The making of a restaurant
How River and Woods was born
I’ve had a callous on the base of my right index finger since shortly after I started peeling potatoes at age 14. Every now and again I’ll notice it, and I’ll realize how many subtle parts of my body and mind have been impacted by a life lived fully within the confines of a professional kitchen.
Forearm scars and skin nicks and burn marks and heat resistant finger pads; my amazing ability to work for hours after acknowledging the need to go pee and then my bladder going into “long term storage mode.” I’m sure that handy feature will surely lead to urinary incontinence when I’m 60, and it will be yet another charming connection to a lifestyle that has consumed me.
At home, much to the chagrin of my family, I need all items in our pantry organized symmetrically by genre and with labels facing out. I take things out of large containers and transfer them into smaller containers when their volume demands it; I label and date my sandwich on rare occasions when I’ve made myself a lunch the night before; and I say “corner” and “behind” when I’m passing people at the grocery store.
My toddler has 16-ounce deli containers to store his Legos. There are the sore knees and the chronic lower back pain that comes from long hours working at 36” prep tables (who determined that as the industry standard height, anyway?) along with the inability to sit through a meal with friends or family without mentally calculating food cost, labor cost, cover count and thinking, “Hey, why isn’t the hostess clearing that table with dirty dishes on her way back from seating new guests?”
These are more subtle indicators of my life’s work.
Why is working 40 hours a week considered a full-time job for civilians but a part-time job in the food service world? Because we need a lot more time to finish our list. Life becomes a giant checklist. Task completion. Mise en place. Eventually, the glorious feeling of well-stocked 6pans and 9pans bleeds into our need to have a well-stocked emotional pantry.
What’s an emotional pantry? It’s where you keep important dry goods like social intelligence and culinary ethics and hospitality. You do nightly inventory to make sure you order enough for the next day when you run low. You see, my favorite thing about working in restaurants is how it makes people more human.
It demands connection. It is fueled by eye contact and touch and intuition and empathy. The hospitality industry is the antidote to cubicles and conference calls; it’s the answer to high-speed internet and rush hour traffic. Learning how to be a good cook or a good server or a good bartender is about learning how to be a kind, patient person who takes care of others.
It’s about refilling someone’s glass so that its always half full. It’s about subconsciously holding open the door for someone behind you when walking into a store, and giving genuine care when someone asks you for direction. Being in this industry fosters a desire to be authentic and to be vulnerable. It makes us realize that behind all the social gloss, the politics, the religion, the culture… we are all people, and we are all walking together, sharing these moments in time.
It is hard, honest work. It is good work. We are feeding and watering one another. Sometimes we lose sight of that. That core value system gets lost in the long hours, in the volume, in the constant pressure, the anxiety to outperform last night’s dinner service with tomorrow’s brunch service. Things get blurry; personal life becomes another thing that needs managing instead of the loving engaging priority that it should be.
I reached a point when I realized that the things that brought me the greatest joy had become background music to the soundtrack of things that needed to be done. I became so immersed in professional expectations and daily demands that I let my inner compass lose its calibration.
It was at that moment that I realized I wanted to make a change. Sometimes in life when we hit a personal or professional proverbial wall, we go to seek balance in opposites. If you are chronically tired, you want to know what being chronically well rested feels like. If you are always frantic, you eventually want to know what being always relaxed feels like. It is part of finding balance.
So after years of many large spaces, I wanted a single small one. After years of building the dreams of others, I wanted to begin to build my own. Most importantly, I just wanted to have fun cooking, the way I felt when I wasn’t even tall enough to reach the counter at my mom’s side when she was making dinner. Is it scary? Sure. Is it uncomfortable? Yep. Do I have all the answers? Nope.
That unfamiliar, unsure, wild-eyed butterfly feeling that we get before a big test or a big gig or a first kiss… that energetic moment, when you lose yourself to the risk, when you stop thinking and immerse yourself in the feeling of what is unfolding… that to me is the fire that fuels our soul, it is what keeps us young and hungry, it is that seed level of clarity and conviction that paints the greatest art, gives birth to the best bands and cooks the most magical food.
It is craftsmanship. It is artisanal. It is organic.
So that is what has become the unfolding of River and Woods. It is honest and charming, it is small in scale and large in dreams. It is hand-crafted and heart-shaped; it is a family endeavor and a community ecosystem. We will be cooking some of our food and some of our guests’ food.
We want to tell stories though our stovetops and walk barefoot in the grass in the backyard. It is about being a good listener, and being a good neighbor. It is about uniting our local food system, embodying sustainability, connecting with small producers, sharing weathered and oil stained recipe cards from our families. It is whispering secrets about gnocchi technique while sipping prickly pear lemonade and eating peach cobbler at a mismatched table in the Colorado sunshine. It is about living fully in the moment, being mindful, thoughtful and careful.
That to me is the most important part of any culinary equation, and I have come to learn is the most important part of living a meaningful life; your ultimate purpose and optimal goal should always be the simple desire to make sure everyone around you is happy and full.
Daniel Asher is the chef/owner of River and Woods, now open at 2328 Pearl Street, Boulder. Prior to River and Woods, Asher served as Culinary Director of the Edible Beats Group (Linger, Root Down, Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox) and is the founder/owner of EcoChef Services, an organic boutique catering company and restaurant consulting firm.