Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Making Food For You

It might sound “cheesy” but all of the food here at Sunflower is prepared with love. That is why it tastes so good. For the most part, we are making YOUR food when you order it. There is no steam table, no pre-portioned, mass produced, just-add-water mixes here. This is real food like you just don’t get many places.

It does take long to get your food sometimes. We apologize. All I can say is trust us, we are trying to make everyone’s food with the same amount of love and attention.

I will NOT start making items ahead to just warm up when the order is placed so they can be turned out quicker. That is not why I am here and that is probably not what you come here for.

My goal is to spoil your experience when you go somewhere else because it “just won’t be as good as Shorty’s.”

Good eating!

Origin of The Sunflower Cafe

It was 6 am, Saturday May 18, 1996- the first day of the Sunflower Café. It was rough. Not everything was perfect but it was a start.

Ever since graduating The Restaurant School, Liz and I dreamed of opening our own restaurant together. We each had our own ideas for the perfect place. We envisioned the menu, the décor and atmosphere, the feel and the flow, the locations and floor plans, everything!

Now, believe it or not it costs money to open your own business and nobody was footing the bill for these two eager culinary school graduates back in 1987 so off to work we went.

By the time 1996 came around, we had each made names for ourselves in the local (Main Line suburbs of Philadelphia) restaurant world. As the years passed the restaurant dreaming continued but this business wears you down after a time and you wonder is it even worth continuing to dream that dream?

We had other, better dreams to fulfill. We got married, bought a house and had a baby.
Opening our own restaurant began to feel like something that just wasn‘t going to happen. Over the years we sat down and talked with several people about partnering up on a number of different projects but the right deal never happened. We still didn’t have anybody handing out money to us for opening a restaurant. After a time I came to believe that if you could save enough money on your own to open a restaurant, you were better off keeping the money you just saved and NOT open the restaurant in the first place. Opening your own restaurant is not exactly a wise financial decision.

Somewhere in the world there must be a fortune cookie that says, “When the money train fails to pull into your station, make sure you hitch a ride with opportunity.”

One day, on my way to Boyertown to visit my parents, I drove right by that opportunity. There it was in the window of the old Highline Restaurant in Gilbertsville where the parachuters used to jump out of perfectly good airplanes - a small sign that read “Restaurant for Rent”.

We called the number on the sign and set a time to see the place on the inside. Know this, I grew up in Boyertown and we would go out to eat with my Grammy weekly. I must have driven past the Highline thousands of times. Never once in the first 28 years of my life did I go in or even consider entering that run down, scary building.

It was dirty. It was dark. It was greasy. It had shag carpet ON THE WALLS above the booths. The landlord was nosey and opinionated and domineering.

Here is the good part, the opportunity. It was only $600 a month. What? Really? For a completely equipped restaurant? It included the tables, chairs, kitchen equipment, etc. Sure it was all those other bad things mentioned too but $600! How could we pass up the chance?

Well passing up this chance wouldn’t have taken much thought normally. The place really was a mess. Fortunately, two significant events in my life made the opportunity before me stand out as a great chance to change things for the better. I was very unhappy at my current place of employment and Jake, our son, was almost 6 years old and getting ready to start school. In order for me to actually spend time with him I needed a schedule change. The nights and weekend schedule of an Executive Chef don’t make for quality family time.

Owning a “breakfast-lunch” restaurant was always one of those things that many “real” chefs I would talk to fantasized about having. “Wouldn’t it be great, so easy, no late nights, blah blah blah…”. Right!

Honestly I think I believed all those things too otherwise we may not be where we are right now. We did it. We signed the lease, I gave my notice and we started working on painting, cleaning and menu planning. Some might want to call it a leap of faith although I never saw it that way.

“If you build it they will come,” was always my motto. What we have built, hopefully, is this-an out of the ordinary dining experience that is delicious and special, fun and friendly and unique.

George's Beginning

George’s Beginning

Restaurants fascinate me. Always have. I think it was called the Charcoal Chef way back when and we (my younger sister and myself) would go there on Friday nights with my Mom and Grammy. As a youngster, the little window in the swinging door without handles that leads back into the kitchen was like a magic portal to another world. What was it like back there? The bright white light and strange, loud sounds. Delicious food. I stepped through the portal in 1986 and haven’t returned to the real world since.

I don’t know about you but I have always wanted to own a restaurant. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t 5 years old pretending to flip plastic hamburgers on a Fisher- Price griddle, handing them out to “customers” in my imaginary Café. Things like Spider-Man, G.I. Joe and Star Wars were MUCH more interesting to me back then. If anything, I wanted to own a toy store.

At some point though, a person needs to decide what they want to be when they grow up. Time to put on the big boy pants. I was in 12th grade and still didn’t know. I liked cooking. I loved watching channel 12, PBS, back before the Food Channel. Julia Child and the Frugal Gourmet. Great Chefs of Wherever. What a way to spend a Saturday afternoon. Ahhh those were the days. I went to a college fair in the city and saw a booth for The Restaurant School. The rest is history.
Visions of Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca and Zed Diamond (free coffee to anyone who knows where that reference comes from) filled my mind. The sharp dressed commander, master of his domain. Well what could be more exciting than that? I am in!

I discovered that I sweat too much and cook too well to relegate myself to the front of the house so the position of matre’d was out the door for me. The kitchen was my calling. The surly grunts who work the line were more to my liking. Captain Kirk was my hero. Producing art from the depths of a hot kitchen poses an indescribable challenge plate after plate and I wake up 5 days a week to do it. I still can’t think of anything else I would rather do.

Here is a quote I recently stumbled upon. It touches me.
“…there is nothing to do but learn to love this, even after the romance wears off. You must love this stress and learn how to burn with it, not to be burnt by it, otherwise it is a miserable servitude….”. -Paul Pope

Goodbye Cowboy

Happy Trails
The times are changing. The Cowboy is gone. It is riding off into the sunset, slowly vanishing into the mirage on the horizon.
(Cue the High Plains Drifter music now)
There are a few out there who will refuse to let the dish die. I myself admit that, the urge to prepare and turn out this Shorty’s classic might poke at me in the future but, for now it needs to be put down.
I doubt many will understand why I have grown to despise making this dish. From prepping the prairie sticks to frying the eggs and squeezing the lime on before it goes to the table-I loath it. It has become my monster.
I created this creature back at the original Sunflower with collaboration from our first cook Phil. Phil envisioned himself a cowboy of sorts and came up with the name before I fine tuned his special into what it is now. His original idea was simply a spicy version of huevos rancheros, a traditional southwestern egg and tortilla recipe. Phil was good at brainstorming and giving dishes funny names.
The signature prairie stick topping highlights this dish. That was my contribution. In my fine dining, executive chef days I always liked to accent dishes with brightly colored, intensely flavored ingredients that introduced a different texture to the dish. The finely jullienned sweet potato idea came from a photo in Food & Wine. They were talking about America’s top chefs at the time. I believe they were discussing Emeril back when he was Executive Chef at Commander‘s Palace in New Orleans. This is before he “jumped the shark”. He wasn’t making an egg dish. I think there were shrimp involved in his recipe. It was the visual that inspired me.
The term Prairie Sticks was also coined by Phil. Think about it. Those crispy, orange, cayenne sprinkled yummies look like they could be rolling around the western landscape waiting for a starving pepperphile to gobble them up.
It is a wonderful, unique breakfast treat. It symbolized what I was trying to do with the average breakfast dish at the time. It is too much for the everyday. Its time has come, and gone. Who was that masked man?
There are ingredients that go into food that are not written in any recipe book. You can’t measure them. You can’t describe them. You can’t buy them in stores. They are handed down or they come from the heart. Nothing like that goes into the Cowboy anymore.
Adios amigo, your time has passed.

Specials Are Specials

Specials are Special

Many restaurants have lost the idea of what is special. A “Special” isn’t a repackaging of ingredients that the kitchen manager ordered too much of and wants to sell before they go bad. It isn’t an inexpensive lure to attract customers in on a daily basis. Anyone want the 99cent egg, homefry and toast “special“? Get out now, you are in the wrong building.
To me , a “special” is just that, it is a dish that for whatever reason, I feel like making because in some way the ingredients have inspired me to want to make it and offer it to the world. Often times the inspiration starts by seeing a photo or TV show or reading an article which gets my taste buds rolling. Sometimes I am shopping at the store or a market and stumble upon an ingredient that looks too nice to pass up.
Often times it might just be an item that lots of people like that I just couldn’t fit on the menu. It sells and I don’t mind making it, I just can not commit to it in print. It could be something seasonal. It could be a flash in the pan that lots of people like at first but don’t order over and over, no matter what they tell me.
Truthfully, everything you see on the blackboard will not inspire you to write into Gourmet Magazine. After a time you will notice items there that are present every day. Spinach & Cheese Omelet again! That said, when you do not see it on the blackboard you should know you do not want to order it today. Spinach has a shelf life and I can only keep so much of it around. When one is forced to constantly keep an item on hand simply because it is printed on a menu, inevitably yucky, wet, black spinach is the result. I don’t think anyone wants that.
Check the blackboard. Whatever I write up there is not a throw away dish. There is something about it that gives it credibility and most times it might just be a one of a kind treat that I can’t make again, even if I try. Get it while it is hot people.

Deep Frying

Deep Frying
Americans are getting fatter because most people don’t know how to cook. Contradiction, not really. So many of us stick anything in our mouths just because we are hungry. It isn’t grapes most of the time either. Big, multiple location restaurants are the way of the future in dining I am sad to say. It doesn’t look good for little gems like the Sunflower.
Corporate restaurants do not have loving, hands-on owners like we do here. They survive on systems, recipes and number crunchers. Personality pins, instead of a competent staff with real personalities. A kitchen staff turns out your food instead of a team of conscientious cooks who act as the hands for a Chef who really cares what goes out of his kitchen.
Many cooks don’t know how to cook. Think about the menu items at many of the big fast food or chain restaurants. Wings, fries, blooming onions, etc. Deep frying isn’t cooking. Anybody can do it, you don‘t have to be a Chef. You don’t even have to be a cook. All you need are time and temperature. You only need to set the fryer to the proper temperature and leave the ingredients in the hot oil for the scheduled time and ta-da! Check the numbers, no reading required.
Very few items come out of the deep fryer here at Shorty’s.

Sunflower Seed Blog Intro

The Sunflower Seed

Here we go.
Useless prattle from the guy making your food. The views and opinions expressed in this blog ARE the opinions of the management of the company, half of it at least. Liz had nothing to do with what is laid down on this paper. Don’t blame her.
Every so often I get the urge to write down my thoughts. I like to get what I feel across to others, I just don’t like talking all that much.
Contained on this blog will be a mix of personal thoughts and opinions, trivial information, Sunflower Café history and nonsense.
I always like reading restaurant history on the back of menus or on the wall near the restroom. I like small businesses newsletters. I like blogs.
Here it is, all of the above and more.
Enjoy your meal and thanks for reading.
George a.k.a. Shorty