Verbena has been a career long dream of mine. I’ve always worked towards a single goal, to be better today than I was yesterday. Until recently I’ve only repeated one dish in a professional kitchen. Verbena is the platform for me to express an unwavering desire for new ideas, new flavor combinations, new methods, and new people. Key employees and key ingredients remain within the growth spectrum and are pushed towards their own limitations in order to show them that they are better than they originally thought. I’ve seen line cooks that have worked for me become successful restauranteurs, successful chefs, and better people overall. Watching that growth gives me the sense of nurturing and refinement that the very creative and meticulously detailed people seek. Removing barriers, breaking old habits, and restructuring the existing into something better is the goal. It’s not just a piece of fish, it’s not just a cup of coffee, it’s not just any mundane day of the week. It’s something special. Always.
We look for great things in order to provide great things. I have roughly 36 chairs and 365 days a year to make an impact. However, those aspects are received, whatever that means to someone, it is something notable. Life interacts with a kitchen. Life gets in the way of life sometimes, that “just” happens. What we do with those moments, those snippets of tarnish as well as those with glow, are determined by how and what we have learned. The best cooks make mistakes. The worst cooks grow. And balance is achieved. When balance is achieved, consistency can be maintained. We (I) will never say, day one was my best. That’s foolish and unrealistic. I will say that on any given day I will never stop pursuing my own personal best. I pray I never reach my potential. I never want to plateau. Even now I strive for a better dice, a cleaner reduction, transparent braising liquids, employees with less stress, a strong work ethic instilled by the collective group, a growing network of higher caliber of professionals.
I don’t settle. I accept.
About 20 years ago I was introduced to Lemon Verbena, the not so sweet makes you want to taste sweet but flavor is green, citrusy, crisp and short in finish. It feels kind of strange on the tongue like it has micro hairs on the leaf leaving the tongue “feeling” dry. But has this odd yet appealing lemon flavor on the front 2/3 of the tongue. This put in place what I thought was a great intent towards cooking. I had no idea what was about to happen…
I set out to find the best kitchens I could locally; none of which were any good. I thought, there had to be something better. I am from a very small town in Delaware county called Aston. Until recently, food and cuisine has not been on anyone’s mind or at the fore front of any movement. It just doesn’t exist yet. I’m very proud of where I’m from because we help our neighbors, I carried this with me and never knew it.
I cooked in every bad kitchen I could tolerate. There had to be something better. I worked endless hours cutting my teeth. I continuously made contact with as many people as I could, becoming well versed with the “everything happens for a reason” clause. And in turn, met a young Chef ten year my senior. He was cocky, precise, and new how to retain a phenomenal set of cooks. Impact. My first real kitchen. My first real gig. I was going to rehab in the morning and working 14 hour shifts until 2am.
I would go to the rehab facility at 7am. After an hour of recovery talk, which for anyone who’s been there, well, you know…I would start my shift between 9 -10am. Except for the occasional I’m- not -your- friend- knock- on the car window from Chef if I had falling asleep. No excuses. Ever. Verbena was a long way off in the future. I couldn’t visualize it yet, but it was there. A sort of misty vision, a thought with colors. I knew I had to change my life. And the Chef in front of me hated how bad I was and I loved him for it. I knew the next ten years was going to hurt and I didn’t care. I made next to nothing. I didn’t care. I wanted to be better. Somehow, I knew if I found something remotely close to being good within myself I could double down on myself, and one day I would be able to stand in my own kitchen and cook nice food. Food that causes knee jerk reactions, smiles, deep breathes, and the occasional culinary joke. Impact.
Those ten years, ha! I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything. My goal was to surround myself with the best people doing the best things. Wanting more is very different than doing more, you actually have to do it. There’s no faking it. I had to go with what I was good at doing. That became kitchens. That became the dream.
So, after a few long weeks, countless pots of coffee, an endless stream of my own signature on every shape of paper the mind can imagine, I am another day closer to the once misty vision. The one with perfectly cooked fish. The platform for me to relearn values as well as teach them. That same dream of neatly arranged kitchen equipment measured within a quarter of an inch tolerance. That picturesque mosaic of personalities buzzing around my restaurant with ghost like finesse.
I want my restaurant to progress as much as I did. I want my restaurant to become progressive but never lose sight of what we are actually doing.
Over the past few months I knew someone at some time would ask me about my story. And all I could think about was butter fried capers, crisp organic chicken skin, a wicked floral scented soda, a myriad of curveballs that only a few people will catch. The awkward(s). The rough necks pushing to refine. A mirror’s edge on soft carbon steel. Those sounds that only exist in kitchens. The cooks that actually talk to the food they are cooking. Those images, those aromas, those hospitality professionals with rigid standards, and a bone deep thirst for what we do, that’s what drives us.
I sit here at 2am just to answer a simple question that someone ask me. “What does Verbena mean to you”?
I hope I get to present that answer for a long time…