I’ve had what most would describe as a successful restaurant in one of the world’s most competitive restaurant markets for more than 20 years. Funny then, that I should not be able to explain to anyone in less than seventeen minutes what type of food we cook. It’s maybe why they don’t let me answer the phone around here. We just don’t have a tag line. I’ve always been able to tell “what is” and “what is not” our style of food but never understood why, or how to describe it, until maybe now. And I’m worrying that I still might not be any closer since I’m choosing a long form essay format instead of a tweeted press release to announce this “revelation”.
We opened in 1993 and we were quite clear what we were going to serve…food that we loved. We were young and naïve but had already mastered the art of the obvious. We were just the type of donkey on which the hype hungry SF Foodies wanted to pin their tail. We quickly learned however that if there were to be any follow up questions as to “what we thought we were doing here” we had better think of a tag line. A pat answer that didn’t invite too many follow ups. So we put our little heads together and came up with the perfect tag line.
“We serve homestyle food with no ethnic boundaries”
It seemed accurate at the time, if weird and contrived and DIDN’T MEAN ANYTHING. Yes, it was technically accurate, but I could have just as easily said,
“We serve no particular type of food here but rest assured it won’t be too fancy.”
And although I’m rather liking this last one as I write it I also immediately recognize that it is entirely too long. I’m even pretty sure now that a tag line should probably just have one word…Italian, Thai, Fast, Slow. There is even a one word description that takes into account EVERY other possible category and that one is “Californian”. I’m pretty sure we don’t fit into THAT one.
I am a Midwestern Jewishish product of quite possibly the first American generation without an overriding food identity. I had an attraction to and, fortunately a knack for, cooking the food I ate and loved. For me that turned out to be westernized over sweetened MSG laden Chinese food, amazing Eastern European Jewish food and amazing East European Jewish influenced classic Midwestern Americana. And although this last cuisine’s name has a few more syllables, for me it is as legitimate a cuisine as “Greek”. I am more Jewish Mother than entrepreneur, though, so the thought of opening a restaurant with a “culinary concept” was as foreign an idea to me as basil in Matzo Balls (done it and my mother is still looking for a way to forgive me).
Hence the tag line problem.
There’s another issue, too. Not only am I a Jewish mother, but a father of two small children who I’m convinced like having me around despite the way they act, the things they say and the way they treat me. To be a full-time-line-cooking-chef was just not an option. So I’ve spent the last 10 years annoying aspiring chef after aspiring chef, trying to teach them to access that part of their deepest soul where genuine expression can flow forth. They ask questions about how many portions of salmon I think we need for a Tuesday night. I answer with stories about Provencal Soupe de Poisson, anecdotes about my children’s adventures navigating their new world, or why Reverend Gary Davis’ singing style is not shouting even though some hear it that way. Or why the best approach to mastering the sauté station is listening to Bach. These are not just irrelevant musings, but in my mind the most appropriate answers. As it turns out, the foremost requirement that any prospective cook had to possess was the ability to understand what the fuck I was talking about at least sixty percent of the time (Reading this, you likely understand their frustration). I figured the actual cooking part would be easy enough to teach. Thus the cavalcade of chefs commenced. American South, Techno-Californian, Me, Filipino Fusion, Midwestern Lumberjack Aesthetician, Me again, Molecular Sous Vide Thomkellery, New Vego-Centric Lumberjack Aesthetician. It ends with me again, Semi Refined Nouveau Hippy Health-conscious Homestyle.
Yet somehow we were always Firefly.
After stripping away all that separates one cuisine from another we are left with just one thing in common. We are human. We crave connection. I will cook for you because I love you. I will cook for you because I want to nourish your body and soul like my body and soul were nourished by those who cared for me. I want my food to hit you like music, bypassing your brain, straight into your heart; to heal a suffering you didn’t even know you had. And above all I want to serve and eat food that is a genuine expression of someone’s unique self. Spare me cuisine that is aspiring to be perfect. I want the edges a little crinkly. I crave the chuck steak cooked over a fire with some tough spots and some tender spots; some thicker parts a little under, some thinner parts a little over. I need the too spicy, poorly balanced too much dry herbs Cajun ass kicking. Whether it’s Memphis BBQ or East Coast Seafood, a 15 course tasting menu (maybe), or my Aunt’s overcooked roast chicken (Although, not her baked fish. There are lines you just shouldn’t cross.)
When you cook for me, I want all that is you on a plate, with enough skill and finesse added to make it tasty. There’s our tag line and you probably won’t see it again because as a tag line it kind of sucks. But I hope it’s why food at Firefly will look and taste like “Firefly’s food.” And it feels so good when you say you like it.
In our downright unnatural 20 year life we have had varying success in executing our “lack of concept”, a bit like in all of our human connections. But also, like these connections, we have always tried to give our best selves, as honest and vulnerable as we can muster. Rarely is the result perfect but I’m sure it’s better this way. It is real for better and worse and, like us humans, mostly delicious.
I’m not sure they’ll be letting me answer the phones anytime soon.