Musing on Friends and Family | Frank Bonanno

Musing on Friends and Family

Friends and Family—Industry term for a restaurant’s opening practice night.

The words “Friends and Family” make the night sound so casual, like a big, happy party full of hugs and clinking glasses and sincere sidebars from long-lost friends in the kitchen. Some of those elements hold: I pack familiar faces and favorite people and lots of food and drink into those first practice nights, because I want to be surrounded by those who will kindly, lovingly, uncritically, enable us to practice food and service.

Friends and Family is no party, though— building a restaurant is extremely demanding—long, long days’ work in the face of a steady stream of questions from contractors, laborers, trainees, and co-workers (multiplied by two because we have Lou’s and Green Russell under construction at the same time). At the end of a full work day on sites, I head over to Mizuna or Luca for service, then get up at 7:30 the next morning so I can have breakfast with my sons. For two months this schedule continues, through Sundays, through a missed parent-teacher conference, through my father’s surgery that should have brought me to New Jersey–until finally:

The last table is assembled and set and our friends are about to arrive. The work turns to fun. I am in my element producing the food I thought up two months ago, making the last minute tweaks before opening—which, to me, is the fun part. Twenty or so people shoulder to shoulder, working out the kinks.

There is the pressure of the guest list and squeezing everyone in. We have room for maybe 150 people—but with the way our restaurant group has grown, we suddenly find ourselves with over 200 employees, most of whom want to come and support us, and most of whom want to bring friends of their own. There are favorite clients—those who came to the Mizuna opening nearly a decade ago, and have followed Jacqueline and I through Luca, Osteria Marco, Bones. There are the professionals who have helped us realize the concept—the contractor pulling 80 hour work weeks; the millworker who installed our bar top on a Sunday; the web designer who pulled off three sites, a YouTube, and a piece of art. They all have an interest in seeing us succeed, and they all want to come in and support our practice efforts. It’s a tricky list to work through.

Then, as the first night approaches, we’re figuring out the floor plan, making sure we’ve ordered enough food, linen, spirits—because even though they are friends and family, in fact, especially because they are close to us—I just want everything to be perfect. Flawless. But it never is. Liken it to hosting your first Thanksgiving dinner—the one you make for your intended in-laws—only it’s Thanksgiving for a hundred people and the food and drinks are bespoke and you’re doing it two nights in a row.

On this night we will find out that the water glasses are too big and the bathrooms too small, that the light over booth 3 is broken, that we forgot to order pepper mills. I discover that children are coming—and I hadn’t given other people’s children much thought; that the bartender’s wife is a vegan, and I hadn’t given her much thought, either.

And I never know what’s going to be popular. I think that I know what will sell, but nine times out of ten, I’m wrong. Like for Green Russell, I’m thinking the Meatloaf Sandwich will kill it—but in talking to the staff, it’s looking more like the Wild Mushroom French Bread Pizza will be the winner, and Jacqueline says it will be the Smoked Butter.

So it’s a big load of stress. Only it’s not. Because this is the night I get to see all the professionals I surround myself with in action, Chris Gregory smoothing over problems before anyone sees them as such, Christin completely in her zone, commanding, no choreographing, a work team, Jacqueline shoring up the room, Adam a creative blur. I realize the hostess who seemed so shy in the training sessions can absolutely run the room, and I remember that those Friends and Family eating my food, clinking glasses, and taking mental notes for tomorrow’s post-meeting, well. . . I remember why I love them, and why I love this business—why I think we all do—because we can make it through this night of incredible stress, trying to please those who are so important to us.

And the addiction? Of Friends and Family, of this industry? The addiction is to not just “make it through” the stress tonight, but to somehow, against all odd, to shine.

And to do it again the next night.