Posts Tagged ‘Alison Barshak’

After months of selecting sauté pans, coordinating colors and worrying about wiring, we are finally beginning pre-season.



The next baby step is inviting friends and family to try out the restaurant. These are people who have been with us throughout our journey and are willing to work with us as we break in our new staff, equipment and processes. People who have been really, really supportive over the years and feel comfortable giving us feedback and understand what we’re trying to accomplish.  



On our second night of serving friends and family, a guest asked me why I was so nervous. She said, “this ought to be a lay up for you.” I didn’t know exactly what to say. 12 hours later, I realized that she meant a “slam dunk.” I guess it was a compliment – but I’m in new surroundings, with a new menu, new staff and new equipment – I’m not even going to attempt a lay up, let alone a slam dunk. And even though I’ve been in the restaurant business for a very long time – or maybe because I’ve been in the business a very long time – I know that there is no such thing as a slam dunk. We work hard at it every day, nothing is a given.


During this pre-season period, I’ve spotted some things that need to change. Everything from how we set the tables to where blinds are needed to block headlights from cars. And then there’s the lighting system. We can’t program the system until all the lights are in. We can’t put all the lights in until we put in the banquettes. We can’t put in the banquettes because they were measured wrong and are too big. This is exactly why we need “friends and family.” They may be coming into a new situation but are not experiencing us for the first time. They know and understand where we came from and are supportive and encouraging of our journey. They are excited to be part of the process. And that’s the point  — it’s still a process, a vision – and not yet a total experience. There are lots of gaps that are slowly being filled in and adjusted. 




We’re thrilled that everyone loves Amelia’s homemade sorbets and ice creams but the pastry area is not meant to function like an ice cream parlor. We would need a special ice cream holding cabinet to scoop 4 different flavors for one order. We’d also have to hire one person just to scoop ice cream all night. So, Amelia and I are using a solution we came up with years ago- individual “dixie cups” of ice cream. (The kind you used to get with the cardboard pull up lids.) Now when Amelia runs a batch of ice cream, she will portion some into the dixie cups and pop them into the freezer for easy turnout later. Guess what? Now we need to source and order the dixie cups.


At Alison at Blue Bell, if I needed someone, I could find him or her at a glance. At Alison two, we have lots of different spaces. I might go through the kitchen to find Tom at the same time he’s going through the dining room to find me. Or, he might be downstairs stocking the wine cellar or in the walk-in making ginger beer. Our intercom system should solve the problem  – but we learned that the intercom doesn’t work if all the phone lines are busy. We set up our phone lines the way most restaurants do – but since we don’t want a machine answering calls, we found we’ll need more lines. In the meantime, we’re using our cell phones to find each other. These are some of the wrinkles we’re trying to iron out.



The bartenders are working on timing too. We don’t use mixes – we muddle fresh herbs and spices – which takes longer to make the drinks. Of course they taste better too. But they still have to arrive promptly.

Then there’s lots of silly behind-the-scenes nuances. One guest asked for a side order of Brussels sprouts and another ordered half a drink. It took some time to figure out how to enter those in the new POS (point of sale) system so that we could communicate the requests to the bar and kitchen staff. How do you write “happy birthday” on the dessert plate if there is no rim? And, if the plate isn’t flat, how do you balance the candle? And then there’s the new tandoor oven. How do we make sure the tandoor bread is ready at the same time as the monkfish?   

Nothing is easy but making it look easy is another story. We work hard at making it look easy. Our bar is now open. It’s really exciting. We’re serving classic cocktails with a twist, beer and wine, and snacks from our bar menu. We’ll open for dinner starting October 16 and lunch on October 27.  








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A few months ago, I told you about my search for a great chef for Alison two.  I really need a chef who is not only a talented cook with good management skills, but also someone who has opened a restaurant before.


I probably looked over dozens of resumes. Then, I got Bill’s resume and it was like a dream come true. I know that sounds kinda corny, but it is true. Not only does he have extensive experience opening restaurants, but he has also handled culinary operations for premier restaurants throughout the country. When I met him in person and tasted his food, I knew I had found a chef with the right combination of experience and talent.


Chef Bill Lewis

Chef Bill Lewis

Bill Lewis has the ingredients of a great chef! He has extensive experience in restaurants throughout the United States — Scottsdale, San Francisco, Denver, Portland, Oregon and Baltimore as well as Eastern Pennsylvania – including many 4 and 5 Diamond Resorts. His resume looked good, his food tasted great and when I got to know him – I was convinced. I think we’ll have a lot of fun working together.


Bill has had a hand in the building process, including overseeing construction, hiring and training staff, choosing china and kitchen equipment and more.


We’ve started collaborating on menus, which will feature international fare that we’ve experienced on our individual jaunts around the globe. Every dish will present a complete experience from the country of its origin. The menus – dinner, lunch, bar, dessert – will change daily. When Alison two opens, he’ll handle day-to-day culinary operations.


We’re getting close now and hope to open Alison two while you can still wear your white shoes. In the meantime, you might catch Bill at Alison at Blue Bell. Anthony, Bill and I have been spending a lot of time together and Bill fills in when Anthony takes a night off.  



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After I finished dinner service the other night I opened an email from my kitchen designer, Mark Stech-Novak. It was my kitchen and bar design. It was really exciting and I couldn’t wait to talk with him in the morning and walk through it together. He’s in California – so I had a pretty long wait.


My initial reaction was that the kitchen plan was so cute! It has little chefs working the stations, bartenders behind the bar, servers carrying trays. It’s like a little 2-dimensional doll house. Tom, my manager, was very concerned that all the little people in the picture were bald. I emailed Mark to ask him about it and now I’m sure he thinks we’re all lunatics.  

The Main Room

Actually, it’s a lot more than just cute. Mark Stech-Novak is incredibly thorough. Each little figure is in scale and shows exactly how the traffic patterns will work and how much working room we’ll have. It is very exciting!


Mark has created kitchens for Chefs Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Thomas Keller, as well as Michael Mina’s SeaBlue at the Borgata in Atlantic City and David Kinch’s Manresa in California. But, what impresses me even more than that is that he really understands the chef’s point of view. He gets the operation of a restaurant. He is knowledgeable, thorough and pays incredible attention to detail.  He knows how to design an efficient kitchen and that is key to making the restaurant run smoothly.


The kitchen alone is bigger than my whole Blue Bell restaurant. There is a prep area, a bakery and two lines. Having two lines gives us a lot of flexibility. We can use one for entrees and the other for appetizers. Or, if we have a private party, we can use one for the party and the other for a la carte. Anyone who has ever worked the back of the house can appreciate that.


When the sun finally rose in California and I could call Mark, we walked through the plan together. It is a great design and it has almost everything I want, except an open kitchen. I’ve almost always worked in an open kitchen, starting with the omelet station at the Commissary. It is not only what I’m used to but it also allows me to keep an eye on the front and the back of the house at the same time. I was disappointed but the physical constraints of the building (the width of the entrance, the placement of the hood) make it impossible. So the journey continues and I just have to stay flexible when there are curves in the road. I hire experts and I trust their knowledge and experience.


One change I’m going to make is to enlarge the bakery so that in addition to our in-house desserts, we can make homemade bread and ice cream. Of course, the expanded bakery pushes the kitchen toward the bar, which pushes the bar toward the dining room, which necessitates changing the bathroom entrance. But that opens up some interesting new space.


Next, I have to choose two things from my wish list. I will have room for two of these three: a tilting braiser (great for making osso buco), a kettle (for stocks and soups) or a tandoor oven (for breads and meats).


It’s been a week of choices and we’re very close to a final design. I’m excited about the way the kitchen space is working out. Next week, my 2-dimensional design will go 3-dimensional. Can’t wait!


This week, things have been moving really fast. We’ve already picked our china and flatware and we’re moving on to the name, logo, colors and ordering chairs. Meanwhile, it’s a really busy time at Alison at Blue Bell. Just finished writing another newsletter.  Amelia is baking thousands of cookies and we’re putting them in pretty little packages for guests. I think I need a nap.

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