By Joe Scully
Asheville, North Carolina
My first gig in a restaurant was to protect it. Standing by the door of the Houlihan’s Old Place in Hackensack, New Jersey, my whole job was to prevent people from slipping out with the restaurant’s etched glassware in their hands. I was a skinny, 19-year-old college kid, not one to be offering any real protection for anyone.
That was where my love of food and cooking began, leading me during the next 40 years all over the country, in and out of kitchens and eventually settling down in Asheville, North Carolina, as the co-owner of a pair of local restaurants.
It was nice glassware, okay?
To back up a bit, I was, like many people, an “accidental” restaurant worker — I didn’t grow up thinking I needed to be in that world at all, much less for a career, but when the owner of the Taylor Rental Center I was helping to manage, which rented everything from machinery to party goods, walked in and said, “We’re closing tomorrow,” I needed a job. I was full-time at school in New Jersey, a communications major learning about radio and TV, and suddenly I had no way to pay for it.
Fortunately, my brother Vinny had been in the restaurant business for 10 years at that point, and could get me an interview with the boss at Houlihan’s. I remember telling him, “I don’t care what I would have to do, I just need the job,” which is how I ended up on guard duty, watchful for various stemware walking out the door.
The moment I stepped foot into the place, I knew it was where I wanted to be. There was an electricity in the air as servers zipped back and forth across the floor and hosts directed guests and employees like conductors in an orchestra. When the kitchen door swung open, I could hear pans sizzling and chefs shouting and laughing. The place was hopping busy, and that’s saying something, since it was a 200-plus-seat restaurant. Houlihan’s Old Place was one of the original American bistro-style joints, and people couldn’t get enough. This was 1977. Disco was hitting the clubs in New York really hard. Everybody wore Jordache jeans and nylon shirts, and a party atmosphere permeated the whole country. A big part of that carried over to the restaurant business. It was a thrill to be part of something that was this big — it was 1977 and these restaurants would take in $10,000 in a day, which today would be like having a $30,000 day.
I wanted to be a part of this world, so I played along as security guard for glassware for all of … three nights. I realized it was a silly job, standing there in my preppy attire — sports jacket and tie with a pair of khaki slacks — so I went to the manager and said, “Look, man. I can do the glassware thing while I do something a little more productive at the same time.”
They hired me as a host. I had the clothes, the acting experience (thanks, college!), and they valued my boldness, so they let me on and I fit right in with the crew.
Eventually, they asked if I was interested in management training, and so I dove headfirst into the restaurant business. So long, college!
And this is where I first learned to cook.
Part of the training program was a circuit through the kitchen, and they dropped me in there with literally no experience cooking beyond what I’d learned from my mom.
In six months, I went from “I can kind of cook” to “I am a cook,” and I absolutely loved it. I never did get out of the kitchen or into management at Houlihan’s; I was having too much fun learning firsthand what á là carte cooking was all about. High speed, high volume, handmade food — there were very few convenience products in that kitchen, and it was more fun than I thought possible.
I lived for it. The way things kept changing: new challenges, new plates and styles. But it was also the people on the line with me. They were fun, crazy cooks, making this amazing food, and the social scene in the restaurant around that time was pretty much everything a young, single man could imagine. I felt like I had found my calling.
In thinking back on why cooking made such an impact on me, I think it comes down to a few things.
Food is more than just fuel: It’s ritual, celebration, and entertainment. It’s always been one of those three things in my home, from when I was growing up through today, and being able to provide those things for others, as the owner of a restaurant, fills me with gratitude.
If the only thing humans were required to do was to fuel our bodies, we wouldn’t have restaurants. We’d have troughs or pills like you see in old sci-fi movies. But from the moment you walk in the door, a restaurant is an experience. If it’s done right, the people who’ve created this space are going to pull people into that experience, immediately upon their arrival. Whether you want a posh outing, an “authentic” global cuisine experience, or some kind of adventure when you’re sharing a meal, going to a restaurant is excitement. It’s a kind of entertainment you don’t get at home. From the restaurant’s perspective, you want to put something in front of your patrons that they couldn’t do — or wouldn’t do — back at the house.
I still remember the first time we brought the smoked-salmon appetizer out to a guest at Corner Kitchen, the restaurant I opened in Asheville more than 16 years ago. It’s tossed with horseradish sauce, chives, and both sweet and regular potatoes fried in thin strips. The whole dish is surrounded by very thinly sliced European cucumbers, folded in a way that’s attractive. It’s absolutely silly to think about doing that at home. No one in their right mind would do that. You have to fry the sweet-potato and the regular-potato strips at different temperatures. You have to make the horsey sauce and cut the chives really, really fine. And, of course, you need to cure, smoke, and slice the salmon, then julienne it, and put the whole dish together, folded cucumbers and all.
But we make it at Corner Kitchen because it’s delicious, it’s fun to make, and the look on that person’s face made it all worth it. It was memorable, it was an experience — not just a meal.
That’s the feeling we want to chase as chefs. The customers should look at our food and say, “How did they do this?”
For some people, eating out at a restaurant is ritual as well. In the business, we like these things to be subtle and not call attention to them, but in many restaurants, we follow strict, repeated procedures to make sure an experience matches what guests expect, especially regulars or repeat customers. There’s a specific time window after a guest is seated when the server should aim to greet them (between 45 seconds and two minutes). The table is always arranged in a specific way every time they visit. These are staging elements. While they may vary from restaurant to restaurant, they tie that entertainment aspect in with the ritual side of things. It’s an amazing, lovely experience to be taken care of like that when you go out, the comfort of expecting something and knowing you’ll receive it.
Beyond making new memories, food also connects us to our pasts, especially our childhoods. I’ve heard that scent is the sense most closely tied to memory, but ask any foodie: Memory resides in the gut.
Food is ritual. It is what we’re built on.
Food is also community, and I learned that quickly when my partner, Kevin Westmoreland, and I first opened Corner Kitchen in my adopted hometown of Asheville 16 years ago. That means a restaurant has to do more than meet the desires of its customers. It most also reflect the concerns of their community.
Asheville is special: It has always drawn a bit of a “fringe” cohort. Some say that is because a river runs northward right through town (and all the way to the Tennessee line). It is also an island of blue in the sea of red that is most of North Carolina. We decided that from the outset, we were going to give to our Asheville people, to local organizations like Manna Food Bank and Eliada Homes for Children. Our approach is simple: If someone calls for a donation, we say yes.
As a matter of fact, the word “no” doesn’t appear on our menu, either. If someone wants something special, we make it happen. Special dietary needs, the new bane of many a restaurant, are handled with a sense of joy and confidence. We were the first restaurant here to do comprehensive recycling. We pioneered a composting program that has taken root, pun intended, throughout the independent restaurants in this city. We are a Certified Green Restaurant and keep a Living Wage Certified workplace. Any of our 160 employees who work full time and want it can get health insurance, cheaply.
This all may sound a little wonky, but maybe this is the way comfort and hospitality work in our modern world. There is a feeling of love in the giving of comfort. The restaurant world is tough and unyielding, but providing a little comfort can carry you along for many years.
Growing up, my family had a formal dinner every night.
Linen, silver, assigned seats. At 6:30 sharp. I was seated to my father’s left and my mother’s right, and the rest of their nine children were arrayed around the table. Before sitting down I would have to iron the napkins and fold them in a specific way, lay them out on the table just so: fork on the left, knife on the right, spoon to the right of that, three-quarters of an inch from the edge of the table.
This felt normal, the same way brushing your teeth before bed or putting on your shoes before leaving the house feels normal, because it was all we knew. It wasn’t until friends would come over that we got an inkling this wasn’t a common practice. They’d say, with their facial expressions if not with their words. “Okay … what the hell’s happening here?” We would have to explain this wasn’t because we had guests; this is what we did every night. I’ve kept in touch with some of those friends to this day, and they still tell the story about dinner at the Scullys like a scene out of some comedy film featuring an over-the-top, stuffy family.
Those dinners defined a lot of how I view food and how I view comfort and joy now. I have become someone who aims to provide these things to hundreds of people every week. And it was all ingrained in me early in life: We had the center plate, whether it was a leg of lamb or a chicken or another protein, from which we filled all the smaller plates and placed them in front of each child, with my mother and father being served last. No one could touch anything until Mom started to eat — then, we could dig in. That kind of strictness grated on me as a kid, and naturally there was a level of unpleasantness that went along with this degree of rigidity, but more often than not it provided an island in a sea of chaos. (Did I mention there were nine kids?)
In retrospect, I think these dinner productions might have been a symptom of some kind of class anxiety on my parents’ part. My father’s family immigrated from Ireland, and after a few generations of being laborers they managed to upgrade their social standing when his grandfather became a butler for a wealthy family out of Rhode Island and New York. For my father — and my mother, who also grew up well-off, with fancy cars, country clubs, all that kind of stuff — it was, as far as I can tell, a matter of keeping up the appearance of sophistication appropriate for an upwardly mobile family. They wanted to be seen as having moved from being just Irish people to upper-middle-class American people.
After World War II, my father retired as a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps, and that’s where the strictness in enforcing those rituals came from. And my mother expected to have things the way they were in her childhood home, right down to Sunday brunch. Besides cooking dinner by herself every day, she made Sunday brunch almost every week, to be served at 10:30 a.m., with chafing dishes and Eggs Benedict. We grew up in an environment where everything had to be presented a certain way, and done perfectly every time.
While that sounds more stressful than it often was, it was mostly just the way we did things. Strictness doesn’t have to be a negative thing; it can be discipline and respect for the art of doing something well, no matter what the something is. And there is much to be said for the comfort of what is usual and expected, especially in a world that is otherwise so variable and hard to tame. Being able to provide an hour or two of that kind of comfort — that island to rest on amid our chaotic lives — is a gift that the best restaurant experiences provide.
Those childhood dinners undoubtedly set the trajectory for my career in the restaurant business, even if I had to come upon the industry haphazardly (and at first only seeing it from the doorway, watching out for glass thieves).
Nothing against other types of dining, because the world and the people in it are varied and everyone has their own preferences and dietary or economic or geographic restrictions, but I tend toward fine dining. I love the ritual of all the things that happen in the kitchen or out there on the floor.
In many cases, some of the most spectacular or comforting traditions in the restaurant business are no longer needed.
No one asks for a Dover Sole to be fileted tableside anymore, even though that is some wonderful entertainment. And sure, some of the more sophisticated things we did back in the day may have been a little heavy-handed or unnecessarily silly in a certain way, but they created a level of skill and a depth of knowledge in the craft of feeding others that you don’t see achieved today.
Maybe I would be a different kind of chef and a different kind of restaurant owner today if I didn’t grow up with this background, but I really do take a lot of pride in making sure that the things I craft with my hands are high quality. It’s a distinguishing factor in this business, but for me it’s where a lot of the joy comes from when I cook for others.
I couldn’t possibly count the number of times we had those formal dinners together as I was growing up, but in almost all of them there was some level of joy being created and shared as we ate together. And I’d like to think it would be the same if I, still seated between my parents, Mom on the left and Dad on my right, were to serve something I made today for the whole family. That it would stand up compared to the delicious meals my mother made from scratch every night, and would satisfy the whole family in the same way. Every plate I make, whether at home for myself or at the restaurant for a guest, should be one I would be proud to serve to them. If I could somehow get this Hickory Nut Gap pork chop into a time machine and head back a few decades, I’d like to think it would meet muster. There’s joy in that thought for me, and it keeps me energized and moving forward even as I look back on those days 40 some years back.