On a spring day in 1998, I sat down at the bar in a restaurant in the Cooper-Young neighborhood and wrote a check for $10,000. I had never written a check that large in my life. My hand was shaking and I was nervous that I would place the comma in the wrong spot. “How many zeros in ten thousand?” I had to ask myself as I scribbled my name on the check. The money was for the purchase of the furniture, fixtures, and equipment from a restaurant called In Limbo. It was in a space that would eventually be home to Tsunami Restaurant.
In December of 2016 I sat down in virtually the same spot, albeit with a different bar top, and wrote another check for $10,000. Only this check was earnest money towards buying the building that has housed Tsunami Restaurant for more than 18 years. Here’s why I decided buying the building was a good idea.
When I nervously signed that first check in 1998, I had no idea where this ride was going to take me. I knew I desperately wanted my own restaurant. I had worked long and hard to put together a comprehensive and well researched business plan. I graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in 1986. I’d worked in New York, California, Australia, and Hawaii in a wide range of hotels, bars, restaurants, catering halls, and resorts. And one horse ranch. In the years leading up to school I had served as a bus boy, a bar back, an oyster shucker, and a dishwasher. I cleaned a lot of plates in Memphis. Indeed. I felt I was well-rounded enough in experience to give restaurant ownership a go. I figured I could make it last a few years, then maybe sell out and go work in the tropics again. With that in mind, I decided to selfishly develop a menu that featured the kind of food that I liked to eat using the ingredients that I liked to work with. I hired the kind of people that also wanted to work with those ingredients and eat the food that I liked. I filled the dining room with pieces of art made by local artists and craftspeople. I told myself that if my restaurant was only going to have a lifespan of a few years, it might as well be in a space that I felt at home in, working with people that enjoyed cooking and eating and serving the same kind of food and drink that I enjoyed. I convinced myself that if Memphis diners didn’t understand or appreciate what I was doing, that it would be a clear sign that it was time to leave my home town again and continue the peripatetic lifestyle of a vagabond chef.
But something changed in me during those early years of nose-to-the-grindstone days of running my own restaurant. I found that people did appreciate what I was doing, even if they didn’t always understand it. My determination to present a menu that did not cater to the current local tastes was actually paying off, even if black Thai rice was a hard sell at first. I was inspired to challenge my clientele in other ways. I brought in the most obscure seafood items I could get my hands on: onaga, opah, opakapaka, kajiki, nairagi, uku, walu, and a fish called Patagonian toothfish, which some marketing genius renamed seabass. I started offering our Small Plate menu as a way to get people to branch out and try these new (to them) fish. It was easier to sell these strangely named items in smaller portions at more accessible prices. Here I was in a city known for serving meat-and-three plates, heaping mounds of slow smoked pork meat, and fried chicken, washed down with gallons of sweet tea. And I was serving small portions of unheard of fish, black rice, mussels drenched in Thai red curry sauce, and freakish amounts of Gewurtztraminer and Riesling. Somewhere in all of this I lost my wanderlust. I realized that I was reliving my travels through the food I was serving. My menu was sort of a culinary slide show of my itinerary. A slide show that people actually enjoyed. And I decided to stay. And stay. And stay.
Writing that second check for $10,000 was a bit easier than the first one. I am painfully aware of how many zeros are in ten thousand now. And I have a little bit clearer vision of where I am going with my business. But this moment is also tinged with a generous dose of apprehension and anxiety. It’s an entirely different economy now than it was in 1998. There are a lot more restaurants to choose from in Memphis. A lot of really good restaurants. My purchase of this building represents a renewed commitment on several levels. It is a vote of confidence for the positive direction I think Memphis is moving. It is a pledge of dedication to my loyal staff who have energetically and enthusiastically supported my dream for so many years. And finally, it is a renewed challenge to myself to dig deeper into my creativity and ride this wave to the next level.