Making a menu for Union

Making a menu for Union

Teo Paul mulls his menu (Photo by Robert Brodey) 

My friend Ten Gallon asked me the other day how I was holding up. I said, “I am getting nervous, but I’d be more nervous if I wasn’t nervous at all.” I’ve been trying to get the menu done. I’ve known it for a while, but now I have to put it down on paper. I want a menu for us to rally around, something simple and strong—a building block. The thing is, I haven’t done a restaurant menu in a few years. It’s different now. I have to explain it.

When I started cooking in people’s apartments in Paris, I wanted to bring the restaurant into the home. I wanted them to feel like this was different, so the first thing I’d do was deep-fry something. It was always effective. Shrimp tempura is a crowd-pleaser—just sizzling shrimp in a pot of hot oil on a small four-burner stove means business. It’s the kind of amuse that calms those who are paying for it, who, in the beginning, are always anxious, wondering if you know what you’re doing when you arrive with a somewhat crazy Swedish girl and a backpack full of pans, sauces, sweetbreads, tuna, meat and vegetables. I hit my stride doing those private dinners; I learned to improvise, to cook in the moment and to keep it simple, because anything can happen when you’re cooking in somebody else’s kitchen.

I’ve been puked on by a three-year-old and have had to cook around an old dog who bit me every time I tried to get to the fridge. Through all that, I learned to gauge with my gut what would get me in trouble and what wouldn’t. I learned that simple and clean food always outperformed the over-thought and overdressed dishes. I learned that there is an awful gap between having an idea about a dish and being able to execute it in the heat of the moment. And I learned that there is nowhere to hide when you’re in somebody else’s home.

I started my own restaurant to get away from the dogs and children and the packing and transporting, but I don’t want to get away from the simple intimacy of that small-kitchen type of cooking. I don’t want to hide; I want to keep it open, cook in the moment. And when things go wrong, I want to cook my way out of it because cooking with your ass on the line makes the food taste better. It’s more seductive that way. I need a menu that makes anything possible.