in more and more. We all tried to pick plates and glassware.
In February, work days started to get longer. We began to work more intensely on the menu. Making dishes, tasting dishes, writing them down, then editing and trying again. Mike Head and Darren Layre, our two Sous Chefs, joined the team and began working with Ben on their days off from Eleven and Casbah respectively. Mike’s full engagement was delayed two weeks due to Dustin Gardner, the Executive Chef at Casbah, and his silly decision to have a baby when we were about to open a restaurant. But we eventually sprang Mike free. Pasta making and wood grill firing began in earnest.
Meanwhile, Sean Burgess, while still managing at Casbah, had begun to develop the Alta Via drink program with The Two Jens. There were drink tastings and wine tastings scheduled whenever he could pry himself away from his job. There were quite a few of these I managed to attend. He did a great job adapting classic cocktails to the style of Alta Via while also constructing a pretty great list of delicious, accessible, and interesting Californian and Italian wines. Eliza, the training manager, was the last aboard as soon as we could get her free from Soba. She embraced the server training program and began to finalize the training plan with The Jens. Luckily for the team, Soba is only open at night so we sucked up her precious daytimes while she trained her replacement at Soba.
At this point, going into February, we all were working on the project a lot. As we freed the team from their previous jobs, their Alta Via investment grew dramatically. We had open interviews, meetings, recaps of meetings, dish tastings, drink tastings, ingredient tastings, vendor meetings, farmer meetings, hirings, trainings, more hirings, and endless arguments about the plateware. Until you are in it, you can never understand how passionate people in the restaurant business can be about the plates they use. There were many nights at Alta Via, after the training was done and after the contractors were gone, that we would line up potential plates, glassware, and silverware, and argue about whether the share plate should be 6 ½ inches or 7 ¼ inch.
And I ordered my pretty blue plate, even if some people hated it. So there.
Finally, three weeks before opening, we got into the real training. This meant coming in every morning, conducting classroom training for the dining room staff while the kitchen staff prepared ingredients and practiced plating dishes. In the afternoon, we presented dishes to the service staff and discussed them in detail. In the evening, once the last few contractors and trainees would leave, we would tidy up the restaurant, then sit down to discuss the day. At this point, every day had become 12 hours. And we were all at the restaurant every day.
Two weeks out we started mock service. This is where the restaurant invites people in to dine and gives the food away at a discount or for free, creating an opportunity for the cooks to practice cooking, the bartenders to practice bartending, and the servers to practice waiting on tables with real customers but without the economic pressure of making a true sale. It also gives the management team opportunities to analyze systems and make adjustments. Mock service ran Wednesday through Saturday. Sunday we prepared for Monday’s soft opening.
Between training days, mock service, and time needed for organizing and development with nobody else in the restaurant, we all came in every day. As a veteran of this process, I knew it would happen during this week. I had tried to prepare the team, the rest of the company, and my family that I would not exist for a while. Everyone took it well, except for Daisy. She struggled to understand what had happened to our Sunday morning woods hikes. I tried to explain. She wasn’t having any of it and barked at me a lot.
We opened quietly the next week, announcing our opening as the following week. But people knew we were up and running, and as word got around, people began to call for reservations or just come in. By the end of that week, we were pretty much at full speed.
We opened for real Monday April, 1, April Fool’s Day. At this point, the whole management team had been spending a lot of their waking hours at the restaurant. But once it opened, it really became true. Get up, shower, go to work, work all day and night, go home, shower, go to bed. And everyone was great about it! All the members of the team kept their heads, had patience with each other, and kept drama to a minimum. I have seen openings that looked like reality TV programs, this opening had little of that. We had our daily disasters, someone broke their foot, someone got a new job, but we powered on through.
After a few weeks open, once each day did not feel like The Battle of Winterfell, we began to get the machine running and people began to have some time off. Chefs and Managers got one day a week off, then two. Seems we had ended up hiring some really great people that worked hard to get good at their jobs and made it easier for us. We began to rely on the team to get the job done and get some air for ourselves.
And our beleaguered families got to see us again. And Daisy got a hike.
Thank you for all the support. I hope to see you at Alta Via sometime soon. Here are a couple of pasta dishes that are almost like menu items.