The Making of a Philly Restaurant 2008

What, you thought it would be easy opening a little French bistro?

“HERE WE GO, guys,” he says, clapping his hands briskly as the point-of-sale system whirs with the first ticket. “Ordering! Tarte paysanne! Salmon!”

Peggy’s French lessons are forgotten in the quick-paced shorthand of the kitchen, a mixture of English and Spanish that gets shorter as the orders come in: “Behind!” “Hot!” “Corner!”

“Fire two amuse!” a server directs. A cook passes him two gougères, savory cheese puffs compliments of the chef. The red-vested waiters — their uniforms still with packaging creases — seem well on their way to wearing a path in the new floor as they butler the amuse-bouche and pour the complimentary wine. (The liquor license is in, but the full wine order isn’t.)

Although you can see the dining room from the open kitchen, you can’t hear the Édith Piaf soundtrack over the rattle and clank of the dish room, nor easily identify the diners, a mix of friends, neighbors and restaurant types. From here, guests are known only by their orders — “Two halibut! Rabbit!” — and the special requests delivered by the waiters. “That table wants olive oil for their bread,” one waiter says, a little bewildered. Peter pauses. That’s not French. “Okay,” he says. A moment later, the waiter is back: “They want salt and pepper.” The hunt begins for the shakers, which aren’t part of the standard place setting. Time ticks by. Finally, three minutes later, the staff gives up the search and fills two small bowls with sea salt and ground pepper. A moment later, the waiter returns: “She wants your pepper mill.” “Fuck!” Peter says. Then he’s back to his stove.

Peter’s everywhere, rhythmically scoring scallops, boning the rouget, whipping cream for the pastry chef, encouraging his chefs to focus on the task at hand. Then, suddenly, he stops.

“My little man! My little man is in the house!” he says. Now Peter’s running from the kitchen to greet Peggy and five-month-old Jules, who returned just a few hours ago from their month in France. For a moment, everything else is forgotten. “I want to finish the night right now,” Peter says. “I want to go home and see my kid.”

But first: There’s an eight o’clock logjam of would-be diners at the small bar. John, short-staffed in the front of the house, takes a deep breath just out of sight of the dining room, then opens the doors to the private dining room and seats two more parties at the banquet table. In the ever-hotter kitchen, the house-made ice cream and sorbets are melting even as they sit in the freezer, so it’s whipped cream in place of the cassis sorbet on the berry tart. And the kitchen’s running low on, well, everything. Between orders, Peter updates the waitstaff: “I’ve got three tartes left.” “That’s it for the bread.” “Eight-six the rabbit!”

There were 62 people on the books for the night; they fed 84.

“Okay,” Peter exhales. The dining room isn’t empty, but the doors are closed. He takes off his glasses, wipes his forehead on the sleeve of his still-white chef’s jacket, replaces his glasses, and focuses intently on his two cooks. “Okay. Now we just have to get through tomorrow.”

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  • zivile

    and i was there that opening night. and everything was fabulous. i am very proud to see such passion in everything peter does.
    at La Minette you do feel like you are in France the moment you open the doors. french music, well lit dining room, colors, every little detail is placed just in the right spot. flawless!
    and not to forget the food was AMAZING!
    p.s. i have been there couple times already since that first experience.