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The New York Times


All Tomatoes Are Not Created Equal

(originally posted June 2, 2010) Barndiva received some wonderful press last week, which we wanted to take a minute to share with you. We have been very blessed over the years with incredible newspaper, magazine and online coverage. Incredible because we are a family with little PR experience that started a restaurant in a small town knowing next to nothing about the business. When we first opened we were flavor of the month, and that went on for a long time. But even afterwards, when the occasional barbs would come, we’ve tried to put criticism, good and bad, into a context that could help us understand what diners really want, what we might be missing. It was wonderful to hear what we’re doing right this week. Barndiva is our baby. We want the world to love it.

But it hasn’t always been easy to ‘simply’ define who we are, or what we are trying to do. Barndiva was very much a ‘build it and they will come’ adventure. We wanted to make the point that it’s possible to balance cool with accessible, serious with playful. There is a famous image from the 40’s of a café on a side street near the great meat markets of Les Halles, taken in the early hours of morning. Ladies in gorgeous gowns and men in tuxedos, all at the end of a glamorous evening, are sitting elbow to elbow with big butchers in blood-stained aprons, fresh from the market. Everyone is eating and talking, smoking and drinking ~ you just know the food is delicious. What struck me about the photo was how comfortable everyone looked, despite differences in class, the odd hour of the morning, the randomness that brought them together. The photographer had captured a moment where good food and the warmth it generates had brought a totally disparate group together. The meat markets of Les Halles are long gone now, having morphed into a giant underground shopping mall in the late 70’s. It saddens me to think restaurants like the one in the photograph disappeared with it.

Imagine two ideal ends of the dining spectrum. At one end you have a great Thai (or Chinese or Indian) joint, with platters of food served in rooms that are too hot and overcrowded, where service is rushed, the waiter is perfunctory, the music (if any) is scratchy, and you don’t give a damn because the food is so delicious you want to eat it with your hands. We return again and again to that place.

Now travel to the other extreme. Lots of room between the tables. Sound is hushed. Waiters glide. Plates are composed like a Caravaggio still-life, using ingredients in ways that test what you know about taste and texture, making you think about flavor anew. A big bill is coming at the end of this meal, but if it’s been perfect (and it has to be perfect) you won’t care. You are happy to be alive and able to afford it. When you can, you will come back here too.

Barndiva doesn’t fall somewhere in the middle of these two restaurants, that wasn’t why we entered the game. Middle is not what we do best. We wanted to take the vital parts of both of these experiences and combine them, to create a business that was uniquely honest in the way it approached sourcing, preparation and presentation of food, but nevertheless managed to elevate the dining experience, to make it really special. We wanted to design a space where every piece of the room celebrated the food on the plate and the act of eating. The visceral act of eating, that was crucial for us, but so was the before and after. We wanted fresh soundtracks and soft lighting. We wanted to show some love in the service, not just professional indifference. We didn’t want stuffy. We wanted the opposite of stuffy. We have all suffered through one too many evenings of “fine dining” where a ‘church of food’ approach demands supplication, taking the air out of the room, along with any spirited conversation.

We got a lot of props those first years from so many strangers who “got” what we were trying to do, but we also found there was no way to make everyone happy. For some the music was too loud, for others the lighting to low to properly read the menus. We had very few seasoned servers the first few years, preferring to hire children of friends and neighbors who dined with us, but while it was true they didn’t come to us with tired old habits from other restaurants, their enthusiasm did not make up for their lack of experience. Great restaurant service is not instinctive, it must be learned, and in order to be learned, it must be properly taught.

One reviewer in the early days called our menu, which we had flavor profiled into categories of ‘light, spicy, comfort,’ “Barndiva’s mood food.” He wasn’t wrong ~ we all set out to dinner in a frame of mind that the restaurateur is wise to acknowledge ~ but it looked silly in print. On the other hand, the last thing we wanted to present to our guests was a polemic about our food. We put as much information as we could on the menu and hoped intelligent diners would ask questions.

And so we learned, sometimes the hard way, to improve our game and fix what we could, without succumbing to the ever-present desire to take the easy way out and just give people what they were used to getting. I’m not sure why we are so stubborn about keeping it real. Perhaps in part because, in our short but interesting lives, it was usually the things we least expected that turned out to give us the most pleasure.

The recession has upped the ante with respect to making it in this high stakes business as there are decidedly less diners out there willing to part with their money without a good reason to do so these days. But the challenge of perfecting a hybrid like Barndiva is important enough to pursue even in these trying times. Maybe it’s more important now, considering that, thankfully, the underlying politics of food sourcing is becoming more relevant to diners.

I still find it hard to reconcile that even if you put everything you love into place ~ beautiful rooms and gardens, flowers, music, candlelight, inspired drinks, delightful plates of food ~ sometimes it’s just not enough. The timing is off, or one of your key players who should know their lines flubs them. You can apologize, but this being a performance art, prone to mishap, you just have to move on. Sometimes it’s the diner who has brought the unhappiness of his day (or his life) with him to the table and nothing you do is good enough, even if it should be, even if it is. Again, you have to move on.

Through it all you try not to forget what made you get into this crazy business in the first place. Oddly for me, it’s not the nights of perfect service that bring that message home. Since Ryan joined us, and now with Tommy out front, we have many more perfect nights that ever before. But there is still that incredible frisson of not knowing what can happen when you open the doors. Back stage in the kitchen the mix is always heady and slightly dangerous ~ knives, fire, product from hundreds of mercurial purveyors in the hands of a few dozen people who are responsible for carrying out different complex pieces of a single unifying vision. Timing is crucial. So is the chain of command. While on stage in the dining room the scene is the polar opposite, romantic but charged, like a house before a party. Timing, for that first drink, between courses, again, is crucial. Mood, how to create it, how not to destroy it, is essential. Physical semaphore rules. A raised eyebrow can mean something is not quite right at the table and you need to get over there, or, wait, something is happening there you should not interrupt. In a split second, you need to know the difference.

Whatever goes wrong in the kitchen cannot be allowed to interrupt the flow of the evening out front. Everything is in play. Everyone is important. Every detail matters. Getting it all to hang together is magical when it happens, and can haunt you, for days, when it doesn’t.

We served 690 plates this past Saturday and until ten o’clock every one was presented to the diner having met chef’s exacting standards. We were rocking. This, despite the fact that the dishwasher had failed to show up for work and one of the big fridges broke down in the middle of service. Then, heading into the homestretch, with the dining room and both gardens packed, a full board of entrees to fire, inextricably, four plates slid from a shelf and landed with a terrifying crash onto the stainless steel table below, obliterating ten first courses and four desserts. I don’t know what Ryan and Tommy felt. I know what they did. They carried on.

At times like these I think of Alice in Wonderland. No one made her drink the bottle to change her size in the first place, curiosity made her do it. What she discovered in the end was that accepting risk was OK, so long as she accepted as well that growing larger and smaller goes with the territory. Changing shape without changing your essence is sometimes necessary to survive. Restaurants are a consummate collaboration, but for the key players, those of us who have chosen to crawl through the looking glass, growing larger and smaller is the skill we strive to master every night in order to create the art and the thrill of a great dining experience. The rest ~ the security, the reviews, the respect of our purveyors, our peers, and our customers ~ hopefully, will follow.

SF Gate: Michael Bauer's review



Our Decisive Moment

Originally posted May 19, 2010)

When life at the Barn gets too intense, which it has a built-in tendency to do, I walk down Center Street to the Plaza and plunk myself down on a bench. I highly recommend it ~ find a bench, ostensibly with a view of something that has its feet firmly planted in the earth, and just sit. After a half-hour of seemingly doing nothing, you will find your personal universe begin to shift ever so slightly.

Sometimes I think great thoughts, but mostly I don’t, I’m alone with them no matter how mundane they are. Our thoughts are like our children, we always seek some redeeming feature in them. For physical health a run would probably be a better option, for speedy energy a shot of caffeine, but for an instant and refreshing change in perspective very few things beat a park bench.

he secret to this particular form of self-medicating is to leave your cell phone ~ blackberry, ipod, laptop, singly or in any combination ~ behind. This is not as easy as it may sound. We all appear to be increasingly addicted to our techno toys, more than we care to admit. Sitting on the bench this week I counted, in the first 50 people who ambled by on their own, 34 who were walking while texting, talking, or listening to something other than the birds in the trees. This was not even counting the groups of people in which someone seemingly “in” the group was simultaneously engaged in a conversation with someone not even there. We go on and on about how little quality time we are able to find in our oversubscribed lives; where once the mantra for our culture was ‘knowledge is power’, now we moan and groan about ‘too much information.’ Why then, do we find it so hard to turn off convergent technology? We are sensible people, right? Where does this insatiable desire to be connected ALL THE TIME at the expense of our and everyone else’s privacy ~ and perhaps our sanity ~ come from?

My first thought sitting on the bench was that digital social mediums wire directly into the part of our brains that bows to a social hierarchy where not much has changed since High School ~ if you aren’t in, you are out. Nobody wants to be left out. The rise of twitching twittering facebook communities seems to support this theory ~ digital popularity as the new religion, documentation of even the smallest details of our lives, as the new confession.

But I had another thought a few hours later, as I watched a man leave the warm and beautiful dining room in Barndiva to go outside in the rain to reply to a text, despite the candlelight, the music and what seemed like an engaging conversation he was having with his girlfriend and another couple. Perhaps our fear of ‘turning off’ rises from a deeper genetic imperative, an urge to know what’s coming before it arrives. Digital Media is our Paul Revere: if we listen closely we will have time to lock the doors and gather the muskets. Or maybe it goes back further still, all the way to our cave dwelling ancestors, where “knowledge is power” really did mean the difference between life and death. You eat the bear or the bear eats you.

In which case this unquenchable desire for information is a rather cool, if subconscious, form of self-protection. The question then becomes, protection from what? What, in modern times, is the bear?

Probably the same thing it’s always been, (when it wasn’t an actual bear), we are, deep down, desperately afraid we’re living unexamined lives and that we will die without ever figuring out what the point was. But trying to find out what the point is, much less finding a point worth living for is an increasingly quixotic challenge. We exist in a world where global warming is touted as a myth, Sarah Palin is considered sartorial, Monsanto “helps farmers learn to be sustainable,” and the oil slick soaking the coastlines on one of the most fragile ecosystems in the world, is, according to a “pre-eminent” scientists quoted in The New York Times, “not as bad as you think.” We live in a world where verifiable truth is taking a beating ~ let's face it ladies and gentlemen, truth gets the shit beat out of it every day. Which makes it awfully hard to follow the real storyline of history anymore, much less how our lives might intersect, and even be reflected, in it.

I get all that. What is deeply worrying is that instead of shifting our search for insight elsewhere, using these astonishing media tools and outlets to develop critical wherewithal, we choose to drop the pro and dity in the search for profundity and just go all out for FUN. It's fun to document the minutiae of our lives, and if anyone laughs at us, so what? We, in turn, through the wonders of tweets, facebook, youtube, twiddish, etc. are laughing at them as well. As for traditional ports of call ~ Art, Film, Music ~ where we once sought and found meaningful narratives that reflected a whole range of human values, the work that now gets produced has become, by and large, contrived product placements in-filled with perishable and disposable information. We are manipulated, pandered to, and infantilized from virtually every medium where sales, not enlightment, is the driving force.

Of course Will Shakespeare wanted people to attend his plays as a testament to his genius, but can we assume he didn’t need product placement to get the bard mojo working? If Jean Luc Godard had to track first day ticket sales, would the French New Wave have survived? Where are the Van Goghs and the John Coltranes, who never made a dime out of painting or playing their hearts out? As Thomas Wolfe knew (another example of a crazy art for arts sake guy) you can’t go home again. But where, exactly, are we going?

If everything we are and everything we love, need, and desire, issues from a personal set of values that can only start its engines when our eyes or our ears engage, it's probably a good idea to take a critical look from time to time at how we form those values, what feeds them, and, crucially, what we need to do to keep them humming. When we lose control of the intricate plot of our lives, even for a little while, we lose the linkages that connect one thing to another ~ before you know it you are inside the mouth of the bear.

The great photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson believed “There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment." By decisive he meant personally verifiable. Bresson wasn’t out to prove things only happen because we see them, but that with patience and perception human beings have the power to visually organize the world so it fits a pattern that means something, and from that pattern a blueprint for living can emerge.

Two years after the second World War ended, when Bresson was, in his own words, “completely lost,” he threw in with fellow photographers George Rodger, Robert Capa and David “Chim” Seymour” to found Magnum, “ a community of thought, a shared human quality, a curiosity about what is going on in the world, a respect for what is going on and a desire to transcribe it visually."

It seems to me, even If you never pick up a camera, that these are words to live by today ~ curiosity and respect for and about the human condition, fueled by a desire to create a community of thought based upon shared human values. Decisive moments occur in all of our lives, you don’t need to be a Magnum photographer to find them. You do need the time to look and process, in your own mind, the meaning of what you see. You need time to find the artists out there who are still committed to telling a human story of struggle, for only in that kind of story will we also discover the tools to survive.

The technological sensory overload we all suffer from does not encourage this process. Just having more information at our fingertips does not make us smarter. And we need to get smarter, really fast, because what all our wonderful social media and popular entertainments aren’t telling us is that the bear is gaining.

RESOURCES Museums, libraries and bookshops with more re-prints than top sellers are still the best places to experience art that has transforming powers. Dance and Opera are two art forms which, for very different reasons, have both proved artistically resilient and deserve your patronage. Both are great value (Opera only if you watch it via satellite feed).

To watch great cinema, which is still being made (but you won’t find at your local 12 plex) check out Not a bad film in the bunch, join or risk them being checked out at Blockbuster.

To hear stimulating music and life affirming conversation, check out programs offered at the Herbst Theatre, especially the City Arts and Lectures Series. One of the best nights I had last year was sitting with Geoff and Lukka, listening to Wendell Berry talking with Michael Pollen. Two human beings sitting on a stage just having a chat and it was riveting. How about that? I missed Frank Rich and Mark Danner in April and I’m still kicking myself.

Intersection 5M- a satellite art space, screening room, and event space in SF worth keeping track of. 5M features local exhibitions focused around arts for change. The inaugural gallery exhibit includes our friend Laura Parker: Let's Talk of a System