A Good Day at Ariel’s

Often when I wake on a summer morning my first thought is of how much I still love my beautiful home and my very short commute to work. It’s 2009 and we’ve been running Ariel’s for over 12 years now. We’re frequently exhausted but would not trade our life for anyone’s. I go down one flight of stairs to the restaurant and make very good dark roast coffee in our commercial coffee maker. It takes five minutes which is about as long as I can wait for coffee in the morning. I take a cup of coffee, check to see that my 5 AM fish delivery was put on ice in the kitchen sink, then head outside to circle the property and check on what’s blooming in the gardens today. I have a black thumb to say the least, so we’ve had two wonderfully talented women taking care of the perennials and putting in new annuals each summer. We’ve never been short of table flowers from May through early October, even in Vermont’s uncertain climate. This year for the first time Richard and I have been caring for the garden ourselves, hoping to save money. Also for the first time we’ve replaced the annual flowers with vegetables. A victory garden for hard economic times. Actually it’s been fun so far, but it’s early in the season so we’ll see how it goes! We’ve always had plenty of herbs and edible flowers: nasturtiums and tangerine marigolds add color to the appetizers; sage flowers and lemon thyme blossoms to many entrees; lavender, lemon balm and mint to the desserts.

Next I check reservations for that evening. A good day is when there are plenty of reservations but not enough to overwhelm me, and some of our favorite customers are coming in. Tonight looks great. Layton is our first guest of the evening. A Vermont Symphony clarinetist, he comes every week, driving about an hour each way, and enjoys dining alone. When I have time I do a chef’s tasting for him and Richard matches wines. I’ll try to work out a good one for him tonight. He loves pork belly, crab, lobster, foie gras, lamb, chocolate. This will be fun.

Also on the books tonight – the Merrels. One of our favorite couples, they’ve supported us since before the About Thyme Cafe, which, by the way they invested in. When the bank hesitated to give us a mortgage on this house they cosigned for us. We’ve since paid them back and re-mortgaged, but we know we could not have done this without them. They’re good friends and loyal customers, sweet and enthusiastic about everything we do. Oh and yes, we’ve got the Jackson’s coming in tonight! Mr. and Mrs. Jackson have been coming in since we opened, but I almost lost them the first time he called. I answered the phone and a gentle, cultured voice asked “may I have a reservation for two at 7:15 tomorrow night?” I made the mistake of saying “I’m afraid we’re booked at 7:15 but we can accommodate you at 7:00 or 7:30”. “Thank you” he replied, “but we’ll try again another day”. Before I could say a word he hung up. I was astonished. And, I admit, a bit annoyed. He did call back and booked for 7:15 another night. Richard and I have since grown to love the Jacksons. They are complete creatures of habit, and it’s very restful knowing exactly what makes a specific guest happy, and being able to give that to them. When they have a reservation they enter the restaurant between 7:17 and 7:19 PM. They are seated at one of their two favorite tables (no flowers, he’s allergic). Richard gives them menus, a basket of bread, and a bottle of red wine. They sit holding hands, talking quietly, sharing the bread and wine until 7:45, when they like their order to be taken. In the early days they would each have a salad, then an entree (usually the same one, almost always chicken or lamb), then they would share a chocolate dessert. As we have all gotten older the dessert has fallen by the wayside (Mr. Jackson said his doctor told him that either the wine or the dessert had to go, and it wasn’t even a contest!). Soon they began to order different entrees. She would often have fish, he would occasionally have duck if it was on the menu. I like to think that they began to trust my cooking and sometimes they’d take a risk on something new. But the timing never varies. At first they would come twice a week. Eventually it went down to once a week. If they don’t call we begin to worry about them. When we close during the week in the wintertime we fear that they’re not eating well, not getting out enough. But they always come back and they never change. A little more fragile perhaps, but just as sharp and funny as ever.

By this time it’s after 8 and Noah, our eight year old, is up and needing breakfast. Noah is a genuine restaurant child. He was born when his brother Simon was seven. We had been running Ariel’s and living upstairs for four years. When Simon was born I worked up to the day my water broke, but with Noah I was in my mid forties, so I allowed myself to stop working in my eighth month. We closed the restaurant at the end of the busy season, in late October. Noah was born on December 14. We re-opened on January 5. That was the only year I can remember not working on New Year’s eve for a very long time. Noah was always in the restaurant. He slept in a portable crib just outside the bar during service until he was about 4 months old. Then he wanted to be part of the action. He was bright and curious from the start. Richard would carry him in a sling while waiting on customers. I had him in a backpack while doing prep in the kitchen. This may be why he’s always been so very verbal and incredibly outgoing. He’s the polar opposite of Simon who was totally uninterested in the comings and goings of strangers in the restaurant. Simon stayed upstairs reading, playing video games, creating fantasy board games and eventually starting to play music. Noah started to help out in the restaurant the minute he could walk and talk. At four he was greeting people, showing them to their seats, handing them menus. At five he would take orders, drawing pictures of food on a waiter’s pad since he couldn’t yet read or write. He always got the orders right and the guests adored their tiny waiter.

Noah at around 18 months

With the kids around all the time and the dog and cat constantly getting into the dining room despite our best efforts we have become more and more like a small European country restaurant. Ariel’s is not just our job it’s our lifestyle, and that of our children as well. Now that Simon is sixteen he finally realizes the benefits of being a restaurant kid, since he has a job doing dishes in the summer. He makes money, has no transportation problems, and I think he’s beginning to feel a part of the restaurant for the first time.

when Simon did agree to come into the dining room he was often in costume!

After Noah has been given breakfast and the day’s plans for him have been gone over (visit a friend, play rehearsal, day camp, lying around?) I look at my menu for tonight and check on my prep. I usually make several lists during the course of the day. We’re a twenty minute drive from the nearest shopping so if we need product I make a list for the supermarket, the co-op, the farm stand. I make an order list to call in for the seafood delivery the next day. I make a list of meat, produce and dairy needed and the local farmers who supply them-I’ll call this afternoon to order those. My next list is a prep list. Depending on how busy we are the night before and how many reservations we have for tonight I might have anywhere from four to nine hours of prep to do before we open to the public. I don’t mind the prep, It’s actually the most satisfying thing I do professionally. Prep is where the real cooking happens; the sauces, meat & fish butchering and seasoning, starches, vegetable accompaniments. I’m also one of the rare breed of chef who loves making breads, desserts and pastries as well as savory items. Prep is quiet, concentrated time devoted to doing what I love. I turn the radio to VPR and listen all day, from Morning Edition to All Things Considered, only turning it off when we start our service at 5:30. I’m fast and organized, but my prep list still has the power to make me nervous. I can’t say how many times I’ve told Richard “There’s no way I can finish this”, but I always do. A busy prep day may look like this:

Soda Bread, Sourdough Bread, Balsamic Vinaigrette, Caesar dressing, grate cheese, croutons, goat cheese soufflés, Crab Cakes, grapefruit supremes, soup, break down 6 ducks: breast, confit legs, render fat, roast bones for stock, Cut and trim 8 lamb racks, blue cheese scalloped potatoes, potato puree, gnocchi, mushroom sauce, green peppercorn sauce, asparagus, clean and stem spinach, risotto base, cut halibut filet, blanch and shell 8 lobsters, rhubarb strawberry crisp, lemon curd, almond tuiles, buttermilk sorbet, espresso ice cream, herb garnishes, cheese tuiles

By nine AM I need to get a start. Bread doughs are first, and if there’s ice cream to make I need to get the mixtures made and in the fridge to chill down. I like to make desserts as early in the morning as possible, since that takes more concentration and I tend to work best early in the day. I push out the prep until I can’t think anymore and need a break. If it’s a crazy hot day I try to make time to jump in the lake and swim a lap or two. This also helps to cool down my body temperature. If it’s over 85 degrees I know I have to get in the water or I won’t make it through service without getting heat sick. By three in the afternoon I’m pushing intravenous iced coffee, which usually works to get me through the mid afternoon energy slump. At four o’clock I’d better be winding down prep, as I have to start to set up the kitchen for service and think about “family meal”

Ever since we started Ariel’s we’ve insisted that the entire staff sit down and eat a meal together. In the early days we’d usually wait until after service so we could have a nice dinner and a glass of wine. As I’ve gotten older, all I want to do after service is go upstairs, put my feet up and watch “Iron Chef America” or some other mindless TV. I’ve started making sure that family meal is ready at five PM. It’s often difficult to stop everything and sit down with Richard and the rest of the staff but it’s very important. This is the time that I explain any new menu items, the provenance of the fish, meat and produce on the menu, the ingredients in the more complicated sauces. We also talk about possible allergens, special dietary needs of the night’s guests, regulars who may be coming in for dinner and their quirks that need attending to.

After dinner we start service. Most nights our first guests are seated at 5:30, our last come in by 8:00. We’re not New York City or Boston, no one wants to come out to the middle of nowhere at 9:30 to dine, thank goodness. The 4 hours or so of dinner service are usually a blur of activity. Time goes quickly, and if it’s a good night it feels like a dance, smooth and easy until everyone is served and the last dessert has left the kitchen. A good night is one without major burns, loss of blood or fingertips, back wrenches. A good night has a rhythm like music, sometimes a slow ballad, sometimes heavy duty rock and roll. If I need to speed up my game I often hum to myself, usually Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nacht Musik. It just seems to have the rhythm I need, and I’ve been using that same piece for almost 13 years.

Meanwhile, Richard is greeting our guests, seating them, taking cocktail orders from the waitstaff, recommending wines from a list that he has painstakingly put together to go with my food, and which he updates constantly. Richard is the secret weapon of Ariel’s. People often come for the food, but they come back for Richard’s warm attention, carefully crafted cocktails and brilliant wine pairings.

Richard’s happy place: behind the bar!

I don’t generally like to come out of the kitchen to talk to the customers, it interrupts the flow in the kitchen. If there’s a regular or friend in the dining room I try to come out to chat after I’m done. The kitchen is open, there’s no door, so anyone who wants to stop by to say hello can do so. I’m usually happy to see people, especially if they tell me that I’ve made them happy. After doing this for so many years I can cook and talk at the same time, unless I’m working on five tables at once. At the end of the night I slog through the kitchen clean up (even after 30 years I haven’t figured out how to get out of this chore) and drag my weary butt upstairs. On a good night I’m still buzzing with positive energy and drooping with exhaustion in equal measure. After all this time I’m still looking forward to doing it all again tomorrow.