By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
Jesse Morreale, owner of Tambien, called me at home last Wednesday night. "So, how is it?" he asked with no preamble, no hey-how-ya-doin'.
"How is what?" I asked, feigning a sweet, downy and unsullied ignorance.
"How is it?"
"How is what, man? I have no idea what you're talking about."
"No, I'm just fucking with you. I'm guessing the photographer just called?"
The photographer had, in fact, just called Tambien to arrange to shoot the restaurant, which is how Morreale (who knows me and easily could have picked me out in the dining room on any given night if not for the fact that I am such a sneaky little dickens) found out that a review was coming.
He had reason to be nervous. We might be friends, and I might know and like his partner, Sean Yontz, the other Wonder Twin. But they both know that friends is friends and business is business. I'd loved (and loved-up in print) their first restaurant, Mezcal (see Second Helping). Yontz's Chama was one of my favorite restaurants on the west side, and I mourned when it closed. But neither of them were happy with the ink I spilled over Sketch, which I equated with a late-night booty call — not the prettiest girl on the scene, but a comforting option of last resort for the terminally overserved. And Morreale, who's no rookie at this restaurant thing, knew damn well that Tambien had struggled early on.
"It was rough," he admitted now, talking about those first few frantic and uneven weeks, the pressures of getting open and trying to live up to the standards of Mezcal and Chama. The crew in Tambien's kitchen were all veterans, people who'd come from one or another of the already operating Yontz/Morreale houses, and there'd been a temptation to let them do their own thing — because they were trained, because they were skilled, because they, ostensibly, already knew how to make green chile and prep masa.
But that was a mistake. "Every place is different," Morreale told me. "And it was the little things we lost track of."
Kitchen wisdom: it's always the little things that fuck ya. It's never (or almost never) a catastrophic kitchen fire, but instead the night baker who loses a Band-Aid in a 500-pound batch of proofing dough (which actually happened to me). It's never a complete breakdown of the line, but just a minor breakdown in communication that leads to two different cooks salting the chile because neither knew it was the responsibility of the other.
Nearly every restaurant needs time to develop. Some need weeks, some need months, a few need even longer before they become as good as they should be, can be. And a big part of my job is knowing that, being able to sense when a kitchen is bad just because it's bad (Chi Bistro was an excellent example of that) and when it is bad but will get better.
Tambien was one of the latter. I had little doubt that the kitchen would eventually find its shit and, having found it, get it together. And it did.
After talking with Morreale, I got his other half on the blower and heard the same story. "It should've been the easiest opening in the world, man," Yontz said. "You know, I'm bringing in my top guys from every place. And we've already got the recipe book down. But I go in there, and the salsa? I ask these guys, 'What the fuck? You guys have been making this salsa for four years. What happened?'"
Yontz and I talked about opening kitchens, about how it's just never as easy as you think it's going to be. We discussed how something as simple as using different pans, as walking a different path through a different kitchen, can fuck up a cook's process and screw with his internal gyroscope. "It took time," Yontz told me, time for everyone to settle into their new home, their new brigade. And then, once we were done talking about Tambien, we got to talking about Yontz's own process of settling in after spending almost a month south of the border, on a culinary walkabout partly sponsored by the Mexican consulate.
He hung out in Oaxacan restaurants. He watched people make mezcal. He went to the mountains to chill with the Zapatecan Indians because a woman there made tamales like no other tamales in the world. "These were tamales that only they make," Yontz said, the wonder not yet drained from his voice even though he'd been gone from Oaxaca for weeks. The masa was pressed like a tortilla, filled, folded like a burrito, then wrapped in corn leaves — "not husks, man, leaves," he marveled. "And when I left, as we're driving away down this dirt road, I look back, and up on her roof is all this corn. They were drying all their corn up there. It was rad, man. It was amazing."