Talking Blueacre, Babies and Brian O'Conner With Chef Kevin Davis

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Kevin, Terresa and their pet fish
"So how long is it now? Seven days?"

"Yeah. No. Uh...from today? Eight days. 17th--that'll be friends and family. Soft open on the 19th. For the public."

"So eight days."

"Eight days."

"But really ten days."

"Not for us."

This was me and Kevin Davis talking. This was Tuesday night, March 9--eight days out from the opening of his new restaurant, Blueacre Seafood, at 1700 7th Avenue. He'd called late because he'd just gotten out of the kitchen at his original restaurant, the Steelhead Diner. He'd been there, working, since 7am.

"This time next week, we'll be in there prepping for friends-and-family," he said. On Sunday, he'd worked a full day on the line at Steelhead. On Saturday, he, his new chef, Brian O'Conner (most recently of the Cliff House in San Francisco), his wife and partner Terresa Davis, and their crew had spent the whole day cleaning the new Blueacre space. With the build-out finally (mostly) done, it was the first opportunity they'd had.

"She's in there all day long," Davis said, talking about Terresa. She's pregnant right now, carrying twins that are due in May. Two months out--another deadline, another debut.

"This is really precious, this time. This is the time that you can bond and imprint." Funny thing was, he wasn't talking about his kids there, but his new restaurant--explaining to me how Terresa feels about the weeks, the months, the days leading up to an opening. "She doesn't want to miss a single thing."

He's less concerned about the run-up than she is, more concerned (worried, even) about the moment--the appointed hour when the doors open and the first actual, paying customer steps inside. He tells me, "People come back to a restaurant because of what's on the plate and who brought it." That's what's important to him. Everything else leading up to that moment? That's prep. That's giving yourself the best possible shot and making sure that everything else--from the feel of the chairs to the placement of the tables, the font on the menu, the lights in the dining room, the smooth flow of orders through the POS system and the stock behind the bar--is already perfect so that the only thing that the customer has to think about is the food and service. What's on the plate and who brought it.

Davis and I talked about balance--about how he'll juggle two restaurants rather than one and how he'll feel about turning over ops to chefs de cuisine that aren't him; to Anthony Polizzi at Steelhead and O'Conner at Blueacre. He spoke about how he and Polizzi have been side by side "in that little kitchen at Steelhead" for three years, how they know how the other moves, how the other breathes. He knows what Polizzi can do. And O'Conner?

"His story is yet to be written," Davis told me.

Then we loop back to the beginning: December, when he and Terresa knew that the former Oceanaire space (where both of them had worked years ago, which Kevin had helped open back in 2001) was going to be theirs. "That moment," he said, "when we got the final approval...when we signed the lease. That was it. There were no more days off. Every day, every waking moment, was going to be spent working toward that goal."

And now, he was almost there.

Two days of test dinners. That's all Davis is giving himself. After that, Blueacre goes live. To hear him talk about it, I'm not sure he would be able to wait any more--whether he could do it even if he had all the time in the world. "You wake up in the morning, you know? And maybe you have ten more minutes that you can sleep. But then I feel that knot in my stomach. Like before game-time, right? Anxious. And I say, 'No. There's no more time.' And I jump out of bed and go to work."

We talked on Tuesday night--eight days out. Today is Friday. Now Davis has just five days left. Five days. He wasn't at Steelhead yesterday (busy over at the new place--cooking, from what I hear, and maybe for the first time in that new kitchen that used to be his kitchen four years ago), but he'll be there over the weekend. Odds are good he'll be there on Sunday (because he always is). The only question is, how much longer the 44-year-old chef will be able to keep standing shifts like a 22-year-old line cook, working back-to-back doubles, bouncing between one restaurant and the other.

"This whole process," he told me on Tuesday night, long after dark, "has forced me to give up that position. That control. I can't be the chef de cuisine anymore." Now, he has to be the executive chef, The Man. He's going to have to step back and oversee rather than being down in the trenches doing everything himself. This, he explained, is not an easy thing for him. And he fully admits that, until recently, he wouldn't have had the maturity, the ego, to step back. To take his hands off the wheel.

But then, there's always that other deadline hanging over his head--equally as non-negotiable as the Blueacre opening, just as daunting.

"No matter what happens," Davis explained. "There's going to come a time in a few weeks, in two months... There's going to be a moment when my wife needs me. I'm going to have to let go."

 
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