Opening Night — July 16, 1976

by Suzanne Lunsford

A bundle of nerves, I scanned the kitchen for the umpteenth time, hoping that nothing was amiss. On the metal preparation table in front of the ovens sat an array of bowls containing the essentials for paella, arroz con pollo, and other Spanish specialties. Pots of bubbling garbanzo soup and fish broth filled the kitchen with a pungent, garlicky aroma. The only electric fan in the room blew noisily and ruffled the voluminous aprons worn by my mother and me as we waited at attention before our cutting boards. The rumbling, industrial-sized fridges along the wall held all manner of seafood, chicken, steaks, and veal in marked containers.

David, the young man I’d hired to operate the conveyer dishwashing machine, appeared eager for his first batch of dirty dishes. He stood well over six feet tall, probably didn’t weigh ninety pounds, had no teeth, but was looking good despite it. Along with shorts and a tee shirt, he wore a half dozen pairs of thick knee socks that gave bulk to his rail-thin legs.

Eddie, a senior in high school and therefore too young to serve wine, took the job of busboy. A spiffy dresser, he’d made it clear to all that he would never, ever, over his dead body, follow in his father’s footsteps as the mortician at the only African American funeral parlor in town. He stood at the ready with a basket of bread in each hand.

Lucy, a student at Flagler College and hired as the prep girl, spread out salad plates containing crisp leaves of romaine lettuce and chopped veggies. Rows of sangria in pitchers heaped with slices of apples and oranges and cinnamon sticks awaited their customers. Baskets of sourdough bread baked to our specifications by a local baker lined the prep table.

My mother and dad, bored after several years of retirement, had moved to Florida two months earlier from their home in West Virginia to help us with our grand endeavor. Mother, who was an exceptional cook, agreed to assist me preparing the meals.

Daddy, along with waiting tables and a host of other chores, put himself in charge of churning homemade ice cream for the dessert menu.

Zamora, my Spanish-born husband of fifteen years, took the role of host and entertainer. When I met him years ago in Europe, he was a concert guitarist, but yielding to popular demand from restaurant owners in Washington, DC, switched to flamenco and enjoyed the clamor of adoring fans, especially among the embassy crowd.

I learned to dance flamenco for fun, but soon found myself performing regularly with Zamora and loving the passion, the rhythm, and intricate footwork of the art form.

We moved from the nation’s capital to St. Augustine, Florida, to open a restaurant because of the city’s rich Spanish history, and our three children fell in love with the beach and warm weather. After searching the area for the perfect spot, we settled on a graceful old wooden house built in the 1800s as a residence but which in more recent years had been renovated into a restaurant. Months of hard work gave the dining area the rustic appearance of a Spanish bodega.

Cesár, one of the waiters, hailed originally from Madrid. Several weeks earlier, he approached Zamora about working at the restaurant. Sallow and gaunt, he reminded me of Ichabod Crane. His snooty airs turned me off at once because he seemed to regard me as an imposter who had no business preparing dishes from his homeland. But Zamora hired him on the spot. After all, he was a fellow Spaniard with years of restaurant experience.

“Good evening, Cesár,” I said, smiling with excitement on this evening of our grand opening.

He gave me a condescending glance and slithered off into the dining room. True, I was not Spanish, but I’d spent years in Spain and had apprenticed under a renowned chef from Malaga in preparation for owning and cooking for this place.

Now, after months of preparation, our doors were about to open to the public. Those of us in the kitchen held our collective breaths, waiting nervously like spectators at an arena for a raging bull to come charging through the gates.

At six o’clock on the dot, Zamora officially unlocked La Casa de España’s heavy wooden doors, and soon we could hear voices and the flurry of movement in the dining room.

At 6:05 my father swept into the kitchen, threw both arms in the air, and flashed me a huge smile. “Honey, everyone out there loves what you’ve done—the atmosphere, the menu, the whole thing. Every table is filled, and there’s a line of people waiting outside. I think you’ve got a hit here.” With a dignified bow, he handed me our first order.

I beamed at him with pride. Dressed in his tuxedo and starched stiff shirt, he presented a dazzling figure. There was no denying that he gave the place class.

Mother glanced at the slip of paper, closed her eyes for a moment as though saying a prayer, and then took a deep breath. “Paella for four,” she read aloud, and looked up at the rack of steel pans hanging above us. They ranged in size from ones that would serve one dinner, up to those that would feed a dozen people and could barely fit into the restaurant oven.

“Which one’s for four?” she asked, bewildered. In many ways, this highly anticipated night boiled down to a dress rehearsal. During the weeks of planning, we had never actually prepared all the items on the menu.

I reached for the correct pan and we got to work, our shoulders hunched over the table, but before we could get the first one in the oven, a dozen more orders had been clipped above our worktable. Already we felt inundated. The menu clearly stated that our specialty dish, the paella, would take thirty minutes, but most customers chose a slew of appetizers as well, all requiring our time and attention. It became obvious that we needed a team to work on nothing but hors d'oeuvres.

“Paella for six,” said Cesár, and clipped his ticket to the lineup.

The most popular choice of the evening proved the most time-consuming, and timing was essential. If one or two customers at a table requested something different, we had to gauge ourselves so that everybody could be served at once. To complicate matters, appetizers should be served fifteen minutes or so before the main dish, requiring more calculations on the part of the two cooks. We needed a dozen kitchen timers to keep it straight. Panic intensified each time a waiter pinned up a new order.

But despite our mounting hysteria, we couldn’t help but glow with satisfaction when, thirty minutes after Daddy’s initial request, we lifted our first paella from the oven and gave it its final flourishes before Eddie carried it out to his table. It looked spectacular with the pink shrimp and lobster tails and red pimientos and green peas, glistening black mussel shells encasing the delicate orange meat inside, along with chunks of fish and chicken and artichoke hearts laid out symmetrically on a bed of bright yellow saffron rice that we sprinkled with parsley before crowning with fancy-cut lemon halves.

Even the arrogant Cesár seemed impressed. “Magnifico,” he mumbled under his breath as he clipped yet another ticket onto our pile. And then he spoiled the moment by grumbling, “Where is that paella I asked for a half-hour ago?”

“You won’t believe it,” reported Eddie moments later, as he filled a tray with plates of salad. “People are actually taking photos of that dish.”

The two waiters clipped one order after another onto the lengthening collection of paper slips that fluttered in front of us like clothes drying in the sun. Already those slips had become more like train cars stuck at a railroad crossing as we struggled to make progress. Every plate we plunked down on the takeaway rack was rapidly replaced with five more requests.

“One New York strip and three arroz con pollos,” announced Daddy.

“Paella for three,” barked Cesár, becoming more belligerent with each new order.

“Two fish of the day and one shrimp with garlic,” boomed my father.

“One tropical salad and two bowls of garbanzo soup.”

“Paella for six.”

“Two veal marsalas and two zarzuelas.”

My head was whirling. Would this night ever end? This was pure torture. To make matters worse, I noticed with disbelief that Cesár was stealing my father’s completed orders and serving them to his own customers. His condescending manner tore at my last nerve.

“Mother,” I whispered, “do you see what’s going on here? That paella for four that Cesár just waltzed off with was meant for Daddy. Cesár’s ticket is for paella for three, and it’s still in the oven.” My temperature went up a few notches and I steeled myself for a confrontation with the snooty waiter.

“Calm down, daughter,” cautioned my mother. “I’ll add more seafood and rice, and give Cesár’s order to your father. No one will ever know the difference.”

“It’s the principle of the thing,” I argued, growing more agitated by the minute.

David stepped from the dishwashing area to render his opinion. “Yeah, I’ve been watching that guy. I know his type. You better keep an eye on him.”

The kitchen was broiling hot. Our clients might be dining in air-conditioned splendor out in the dining room, but that luxury did not extend to the kitchen. “It must be 120 degrees in here,” complained my mother, moving closer to the fan at the window.

Cesár banged through the kitchen door with a new piece of paper in his hand. “Merluza,” he snapped.

“What’s merluza?” my mother asked when Cesár was out of earshot. “I’ve never heard of it.”

I cringed. Merluza. It was one of the dishes I’d learned to make when apprenticing with Emilio, but my brain was presently too rattled to remember the ingredients. I vaguely recalled something with seafood in a white wine sauce.

“Okay, okay. I admit that it was insane for me to include it on the menu, but I didn’t think anyone would actually order it. At least not on the first night.”

“Why don’t we just say we’ve run out of it?” said my mother.

I shook my head stubbornly. “Sooner or later we’ve got to figure out how to make it.”

“Couldn’t we skip it this time?” my mother said, jerking her head toward the long line of orders.

With hands gooey after dredging a filet of snapper in egg and flour, I dug out my recipe book and rifled through the handwritten instructions.

“Ah, here it is. I’ve got it. Don’t worry. I’ve got it.”

Zamora stomped into the kitchen, banging the swinging doors to show his displeasure. He screamed at me, “Where is Cesár’s order, Lady? He is working strictly for tips, so he has to make his customers happy.” He whirled and marched off.

“So,” I said to my mother. “That scrawny Spanish creep has been tattling to Mr. Hot Shot, complaining that his slow-poke wife is hurting his precious tips. He doesn’t seem to realize that I’m also the boss here.” My fury grew as I threw scallops into a hot skillet. “I didn’t know he was working just for tips, anyway. I don’t think that’s legal. Is it?” I grabbed a handful of shrimp and pitched them toward the hissing scallops, watching as a few missed the mark and skittered into the flames.

She shrugged. “Looks like he doesn’t want to report his earnings to the IRS.”

A cloud of flour blinded me momentarily when I hurled a hunk of cod into a bowl of it, and then flung the fish into the sizzling pan.

Daddy, who had recently given up smoking, stepped out the back door to take a few desperate puffs as he waited for an order. I felt sorry for him—it had to be tough facing his customers and dreaming up excuses for the long delay, but our hands couldn’t possibly move faster.

Cesár ducked in and out of the kitchen constantly to check on his orders, and we suspected him of switching the slips, placing his in front of Daddy’s. Tonight was only the first night, and I already despised the guy. It was comforting to know that someone else in the room was keeping track, and I had to chuckle on more than one occasion when David sauntered to the lineup and, without a word, moved one of Cesár’s tickets to the very end.

“Mother,” I announced as sweat stung my eyes and plopped from my chin. “I’m drowning in here. I can’t go on. I feel like bursting out of this kitchen and running down the street screaming at the top of my lungs.”

“I’ll be right behind you,” she answered, tossing garlic and onions into a smoking skillet.

An entire army couldn’t keep up this frantic pace. We were overwhelmed, gasping for breath, wishing we could admit defeat and go home, yet we were stuck and could do nothing but trudge onward.

And then Zamora bustled through the door and commanded, “Lady, it’s time for the show. Go put on your costume.”

“What?” I said, not believing he could be serious.

“What?” my mother echoed.

“Yes,” he said. “Everybody is waiting for the show. You forgot we have a show, Lady?”

That “Lady” bit was getting under my skin. It was meant as ridicule, but he was going too far with it, especially on a night like tonight.

After he disappeared into the dining room, my mother clutched me by my apron and pleaded. “Please, don’t leave me here alone.”

“Listen, Mother, we promised a show, and we’ve got to deliver. It’s what makes us unique. We’re the only restaurant in town with a flamenco show.”

She clutched more desperately.

“But here’s the good part,” I added, prying her fingers loose. “Maybe you can get caught up while I’m out there dancing. It might be a momentary distraction.”

She didn’t look convinced, and I felt wretched for leaving her. But the show must go on, I reminded myself.

I tore off my apron and raced up the creaky back stairway that led to our living quarters. No time to wash the goop off my fingers. Forget the false eyelashes, and the wig. Ditto the makeup. No time to even look into the mirror. In a blur, I cast off my cooking clothes and wiggled into my costume, zipping it while I tossed off my sneakers and slipped my feet into a pair of flamenco shoes. Hurtling toward the front staircase that led down to the dining room, I grabbed a fringed shawl from a hook and threw it around my neck. I could locate only one dangly earring, which I held in my teeth while I clipped a droopy silk flower in my bedraggled ponytail, and then took off at a gallop. Halfway down the steps I realized I’d forgotten my castanets, so I twisted around and leaped up the steps to fetch them.

Zamora, a disgruntled expression on his face, strummed the introduction for the fourth time. When I made my grand entrance, the audience applauded me for showing up. Adrenalin pumped hard as I pounded out my first number, somewhat like a jackhammer set at double speed. Before the last chord, I jumped from the stage and bounded up the stairs to change for my second number. As I stepped into a polka-dot skirt, I glanced in a mirror for the first time tonight and saw that a dusting of flour veiled my hair and a glob of something crusted one eyebrow. Too late. No time. No time. And off I flew, petticoats swishing.

Ten minutes later, with applause still ringing in my ears, I changed again into my cooking garb, vaulted down the back staircase and threw open the kitchen door, fearful of what I might find.

To my astonishment, a blissful serenity now replaced the earlier chaos. I could almost hear monks chanting. David, with my capacious apron covering his skinny frame, calmly lifted a steaming paella from the oven and set it before my mother for the finishing touches. As she decorated the dish with peas and parsley, I noticed that she seemed more relaxed than I’d seen her all day. She could have been in a meadow plucking pansies.

And Cesár? Thankfully, he was nowhere in sight.

Suzanne Lunsford served with the United States Foreign Service and served two years in Luxembourg, where she met her first husband, a concert guitarist from Spain.  After their move to Washington, D.C., she learned to dance flamenco, and injected herself into her husband's musical career. They then lived for a time in Spain, where Suzanne danced with Gypsies and learned to cook Iberian specialties, interests that came in handy when the two of them opened a restaurant in St. Augustine, Florida.  From that experience came the idea of a memoir detailing her adventures in the restaurant business. This story is an excerpt from that memoir.