February 14, 2020 | Frank Bonanno
(That’s Lynn Whittum in the photo. See her tension, waiting for diners on a big night? For 25 years, Jacqueline and I experience Valentine’s together, but differently, and we wanted to explore that. This is Jacqueline’s take . . .)
It’s February 14, 2003 and I’m sitting on a cooler in the Luca kitchen, rumpled and revealed in the fluorescent lights, spattered with wine and flour and sauce. I’ve kicked my heels to the concrete and I’m drinking warmish champagne right out of the bottle, waiting for Frank to finish mopping. I’m pregnant but I don’t know it yet. Of course there must be other people in the kitchen, Gus scrubbing the last of the pots, Noel polishing stemware, but in my memory it’s just Frank mopping and me waiting for him to finish. Servers laugh at the bar, pouring shift drinks, counting cash, rehashing the best and worst of the evening, because in those days shift drinks and cash and lingering at the bar. In the alley between our restaurants, Mizuna cooks sit in wobbly dining chairs no longer for public use, smoking if they smoke, chef coats unbuttoned, aprons in blue puddles here and there on the asphalt. It was supposed to snow tonight, but it didn’t. It smells like it might yet. There’s promise in the air.
Our second night of business at Luca was Valentine’s Eve. A restaurant opening is a Big Deal; Valentine’s is a Big Deal. Marry those nights and we are all on a really Big, really important date together. To me this is more than hospitality– it’s intimacy. It’s so personal that I’ll cast rose petals on the sidewalk for you, hold the door for you and take the umbrella from your hand. Relieve you of your coat, pull out your chair. I’ll meet your gaze with mine, place my menu in your palm and within our first ten minutes together, I know that you like to sit next to your partner rather than across, and that your body temperature runs hot. I know that you prefer rye to bourbon, and that you’re left handed, and that you’re trying to stay away from gluten. I catch your tone as you speak to one another and to my team. When I lean in to brush your crumbs away, I’m floating in your perfume and conversation. I’m a witness to the eye roll of the bite you love, and the lip print you wipe away with your thumb because you’re kind and you’re tidy. I fill the empty glasses and remove your soiled napkins and carry away your spent plates. I adjust the heat and the music for you, pace your dining, and your joy tonight is my joy, too; if you laugh I join you; if I fall short our nights will suffer together. I move between settings—your candle lit, humming, aromatic evening of discovery is a swinging door away from rhythmic chopping, and the clamor of pots and kitchen tools. and flames and plates lined at the ready with rims waiting to be wiped, trash and plumbing and steam machines and wiping and polishing and the hope of perfection on a finely tuned line that will translate to perfection in a finely tuned dining room. Every night in a restaurant is like this, but on Valentine’s Night it’s magnified, because it’s a Big Deal. I changed the language on the menus for you tonight, literally transformed them into love messages signed by chefs and sealed in red envelopes with wax. Before you crossed the rose petals, our entire team gathered over notes about you and plotted your date: what did you drink last time you were in? How long did you dine? Did we wow each other? How can we build on our story together?
It’s so intimate.
To me, it’s dancing, no, it’s more than dancing, it’s dancing naked on a stage of mirrors, and I’m hoping that the choreography is so perfect no one will notice our utter humanness.
This Valentine’s Eve in 2003, this night at Luca is perfect. We polished and set and poured and served and you loved the Rabbit Three Ways, the Brick Chicken, the Wild Mushroom Fusilli and home made bread and the prosciutto was so sheer you could see right through it, and the parm so sharp it dried the tongue, and the Barolo so round it softened it up. The months in production came together seamlessly–deeply satisfying, wildly popular, happily toasted, and it was. Perfect. This moment of celebration over dregs of champagne is perfect. My husband smells like smoke and meat, and in the time it’s taken me to type this, he’s finished mopping, and he is perfect.
I jump off the cooler and throw the champagne bottle away and we walk through the alley of chefs, pause to laugh and tease. Did I see you pulling away from the Benny’s parking lot (illegally parked) full and happy? Did you wave? Maybe. Did you see Frank and I holding hands? When we get home, we’ll wake up our son just to tickle him, because it’s his birthday and we missed him. We three fall into sleep and dream together of this life we are building, and my last glimpse of the day is out the window, as the snow begins to fall.