If You Can’t Take the Heat, Get Out of the (Restaurant) Kitchen

[26 August 2014]

By Diane Leach

Molly Wizenberg rose to prominence with her blog, Orangette (Orangette.Blogspot.com), which led to 2009’s A Homemade Life, where she comes across as an intelligent, kind, thoughtful young woman with, forgive me, an exceedingly normal life. Yes, her father, nicknamed Burg, dies of cancer, a horrible event she writes movingly about. And no, no life is “normal.”  Of course, normalcy doesn’t rule out memoir.

Helpfully, a fellow named Brandon Pettit emails Wizenberg at Orangette, complimenting her blog. She is sufficiently intrigued to respond. One thing leads to another: reader, she marries him. And this makes for an interesting, less normal second memoir, Delancey.  For Pettit has a bit of mad genius to him.  He has multiple interests, and these interests—dance, music, boat-building, espresso machines, ice cream-making, violins—rapidly mutate.  But like his
wife, Pettit has nurtured a lifelong interest in food. In Seattle, while beginning a Ph.D. program, he becomes fixated on pizza. With a mutual friend, he decides to open a pizzeria.  Wizenberg is game. After all:

“What we had here was a giant violin! Or maybe, maybe, a picnic boat offering ice cream by the scoop.”

But opening a restaurant is a fully engrossing process, even for a man like Pettit, who once bought a broken violin and broke it more, just to see how it worked. It helps that his older brother, David, is a restaurateur with multiple successful fine dining establishments to his name; he helps Pettit write a business plan. When the perfect space is located, Wizenberg’s architect cousin lends a hand.

Other friends help with the clean up, building, schlepping, and overall hard work required to create a restaurant from the ground up. After a woodburning oven and industrial mixer are secured from Craigslist, Pettit and Wizenberg begin taste-testing various pizzas around the country. Pettit then gets to work on countless crusts, leaving a fine film of flour everywhere. Fortunately, the couple likes pizza. 

Wizenberg writes with humor and self-awareness. A meticulous type who prefers to plan—she does Delancey’s payroll every Tuesday, using a special calculator, and likes it—her personality runs counter to her spouse’s freer enthusiasms.  And that meticulous nature can lead to rigidity, a trait she readily admits.

Early on, as Pettit is doing construction in Delancey’s still-unfinished shell, Wizenberg blows. She wants none of it—the loss of her husband nights, weekends, and holidays, the loss of cooking at home together. Perhaps Pettit will become a hard-drinking, hard-living CHEF, snorting coke off a waitress a lá Kitchen Confidential! After the shouting, Pettit calms his wife with a promise. If it isn’t working after five years, he’ll sell.

The argument is resolved by Wizenberg joining Pettit at Delancey. There she helps pour concrete tabletops and build the bar. She paints, sweeps, and becomes the garde manger, or opening pantry cook. The physical activity doesn’t leave much room for pondering.  For a while, it works.

Each chapter concludes with a simple recipe.  Unlike A Homemade Life, which was heavy on baking and salads, Delancey’s recipes are more varied, foods the couple ate during the restaurant’s infancy or remain fond of. None are novel: chilled peaches in wine, Penne Alla Vodka, Fried Rice with Pork and Kale.  There is a marvelous recipe here for homemade ricotta, only the net is a pound that is best consumed, Wizenberg writes, in three days.  So make this for a party, or if you are able to polish off a pound of cheese in 72 hours. 

Delancey opens, and if you’ve read your restaurant memoirs, you know what happens. Things break, like the toilet paper dispenser. Staff don’t show. Great cooks have major problems with booze. The couple work like dogs. So do their friends—Gluten Free Girl and the Chef’s Danny Ahern comes to the rescue for several nights, as does Wizenberg’s mother. But eventually they must leave, one night Wizenberg finds herself overworked, overwhelmed, and cracks. Her staff bails her out, but she realizes her love of cooking does not translate to a love of restaurant cooking.  As she says: “Not everyone is cut out for being the motherfucker in front.”

Wizenberg remains active at Delancey, hiring and training staff, doing payroll, cleaning, tending to the zillions of things restaurants require. But she is mother to toddler June now, and remains an active blogger. 

One of the lasting pains of Delancey, she writes, is the toll it took on the couple’s personal cooking life. Prior to Delancey, the couple loved cooking together, even if they just tossed a salad into a bowl. Now, on Pettit’s nights off, he doesn’t want to cook. For a long time, Wizenberg writes, this was a hole in their marriage, one she had to acclimate to. But acclimate she did. The restaurant taught her to be less rigid.

Even now, with Delancey running smoothly and a bar, Essex, open next door, readers gets the sense Wizenberg occasionally still wonders what hit her. Yet readers also sense she’s come through baptism by fire. Delancey taught Wizenberg about more than the restaurant business. Delancey taught her how to be married: how to let go within a relationship while holding on. It’s harder than most people think.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/184294-delancey-by-molly-wizenberg/