Nine Chefs Point the Way

Chef’s Collective at Ruby June Inn: Summer Saturday nights under the sky and wisteria, on the White Salmon.

The best way to change an ailing institution is to blow it up. That’s what COVID did to the restaurant model as we know it. I chortle with glee every time I read of ways post-COVID restaurants are mixing it up, changing the rules … kicking the bums out.

And by bums, I mean miscreants in the kitchen. In my restaurant owning years, the pressure to just keep the doors open seven days, seven nights, meant I hired and kept on – as the kid says in Little Orphan Annie – “bad people.” But staffing shortages have made chefs and restaurant owners see things in a different light. Instead of cramming their restaurants with bad actors, just to keep the doors open 5, 6, 7 days and nights, they’re saying, “With this crew we have, how many hours should we be open?”

Last week I was talking to a friend, a chef and restaurant owner who has struggled the last ten years with keeping a big enough staff to run full-tilt. At the beginning of this year’s busy season, he wasn’t looking to hire anyone. He fired people instead. Under-performers. Gripers. People who brought the whole operation down. Now, on their reduced days and hours, the whole joint is joyous. I’m gonna guess he will make more money too. Churn is terribly expensive and shortens your life span.

Six years ago when I started my dinner series, “Supper Club” at what was then Husum Riverside Bed and Breakfast, we did a few things that seemed radical at the time, too. Pay in advance for a fixed dinner menu you won’t see until you are arrive and sit down.

I had a blast for three years. Enter, stage left, Chris Wiggins and Gretchen Wolf who bought the property, and spiffed it. It’s now Ruby June Inn. We reimagined the dinner series too. Today, it’s nine chefs who rotate through the summer, presenting a dinner every Saturday night from mid-June to mid-September. $100, 20% auto gratuity. Gretchen’s amazing wine pairings are extra.

I’m doing two dinners this year, but just as important, I’m hauling my apron and knife bag up to the inn and reporting for duty to assist two other women chefs in the collective. And they’re helping me at my dinners. Love to just show up and say, “Yes chef.” We are learning from each other in ways large and small. And bringing a new jam to the kitchen: high-powered estrogen energy, something not found in this industry until recent years.

How do folks like this new model, one that certainly takes away a lot of their choices: one seating at a specific time, no menu choices? Maybe some “weird” food they’ve never had before?

This year, the entire season sold out in three hours. Three hours.

Update: Last week, we added a winter dinner, just for fun. Working with the fabulous Chef Krystyna Livingston, we created a French country feast. The 40 seats sold out in 30 minutes.