Twenty Meals Make the Difference
That's the daily margin of her restaurant's success, says chef Joyce Goldstein
TO Joyce Goldstein, running a restaurant is a bit like tap dancing. ``You're moving, you've got to be good - and hopefully you're keeping time to the music.'' But as owner and chef of Square One restaurant, Ms. Goldstein also performs a balancing act: food on the one hand (menu planning, recipe research, ordering) and business on the other (everything from hiring staff and dishwasher repairers to marketing and paying bills).
In an interview in her gracious San Francisco restaurant, Goldstein admits her responsibilities weigh more on the business side - more out of necessity than want.
``There's nothing more relaxing than cooking; there's nothing more non-relaxing than running a restaurant,'' she says candidly. ``I cook somewhat - not as much as I used to because I have to worry about our public image to the restaurant, marketing, customers, doing all sorts of things that eat up hours of time that have nothing to do with food.
``Yes, I'd rather be in the kitchen making a soup,'' she concludes, ``but on the other hand, I can train people to make a soup and I can't train people to do what I do.''
An exotic-looking woman with long hair and dangling earrings, Goldstein is a go-getter with a seasoned knowledge of food and shrewd business savvy. ``What's the good of having great food if you have no customers?'' she asks, referring to the necessity of marketing.
Drumming up business isn't a subject many restaurant owners care to discuss, but Goldstein puts it in perspective. ``In a city where the population is declining and where there are more restaurants than we ever need, the biggest obstacle is getting people to come in and come back,'' she says. The difference between making it or breaking it is 20 people a day, she estimates.
Goldstein approaches her work with linebacker drive - a 70-hour work week topped with recipe research, food writing, public relations and charity events. ``I'm one of those people who's sort of puritanical in the sense that if you work really, really hard - if you work harder than anybody else - you eventually get what you want. Or probably what you deserve,'' she says, laughing.
A self-taught chef, Goldstein took an interest in cooking as a graduate student at Yale University while studying painting. As time went on, she found delight in testing recipes and eating out. She read cookbooks voraciously. In 1965, Goldstein started teaching cooking in her home and then opened the California Street Cooking School in 1971. ``I've always liked being in control of my fate,'' she says. ``As a cooking teacher, I had three children,'' (now aged 23 to 29). ``I could control my hours, my classes around my children's lives.''
A turning point in her career came when she filled in for a baker at Alice Water's Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif. The part-time job grew into a full-time venture with Goldstein staying on for three years and getting just the experience she needed.
In 1984, with the help of businessman Ron Chez, Goldstein opened Square One to a flood of enthusiastic patrons and a positive press. Back then, she had one thing on her mind: survival. Most new restaurants fail in the first six months; the next critical juncture is two or three years later.
Now coming up on the restaurant's six-year anniversary, she calls Square One ``a wonderful miracle.'' It gives her a feeling of accomplishment to have made it this far, ``but I'd like to feel that we are a classic institution,'' says Goldstein, glancing out her restaurant's tall glass windows as if nodding to the future. But even a well-established restaurant has to respond to ``fads, and the whim of a fickle public,'' she points out. Square One caters to about 500 regular customers and has a mailing list of 7,000, says Goldstein.
Craig Caliborne, food critic and cookbook author, calls Goldstein ``probably one of the most talented restaurant owners in San Francisco,'' adding, ``I admire her food.''
SIMPLY described, Square One's fare is classics from around the world - Italian (a specialty), French, Spanish, Turkish, North African, Russian, Brazilian, and Indian, to name a few. The emphasis is on the Mediterranean. ``Our food is robust. It's very full-flavored. It's unpretentious, but it looks elegant when we put it out; yet we don't arrange it and play with it and make painted plates and braided chives,'' says Goldstein, author of ``The Mediterranean Kitchen'' (New York: William Morrow, $22.95).
Scan Square One's menu and you may find: Pizzoccheri (buckwheat fettuccine with onions, potatoes, greens, fontina, and sage); Fattoush (a Lebanese salad of toasted pita bread, tomatoes, cucumbers, green onions, lemon, mint, and parsley); Bolinhos de Santola (Portuguese crab cakes with celery, onions, cayenne, mint, and cilantro served with saut'eed Swiss chard and a spicy red pepper aioli); or Grilled Alaskan halibut alla puttanesca (with tomato, garlic, hot pepper, anchovy, olives, and basil, served with oven roast potatoes and grilled zucchini)
Desserts are exquisite: Peach-loganberry Pie served with cinnamon ice cream, and Chocolate Mousse Cake with white chocolate espresso ganache, glazed in chocolate, to name just two.
One thing Goldstein says she strives for is a lasting impression on one's taste memory - ``for you to remember what our food tastes like. You can think about it.'' Planning the daily menu is possibly the most enjoyable part of Goldstein's day-to-day work. ``If I didn't have the creative part of it, I'd stop,'' she says.
Speaking as a woman in the business, Goldstein notes ``out of all the women chefs that you see, probably 85 percent are entrepreneurs, women who have their own businesses. Same in Europe, by the way.'' Men in the business have been very supportive, she says: ``I have had mostly male mentors, and they have pushed me, encouraged me.''
Will people invest in women restaurant owners? ``Yes, if they know her and they know her track record,'' says Goldstein. ``Women are so driven, so in a way you'd be wise investing in a woman because she's going to kill herself in the attempt trying to get it going,'' she adds, with autobiographical overtones.
As most chef-owners attest, the restaurant business requires a lot of physical stamina, as well as a love for people (staff, customers), and a good attitude: ``knowing that you're there for customers and not for your ego,'' as Goldstein puts it. Besides talent, an inquiring mind, discipline, and organization, Goldstein stresses the need for a sense of humor ``for everything, otherwise you'd cry all the time - male or female.''
``Equipment breaks down all the time. ... The dishwasher floods the dining room Saturday night at 5:30 just as you open the doors. You could cry or you could laugh and say `Ah, here we go again...''' she says.
``In one sense, it's hilarious: If it were a TV situation comedy, the audience would be rolling on the floor,'' she offers.
That's something that dispels the myth that chefs and restaurateurs are ``leading a very glamorous life,'' says Goldstein. People seem to have romantic visions that ``we make a lot of money [and think] `Oh, they get to travel and they get to go to Italy to research recipes.'''
``You don't go into it for the money,'' she concludes. ``You only go in if you really love it: You love to cook, you love the public, and you love to serve.''