Believe it or not, I did exhaustive research to arrive at the secret of eternal happiness that I reveal in this week's review of the Walnut Cafe (see review). Like the theory of relativity, it seems deceptively simple when seen for the first time. I mean, duh: a nice long break in the day equals a happy worker bee. But then again, e=mc2, and bang.
Although the theory of relativity initially appeared like something young Herr Einstein could have pulled out of his ass on the morning his work -- an untitled manuscript he'd promised for a colleague's book that would later become the basis of his paper "The Field Equations of Gravitation" -- was due at the printers, Einstein actually spent ten years working on this puppy. Still, can you imagine what the uppity-ups at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich thought when the Smartest Man in the World handed over the cocktail napkin with that equation scrawled on it?
Sure, the bulk of what I know about Einstein and his work comes from repeated viewings of Young Einstein, starring Yahoo Serious (Australia's greatest contribution to American culture since Foster's lager), and I'm not saying in any way that I'm as smart a fella as Albert was (or, for that matter, that I'm even as bright as Yahoo Serious). But I am saying that my Theory of the Very Long Lunch is equally vital to the betterment of all mankind and just as deceptively simple as Einstein's theory of general relativity.
Okay, I'm not really saying that, either. Let's just put my theory in the top five. There's relativity (both special and general) leading the list. Then evolution. Then the JFK conspiracy theory. And then that cool Kevin Bacon six-degrees-of-separation thing. After those comes my premise that a person's aggregate happiness can be measured in direct relation to the average length of his or her lunch.
Albert, a big fan of lunch, would have been with me on this. I have it on good authority that while he was still clerking in the patent office, he'd regularly knock off around noon and be gone for three hours minimum, boring the waitresses and old farts hanging around the local brat house with explanations of how, if his table were traveling away from Earth at speeds approaching 299,792,458 meters per second (the speed of light), he would be able to take a good, solid, six-hour lunch, turn the table around and go home -- and by the time he arrived, anyone who would've been pissed at him for taking such a long break would have already been dead for something like 300 years.
I was originally introduced to the Theory of the Very Long Lunch by a former executive chef we'll call Jeff. He was a happy guy -- a real back-slappin', big-grinnin', honestly placid and content sonofabitch. He'd come breezing into the kitchen at around ten in the morning in his spotless whites and sunglasses, hang around the office for an hour fiddling with the computer and flirting with the waitresses, then walk out into the kitchen, sigh, stretch and announce to all of us (who'd been there, in some cases, since 5 a.m.) that he'd had enough and was popping out for a quick lunch. Often, we wouldn't see him again for several days.
And when we did see him, he always looked tanned, rested and happy as a clam. Why? Because a four-day-long lunch break does wonders for the soul.
At the time, I hated Jeff for this. But soon I came to realize that he was just doing what any great exec is supposed to do: educating his staff -- namely, me. And, specifically, in how happy a truly long lunch can make a man.
Since leaving that kitchen, I've been researching the art of the long lunch, and it's not as simple as it first appears. First, you have your job to consider. For a proper long lunch, there must be a job for you to leave and a job for you to come back to when lunch is over; if you don't have a job, you have nothing to take a break from. Also, if you don't have a job -- or lose your job because your boss thinks that taking three hours to nip off to the closest bar is hurting your job performance -- that means you're unemployed, and that makes the long lunch a difficult thing to finance. So you have to be careful. You need defendable reasons for being away from the cubicle/courtroom/Oval Office for extended periods. An imaginary medical condition worked well for Jeff on several occasions. Joining a make-believe cult that requires two hours of solitary prayer every day around noon is feasible if you're willing to shave your head for effect. But for me, it became easier to just find a job where long lunches are not only acceptable, but required. Trouble is, there aren't many of those jobs around, and this one is mine.
Next, you have to consider logistics. We're talking several hours of highly public loafing, doing pretty much nothing at all and doing it with only yourself for company. So ease yourself into it. Start off by giving yourself an hour, go someplace where no one is going to bother you for sitting so long, and bring along a book for company. Slowly increase your time. Then start forgetting the book.
The trick -- if there is any trick to this -- is that you've got to learn to let go. At first, the urge will be to try and use this time to do something productive. Resist that temptation. Doing nothing in particular for as long as possible is the point -- and if you can't handle that, take up golf. Don't think about the boss who's driving you nuts, your shitty car, your shitty boyfriend/ girlfriend, your shitty life. Don't think at all. Forget the Big Project, the Big Day, the Big Whatever that's got you all twisted up, and go eat your eggs and bacon or your big-ass breakfast burrito. Have another cup of coffee, another slice of pie, and just be. Nothing else works as well, my friends. Not meditation, not money, not therapy, not Prozac, not giving up anything or going out and acquiring more. Nothing you do or don't do is going to make you any happier than you'll be after dedicating your life to Dr. Sheehan's path to everlasting bliss. Take my word for it. I'm not going to yell at you, like your shrink or Dr. Phil, and I promise I'm not going to come to your house and try to hug you, like Oprah. I took one psychology course in college, and sure, I failed it, but I know what I'm talking about.
Long lunches are the answer. And while I may not yet be up to the sort of epic lengths achieved by Einstein, the Belgians, Douglas Adams or the guy who invented rotisserie baseball, I'm working on it.
And in the meantime, I've never been happier.
A chef's story: One of the most freakishly talented chefs in town, Duy Pham, a veteran of Tante Louise and Opal, took a champion-sized break after wrapping things up at Flow, the downstairs restaurant in Hotel Luna (Bite Me, September 18, 2003). He did his final shift, packed his knives and then spent three months doing not much of anything.
Sure, he worked the occasional Sunday with his old boss, Jay Chadrom, at Opal, doing reservation-only prix fixe menus for cash crowds. He catered. He put on a couple of parties. But more than anything, he did nothing.
"I was a little worried for those three months, you know?" he says. "I was doing all these little knickknack things, but I didn't have a job. I was worried that I was getting too far off the road and I needed to get back on."
So first he took a gig with David Mosteller, who owns (among other things) the Denver Pavilions location of Wolfgang Puck's Grand Cafe. Mosteller is the only independent owner involved in what has become an increasingly embattled venture for Puck, and he brought Pham on board as a consultant. "He had to create a position for me," Duy says, explaining that the prospect of just stepping into a new place and bossing people around made him uncomfortable. So Mosteller ended up calling him a sous chef and giving him kitchen shifts so that he could get acquainted with the way things work in a high-volume, highly public, chain/ indy hybrid like Puck's.
"It was more independent than I expected," Duy continues. "I thought they were going to be cooking right out of the bag, but they really weren't. There was a lot more freedom than I thought." For a few months, he worked in relative obscurity, cooking three specials a day and doing time on the line. But mostly, his days were spent doing what consultants do: hiring, training, improving systems and generally keeping out of the cooks' way.
"I learned a lot about numbers and business that I didn't know," he says. "And that's good, because I got to learn something new. But what I really found out was that I was a small-restaurant guy. You know, being there in the kitchen and touching the food, touching all the plates."
So three weeks ago, Duy left his post at Puck's, where he's still signed on as an independent consultant. Meanwhile, Mosteller has brought in Bryan Kaumpf as general manager. Last seen walking the floor for Blair Taylor at Barolo Grill, Kaumpf will be doing what Duy did for the kitchen for the front of the house and the back office.
And where's Duy? Back at Opal, where Chadrom has been struggling ever since his star chef left. "You know, it was culture shock coming back," Duy says. "I didn't recognize anything. All the things I'd done, the systems I'd put in place -- that was all gone."
Duy will be back in his former house only briefly, while he reworks menus, helps out in the kitchen, does tastings and tries to bully up a staff that's currently without a chef. The menu will be "dumbed down a bit" from the sea urchin brûlées and complicated, intellectual plates Duy used to put out at Opal. "And I'm finally doing Asian fusion," he offers. While Duy's a classically French-trained chef, throughout his career he's had to explain to people that just because he's Asian (Vietnamese, actually), it doesn't mean he cooks Asian food. "So people can finally say whatever they want about me," he adds. "And you know what the weird thing is? I find that I'm kinda good at it."
In a few days, Duy will be off again, heading for San Francisco and a week-long guest-catering job. After that, he'll return to Colorado, where he'll be based in Meeker for a six-month chef-in-residence gig at the Elk Creek Lodge, a thousand-dollar-a-day retreat for rich fly fishers and outdoorsy types. And if all goes well, he'll be taking along his old exec from Tante Louise, Michael Degenhart (who recently left his post at the Manor House in Littleton) to be his sous.
And after that?
"I don't know," says the wonder boy. "I haven't made any decisions yet. But I was driving to work the other day, and I was surprised because I was thinking how happy I was. It's been a long time, you know? And I kind of got off the road, off the tracks, for a while. But everything seems to have worked, right? So for now, I'm just happy."
Leftovers: First things first: I've been getting some flak over my characterization of Chairman Mao as a "mass-murdering Socialist despot" in my review of Mao Asian Bistro and Sushi Lounge ("Liar's Club," April 1). No one's arguing with the mass-murdering part, or the despot, but apparently I mislabeled the father of Chinese Communism when I called him a Socialist. And while there are many historical resources which do refer to both the chairman's Socialist tendencies and that period of history between 1953 and 1957 that's actually called "the transition to Socialism" in modern Chinese history, my apologies to all. Mao was a commie, and I was wrong. Asian geopolitics has never been my strong suit. But I notice that absolutely no one had any beef with my saying the man was fat.
Faithful reader Brent had problems with just about everything else, though. After correcting Mao's history as a communist, he offered this: "Jason Sheehan's latest entry is almost as stupid and asinine as he himself. First, we can all do without any references to his genitalia, or any region thereof. Second, if he did actually ever work in the restaurant/ hotel industry, then he would understand that anyone who is working is not 100% honest. Whether it is your background, length of employment somewhere or your accent (even if it's fake), nobody is that honest. If you are that honest, you are probably unemployed. This particular employee is just trying to make a living just like everyone else. Give him a break."
I'm happy to know that you have such faith in the veracity of your fellow man, Brent. But if you had read the review a little closer, you would have realized that John (the charming fellow with the fake Brit accent who ended up next to me at the bar during one of my Mao meals) was not an employee, but a customer. And far from making fun of him, I wish John nothing but the best.
As for my genitalia, how large a region are we talking about? Am I safe talking about my belt buckle? What's in my pockets? What about my trousers in general? To make sure that I never offend you -- or any of my readers with delicate constitutions -- ever again, I had the Bite Me HQ art department take a rather flattering picture of my genital region, and I mailed it off to you. Please circle any part that you find particularly offensive and then mail the picture back to me, so I know which parts are fit for conversation and which are just icky.
Wow: Communist politics, Einstein, Yahoo Serious, Douglas Adams, my genital region, the theory of relativity and Belgians all in one column. That's gotta be some kind of record.
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There's news about another veteran of Opal's kitchen, too. Chef Kyung Lee -- who was at the sushi bar during the historically excellent meals I had there -- now has a place to call his own. He's the new owner of Paradise Sushi at 9350 West Cross Drive in Littleton, which just had its grand-reopening party last week.
Over the phone, Lee explained how he finally decided it was time to make a run at doing things his way. "Sixteen years, that's a long time," he said. "I didn't want to waste any more."
Paradise is offering many of Lee's own creations in addition to your standard board of sushi fare, and he hopes to make an impact on the already overcrowded raw-fish scene by "bringing all the fish you could never get in Denver before -- Spanish mackerel, live abalone, Japanese oysters. Even after ten, twenty years, some sushi chefs don't know how to take care of their fish, but we do. Everything is fresh. Everything is taken good care of."
And if Lee's work at Opal was any example of what will be coming off the bar at his new place, it truly will be Paradise.