THE HISTORY OF BRENDA’S – PART I
with a Recipe for Onion Soup Gratinee
Back in the day, when I was still a lowly line cook, sweating my ass off in steamy New Orleans’ kitchens, I began concocting an idea that would put an end to the grueling late night hours.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Learning to cook and moving through the ranks as a twenty-something in my hometown, (the greatest food city in North America according to Saveur Magazine right now by the way), was an extraordinary time in my life that I wouldn’t trade for anything. Imagine having the freedom to cook in a city filled with fresh abundant seafood, deep culinary culture, captive hungry diners and bars that never closed.
My mantra at the time was “work hard, play hard” and man did I live up to it. Many a Sunday morning, I’d drag my overworked hungover body outside The Bluebird Cafe on Prytania to wait my turn for some much-needed leftover alcohol absorption.
It was at these times that I began plotting my escape.
Escape Plan from the Life of a Line Cook:
#1. Become the Boss. I knew I didn’t have a choice if I was searching for eternal happiness. I am just hard-wired this way. By the age of 25 I had pretty much figured out that I could not lead a life of following someone else’s orders and following through on someone else’s ideas.
#2. No more workin’ when everyone else is playin’. Do you have any idea how many concerts, dinners, holidays, ball games and parties, amongst other various special occasions, line cooks miss out on in a year? ALL OF THEM. Know why? Because when everybody else is playin’, cooks are busy in the back sweating their hinies off putting on the show.
#3. Love what I do ALL the time. This one was simple. I love to cook. I especially love to cook the kind of food that I crave all the time.
Of course, these first few points, while the basis of my ultimate goal as a self-employed Chef, were only the tip of the iceberg.
Then one day, with over a decade and a half of kitchen experience, nine restaurants, three cities, six chef positions and seven restaurant openings under my belt, at the not-so-tender age of 39, I was finally in a position to open my own little place.
I had truly reached a point in my career/life where I had no excuses left for not following my ultimate dream and just going for it. I knew if I didn’t at least try I would be destined to be an eternally unhappy passive/aggressive chef. So I feverishly finished up my business plan, shopped it around to various banks and organizations, took out a lien on my condo, and secured a very high interest loan from the only lender who would come near me. All of this, of course, was all going down while opening the last restaurant I would ever open for another person. “Stress” is too small a word.
It was on Craigslist of all places that I found the listing for the tiny Japanese-Korean-American greasy spoon called Sun’s, just a few blocks from my tiny condo in the Tenderloin, that was to become Brenda’s. (Though at the time I was having a hard time mustering up the balls to name a restaurant after myself).
I can still fondly recall that first day walking to the newly purchased space, toolbox, bucket, rags and new keys in hand, ready to tackle the job of cleaning and dismantling as much as I could on my own, when I was greeted by V O M I T. If you think our little stretch of the Tenderloin is rough now, you wouldn’t have recognized it six years ago. Yes, before I could even enter my new place, I had to actually clean vomit off of the doorknob as well as the rest of the door and stoop just to get in. Already a nervous, vulnerable wreck from having just quit a steady job and investing everything of value I had ever amassed, I told myself that the welcome wagon of puke was not an omen or sign of imminent failure and then made a promise to myself that I could have as many cocktails as I desired for dinner that night.
It was around then, once folks realized that I was really going for it, that friends really started showing up and lending a hand. It was a C R A Z Y time.
And it was a G O O D time.
By the end of the six-week long build-out and the time the last glass of wine from the opening night party was metabolized, I had pulled together a pretty cute, tiny little space that I had decided to call Brenda’s French Soul Food. In the interest of actually having a LIFE as well as being the big boss, I had decided to only serve breakfast/lunch Monday through Friday in the beginning. How was it, those first few halcyon days you ask? Stay tuned for Part II and find out one of the biggest details a would-be restaurateur could possibly forget before opening her own restaurant. Lordy, I’m getting stressed out just thinking about it.
ONION SOUP GRATINEE
In case anyone was wondering how I came up with the name of the restaurant, I owe the actual coinage of the phrase “French soul food” to my buddy, Patrick Delessio. Patrick, an incredibly gifted pastry chef and I went way back to when I was still creating Fusion cuisine at Oritalia. Remember Fusion? Anyway, Patrick was a huge fan of my cooking, as well as many other things, effusive queen that he is. The laundry list of things that he loves also include men, partying and talking. A LOT. It was during one of the many days when I worked for him at his Bakery/Cafe as Executive Chef, while chatting endlessly at my work station that he said, “You know girl, I don’t know what it is about your food that I love so much. It doesn’t matter what style of cooking you’re doing, but it always seems to be based in French cooking, but with so much… soul…I mean, how do you do it? It’s almost like you’re cooking “French soul food”, don’t you think?” I would bet that he couldn’t recall this tiny snippet from one of our numerous talks, but nothing had ever made more sense to me to describe my cooking.
In the various versions of menus that I would brainstorm early on, there was a much more French influence to what I was trying to convey at the restaurant. Quiches, crepes, Salade Nicoise and ratatouille were all left on the editing table in favor of more Creole Soul dishes which was what, I soon found out, what my clientele was really craving.
This Onion Soup has made the cut and is on our current dinner menu. The recipe couldn’t be easier or more comforting on a chilly San Francisco night.
To make soup for 4 Servings:
2 Large Yellow Onions, Julienned
1/2 Stick Unsalted Butter
2 TB Olive Oil
1 TB Sherry
TSP Coarse Grain Mustard
4 Cups Beef Broth
Salt and Pepper to taste
In a medium saucepan, melt butter, add olive oil and onions. Slowly cook onions over low flame, not stirring very often, until nicely caramelized and very soft. This may take up to 30 minutes. Sprinkle flour over onions and cook for 2 minute more. Add sherry, mustard and broth and let simmer for 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
To assemble you will need:
Prepared Soup (preferably still a little warm)
Four 1/4″ Slices Baguette
Eight Slices Gruyere
Minced Parsley for Garnish
Crank your oven up as high as it will go. Divide soup among oven-proof bowls leaving about 1/2″ from top empty. Float one slice of bread on top of each. Top each with two slices cheese. Place in oven until golden and bubbly. Garnish with minced parsley and Bon Appetit!