4 and a half books. That’s what I did during my time down with Pneumonia. I tried working during those 10 days, but I mostly got in the way. I made a number of attempts to write but couldn’t get much to make sense.
I tried meditating, but instead I’d simply fall asleep.
Truly the timing could not have been worse. It was tough watching everyone around me pull together the last minute details to get República ready to reopen. I can count my contributions to that space on one hand, mostly me saying: this is the layout, this is the flow, this is how it should feel and this is how it shouldn’t. By the way, here are the daily playlists and new aprons for everyone, courtesy of Orox Leather.
Like I said, I was pretty useless. So I either read or listened to audiobooks. I started with My Remarkable Journey by Larry King. Next, On Writing by Stephen King. I then tried The Autobiography of Mark Twain, which I could not finish for many reasons. So I switched genres entirely and read Mo’ Meta Blues by Questlove. Last, and I don't think this one counts, but I re-read Chronicles, Volume 1, by Bob Dylan. What can I say, Chronicles is still just as good, if not better the second time around.
Now it's Wednesday. It has been a week since we officially reopened our doors. Our wonderful team is rested for the first time in weeks… weeks! It is a joy to see it all in place, the lights, the tables and chairs, the wine bottles along the wall, the Chef’s Counter. The shape of the space often makes me feel like I am on a boat. Perhaps it's all of the windows along the South side, or even its long rectangular shape. It all has a bit of whimsy, even more noticeable when you stand across from the building outside, and you can see our staff waltz from one side of the space to the other, beautifully.
There was a point leading up to this day where I considered changing the name of the restaurant to something new. Different. I felt it was a way to reset from what everyone remembered about the original space. I played with an old concept, one that I had written out before, but doing this would require a greater commitment beyond just changing the name. Getting everyone to buy into this concept would have been tough, simply because of how rooted it was to the idea behind the term “Cocina Ancestral”. I didn’t believe it was that far from what we were already doing, but the phrase alone would leave our Chefs very little room to attempt to create anything new. At the same time, and for no good reason, we would be walking away from the name República, throwing out our brand, its idea, and all of its beautifully built equity. In retrospect, I am not sure why it even felt necessary, but I went ahead and wrote out a “pros & cons” list, just to make sure the idea underwent some sort of rational thinking process. It wasn’t even close.
This new version of República requires a lot more work. There are ten courses in total, ten! For the first time, we are changing out silverware at every turn. To balance this, we made our blueprint smaller, meaning that despite having twice the space as the old restaurant, we are intentionally cutting down on the number of seats and reservations per night. Yes, I understand most Restaurateurs are trying to do the opposite, meaning they want to increase seats and attendance, however for me, it's about predictability and consistency. More on that another time. Despite its larger size, this space feels much more intimate. We made all of our 2-person tables face the Chef’s Counter. They are intentionally the best seats in the house. On any given night, you can easily replace Chef Lalo’s tweezers for a microphone and you’d feel like Henry Hill on a date at the Copacabana. (the kids call that a “deep cut”). We placed all of our big tables towards the back. The largest party that we can accommodate is a group of 6, and we only let that happen once a night. Over time, we’ve learned that most 6-tops just want to catch up with each other. In addition, it's a logistical pain in the ass, mostly because in order for us to bring out the next course, we have to make sure that everyone is back at their table. Meaning that if someone runs to the bathroom, we have to make the Chef aware that he needs to hold the dishes. As if that’s not enough, it never fails that one person in those parties always appears annoyed by the entire presentation. They just sorta sit there staring, wondering why they have to wait for us to stop talking before they can devour their food. By the time we finish, they treat the whole thing like a fucking race, scarfing the dish down in seconds while everyone around them gracefully enjoys the ritual. Look, if you are that person, knock it off. Your friends hate you.
Bear with me for a moment while we take a step back in time. It was November 7th, 2020, and República had been open for five days. One of those days was Election Night. We made $140. The next night we were closed due to “civil unrest” throughout the city, and the following days, no one seemed to be eating because the election results still weren’t in. November 7th, however, was the day when the Presidential Race was officially called.
It was about to be our best day yet, so memorable in fact, that I decided to refer to it as our official Grand Opening.
I’m sure you all remember that beautiful sunny Saturday morning. I was on my way to the restaurant when NPR interrupted its programing to make their own official announcement. I pulled the car to the side of the road, took a moment, and for once called my mother back in California. When I got to the restaurant, everyone inside was celebrating. I walked next door to La Perlita, which at the time was inside the Ecotrust building. I poured a shot of Mezcal for Axel and Erik and toasted to not getting deported.
At that very moment, a houseless man walked in, and abrasively demanded a glass of water. By now we were used to de-escalating these types of confrontations by offering folks water and asking them to leave. Sometimes this worked, other times this did not. This morning however, I was in good spirits. I poured him his water, bagged up a pastry, and asked him to step outside. Mind you, by this point he had already been a total shit-head to my Baristas and everyone in line. When we stepped outside, I gave him his water and the pastry. He then proceeded to take a bite of the pastry and spit it on the floor. After that he took one sip of water and spit it out as well, yelling “You rat-bastard sunovabitch! You are trying to poison me!” He took his half-filled plastic cup and launched it at me, then spent the next 10 minutes yelling at everyone outside.
Apparently, everyone but this dude was having a great morning.
3 hours later, I was standing outside the restaurant, wiping down windows hoping that this would make it easier for people to notice us. We didn’t have signs on the doors or really anywhere in sight at the time.
Out of nowhere, I heard that voice once again, and my mind went back to my most recent conversation with Axel wherein I told him that if anything ever happened to me, make sure my gravestone reads: “Here lies Angel Medina, a son, a brother, and possibly a decent husband. Maybe a good friend, an okay barista, and once in a while, a Rat Bastard Sunovabitch”.
Once again, I heard the man yelling. I turned and watched him approach, this time from the other entrance. At the same time I noticed two people who I could only assume were a couple, walking towards the building. Just like that, the houseless man jumped out of the bushes like a goddamn zombie. Same as before, he was saying all kinds of shit, only this time he was directing it towards the couple, who were doing their best to make their way through the parking lot and into the building. The closer they got, the more intense the man became. Let me just say, the issue here was in the fact this man was clearly experiencing a serious mental health crisis.
The couple must have been 8-10 steps from the door when the man got in the woman's face. The guy who was with her just kept walking ahead, ignoring the entire thing. The woman, who at this point was visibly scared, sorta just put her hands up, anticipating the man might do something worse, which he did. He first tried pulling her hair. When she smacked his hand away, he became more violent and started punching her from behind, at which point I ran over and shoved him away. He launched towards me, so I simply kicked him square on the chest, knocking the wind out of him. Eventually he got up, still yelling, and then just ran off as the two of us stood there in shock. I turned to the young woman and asked her if she was okay, but she didn’t say much, just sorta shook her head yes, and that was that. Her partner was already inside holding the door open.
Fast forward to about 6 months later - it's early morning and I am in the restaurant up high on a ladder fixing a light when I hear someone call my name. I look down. The face looks familiar but I can’t make out exactly who it might be. I make my way down and she says to me, “Hi, I don’t think you remember me, but a few months ago my fiancé and I were walking into the building when some person came out of nowhere and attacked me”.
“Oh yeah, how could I forget! I’m so sorry I didn't react faster” I replied. I cannot tell you verbatim how the rest of the conversation went down, but here is a summary of what had happened in her life since the last time I saw her: The reason why the couple came to the space in the first place was to do a walk-through of the venue which they had booked for their spring wedding. You see, up until that day, the couple was to be married on the second floor of our building, but they never did. You want to know why? Because on that day, her fiancé failed to react or even act concerned as she was attacked. Worse yet, apparently this was not the first time he had shown how little he only cared for anyone but himself. So just like that, she called the whole thing off.
As she continued telling me more she became more emotional. To be honest, I wasn’t really sure what my role was at that moment, other than to be nice and listen, which I did. I listened, and listened, and listened. And I watched this poor young woman cry as she pointed out all of the good, all of the bad, and all of the moments where she felt the entire relationship wasn’t right. She even mentioned she was considering switching careers, maybe moving out to another city and starting over. It was a lot! But I listened. Eventually, she pulled herself together and laughed about what just happened. I told her it was okay and one day I was going to share this story and no one was going to believe me. We laughed, and she went about her way.
Fast forward to this past week.
Pneumonia is no fun. Last Thursday we had our official Opening Night. Two days before, we had hosted a few friends and family. The whole thing felt beautiful and familiar. This should have been the night that I stayed home, but I didn’t. Instead I came out to make sure things were good and to give feedback on what needed to change or be improved. That was a rough night for me (physically), and the next night didn’t get much better. If anything I only delayed my recovery, but again I felt it was necessary for me to be there.
Thursday was promising, as I was starting to feel better. I was able to walk from our apartment to the restaurant without fully feeling like I was going to pass out, although I am not entirely sure if “NOT feeling like you are going to pass out” is considered a good metric for health. But I walked over nonetheless. I took my time, wore my puffy coat, and a scarf. I even took the longer route, just so I could stop along the way and peek through the windows of Dogtopia to look at all the pups running around the pen (highly recommend this if you live in the Pearl). Eventually I made it in. I looked at Madison and kindly asked them for a mocktail. I then greeted everyone working and tried to thank as many of them as I could. I walked towards the Chef’s Counter to look at the expo sheet and began to time the speed at which dishes were coming out. All was good. I walked over to Chef Olivia and her station as she was starting to plate desserts. I asked her how things were going, she assured me all was great, and so I moved on. I kissed her forehead as I usually do during service, and made my way around the space for a minute or so before taking my mocktail and my tired ass to one of the comfy chairs near the bathrooms in the back of the restaurant. I must have been sitting there for a minute or so before a young woman walked over and sat on the chair next to me. I smiled, politely. She smiled back, grabbing a book that was on the coffee table, then looked over at me and laughed. I turned back to her, still smiling. She looked familiar, but I couldn’t connect her face to a memory, I just had a feeling that I knew her. “Do you remember me? At all?” she asked. Once again, I looked at her, this time without reservation, trying to make out who she was. I tried, but in the end I could only shake my head and apologize. She laughed. At this point, I wasn’t sure how to respond. My heart began to race, mostly because I am usually pretty good at remembering people, and even when I don’t remember them, I just sorta play along until I figure it out. But I was not myself that day, and really, I felt bad for not knowing who this person was, worse yet not knowing how to respond in any other way other than shaking my head and saying sorry. For some reason, at that moment, I felt again like I was going to pass out.
As she was about to respond, her phone rang. She looked at the phone, looked at me, and said “Shoot. I’m sorry, but I have to take this. It's my best friend. Her company just had a mass layoff, and she was on the list. I asked her to call me when she had a moment. Hold that thought”. And then she just sat there on her phone, playing therapist for about 5 minutes. I wasn’t sure what exactly to do - a part of me wanted to get up and walk over to the kitchen, let her have that moment. Another part of me was enjoying the fact that without having to make any type of attempt, I was eavesdropping on what seemed like a pretty interesting conversation. It was my restaurant after all, and my comfy-chairs I was sitting on! Not to mention, I was still curious about who this woman even was. After a few minutes of this, one of our Storytellers came over to me. He asked how I was doing, to which I responded “Shitty. But I am here”. He then stepped closer and told me that Chef had food on the expo line for the table this woman belonged to. In other words, the woman who happened to be sitting on my comfy-chair needed to go back to her table and join her party before Chef could send out their food. I looked back and assured him I would make sure to send her back. See, this right here is why we hate large parties. At this point, I was more concerned with getting the food out before it got cold than trying to figure out who this woman was, so I looked at her and made the hand gesture of “wrap it up” or “roll”. I am pretty sure they are interchangeable. She paused, put the phone away from her body, and clicked the red button, hanging up. She explained to me that it is easier to just turn off the phone and pretend the reception was bad than to cut someone off in the middle of conversation. On any other day, I would have begun a long drawn out argument as to why lying to the person on the other line about the bad reception is worse than actually telling the truth and simply saying “Hey, I am in the middle of dinner. Let me give you a call as soon as I am done”, but at that moment, I just needed her to go back to her seat.
She was just about to say something when I said to her “I am sorry, but the Chef tells me he is waiting for you to join your party. If you do not rejoin, he will not be sending out your 6th course, and everyone you are here with will hate you.”
“Of course. I am so sorry about that”, she said. She grabbed her phone and her purse, stood up, and said something to me like “Congratulations on everything”. I watched her go back to her table and behind her followed three of our Storytellers, each with two plates in hand, Course 6.
The night was drawing to a close, and my energy was waning. Typically, I do this thing at the end of every evening where I try to drop off palate cleansers to as many Guests as I can. It's an easy way to share stories about my upbringing and the way I grew up eating flavored nieves and raspados, both very similar to the palate cleansers we prepare for our Guests before sending over dessert. I made it over to one table, then another. Lastly, the big table. This was going to be the final thing I did before heading home and passing out for the night. As our team placed one palate cleanser in front of each Guest, I looked back at the woman who only minutes ago had asked me whether I remembered her or not. Admittedly, I still didn’t. I began to speak, not my usual projection or delivery, just saying enough for them to hear what I had to say, which was “here is the flavor, here is the story behind it, thank you for joining us tonight”, something like that. When I finished talking, the woman said “Thank you Angel”. I smiled and began to walk away, when she turned to two of her friends and said “By the way, that’s Angel. He’s the reason I’m not married”. I took a hard stop and looked back at her as her friends looked back at me and collectively said something like “Ohhhhhh”. Again, it has been a long day, and I was starting to feel the cold medication kick in. I simply smiled and went about my business.
When I got home, I was starting to feel my body breaking down. It was only 9pm. My chest was in pain, and my throat was starting to close up. I started to feel what I could only describe as a migraine coming over me. I drank water, took more cold medication, and got into bed. I didn’t have the energy to read, so I just threw on an audiobook and let it play. In a matter of seconds, I passed out. By the time I woke up, Olivia was in bed next to me. I felt relieved despite feeling so much discomfort. I looked at my phone, and it was 3am. My body was still in pain at this point. I got up, walked over to the sofa in the living room, and continued drinking water. I didn’t even have the energy to scroll through my phone. I just sorta sat on the edge of the sofa in my robe, drenched in cold sweat with a towel over my head. I felt like a boxer going into the 12th round. Not like a real boxer, more like Lil’ Mac from Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out. I had nothing else to do but playback the day - what we did right, what we could have done better. Somewhere in all of that, I thought about that woman again. How did I know her? There was a period circa 2019 where I spent a lot of time “dating” in Portland, but she wasn’t anyone that I could recall. Besides, trying to connect her to that seemed a bit arrogant on my part, so I quickly moved on. I thought about former Co-workers, former Guests, Colleagues, childhood friends… nothing. By the time I was done with that whole exercise, I put my headphones back on and made an attempt to go back to where I left off in my audiobook. After reading Mo Meta Blues by Questlove, it felt right to listen to his other book, Creative Quest. I must have been listening for about 30 minutes before I felt like I was dozing off. Eventually I did, right in the middle of the chapter where Questlove is sharing a story about Stevie Wonder and the many drum patterns he is known for. Most people don’t know this, but Stevie Wonder is actually one of the great drummers of our time. Did you know that? I thought I did until I listened in depth as to why. And so at the end of the chapter I paused and went over to my Motown playlist on Spotify. All the greats from people I have mentioned in the past: Stevie, Smokey, The Supremes, The Marvelettes, Mary Wells, Otis… I could keep going. I must have been 4 songs in when Stevie Wonder’s “For Once in My Life” came on. Like many, I love this song. Stevie was only 18 years old when he wrote and recorded it, 18! I’ve always had questions about this. First, how can anyone be so great at only 18. The second, how exactly did an 18 year old kid write a song so meaningful, with so much conviction and depth in every line! I am serious, every verse of that song is a fucking poem! You could easily take those lyrics and insert them as your own wedding vows, they are that good! Sure, they might seem simple now, but at the time my goodness, Stevie! I love this song so much that I went ahead and pressed the repeat button and decided to fall asleep to it. For once in my life I have someone who needs me Someone I've needed so long. For once, unafraid, I can go where life leads me And somehow I know I'll be strong. For once I can touch what my heart used to dream of Long before I knew Someone warm like you Would make my dreams come true. And then I remembered her face. Holy shit, it all made sense, now. “By the way this is Angel, he is the reason I am not married”. Ohhhhhhh. That was her. The woman who came over and sat on my comfy-chair was the same woman who broke down to me about why she decided to call off her engagement after that whole houseless person attack during our other big Opening Day. Got it!