Carrboro, N.C. — Have you ever wondered what it's like to be a chef? Here's a day in the life of Chef Kevin Callaghan, owner of Acme Food & Beverage Company in Carrboro.
Thank God for coffee
It was three in the morning. Or later. Holding a flashlight in my mouth, I was in the plenum above the drop ceiling in the kitchen running speaker wire. It was just me. And it was tedious work. Everyone else had long gone home. A crazy family from Virginia was having a rehearsal dinner the next night at the restaurant. And, in my attempt to keep a lid on that big can of crazy, I promised that, yes, they could play Garth Brooks while having drinks outside beforehand. No problem. At all. But music required speakers. And, well, speaker wire.
It would be fair to say that the baker yelped. I’m sure that I looked crazed staring down at her, my head poking out of the kitchen ceiling. My original master plan did not include having the ladder fall over. And the part about me being trapped on top of a rumbling exhaust fan for the night with just a small flashlight and a spool of speaker wire had also been conveniently left off of the agenda. But here we were. The sun was coming up.
I still had to finish running that speaker wire, get payroll together, meet with someone about workers’ comp insurance and cook a four-course dinner for 100 people. Thank God for coffee.
Hold on tight
Ahh, the life. Restaurants are akin to live theater deviously crossed with bull riding. Imagine trying to recite Death of a Salesman while strapped atop a 2,000-pound wild animal with horns.
The challenge, night after night, is to hold on tight, know your lines and never let the audience see the bull. Even as it runs willy-nilly through the dining room, bucking and snorting. And that little trick requires help. Lots of it. And on those nights when you’re thrown off, that’s someone to save you from being trampled. Cue the rodeo clown.
It’s usually 7:30 a.m. when we make coffee. And while the coffee is brewing, I talk to our baker, Martha Rodriguez, and we go over her prep. Sheets of paper list sales and inventory. We talk about changes to the menu and anything new that is needed. She’s always in a hurry. Which means that she wants me to shut up and let her work.
The kitchen is all hers for only this slice of the day. And she needs every minute.
Email is a great thing. Drinking coffee, I look over emails that detail seafood and other specialty proteins that are being offered. The smaller vendors text when boats hit the docks. As do a lot of farmers. The email from Firsthand Foods tells me about the farm that raised the hog that we’ll get on Wednesday. I often print out the farm’s bio for the staff to read. At this point, if things are going well, the bull remains slumbering over in the corner by the bar. Everyone tiptoes.
Prep, prep and more prep
Clayton Senegal arrives with our clean linens between 9 and 10 a.m. He’s a New Orleans Saints fan, so there’s usually a lot of smack talked during football season. Our business manager, John Jaquiss, is always here by now. And all the beer and wine delivery drivers know his green Honda. You see, North Carolina is a COD-only state for any form of alcohol. And the drivers can’t deliver without a check being written. And that’s John’s job. OK, a small part of his job. So the drivers all start to appear once his car is in the lot, dropping off the kegs and cases of wine that we ordered the day before. Richard, our valiant UPS driver, is here a lot. He brings us everything from our Counter Culture Coffee order to our birthday candles from Crate and Barrel.
We cook our pork shoulders overnight. Times written on masking tape with Sharpies adorn the oven handles, letting the morning prep guys know when to pull it out. The smell fills the kitchen. We always start with the pieces of the prep list that take the longest. Or anything that’s brand new that we know is going to take longer than we hope. Optimism, it seems, is a restaurant disease. Often after market days, we make pickles, cutting mountains of vegetables and onions that rest in colanders on the prep sink while brines simmer on the stovetop.
Don't let go
By 2 p.m., the kitchen is full of people. If we’re living right, Tom Alford, our main food delivery driver, has been here and left. He’s a machine; I don’t know how he does it. His day starts well before 4 a.m. and can often go well after 6 p.m. He’s saved our collective butts more times than I’d care to remember. He brings us garlic and hoop cheese, Windex and bleach.
We should have our first menu meeting about this time with the front of the house management team. New items are gone over. Has the snapper been confirmed? Did Rose Lyon of Lyon Farms bring figs? That’s when the drumbeat for dinner really starts. You could say that the bull is awake and walking around the restaurant. Everyone keeps an eye on him. Everyone.
There’s a brief window before the service staff begins to arrive. The kitchen music changes abruptly. And it could be anything. Hip-hop or the Grateful Dead. We have a really crappy speaker that a line cook will connect his phone to with a chosen playlist.
There’s a pot or pan on every burner. All the seafood is iced in the walk-in refrigerator. People should be halfway through their prep list.
Wednesdays and Thursdays bring a parade of wine and beer reps to the bar, shoulder bags full of open bottles to try. Our job is to figure out what will work best for Acme. This is not unpleasant. At all. But only so much. Knives and alcohol are not a great combination.
Luckily, they don’t sell us bourbon.
Waiters arrive. Blue shirts over their shoulders. It always feels like an invasion. They have to use an extension cord to vacuum and a stepladder to clean the lights. The kitchen starts to really hum. A countdown starts. The sense of urgency is palpable. If you need help, you better speak up now. Bartenders carry bowlfuls of fruit to the bar to make mixes. Butter is whipped for bread service. Tony Traver, our expeditor, begins chopping all of his herbs for the night. Sauces are finished and stations are cleaned. Silverware and wine glasses are polished.
At 5:15, I go over the specials with the front of the house. If they’re lucky, the kitchen makes one for them to taste. Reservation numbers are given to the cooks. Bathrooms, flowers and music are double-checked. The host holds the key in her hand, looking at the clock.
It’s time to open. 5:30. Finally. Ten hours after we started. Acme gets ready to drop down on that ornery bull. Again. Thank God for that clown. And his ladder.
This story originally appeared in Chapel Hill Magazine.
Chef Callaghan brings Salt and Smoke, a traveling festival of authentic Southern food and music, to TASTE 2017 on Sunday, April 23. Enjoy BBQ, oysters, beer, music and all the fixin’s, with live music from Chapel Hill’s renowned bluegrass band Big Fat Gap. You can view the full TASTE schedule and purchase tickets for events by visiting the event website.
WRAL Out and About is a sponsor of Taste 2017.