Tuesday 27 August 2013

PART 1: Bali, all about religion

Religion in Bali is present everywhere and every day. It is literally a way of life where ceremonies mark every single step a Balinese takes and every event he or she experiences.

Hinduism came to Indonesia from India in the 5th century, was first replaced by Buddhism and later in the 14th century by Islam. However, Bali was the only part of Indonesia to remain Hindu and despite the foreign influence generated by tourism still until now Balinese people worship an elaborate array of deities: of fertility, fire, water, earth, sun, the mountains and the sea, gods and devils…

Several types of Canang
No matter where you are in Bali, you only need to look around to see signs of religion in every corner: the “canang” or traditional baskets reign over the island filled with the most unusual gifts to the Gods such as a candy, a tangerine, some frangipani flowers, a banana or a salak fruit, some leaves, even a cigarette! Balinese start each day by buying these items in their traditional markets, they then arrange them nicely in coconut-leaf baskets and finally they pray while placing them in strategic locations around houses or workplaces. These offerings are meant to thank the good spirits and appease the evil ones, keeping the balance between good and bad in the island.

Teeth filing ceremony
Apart from these daily rituals, ceremonies are a major aspect of the Balinese lifestyle and culture. From birth to death the Balinese celebrate a variety of milestones or rites of passage that they believe will guide the soul through the numerous stages of life. Some of these celebrations can be really shocking from a Western perspective, as it is the tooth-filing ceremony. This very significant ritual marks the step from puberty to adulthood for both males and females and it consists of filing down the canine teeth (the pointy ones) until they are even with the other teeth around them as they are considered animal-like and getting them shortened symbolizes the smoothing out of the animal aspects in a human's personality. If for whatever reason a person has not undergone this ceremony by the time he/she dies, then it will have to take place prior to his/her cremation, as the Balinese believe that the gods may mistake a human for a savage animal if his/her teeth are not filed.

Until recently, Kevin and I were exposed to religion in Bali just by watching the locals in their immaculate ceremonial clothes buying or preparing the offerings, walking to the temples, praying to holy trees... Or as we waited anxiously in traffic for a cremation procession to enter or leave a temple. Or when we witnessed from time to time the taking over of a beach by a group of worshippers to release their offerings into the ocean. But, as I promise to reveal in my next post, religion is now also part of Cuca and of our daily tasks and accomplishments. 

It’s time to go, Cuca’s dining room is filling up and dinner service begins!

Thursday 8 August 2013

Being a restaurateur

Although I have lots and lots of things to tell you about after my long silence, today I would love to share with you how does it feel to have your own restaurant. If you have been reading my blog from the beginning, you will know well the ups and downs of this year long journey. You will also remember the array of little details and great people involved in the making of Cuca so you will be able to perfectly understand me when I tell you that the opening night was truly magic. To see our guests walk through, touch, feel and taste everything we had so thoughtfully developed gives you the utmost feeling of accomplishment. The room around us that night was silently screaming “You made it!”.

Cuca´s first night

On that first evening we left Cuca exhausted but smiling and above all determined to tackle the second day of Cuca’s life with a long list of points that needed our attention and improvement: a bulb here and there, better signs for our guests to easily find the main entrance, a different selection of flowers, bigger candles for the garden and smaller ones for the oil burners, different lighting in the dining room, lower volume in the cocktail bar…

Kevin and I do pretty good getting things done but it is overwhelming to see that for every tick accomplished we discover another 5 new “to dos”. And whenever something seems under control, it just suddenly slips out of your hands and you need to reassess the situation all over again. One of the biggest challenges in the day is to combine our marketing efforts to get Cuca known with the daily operations of the restaurant. We know we have to do whatever possible to attract guests but at the same time we need to make sure we are ready to impress them so they return. Another tricky part is to be strict with our staff so they perform up to our expectations but at the same time to make sure they are happy and in good spirits to provide a heartfelt service for many years to come. You know that this is always difficult but it becomes a real challenge when you take into account that all our staff is new so we don’t count with the loyalty of any senior employees.

In a nutshell, to be a restaurateur feels like climbing a mountain every morning. You start full of energy and motivation, get going and easily skip the first obstacles, continue farther and start feeling a bit tired, go some more and begin feeling the pain and the weariness and when you are about to desperate…  you see the peak (the first guest of the evening) and forget how exhausted you are. You are at the top and feel great while admiring the view. By the end of dinner service is time to slowly pack up and descend… get home and feel a mixture of accomplishment and tiredness. And fall asleep realizing that tomorrow another mountain awaits you.

Sunday 14 July 2013

So we moved in… and then?

You may wonder what is it like to move into a brand-new restaurant and how do you start organizing yourself when all you see ahead is tasks to be done and people asking you what to do next. Well, in this entry I want to share with you what we have lived this couple of weeks and how are we are managing to keep the boat afloat.

Service team attacking their dining room for the first time
In theory the trick is to meticulously plan every step, although planning in the middle of so much activity is definitely a challenge, and so many things come up every other minute that plans vanish as we make them. For example, the first task to tackle seemed to be cleaning, although with what, where and when was not so easy to determine. Imagine a space still full of all types of workers (plumbers, electricians, aluminum specialists, glass contractors, painters, carpenters, etc.), all busy trying to finish up their jobs; on top of that, picture a restaurant made out of materials that look great but fragile and 50 people eager to jump on them and make them shine. We smelled trouble right away: if we armed our staff with all the cleaning tools we had, we would end up without cleaning tools and with a brand new restaurant seriously damaged. The solution? We got our management to coordinate with all the workers the status of their job, schedule when we could start cleaning and with what products to avoid any damage on the floors, glasses, doors, wood, etc.  Furthermore, we divided the team in smaller groups easier to manage. The next challenge we encountered was realizing that 50 people work pretty fast and jobs were completed faster than it took us to come up with new tasks… 

Briefing about receiving our first orders
A simultaneous challenge was the urgency of getting the office ready. We could no longer work from home as the cleaning and organizing required our full attention so we had to get the office at Cuca operative as soon as possible to start placing our first orders. In Bali every step is an adventure and trust me, to place an order is worth an entire novel.The system we had developed was straight forward: orders to be placed on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 12 to 2pm and deliveries to be received Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays from 9 to 12pm. We were so naive…Just to give you an idea, we are working with 32 suppliers and each of them has to be contacted through a specific way (some only accept orders via sms, some via the phone, some via email...) and they deliver “when they are nearby”. Fifty per cent of the products we ordered were “indefinitely” out of stock (the suppliers had no idea of when they would be available) and it seems that most prices change daily (depending on the price of petrol, if it is Ramadan or any other seasonal festivity, and some other factors we fail to grasp). To cap it all, most of the suppliers did not understand the names of the products we wanted to order as we were using either the English or the Javanese name (apparently different from the Balinese one) and since our staff was not trained yet on the recipes, they could not help us to find the right translation. 
The "receiving" drama
This process was totally a gamble. We were so afraid about the products we were going to receive… So the moment arrived when the first product was delivered: grapes from Australia. Fantastic. Cuca uses exclusively Indonesian products… We looked at the label in disbelieve and just when we were about to lose it, the magic of Bali took place:  in the midst of our upset explanations to the supplier repeating that, as mentioned when we placed our order, all products delivered had to be local, he, without any bad gesture whatsoever, took the grapes back and said he would come back "some time later" with local grapes. Similar situations took place non-stop during the entire week. I would say that 60% of the suppliers got the product wrong but each of them had no problem taking it back and either bring the right one later or tell us where we could get what we were looking for. Unbelievable. 

So receiving was a major milestone for us:  we learned the local names, confirmed suppliers and get our chillers organized. While placing and receiving orders, we were moving all the equipment and utensils from the store rooms to Cuca to get everything ready for the next step: production. I must say this is a piece of cake for Kevin so, luckily for us, no drama on this field. 
Cooks reviewing production for the day

In the office, once we got over the ordering we focused on communication and human resource matters: keys (there were just everywhere!), phones, air conditioner timers, internet, shifts, staff catering, uniforms, laundry, etc. Hundred little things necessary to get started. Regarding the service, we continue facing challenges as there are still quite a few details to be completed so a final cleaning has not yet been possible. Furthermore, we did not want our furniture to be damaged with the works still taking place so we have not unpacked yet. Fortunately, we are almost done and next week our service team will be able to shine by making our dining room as pretty as we dreamed of. 

I must confess that I feel dizzy when I think of everything ahead of us but looking back I understand that the secret is to take a step at the time. Tomorrow: cocktail production and tasting!