Imagine making dinner for a hundred and fifty or more every night, after putting out maybe fifty or sixty lunches. Each day is peppered with awkward hitches, some ongoing, some new. Today maybe the prep isn’t quite finished because the morning cook’s car broke down (so he says), and the floor drains, which have been gurgling for days, have taken on a truly alarming tone. The cost of avocados has gone through the roof, and you really should adjust the menu prices, but people aren’t going to pay anything more for avocado toast. Despite a month of training, the new salad guy is just not cutting it–the avocados he wastes!–and a big catering job for tomorrow, not yet ready, hangs over your head. And you’re skeptical the prep guy will ever show again.
Hopefully the troops will rally in the hour of need, but ultimately, the phrase that graced Harry Truman’s desk is the guiding force of most chefs’ lives–“The Buck Stops Here.” Some one will have to make sure the prep is done, the drains fixed, a new salad person hired, expenses aren’t overrunning revenue, and the catering happens on time. And if the restaurant’s menu or concept never changes, the unrelenting tedium only adds to the grind.
The spinning rush of a beautifully conceived dish or a well-synchronized kitchen on a halcyon night can be as addictive as any drug. Yet how is a chef to survive the constant daily stresses of the restaurant business, perhaps even into old age, without succumbing to the abuse of body and mind, personal relationships, outside interests, free time–you know, all those pleasures that make life worth living? Many careers demand similar sacrifice, but most offer some sort of substantial recompense–the betterment of humanity, money, accolades, power–that presumably offset the losses. Even with the public’s greater interest in food and restaurants, and the resulting celebrity some chefs enjoy, the majority still tends to work like the proverbial dog.
A year ago, in a short video (
2DlSfht), local chef Frank Fejeran explained, in a monologue well peppered with salty kitchen language, how he’d redesigned his career. Fejeran’s friend, Scott Allen, asked by his employer Constant Motion Productions to produce a “passion project”–a story that really inspired him–chose Fejeran’s transition from fine-dining chef to entrepreneur. It is hard to leave a job where you have enjoyed success, as Fejeran had at Raven’s Club, but his reason for leaving the typical restaurant racket–to better be a part of his son’s life–finally trumped the triumphs.
A guy has to make a living, though, and Fejeran, after some thought, tried a new approach to fit a chef’s career into a reasonable life. Joining with his brother, Gabe Golub–partners, part of the secret–he started Ricewood, a seasonal food truck. He soon was part of three enterprises, all with simple concepts, tiny menus, small spaces, mostly takeout, and closed one or two days a week. Ricewood, behind Morgan and York, concentrates on barbecued meat and cucumber salad. Ma-Lou’s in Ypsilanti fries spicy-hot chicken. And Pocai on Packard preaches the righteousness of a couple of healthy bowls and avocado toast–at a price that likely raises a few eyebrows.
The efficiencies and economies of labor, training, ingredients, equipment, and scale were tremendous, and yet, with the three entirely different concepts he indulged wide-ranging interests and avoided creative stagnation. None were fine dining, of course, but he used his sit-down experience at The Ravens Club and elsewhere to formulate and prepare high-quality food. Prices, of course, reflected that improvement over the usual takeout–there is no greasy spoon in this trio–but Fejeran was paying his bills with time away from the stove.
Well, maybe the work piled up a bit, and maybe he missed that stove. When I recently spoke to Fejeran, he told me that since the video came out he’s sold his interest in Ma-Lou’s to his partners and put a planned taco truck on hold. He and Golub are moving Ricewood indoors at M&Y, where they’ll do lunch year-round; they may also open a few nights a week, possibly with a slightly different or expanded menu. They want to see how that works out before committing to any new projects.
He says, too, that he’s now more an owner than a chef. As the manager and staff at each restaurant fully learned their jobs, less hands-on work was required of him. Asked if he’s satisfied with that transition, he pauses. That, he admits, is a question he’s been contemplating–without, as yet, any ideal resolution.
A year ago, the path forward seemed clearer. “Yes, being a [fine dining chef] means more money but also more headaches and less time,” he says. “Is it worth having to get a babysitter and missing dinner with my son every time someone doesn’t show up for work?” But he misses the creative expression inherent in cooking, coming up with new dishes, the high-energy buzz of a busy restaurant kitchen. “The pullback gets stronger every day.”
Where he’ll go next seems unclear, even to him. Will he continue in the same direction, curve left or right, or even make a sharp U-turn?
Fejeran isn’t predicting, but we’ll likely appreciate wherever he lands.