Center of the Universe (42)
My shirt smells like smoke. Bradley stopped by for dinner Monday en route to the airport. He’d spent the last three days in the city freezing at Outside Lands, commuting north each night to defrost in Sonoma. His flight to New York was scheduled for 11 pm, and he wanted to see us — Bradley and I are friends from sharing insult-humor at the agency — but was worried about making it on time from Fairfax to SFO. So we’d have to chop-chop. Which we did, ensuring his plane didn’t actually leave until 2 am and Bradley spent as much time as possible in the terminal’s most terminal zone, that bleak interregnum when the restaurants are shut and there’s nowhere for a JFK-bound IT guy or, for that matter, a JFK-bound captain to grab a pick-me-up.
We decided to barbecue steaks because it was Monday, the night — darkest of the week — that Sorellas is not open. After a head-down weekend, working on the next book, immersed in the art and aerospace of Los Angeles, 1956–63, I finally took a shower, brushed my teeth, shaved and, for my own sense of renewal, as much as to spare Bradley’s sensibilities, put on a fresh shirt. Having not barbecued for a long time, I think I overstoked the chimney — the canister you load with charcoal and paper to get the fire going in a chemical-free way (versus the flammable toxics I used to dementedly spritz over everything). But the chimney quickly turned the mesquite white and, when I tipped it into the bottom of the grill, immediately ignited the rest of the coals.
“Why’s it so smoky?” Roni asked.
I didn’t know. But neither did Bradley, whose last name is Burns.
The nearly inch-thick steaks took less time than it takes to microwave my tea — which is the other thing I know how to cook. And while I stood sentinel at the Q, swathed in mesquite smoke, wondering how the meat got so burnt, Roni asked Bradley how he liked it done.
I said, “If the answer’s not well, you’re in trouble.” And then, by way of preemptive apology, added: “Don’t you know I’m the world’s worst chef?”
The next morning I figured I’d only worn last night’s fresh shirt for three hours and, miraculously, suffered no visible stains. But when I plucked it from the pile and gave a sniff, there was a distinct fragrance of fiery Weber. I thought, can I shadow Sonia smelling of smoke? I flapped the shirt around — airwashed it — and sniffed again. What the hell. (For a guy who’s been married a million years, I retain some troubling bachelorish habits.)
Sonia Valerie Kang is the opposite of me. She’s an extraordinary chef and doesn’t seem to smell of smoke at all. Amid all the blather I’ve generated about the idyllic Italian eatery and international house of peace, love and pasta she owns with her big sister, it occurred to me it might be time for some old-fashioned reporting — getting to the explosive truth behind the placid Brazilian-Korean exterior — and I emailed Sonia. After what I took to be a bashful 24-hour pause, the demure younger spawn of Maria and Reverend Kang consented to me hanging around and suggested we meet Tuesday at 10 am when her idyll workweek begins. Then she wrote again and said, on second thought Tuesday’s boring, because it’s ordering day. Just a lot of talking on the phone to vendors. And I replied, when it comes to Sorellas, there is no boredom. Later she had her big sister Soy text and ask, could Sonia make it 10:30 because they had breakfast plans with Sonia’s beloved nephew Jack, who would be heading back that morning to Santa Barbara to be a sophomore. And seeing as I do my hillside rambles in the morning and could use the time to recoup, 10:30 was fine. But I could sense a certain reticence. It wasn’t only hers.
That I was concerned about my smoky shirt, and that Sonia was concerned about boring me, that there was an unaccustomed apprehension and formality on both sides, would seem to confirm the quantum mechanics notion that the observer affects the observed, and vice-versa. It also confirms my notion that writing about friends tends to make them a little less a friend — even if it helps make them friends of your readers (all 38) — that journalism (such as it is) commoditizes.
“That is one last thing to remember,” I wanted to say to Sonia, “writers are always selling somebody out.” But, lord knows, I’m not Joan Didion. And sometimes it’s worth it.
Soy was still sealed in the front of her old 4x4 in the parking lot with Jack, trying to say the one last thing that would ensure her bright, handsome first-born becomes a big success in life, when Sonia, squeezing off a toothy smile, invited me to enter through the screen door. Tucked away on the side of the restaurant, just a mad dash to the freezer in the storage shed, the screen door is the entrance to the kitchen and opens onto the dishwasher’s station — which is pretty much on top of the cooking station where, during business hours, the chef sister can mostly be found. Often, when passing, I will compulsively toss a jokey salute through the door (simultaneously fearing — but not enough — that, in a burning, boiling, slicing and dicing environment, it might be enough distraction to precipitate an accident). But to actually enter Sorella Caffe via the kitchen seemed, in the moment, to a diehard fan, a surpassing privilege.
Backstage pass to the lasagna show. All access to Spaghettipalooza.
Two stout Latino men were already at work inside, stirring and slicing, and we had to turn sideways to pass through. I thought to introduce myself — especially since our bellies had already met — but when Sonia didn’t, I didn’t. Protocol? Language? Thinks I wouldn’t be interested? Later, after we’d installed ourselves in the corner at the Family Table, Sonia, who speaks fluent Spanish, volunteered, “I have a Yucatan kitchen. But they all speak Mayan, too. Ronaldo and Eduardo. When I first heard it, I said, What is that you’re speaking?!? Then I tried to pick up a little. They’re just as happy I didn’t — then they wouldn’t be able to talk about me.”
Recently Sonia and I had chatted about a Times story describing how kitchen workers are becoming scarce. “That article was accurate,” Sonia says now. “Mexicans just aren’t coming in any more. When it changed around here was when ICE started coming into the Canal” — the Latino neighborhood of nearby San Rafael. “But I’ll tell you what,” she adds, with a Sonia-style eye-roll — more a head fake followed by a deadpan stare — “those two guys are roosters.” By which she means, there are challenges to being a hen atop a hot, tiny coop full of roosters.
Sonia puts her clipboard, wireless landline, cellphone and nubby pencil on the Family Table, table 10, her ad hoc desk. She’s quiet — quieter, I should say, because Sonia’s always some sort of quiet — pondering her next move. I suspect it has to do with not disappointing the visitor typing notes in front of her. That’s because Sonia is also exceedingly nice. “Let’s check the supplies,” she says, standing, deciding nothing to do but soldier on. Because this restaurant opens — and is remarkably busy — at 5.
Past the restrooms, which are through the back room, behind a red velvet curtain, around a corner, and which newbies can never find — brazenly interrupting Giovanni and his accordion mid-“Amore” to ask directions — there is a beige burlap curtain. Behind this, in a closet scaled to the tininess of the entire endeavor — from the cozy intimacy of the dining room to the awkward intimacy of the kitchen to the terrifying intimacy of the parking lot — are canned and paper goods. Sonia surveys the two sets of shelves, which are mostly full, makes pencil marks on her clipboard, and we move on.
“This is my system,” she says, with a mildly defensive note. “Other people do it differently. This is the way I started doing it, and so this is the way I do it.” I suppose other people have smartphones with inventory apps or laptops running custom spreadsheets that constantly beam updates to suppliers. Some of them may have young assistants. But nothing strikes me as inefficient about the way Sonia’s doing it. Clipboard and nub seem about perfect for Sorellas.
That’s part of what makes Sonia so extraordinary, beyond the cooking. She made it up as she went along — the systems, no less than the cooking — based on what she’d observed in 14 years serving at Michelangelo’s in North Beach, where her sister served 17. “Michelangelo’s was the model,” she said. When the owner, their friend, retired, he gave them a lot of advice and even some of his statuary. The bust of Agrippa is from Carlo, and so was the idea to give out chunks of parmagiano reggiano before meals, gummy bears and animal crackers after. So’s the menu in between, mostly. And so are the “systems.” For that matter, so’s the cooking. Sonia, who had limited professional cooking experience before Sorellas, would hang around the Michelangelo’s kitchen, before and after shift, to see how it was done. Before Michelangelo’s, she’d flipped burgers in a deli and at Phyllis’s on Miracle Mile. “But I’d never worked the line,” she says.
And that was never actually the plan.
The night before they opened, 14 or 15 years ago (the Sisters are not sure), two things happened: Carlo’s estranged wife said she was going to sue, because Michelangelo’s was too much the model (Carlo, of course, said, Fugeddaboutit); and the guy who was supposed to be chef, at least temporarily, and show how it’s done, pulled a no-show. So Sonia got in front of the stove, and never left. And never, in 14 or 15 years, found anyone she trusted to take her place. Today, with the market as tight as it is, she’s even more likely to stay.
She takes me out the emergency exit by the bathrooms, across the parking lot to the storage shed, which stores more than you’d imagine a little shed could. Just inside the padlocked door is a freezer that holds pasta, sauce and other items prepared earlier. To the left of the freezer are stacks of soda and a large stash of wine — the “cheap stuff,” says the chef, with a toothy smile that’s also cheeky. Opposite end of the shed is the good stuff, viticulturally speaking. “There’s your Nero d’Avola,” she says, pointing. And surrounding the wine, more canned and paper goods, cleaning supplies, vacuum cleaner. “And that’s my office,” Sonia says, indicating a cluttered desk I hadn’t even noticed. Above the desk is a large bulletin board that may have once been part of a “system,” but is now papered over with pictures of Jack, Jack’s younger brother Conor, John’s grown-up daughter Lauren, and Lauren’s toddler Trent. No room for to-do lists or invoices that need reconciling. Barely room for more kids. With each quarter-turn in the shed, Sonia inscribes another scratch on the clipboard, and then we head back across the parking lot, through the screen door to the Family Table to start the calling.
“The vendors, most of them, come from Carlo, too” she says, dialing the landline. There are seven sales reps to phone today — meat, fish, veggies, pasta, gluten-free pasta (“It’s actually a different supplier”), Italian specialties (porcini mushrooms, anchovies, grated parm, blood oranges), and coffee. Days when she needs wine, there are six more calls. “We’re picky about the wine,” she says, “so we can’t get it all from one distributor.” During today’s phoneathon, one rep has to call her back, which he does promptly. Another rep has to be reminded he didn’t get the last order right — delivering double the sugar. Otherwise, the calls are casual and quick.
“For me,” says Sonia, “it’s really about the drivers. The drivers are looking out for me. The sales guys just want to sell me something” As we sit by the window, the California Seafood truck rolls into the lot, followed by Lace House Linens (“est. 1915, Petaluma, California”), supplier of the restaurant’s burgundy napkins. Sonia’s particularly fond of this driver. “He’s sweet,” she says. “He recently had a baby and took three weeks parental leave.” She seems proud of him.
Soy shows up unexpectedly with a shopping bag full of cherry tomatoes. A customer with a bumper crop in San Rafael had invited the Sisters to come pick what they liked.
“Make a nice sauce…” she says to her sister.
“Awful lot of skin and seeds,” replies Sonia, straight-faced: “But thanks for the extracurricular activity.” She grabs a bowl and begins to pick stems.
Soy reminds her to make an extra jar of sauce for the customer, and then, popping a tomato in her mouth, says to me, “Want one?”
I’m not a tomato lover. I love them mixed with herbs and spices in the sauce I used to eat, before my stomach brought me low. But this little gem, a unique shade of red tinged with gold, is sugary sweet — more cherry that tomato. Mind-blowing as a tomato can be. I find myself hoping Sonia makes sauce and hoping, too, that I eat it. And I am reminded of when another customer brought the Sisters fresh-caught trout. I was not ordinarily a trout eater, but Sonia insisted. Turned out to be the most tender, flavorful fish — sprinkled with garlic and beautifully grilled in oil — I’d ever encountered. And I find myself newly on the lookout for guests bearing gifts.
Out the window, I hear shouting, intense shouting, a woman. Two cars are parked at odd angles in the dry cleaners’ lot, a subcompact and an SUV. I figure it’s a fender-bender — though the damage is not obvious — and the woman, red-faced with wet cheeks, is overwrought. A man finally gets out of the small car and walks back to the big one, where the woman now rests her head on the steering wheel, sobbing uncontrollably. The man begins to rub her shoulder. I look over at Sonia to make sure she’s seeing the drama. But she’s not looking and doesn’t look at me, staying focused on the tomatoes. “He left her on Valentine’s Day,” she says into her hands, softly, flatly, as if channeling. Eventually the woman, still shouting over her shoulder, pulls onto Bolinas in slow-motion, blocking traffic in both directions, before gunning it, for a shaky, squealing U-ey onto Sherman. It takes me a few bewildered seconds to understand that, here at the center of the universe, Soy and Sonia know all.
But who better to keep a small town’s secrets?
Sonia finishes the stemming. Seated opposite, I type this: “Sonia finishes the stemming.” Having prepared official questions, I read the one I’m most curious about: “What’s the top seller?”
“Chicken parm,” she answers, to my surprise. “In the summer, it sometime switches to chicken piccata.”
“And what are second and third?”
“Lasagna. Definitely, that’s second. Your lasagna. And after that maybe butternut squash or eggplant parm.”
In a place that, in the early hours of evening, is known to be exceedingly kid-friendly (which is why I usually wait till 8, now that my precious-pretties are grown), I’m surprised spaghetti and meatballs is not top three.
“Fourth,” she reassures. “Solid fourth — oh, it’s big.”
Though I know the story, roughly, I feel like a good reporter would get it for the record, how and why Sonia and her sis decided to open a restaurant. “I’d saved up a little money, my father had saved up a little money, and Soy and I wanted a career change,” says the beauty college-grad who, after cutting hair at Northgate Mall, discovered she wasn’t so keen on the beauty biz and went to work as a waitress. “We thought owning our own restaurant would be a good thing. And when we found out about this property from a friend, before it was on the market, we went for it.”
I’m not sure exactly what the odds are against a successful eating establishment in America, but they’re long — Google says one in ten, but that might be conservative. “The restaurant,” says Sonia, with the barest blush of pride, “took off, pretty much from day one.” And I’m here to say, I was there. And it’s true.
No doubt Sorellas is a good thing. Certainly, for me. Certainly, for Fairfax — if not the universe rotating around it. For Sonia, whatever else it is, however satisfying and rewarding, however good, it’s never less than exhausting. And at 2 every day, the head chef, who’s on her feet at the fire for five hours six evenings, drives the three-and-a-half blocks home for two hours of rest. I pack the laptop into my overstuffed backpack and leave, too, fast-walking in the opposite direction to ascend Wreden Avenue — K2 of local streets — loaded down, panting, pained, en route not just to home, but health.
I return with the bride at 8 for dinner, and Soy steers us to a deuce. Roni orders the salmon with mango salsa, and I tell her I saw them dicing the mango today by hand. “By hand?” she says, impressed. And then the Kangs show up, and we move from the deuce to a four-top, with an extra chair on the end. And then Gary shows up. And by the time we’re done waiting for everybody to finish eating, while weighing in on the latest horrors out of Washington and Pyonyang, Soy has flipped the Open sign to Closed and Sonia slipped out the screen door like smoke.