11.24.2008

Phoenix isn't the right word, but...

Sometimes an event happens that forces you to re-examine your priorities.  Often this comes in the form of tragedy;  something terrible happens to you or someone very close to you, and all the bullshit and drama gets swept aside.  You look at your own problems and annoyances and take a step back.  Juxtaposed against the big picture, you get a new appreciation for the things that really matter:  family, friends, and life in general.

On Saturday this is exactly what happened.  During our prep period, about a half an hour before the bar opened, there was a strange noise--like a jet engine.  It's rare that everyone in the kitchen stops what they're doing to pay attention to the same thing--but this sound made everyone pause.  In a matter or minutes there was smoke, and a call for a fire extinguisher.  In the time it took me to run to the back to grab one, then run back down the line past the mist of the fire supression system firing off, a black line was crawling up our exhaust vent.  Jeff yelled for everyone to get out, and time seemed to slow down.  He cleared the staff out, and by the time we turned around to look in the front window, flames were leaping out of the vent.  Thick black smoke curled out of the building.  The feeling wasn't exactly like heartbreak, but that's the best way I can describe it.  Minutes later the fire department showed up and put it out.  Hoses spraying, men on the roof, no one talking.  Helplessness, despair and sadness tumbled around inside me until there was a grapefruit sized knot that wouldn't go away until the next day.

When we were allowed back in, the kitchen looked like a friend that had just been in a very bad fight;  all their normal features are present, but battered, blackened and beaten.  A whole days worth of prep ruined, water mixed with ash mixed with the ansul spray mixed with the sheet rock the fireman had ripped out of the ceiling.  Not a second was wasted.  We started cleaning up--sloshing around, water dripping from above, no one really saying anything.  It was dark.  All the lights but one were out--something that just seemed to add the the eerie feeling.  Im not sure how long we cleaned for, but in a short amount of time the kitchen started to look familiar again.  When I peered into the wood oven I had to laugh--there was the wood Paul had set up, ready to light, perfectly dry.  A snapshot of what was happening right before we ran out.  Danny would tell me later that in his haste, he carried his calamari outside with him.

Our owners, Laurence, Allison and Jeff decided that we should have a party the next day--a way to un-wind, eat up some of the food that would spoil otherwise, and celebrate each other and Nopa.  We brainstormed over what places were closed on Sundays--who would lend us their kitchen for a night?  Then Laurence asked "Can't we just do it here?"  It was one of those times where you want to yell out "Fuck yeah!" in response.  Everyone went their seperate ways to have a drink.  Chris mentioned that Nopa was his second home.  Someone corrected him--it's actually our first home. 

The next day we all met up again.  The kitchen was surprisingly clean--even more so than we had left it.  There was almost no sign of a fire except for the ripped up ceiling and damaged vent.  We picked out what needed to be used that night, and what could be donated to a food bank.  A fire was lit in the oven, and we started cooking again.  The smell of smoke was quickly replaced with the smell of roasting chicken and warm tagine.  Staff, family and friends gathered and ate and drank and laughed.  It was a beautiful thing.


Nopa doesnt stop for anything--it's constantly moving and alive.  Every now and then a new cook will ask which nights are slow.  The answer is that there are no slow nights.  It's easy to get caught up in it all and forget that out there, beyond those tall glass windows that life is happening.  The world doesn't begin and end in our kitchen--it just feels that way to us.  Life handed us a bad situation, and in true Nopa fashion, it was turned into something positive.  We realized whats really important.  Some less fortunate people got some very good food Thanksgiving week.  Everyone was forced to decompress, step back, and appreciate.  It'll be nice to go home again on Friday.




8 comments:

Patrick said...

When I saw the mention in Eater SF, I dashed over her to see if you had posted. Good to hear you're all right and that everyone got out OK. I'm amazed that you guys are going to be up and running again so soon!

Anita (Married... with dinner) said...

Likewise, glad you and all the rest of the crew are safe. Sad that it's coming on the heels of everything else, of course... not that there's ever a good time for a kitchen fire.

Jane said...

I am so glad you weren't hurt -- and that everyone you work with is OK. This is an amazing story. You're an excellent cook, and I think an even better writer.

Busy all the time. said...

sorry to hear about the fire. glad things will be ok in nopaland. and glad y'all donated to food runners, too--good use of product.

fledgling chef said...

Glad to hear that everyone's OK, and that there's no lasting damage to the restaurant. I dealt with a fire at my job once - huge mess, lots of damaged inventory, and the smell lingered for months. Looking forward to dining at Nopa sometime in the near future - hang in there.

Mark said...

That's one of those times that reminds us that life is a journey not a destination.

Glad everyone is ok.

Le Feu said...

Sorry to hear that man, but at least everyone is alright. Knock on wood I'll never have to deal with a kitchen fire.

Eyes open, knives sharp.

-Doc

Jonny Hamachi said...

What a wonderful recovery from a bummer situation.