Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Going Dark: The Last Nights in the Kitchen at Poleng

I’m not particularly sure I wanted to write this blog and I definitely didn’t know what kind of tone it would logistically have.  It has become more of a mental chore the last couple of days to avoid the thoughts in my head, so I was inclined to simply put them into words.

Last Wednesday, Poleng announced its closing on twitter and their main webpage.  As a friend and former member of the Poleng kitchen, my reaction was obviously shock and disbelief.  For many people that work in the restaurant industry, it is common knowledge that cooks and chefs often rotate from kitchen to kitchen in short periods of time.  So, by default, sentimental attachments (or even good feelings for that matter) naturally are not built between ex-staffers and restaurants.

But, Poleng was a important step in my life and I’ve always acknowledged its integral part in building my foundation in San Francisco.  It’s cliché to continue on and blabber about the strength of the relationships that I built, so I won’t bother.  I still have some very close friends from Poleng that I will continue to forge strong ties with, but for the most part, I don’t know most of the staff there anymore.  In fact, I don’t know the former staff that the current staff replaced either.  People have moved on, Poleng moved on, and more specifically, I moved on.  That train of thought really made me question whether I really had a basis for my attachment to the current version of Poleng.

I’m still years away from sniffing 30 (so feel free to take all this with a grain of salt) but every year that I get older, I feel like I get better at detaching myself from situations – personal, professional, social or anything otherwise.  I’m not talking about detachment by design/choice, but rather, detachment as a subsequent byproduct due to a lack of effort.  I seem to simply be better at finding less to really care about.  That said, nobody held me accountable and nothing kept me beholden to Poleng, but I wanted Poleng to survive simply because there were still remnants of an institution that I cared so much about for so long.  With bad things happening at every turn, it gets harder to really care and invest in anything at all – and, in that same frame of mind, it magnified my strong feelings for the restaurant.

On Wednesday, I had a chance to speak with a couple of the owners in hopes of finding a resolution with their struggles, but I was sure that nothing could be done at this point.  I felt my efforts would be pointless, but inaction equals immediate failure, so it was worth a try.  After much talking and discussion about too-late-too-little-last-ditch situational efforts, I eventually reconciled myself to the fact that nothing would change this close date.  Food service would end on Sunday.  At that point, I told Desi (part owner, co-founder) of Poleng that I would like to be there Friday, Saturday and Sunday to work alongside the kitchen crew for their last weekend of food service.  I was inclined to do so because these would be the same team of guys that I worked with long ago.

On Friday, I returned to the kitchen.  I have never been part of a kitchen closing, but I have recently attended multiple closings.  The grandest closing I could remember was Postrio.  Chefs flocked back from different restaurants and cities to properly sunset the restaurant by working special dishes and throwback prices on the menu.  Local celebrities and Wolfgang sat shoulder to shoulder in a crowded and lively room.  It was a joyous, raucous and bittersweet moment when I looked from afar, but I had no false expectations that closing Poleng from the kitchen would be anything close to that type of spectacle. 

Friday service began and ended just like any other Friday service during their 3.5 years.  The volume was much heavier, but it eventually ended mercifully.  I plopped at my old bar spot (“101” on the POS) and started drinking with a group of familiar and unfamiliar faces.  And much like many other nights there, I took a regrettable shot, had a charming pickup conversation with a nice looking well-endowed woman, closed my tab and went home tired and happy.

Saturday was equally busy, but we weren’t nearly as plagued by large parties ordering a la carte, so service ran much smoother.  This time around, I wasn’t in as great of a mood to hang out – having exhausted most of my energy for the weekend.  The process of ‘86-ing food had begun to pick up momentum as we were steamrolling items while heading into a final Sunday showdown.  For the second night in a row, we were well into 200+ covers.  Some of the cooks would not be returning Sunday night, so it was my last chance to say goodbye.  We all shared a drink together and exchanged numbers.  It was mildly depressing, but thankfully not overly emotional.  During service, it was apparent that the unevenly brutal service coupled with the emotional rollercoaster of losing their jobs seemed to cause their frustrations to boil over.  This was surprising because these were some of the more composed, carefree and calm cooks I’ve worked with before.

When I got in on Sunday, I quickly found out that we were going to be seating 6-8 parties of 10 or more.  3 of these parties happened to be 20 tops (full of customers and VIPs), but only one of them had a buyout ticket.  In a restaurant, anytime that you have a party over 10 ordering individually off the menu, you are essentially condemning your kitchen staff to a night of misery and hell.  Now, combine that with the fact that none of these tables would seat before 7:00pm and you have utter chaos.  Pure madness ensued as we started to cancel menu items left and right with one call for “86” following another for every half hour of service.  I took a breath and kept 10 new tickets sitting on a stack as I calmly fired a groups of coursed tickets approximately 5 tables at a time.  I apologized to the servers and simply told them, “please let your customers know that due to the volume tonight, they will just have to wait until I work towards their ticket order.”

And to the credit of the faithful and understanding customers there that night, they seemed to be calm throughout the final dinner service.  The servers all seemed to say that customers were happy for the most part.  Then again, this was one of the few occasions in my life where I legitimately didn’t care and couldn’t do anything about how the customer felt about the pace of their meal. 

I tried to stay and keep the cooks in control by simply not allowing the idea of an over-frantic pace to unsettle them.  There were no repercussions for a last night, but there should still be no mistakes for the food going out.  By 9pm, most of everything was gone and over a 120 customers were served in a short 2 hour window.  I was sure we had hit the 200 covers mark for three successive nights.  Reservations and seating had already come to a close by 8:45pm.  Just as I began to exhale, I could see a realization settle into the eyes of the cooks.  There were no tears or anything close to melodramatic, but they all seemed to possess a very barren stare.  Normally at the end of a long service, you can see cooks with an expression of either exhaustion, exhilaration, relief or frustration.  But, the emotion and mood couldn’t be categorized as any of these. 

After everything was cleaned up, I walked out to the dining floor.  There were no DJ’s tonight and there wasn’t a after-dinner party buzz.  I milled around and had a drink with some friends who showed up earlier for food, but couldn’t get seated.  Eventually, the entire kitchen staff took some pictures, said our goodbyes and closed up.  I went with my friends to NoPa for a martini and shortly after that, the Poleng kitchen went dark. 


*fyi* Poleng will continue their nighttime entertainment service until the end of the month.  


  1. thanks for the recap of the last weekend of dinner service at poleng... i was one of the large parties on sunday and i could see the stress in the servers faces. tip my cap to you, sir, for coming back to see poleng had a fitting end. cheers!

  2. Where is Tim L?!

  3. good bye Poleng....the neighborhood has been rooting for you!!!
    you certainly added a lot to the city!
    we wish you the best on future ventures!