Brooklyn restaurateurs swap epic food-failure tales for Red Hook small-business relief

Brooklyn restaurant Home/Made, pre-Sandy. ()
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Jed Lipinski

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Paulie Gee, the charismatic owner of the eponymous Greenpoint pizzeria, was telling a story last night at the Brooklyn Brewery.

One evening in 2010, a month after Paulie Gee’s opened but before they got their beer and wine license, 14 members of a local wiffleball league walked in. As he’s prone to do, Gee quickly ingratiated himself with the diners before retreating to his office. An hour later he heard what he called an “uproar” from the dining area. The wiffleball players had tried to pay for their $169 bill with eight credit cards. The waitress wasn't having it.

“I start kissing their ass,” Gee said. He allowed them to pay with the eight cards, and then pulled his server aside, explaining, “You can’t let people take you off your game like that.”

Satisfied, the diners left. Then came the Yelp review.

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“'The waitress failed epicly,'” Gee said, quoting from a printout of the article-length review. The review went on to say that the group had been drinking Jameson whiskey while they were at the restaurant.

After an anxious month, Gee received a visit from a liquor inspector, who pointed to the review. But a thorough search of the premises turned up no signs of alcohol. Today, Paulie Gee’s enjoys 4.5 stars on Yelp and has waiting lists on the weekends.

Gee’s was one of several tales featured in "The Kitchen is Flooded and Other Disasters," an event held to raise money for Restore Red Hook, which is helping local businesses hobbled by Hurricane Sandy. In addition to stories by Brooklyn chefs and restaurant owners, there were food vendors (among them Frites 'N' Meats, Dreamscoops, and Anarchy in a Jar); a raffle (prizes included a box of kombucha from Mombucha and a gift card for BrisketTown); and “speed networking” for food professionals, sponsored by Work It Brooklyn. The website Brooklyn Based co-sponsored the event. If it were possible to OD on the Brooklyn brand, this was the place to do it.

Helpfully, Allison Robicelli—the founder of Robicelli’s cupcakes whose Bay Ridge Cares Kitchen is now being run by Occupy Sandy volunteers—reminded the crowd of Brooklyn’s older, saltier incarnation.

“I’m a Guinea from 15th Avenue,” she said, by way of illustrating a mishap that occurred while catering a bar mitzvah at age 23. “I don’t know how to cut challah bread!"

Robicelli, a fourth generation Brooklynite, wore a black leather jacket and paced the stage like Richard Lewis. She described how she'd been dispatched to Waldbaum’s for more challah loaves, which went untouched. As her supervisor put it at the end of the night: “I think you just fucked up a serious religious situation.”

But Robicelli’s misfortunes paled in comparison to those of Leisah Swenson and Monica Byrne, the owners of Red Hook’s Home/Made restaurant and the co-founders of Restore Red Hook. Swenson recalled how Barry O’Meara, a co-owner of the bar Bait and Tackle, had arrived at their door on the night of the storm and declared, in his Irish brogue: “Move your car. The waters are here.”

Swenson peered outside, where the waters indeed were. She, Byrne, and a man named Cliff from the bodega next door retreated to the apartment upstairs where Swenson and Byrne live. When Swenson looked out the back window, she saw their furniture floating in four feet of water.

“The chickens!” she screamed.

The three of them raced back down the stairs and waded into the backyard, where the chicken coop had turned buoyant. The six chickens therein were crammed to one side, craning their necks just inches above the waterline. Swenson, Byrne and Cliff grabbed two chickens each and fled upstairs with them. The chickens remained in the apartment for the next few days.

What was it like to have chickens in their apartment? someone asked.

“It was a shitty mess,” Swenson said, laughing.

“But the chickens were great,” Byrne added.

Turning serious, Byrne said that they created Restore Red Hook because they’d already endured a disaster early this year. In March, Home/Made’s kitchen caught fire—another tragedy announced by an owner of Bait and Tackle, Byrne said. Just hours after the fire department extinguished the flames, however, their neighbors had started a fund-raiser.

“People put everything they had into their restaurants in Red Hook,” Byrne said. So when Sandy ruined local spots like Fort Defiance and The Good Fork, the owners thought, “There’s no more money, no more energy, no more me.”

“Since we’d been through it already, we knew that wasn’t true,” Byrne said. She added that, after the fire, Home/Made had been offered another location outside Red Hook. But after seeing the way the community reacted, they said: "We’re staying." And they're still staying. Even though, a month after Sandy, Home/Made remains without power.

The raffle to support Restore Red Hook continues through Friday. Click here for more information.