Sunday, June 02, 2013

Previously in A Chequered Career….. I suppose cars were in my blood, for several generations ago a relation of mine, William Hillman set up a factory in Coventry making motor cars…… Hadley Garages was a hard act to follow, and working at Worthing Motors was something of an anti-climax……. There was only one workmate with whom I felt I had anything in common, and that was Allan; we shared the same cynical view on the way the garage was run….. And so it was I decided to start a restaurant of my own……. one day in 1998 the Stage Door Bistro and Wine Bar started to take shape.


Working at Worthing Motors whilst maintaining a secret existence far away in the shell of an evolving bistro in Eastbourne was not easy, but somehow I got away with it. As well as evolving a menu I had other things to concentrate my mind on such as finding suppliers and creating a tempting wine and beer list. I also had to get myself ‘licensed to sell alcoholic beverages on and off the premises’. That entailed two days at a council
training centre followed by an exam at Brighton Polytechnic. The main thing I remember from that course was the suggestion that in the event of a fight breaking out amongst intoxicated customers I was not to intervene myself, rather send in a female member of staff to cool things down! Fortunately it was one lesson I never had to call on! All that was followed by an appearance in Eastbourne Magistrates court where I swore on the bible to act in a responsible fashion in front of as bench of four upstanding members of the judicial system and hope I got away with it! Happily I did and I found myself in possession of a piece of parchment paper naming the only qualification I had ever gained!

Gradually it began to take shape. A state of the art kitchen appeared; a gleaming stainless-steel bastion which was soon to be my place of work.  Pristine loos replaced tired toilets. The walls were painted blue and the wooden floorboards stained deep mahogany and varnished. Atop a long bar a row of sparkling chrome beer fonts stood to attention. In corner of the room a low stage took shape and one afternoon an upright piano took up its position.

While all this was going on we needed to find some staff. We held interviews sitting around on carpenter’s benches, boxes and piles wood! I have to say we were very fortunate and we found the perfect mix straight away, three teen girls who to turn out to absolute gems.  One of them, Helen had recently left college where she had studied catering; she was in fact far more qualified than I was, so I reckoned she would come in very handy alongside me in the kitchen. We also found Dave who was to be our resident pianist and serenade our customers at weekends.

As opening day loomed ever closer, we eagerly un-wrapped tables and chairs and lined up six tall stools affront the bar. At the top of the steps which led up to the rear of the bistro, we placed three high level poseur tables with long-legged seats. Out in the street, the front was painted, a deep blind installed and a blackboard fixed to the wall. Flower tubs and baskets appeared and finally and very proudly we placed the name on and above the window. The Stage Door Bistro and Wine bar was ready for business!

We chose a simple almost rustic look for the interior with candles stuck into bottles on the tables and the menu presented on a huge blackboard rather than in individual folders. As for the menu itself I decided early on that mussels, Moule Frites was to be our signature dish which would be offered  in various sauces and served with crusty bread, fries and mayonnaise the way they do it so well in Belgium. In the kitchen I had a large charcoal grill on which to cook steaks, kebabs and ribs. We went for simple country dishes such as coq a vin, and crusty pies. We offered continental style salads, pasta dishes and lots of local fish straight from the beach. Being close to the seafront we decided open early on Sundays and offer the folk out taking a constitutional a brunch; home baked croissants,
scrambled eggs with smoked salmon, and my favourite, eggs benedict. Having decided what to sell I was left with one problem; I had to learn to cook it! Up until then I only catered for the occasional dinner party, I’d certainly received no formal training. And the thing about dinner parties is that everyone around the table eats the same thing, whereas in a restaurant a table of six people will each want something different, and it all has to come out the kitchen at the same time!  Help!

Mistake number one. I advertised a week before we opened, heavily. What I should have done was to open unannounced and allow just a trickle of customers across the doorstep over the first few days while I found my culinary feet. So as a result we were packed on the first night. I can still see that row of orders lined up before my eyes looking menacingly back at me as if offering up a challenge. But somehow I got  through.
I don’t think I've ever been as tired in my life as I was over those first few weeks, but I slept well in the knowledge that we had got it right!

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  1. I really admire your ability to take a chance and go for it. It's a very scary thing to give up solid income for a shot at doing your own thing. I understand your "Mistake number one" line. When you open a new business there are many mistakes to come. I call it "on the job college education." I did much the same thing but in a different type of business.

  2. Ingenious and smart; well done.

  3. That mistake No. 1 may not have been a mistake at all. Just imagine all the angst of just one or two tables filled for a couple of weeks that would have been a worry. Other peoples lives are always a good read when told so well.

  4. yeah i don't think it was a mistake at all. it's to be tired working than to be tired doing nothing at all

  5. This made me more than a little hungry! It sounds like you ran a wonderful bistro.