The very first restaurant that I worked for happened to be owned by my mother and stepfather. We opened in march of 2008 in southern Florida. The theme was Italian American fare. The name of the restaurant was “Cena,” pronounced: Chen-uh. Cena is Italian for “dinner.” In its very short debut, I witnessed and attributed to the blood, sweat and tears that went into it’s creation and saw it’s demise nearly a year after opening.
My mother and stepfather had been in the mortgage business for over a decade. When the real estate business started to drown in Florida, they were hit pretty hard. They owned their own business and were feeling the effects of the economic crisis. After countless lawsuits and the declaration of bankruptcy on their home, they decided it was time to get out of the real estate business.
My stepfather has always been what I like to call a “professional home cook.” The man loves food and I don’t blame him. His mother and father came from Sicily to the U.S., where they settled in Buffalo, New York. Being born into an Italian family, he was raised loving food. His immigrant parents struggled to save money but always found a way to get food on the table. He is still making his family’s classic, one hundred year old recipes to this day.
When making new meals at home, he would test dishes on us. He would say “I’ve never made this before, tell me what you think.” He could tell if my brother and I were lying. He would say “You like it? No you don’t. It’s crap.” Then he would do a retake on his recipe at a later time (could be weeks to months later) and repeat the questions. If he didn’t get it right, he would do it again. He was persistent and wanted his family to enjoy every meal. There was never a half-assed dish because he put too much thought into everything he did.
When they left the mortgage industry, they decided to follow their hearts and open Cena. My stepfather had never worked in a professional kitchen before. So, this was something different than anything he had ever done. My mother was a server for a few years after high school and I imagine even in high school. She knew how restaurants work and more specifically, how to manage the front of house. They are both business savvy and can do numbers in their sleep, but nothing ever prepared them for opening a restaurant.
I was seventeen when they told me of their plans. Immediately, I wanted to be an integral part of this new venture. After finding the building, which was an old deli in a small shopping plaza, we needed to begin remodeling. We did not outsource the job to constructors and painters. We did it all ourselves. My brother and I would go into the abandoned deli and start tearing down the walls, literally. we stripped and gutted the entire space until it was ready for a new paint job and some furniture additions. For nearly five months we did this.
Surprisingly, I was not offered a job after opening. I don’t blame them for it. I had never worked in a restaurant before and had only held one job (which I still had at the time). If they were going to be successful, they needed to hire people who were experienced. Eventually, both my brother and I were working at the family business. I was hired as a busser and my brother as a dishwasher/pantry cook.
I always had my eye in the tight, 15’x15′ kitchen. I was interested in what went on in there. I wanted to know how to make the food and to use a knife. My stepfather hired a chef who claimed to work at multiple famous places. He did not get along with my brother much. There was always yelling back and forth (mostly from chef). I remember one day when my brother had enough. He told my mother after his shift that he wasn’t coming back “because the chef is an asshole.”
Now, understand one thing about Italians and my stepfather: family is supreme to everything else. Chef was fired shortly after my brother quit. Who was going to take his place? There wasn’t much money coming into this sixty seat restaurant. The small budget didn’t leave any wiggle room for a new hire. My stepfather decided to take over the kitchen and with my brother gone, he moved me into the kitchen as well. I was ecstatic.
Washing dishes and making salads has never been as much fun as it was at Cena. I got to see dishes getting made to order and sent to the window for the servers to take. I was able to pick up a few things and start to work with my knife skills (I found out later that I needed some real help with my knife handling). I learned how to make frying batter and the appropriate techniques for dredging food in flour and egg. These were all basic skill sets for a young cook.
Even though I was in college and had no plans of becoming a chef at the time, I loved working for Cena and with my family. I enjoyed getting a chance to do something new. Little did I know, Cena paved my career path years after I worked there. I eventually left school to work in the industry and advance my culinary knowledge.
After being opened for just over a year, Cena had to close it’s doors. It was a sad day when my parents sold their beloved restaurant so that they could come close to breaking even on the whole venture. They were still in debt from the mortgage business. This was a big bust for them. They didn’t know what to do for money at that point so they went back into the real estate game as it was something familiar.
I know that my mother and stepfather see Cena as a failed attempt at a new life, but they are always proud that they took a risk for sake of following their hearts. And I only have them to thank for giving me my first kitchen job. Since Cena, I have not left the restaurant industry. Food was instilled in me and I had to learn more and do more. I have now worked for several restaurant concepts that have twisted my food knowledge into a bundle of Italian, French, American, and Japanese. I have recently come to the realization that I want to focus my career in it’s roots, where I started. I am going to go back to Italian cuisine. In fact, this week I have a working interview for one of Seattle’s top italian restaurants. Thank you Cena for opening my eyes to the insanity, busyness, and thrill that is the restaurant industry!