Any day, you can effect the lives of one, or of many, without knowing or thinking about it.
That’s an important lesson that we drove home with last night…
About 16 years ago I met my now partner Ali Pitcher at her inn in the Hudson Valley. She was looking for someone to run the restaurant…I was looking for a new challenge. Old Drovers Inn was the place, and if you know us personally, you’ve heard some of the stories…but not this one. We didn’t know this one until yesterday.
|Old Drovers Inn dining room was partially under ground|
Valeria Grabowski was a waitress at Old Drovers. She was hired before I arrived on the scene way back when…. A beautiful 5’14” tall girl with long, wavy hair and a model’s smile. She was shy, quite reserved, and careful in her speech and motions. I came in as Valeria’s new boss, and she was a treasure to have as a head waitress. She had never worked in a restaurant before and may not have been considered a “natural”, but she always showed incredible potential. As Ali would say, “Valeria is a sponge”. She wanted to learn the hospitality ropes, and in spite of her shyness, was always willing to take on more and more responsibility. Our restaurant was a 4-Diamond, Mobil 4-Star, Relais & Chateaux property. We would get many European waitstaff who wanted to add to their resume. We also hired some of the local kids. If kids, whether they were experienced or not, wanted to work for us over the years and were willing to learn the ropes and if they spoke well, they were on the fast-track to a promising career in the hospitality industry. Valeria was always growing, and she always had our backs. She had become a shining star in the dining room, as well as the inn.
Unfortunately, as staff come and go over the years, you lose track of people as regularly as sunglasses or Chapstick. Occasionally we’d be treated to an update, like Patrick eventually became the general manager at The Jerome Hotel in Aspen or Mathew (not surprisingly) reported that he was the events coordinator at The Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan. Others made our hearts heavier, like Guy who we heard was on the front lines in Iraq, or Nate, who because of drugs, would never see his 21st birthday.
We had heard rumors that Valeria was working for Charlie Palmer in Florida, but not much more beyond that. That was about 13 years ago. That’s all we ever heard.
|Enter: PJ Boulangerie|
This past Sunday morning, Ali and I packed the 3 dogs in the car and drove up to PB Boulangerie in Wellfeet. We had been there many times for the bakery, but wanted to try the bistro, which is gaining a reputation as a heavy weight contender and real Cape Cod hot spot. The reports have been unanimous: Dinner is divine, and their brunches are to die for (we’re not typically into breakfast or brunch, so we weren’t sold on it). Ali went in to make a reservation for later that afternoon, and when she came out she looked startled. “I can swear that Valeria is the hostess. Go in and check it out!” I did–and indeed it was. I never said anything to Valeria, and I wasn’t sure why. Anyway, our reservation was at 3pm, we could say “hi” then. So much time had passed–it was hard to just say hello out of the blue. Would she really remember us? What was her impression of us? Did she think of her time working for us fondly? To be honest, on the way back to PB Boulangerie a few hours later, we were both apprehensive about speaking with her. We loved Valeria. Now years later here she is–a hostess at this fun french bistro practically in our own back yard. What was her story? Would she even want to tell us? Why didn’t she reach out to us?
Walking back in, I said hello to Valeria and her beautiful smile once again lit up the room. We tried to catch up, but the bistro was still in full swing, so it would have to wait. Valeria was quick to introduce the two of us to several staff members (which made us feel more at ease), and we ordered, trying not to be too intrusive.
We were welcomed with champagne when we were seated at the table–a gift from Valeria. Ali had an astonishing onion soup to start, and I had one, if not the best seared foie gras preparations that I’ve ever eaten (only topped by Thoumieux in Paris–but it’s a toss up), complete with persimmon, sweet roasted butternut puree and fresh croissant. After the apps, the Chef sent us a 2-tiered tower raw bar, which included Wellfleet oysters (of course), and house-cured salmon with all the fixins. Ali finished things off with perfect, crispy pork bellies, and I a slow-poached local cod with littlenecks, and a beautiful Cotes du Beaune. After lunch–which had clearly steered directly into dinner (funny how that happens)–desserts and libations started to crowd the table.
It had been some years that Ali and I felt as if we were back in our restaurant days. Times when we would rub elbows with the greatest people in the hospitality world–more than rub elbows–eat their creations, enjoy their spaces and share laughter and stories. The best chefs, hostesses and hoteliers know how hard it is to always be “on”. To always be your best. When you share that bond, they want you to relax and have fun in their space–take their ride. It’s your night off! You have this coming….Next time, when they’re in your neighborhood, it’ll be your turn to rock their world…That was my favorite part of being in the business.
|PB’s bakery alone is worth a quick trip from the inn!|
Valeria’s story follows: She had gone to work for the famous chef Charlie Palmer in Florida, where she really flourished. Wanting to eventually spread her wings, Valeria was offered a job at one of Palmer’s restaurants in New York City, or at his restaurant in Las Vegas. With New York being “too close to home” she opted for Vegas. Eventually she started dating the head chef at Daniel Boulud’s Brasserie at the Wynn Resort, Philipp Rispoli. The French-born Rispoli had a resume which included several Michelin-star properties, as well as working under Charlie Palmer and Michael Mina. Eventually, Valeria and Philipp fell in love and eventually wed (with a blow-out wedding at Restaurant Daniel in NYC, with the after-party compliments of Charlie Palmer–we really should have stayed in touch!).
Wanting a change from the fast pace of big resorts and bright lights, Valeria and Philipp retreated to a place that was very dear to her heart, where her parents lived…Wellfleet. In time, Philipp recruited frend and fellow Frenchman, baker Boris Villatte. Villatte had been baking at Wynn as well, but whose resume included working under Alain Ducasse and Eric Kayser (he’s opened many bakeries for Kayser around the globe).
Together Philpp and Boris became the PB Boulangerie in Wellfleet. We realized Valeria wasn’t simply the hostess, she was co-owner Valeria Rispoli. After lunch, Philipp, Boris and Valeria gathered around our table and we started comparing notes, and catching up on the where-abouts of mutual friends (one being my old friend Marcus, then the Maitre D’ at Daniel, and someone I often thought about). “Your lunch is on us”, Valeria stated. Of course, we objected loudly. “This is where my career started, ” Valeria interrupted, pointing at Ali. “She gave me my start and I learned so much from these two. I’ve worked for some great people, but none of the dining rooms had standards as high as yours. I always hold you guys as the high water mark. In a funny way, we wouldn’t be here if not for you”. That struck us as completely surreal, and a perfect example of how the smallest of things can effect so much.
We thanked them all profusely, gave Valeria hugs and kisses goodbye, hoping, just like the old days, that we could reciprocate and show them a night (or more) that they would not soon forget–just as they had done with us.
Stepping into the now darkened parking lot, I could see tears reflecting off of Ali’s cheeks from the glow of the light post.