A Night At Casablanca Restaurant A Photo Documentary By Michael West
Thursday night at Casablanca Restaurant starts out like any other, with the staff preparing for the unknown. Thursday nights can go in any direction. It can be so busy that by the end of the night it feels as though a train has roared through the restaurant. Or the night can be so quiet that every spoon is polished, every surface wiped, the cooks have scrubbed the kitchen walls, and there are still hours left to wait until close. There are thirty reservations, a quiet night, but that means little in Harvard Square where people walk in off the street looking for a good meal and a drink. Emma O’Connell, a bartender, server, and life-long Cambridge resident says, “Many of our regulars come to Casablanca because they know it is the only place in the square to get a proper cocktail.” The North African/Middle Eastern inspired menu doesn’t hurt either, though for the past thirty years, the restaurant has been obscured below street level in the Brattle Theater building. It is not uncommon for Bostonians to come in claiming to have only just stumbled across the restaurant for the first time.
Though the dining room is left set up from the lunch shift, each server is responsible for their section of tables, and takes some time before opening to clean and polish their area. Jessie Stonberg polishes wine glasses in the dining room and neatens the tables. She recently returned to work here after a year spent in San Francisco unsuccessfully searching for a job in green design. Restaurants are known for substantial turn-over among the staff, as people graduate school, move on to other careers, or move to different establishments for a change of scenery.
At 5:00 the wait staff sits down for a “family meal” of chicken fajitas and french fries, cooked by Todd Sarmenian, the sous-chef. Six servers, a hostess, a busser, and a bartender make jokes, and listen to manager Nicole Bernabe give the details for the night. She tells the dining room servers who will get the bigger parties from the reservations, at what times, and at which tables. Sarmenian describes the specials: split pea soup with fresh goat cheese, and grilled skirt steak served with fried polenta and arugula salad. At 5:25 everyone cleans up, and the dining room opens at 5:30. Unfortunately, the evening starts out slowly.
Casablanca Restaurant is a Cambridge icon owned by Sari Abul-Jubein. It has been in Harvard Square since 1955, starting out as a place to get drinks before a movie at the Brattle Theater. In 1971 Abul-Jubein joined the restaurant as a waiter and bought it in 1976. In 1979 he moved it to a larger space in the Brattle Theater building. He offered a full service dining room but kept the casual atmosphere with a large caféand bar area. Murals of Casablanca, the movie, adorn the walls, with portraits of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in the dining room and a restaurant scene of Rick’s Café Americain on the back wall of the bar. The casual atmosphere permeates the restaurant, as the wait staff jokes with each other and intermingles with the regular customers. Despite the popularity of the fine dining and tapas menu, the hamburger is still the most frequently ordered menu item. Abul-Jubein has a strong presence in the restaurant and stops in to say hello at the beginning of the night.
The manager, Bernabe, originally from Hawaii, came to Boston for school seven years ago. She has been working in restaurants for over ten years and managing for five. “I enjoy managing; it’s different from serving. I do get tired of telling people what to do. But with this crew it is an easy job. They are all fairly self sufficient.”
Camilo Diaz, the chef, has been cooking for fourteen years. He immigrated from Colombia when he was sixteen to make money for his family. He began working as a dishwasher in Nashua, NH and soon after moved to Boston to cook. Diaz says, “I worked hard and followed the pay raises into better cooking jobs.” Nearly ten years ago he got the daytime sous-chef position at Casablanca. With a son to support in Boston while still sending money home to Colombia, he worked at Casablanca during the day and line-cooked at other restaurants at night for eight years. In 2006 Abul-Jubein promoted him to executive chef. Now only working one job, he says, “I finally have time to spend with my family.” Diaz has tonight off, leaving Sarmenian to run the kitchen. Sarmenian has over a decade of experience working in restaurants. He came to Casablanca nearly a year ago from a restaurant in the North End where he worked eighty-hour weeks. Right now he enjoys what is usually a forty-hour work-week with Fridays and Saturdays off. Sarmenian takes advantage of the slow start to the evening to get the butchering done. He prepares lamb loin, marinating it in garlic, allepo and oil. He then joins his cooks on the line to wait for the orders to come in.
Meanwhile, Francisco Beboya, prep cook at the restaurant for over a decade, weighs out hamburger patties. Octavio Garcia, the dishwasher, prepares meze plates, three dips that come with fresh baked crackers, olives and grape leaves stuffed with herbed rice. Ovidio Mantoya, the second sous-chef, is working the grill. Wilmar Sepulveda is manning the sauté station. Andres Mejia is on the cold appetizer station.
Sepulveda runs out of tuna for the sashimi with green beans and deviled eggs. Sarmenian steps off the line and cuts more tuna loin. Sarmenian says of his role in the kitchen, “Usually this is a really easy job. Unless it’s really busy, I just stand back and let these guys cook. They are mostly all from the same town in Colombia and know each other well. I’m usually in the way unless I’m running a station.”
The orders trickle in. This is a good time to straighten up the kitchen. Sarmenian takes over the grill while Mantoya organizes and cleans the walk-in cooler.
The night finally begins to pick up speed. The cooks had been joking with each other but begin to pay attention as the orders start coming in with more regularity.
Sarmenian begins taking tickets for orders off the printer and barking commands down the line to Sepulvida and Mejia. The cooks help each other when they have a free moment. Sarmenian helps Sepulveda plate a striped bass with tomato relish and kale.
Sarmenian looks at a ticket and says to Sepulvida, “I told you to fire that sole. Get it going.” Sepulvida quickly drops the sole in a hot pan and covers it with a lid. He then sautés spinach, arugula and watercress for an order of wilted greens.
Bernabe stands on the restaurant side of the kitchen window, matching the plated food to tickets for tables that are ready for their next course. She hands the plates to servers to carry to the diners, or brings them herself.
The rush doesn’t last long. When it becomes obvious that it isn’t going to be busy on a given night, the manager will send servers home. This way those who stay can make more money and those who are sent home can enjoy a surprise night off with friends. Tonight Bernabe cuts Ulisses Trujilo and Stonberg by 8:00. Stonberg goes to her boyfriend’s house to watch the Celtics game and Trujilo walks out the door sending text messages, looking for friends to meet up with.
Mantoya finishes cleaning and comes back to relieve Sarmenian from the grill. Sarmenian picks up a clipboard and leaves the kitchen for the office to place the orders with the food providers for tomorrow’s deliveries. As the night winds down, Bernabe tells the kitchen that the dining room is closed, meaning they are only serving food from the tapas menu for drinkers in the cafe. The cooks begin wrapping up their stations, taking a moment to cook the few remaining orders as they trickle in. It is now time for the cooks to eat. Sarmenian comes back from the office with a beer and cooks himself a rib eye. Mantoya makes himself a roasted lamb roll up. Sepulveda sits down on a low counter to eat a plate of fried calamari. Mejia cooks himself a striped bass.