Feb 26, 2004 • Montclair Times
Born to Run a Diner: How Raymond Badach built the joint of his dreams
by Eric Levin
To make a brand new restaurant look old – not in a rundown way, but as if its very tabletops have tales to tell – it helps to have someone with the imagination of Chris Ockler, an actor whose specialty is creating three-dimensional distress.
Ockler recently brought his toolkit to 28 Church Street in Montclair, where owners Raymond Badach and Joanne Ricci were transforming the copper-and-teal postmodern space that was restaurant “28” into their new come-as-you-are café Raymond’s – an evocation of a 1930’s diner in white tile, dark wood and red banquettes. Raymond’s opened on Tuesday, Feb. 24, after an eight-month renovation.
Ockler’s job was to “distress” all the mahogany in the place – the tabletops, booths and woodwork – to make it look like it had been there since a cup of joe cost five cents. The usual approach is to get out a set of chains and indiscriminately beat the surfaces until they beg for mercy. Ockler said he prefers to invent narratives, which he then “enacts” using old silverware, mugs, the bottoms of ketchup bottles and salt and pepper shakers and a variety of chisels.
“He’ll say, ‘This scratch is from when Tony broke up with his girlfriend,” said Christian Garnett, one of the two interior designers who translated Badach’s vision into actual site plans and brought in Ockler for the fine points. “It’s a theater piece for him. He layers one event over another. That layering is what gives a place a sense of history..”
At Raymond’s, Ockler said, “I was thinking 1950’s – Bobby soxers, jeans and leather jackets. If you don’t focus on imagining real moments, you repeat yourself and the effect looks foolish.”
Working 12-hour shifts beginning in mid-afternoon, after the dust of the day’s carpentry had literally settled, Ockler lovingly gouged, scraped, chipped, steel wooled, stained and polyurethaned the wood. “I spent 300 hours on that job,” he said. “There’s always a moment of tension at the beginning. The carpenters are aghast. They can’t believe I’m destroying their beautiful work.”
If so much creativity went into one tiny aspect of the project, imagine what the last eight months have been like for Badach and co-owner Joanne Ricci, who conceive and managed the transformation. The journey from the sleek chic of “28” to the retro chic of Raymond’s took almost twice as long as they anticipated.
Now that the 1,850-square-foot restaurant is open, the focus has shifted to fine tuning the food and service. On Saturday, Feb 21, for example, the original Raymond’s – the little coffee shop up the block at 32-A Church Street that Badach opened in 1989 – closed its doors for the foreseeable future. Ultimately, the owners plan to reopen it as a takeout facility. “But for now we just have to focus every ounce of energy into getting the restaurant right,” Ricci said.
After “28” closed last July 6, Badach and Ricci covered the storefront windows with white paper. On it was printed black-and-white photos – of old diners and of steelworkers building the Empire State Building. – interspersed with the words “Raymond’s” and “November”. But to peek behind the paper, so to speak, is to see that the story really began years earlier.
EPIPHANY AT THE MOHAWK
Growing up in Jersey City in the 1960’s and ‘70’s, Raymond Badach loved diners. “I lived in the Heights, and my food epiphany came at the Mohawk Diner,” he recalled. While other teens perhaps were stealing hubcaps or buying beer with fake ID’s, Badach was hanging out at the Mohawk. “I started drinking coffee and eating egg sandwiches at an early age,” he said, in an almost confessional tone.
The Mohawk, on Central Avenue in the Heights, attracted al strata of Jersey City society. When he was in grammar school at P.S. 25, Badach would stop there before starting his paper route. “The place was full of war veterans reading well-thumbed newspapers and all kinds of people,” Badach said. “I’ve loved it always. I don’t know why.”
Badach delivered the Jersey Journal. He’d load about 50 copies into a canvas shoulder bag and walk his route. “Then I took over another route and started delivering about 100 papers a day,” he said. “It was fun. I was an awful student. I didn’t have a lot of interest in school. I wanted to work, and be part of the adult world. I loved being self-sufficient.”
After freshman and sophomore years at Hudson
Catholic, Badach got what for him was the perfect summer job – delivering food orders from Solowey’s, a popular eatery in Journal Square, the heart of town. “I worked for George and Charlie, Greek brothers,” he related. “George was dark and stocky. He ran the place. Charlie was kind of a ne’er do well. He’d come in late. He had a limp. He had custom-made shoes to level his gait.
“Charlie wore a lot of gold. He had one long pinky nail. It’s a very old European thing. It’s not a drug thing. I’m half Sicilian, on my mother’s side, and I had an uncle that did the same. Charlie played the horses. He would sit there and smoke Lucky Strikes and show me how to read the tout sheets. When women came in, he’s try to cop a feel.”
Badach, who can strike people as aloof, is actually shy. When he tells a story, he often glances up or to the side, his eyes sparkling, his face radiating humor and wonder.
“Here was this guy who was trying to connect with me, in his own way, and I appreciated that,” he said. “The gap between generations can be so adversarial, especially at that time. But it doesn’t have to be.”
Another favorite character was Jerry Kadish, who ran an accounting firm in Journal Square. “He drove a big Lincoln Continental. He was large, and he lived large. When I’d deliver his lunch, he used to flip me for the bill. If I won, he paid me double. If he won, I’d buy him lunch.”
Badach’s main customers were the lawyers, architects and accountants whose offices were in or near the Square. Just off the Square in those days was a well-known Jewish deli, Greenspan’s. “They’d say, ‘If you swing by Greenspan’s, pick me up a Cel-Ray.’” Badach added. “There was always a lot going on.”
Inside Solowey’s, blue- and white-collar patrons easily mixed. “The places I like are democratic environments,” Badach reflected. “Because of their jobs or status, people can become segregated without even realizing it. But what’s exciting to me is when you can cross those boundaries, when there’s no hierarchy. That’s what makes diners the bistros of the United States.”
Comments Ricci, “Raymond is always striving for something more, but in a good way. He’s not a competitive jerk. He’s basically an old-fashioned guy. He’d have a rotary phone if he could.”
Badach’s father, Raymond Carl, was a commercial investigator for the Hackensack Water Company. After high school, his oldest son, Raymond Michael, took a production job in the Garment District. When the company folded, Raymond decided to help his mother, Ann, look after his grandfather Sal, who was dying.
He continued to look for another job, without luck. “One day,” he recalled, “my mother said. “Why don’t you do a novena?’ I asked, ‘What’s that?’ She said, ‘It’s reciting a prayer to St. Jude, the patron saint of hopeless causes.’
“I decided to do it. The prayers take nine days to complete. Halfway through, my Mom saw an ad for a line cook in Montclair, no experience needed. I had never been in Montclair. I remember driving up Watchung Avenue and thinking, ‘Wow, this is pretty.’”
The interview with the owner of the Evergreen restaurant seemed to go well, but Badach heard nothing and figured someone else got the job. “I kept doing the novena,” he continued, “and on the last day, after Mass, my Mom and I went to a diner in Westwood. All of a sudden, I’m being paged by name on the intercom. I didn’t know diners had intercoms. It was my brother, Glen. He said, ‘The
Evergreen just called, and they want you to start tomorrow.’”
Badach was 21. ‘I felt it was a miracle that changed the course of my life and gave me the break I needed,” he said. “It brought me to Montclair, and I never left.”
He added, “I continue to this day to use Saint Jude.”
TRIBECA ON CHURCH STREET
In the ‘80’s and’90’s, New American cuisine came into its own in Manhattan. Downtown, Keith McNally’s casual Odeon pioneered the marriage of French brasserie décor with food that ranged from steak au poivre to meatloaf. Connecticut-born chef David Bouley out-haute-cusined haute cusine at Bouley. “I thought it would be interesting to bring that to Montclair,” Badach said. “I wanted ot do Bouley-caliber food without all the fuss.”
Badach had opened Raymond’s, his cozy breakfast and lunch spot on Church Street, in 1989. In 1994, he gave it a polished big brother in “28.” The restaurant took no reservations or credit cards, but was an instant hit. The food was ambitious, the atmosphere straight out of TriBeCa – right down to the exposed ductwork high above the antique wood bar (at which, “28” being BYOB, you could order nothing stronger than a San Pellegrino straight up).
Over the years, “28” slid unintentionally into a precious niche. As Ricci, who managed the restaurant put it, “We became known as a special occasion place, which was never our intention.” Meanwhile, in front of tiny Raymond’s, lines would form as people waited to buy cappuccino and a fresh-baked scone or sit down to a breakfast of corn batter cakes or French toast. This left “28,” which served only dinner, “underutilized” in Ricci’s term.
Badach, tall and lean with short upswept hair, dapper in a crisp shirt and jeans, sometimes a sport jacket, made a distinctive and charming host. But something wasn’t right.”Even though I liked the people so much.” He admitted, “you have to be behind the whole philosophy of that food, and I found it awkward in a certain way. Like the wines people brought. I don’t even drink.”
“I’m not someone who’s going to climb a hillside for the perfect truffle. I respect that, but that’s not who I am.”
“CAN I ASK YOU A QUESTION?”
Ian McPheely and Christian Garnett are artists by night, carpenters by day. Their paintings and sculpture are shown in galleries, their work is reviewed, but it’s their designs for New York restaurateur Keith McNally that have made them hot. Either singly or together, they have created McNally’s most popular places, including Pastis, a casual French café; Balthazar, the ultimate fantasy of a mirrored gilt-edged Parisian brasserie; and the new Schiller’s Liquor Bar, a quirky tiled lair for denizens of the suddenly superhip Lower East Side. They are currently designing a restaurant in TriBeCa for Robert DeNiro.
McPheely and Garnett’s company is called Grayling. “It’s an obscure Arctic fish.” Garnett explained. “We just liked the sound of it – and we’re odd fish.”
One day McPheely got a phone call from Badach. “He said he liked Pastis a lot,” McPheely recalled. “He said, ‘Can I ask you a question?’ I later realized that’s how he starts any conversation.”
Grayling’s specialty is designing spaces rich with period detail. “It’s not historically correct,” Garnett noted. “It’s more about getting a feel and letting the beauty of the materials carry it.”
Badach and Ricci wanted an inviting and relaxed space where people would feel comfortable dropping in any time of day or night, seven days a week. “We went for a kind of post-Depression diner Americana,” Garnett said. “We didn’t want it to be at all intimidating. A lot of places, it feels like a commitment just to open the door.”
DIVIDE AND CONQUER
The first major change was to divide the large rectangular dining room in two: the front room would be a white-tiled diner with stools and a soapstone bar, the back a more sedate space with antique mirrors and red banquettes. “It was begging to be divided,” said McPheely.
It takes contractors a while to get used to Grayling’s way of working. “We forbid things other builders depend on, like caulk,” said Garnett. “People didn’t have caulk a hundred years ago, so they had to invent other ways to mask joints, like decorative woodwork. Nowadays it’s bang-bang, get your money and hide a world of sins with this liquid rubber.”
“Caulk is a signifier for the contemporary building ethos,” he added, sounding like the conceptual artist that he is, whose symmetrical abstract paintings resemble spectrographs, blazing white along the vertical center line, deepening into rich color at the edges. “It’s about temporariness. It just has to last until the next developed comes along.”
SCOUT AND SCOUR
While its design, smudging period boundaries, is neo-retro, Raymond’s is full of authentic old things. Finding them was one of Ricci’s many responsibilities. “The most fun was scouting for the things that make it all work,” she said. “From little dive bars in Jersey City to a barn in Sussex County, I scoured everything.”
Her three biggest finds were these: a set of blonde wood chairs that came from a bygone place in Jersey City called Starr’s Red Roost (guess what color the upholstery was); a huge collection of classic spritzer seltzer bottles (from Argentina, of all places) in various colors of glass, which now fill shelves that divide the front room from the back; and a trove of old cast-iron table pedestals with decorative feet.
“Once we got the bases in here and put the table tops on, it took two days just to level them and make them all the same height,” Ricci said, issuing the pleasantly raucous laugh that has kept her sane at numerous bumps in the road.
THE JERSEY STIGMA
Meanwhile, Badach and his wife Donna were hunting for just the right chef. It was not an easy bill to fill. It had to be someone who was adept at doing breakfast and lunch as well as dinner. Since the new Raymond’s would be open seven days a week, and would eventually incorporate a separate takeout operation, it had to be someone highly organized, indefatigable and able to direct a kitchen staff of about 15.
The chef would also have to resonate with Badach and Ricci’s vision of a high-quality but affordable menu ranging from comfort food to updated bistro classics, with tempting surprises. “We saw a lot of guys who had the executive experience, but their food was mediocre,” said Ricci. “Or they would agree to come, but only at an outrageous salary with endless perks. One guy insisted on a dry cleaner for his chef coats.”
Sometimes, the demands concealed a prejudice. “A lot of these guys live in New Jersey, but there’s still a stigma about working here,” said Badach. “They feel they’ll be out of the loop and it will be detrimental to their career. Then there are the chefs who want to do their food, but have no interest in what you’re trying to do. So it was difficult.”
ALMOST TOO MUCH FUN
Matthew Gaudet grew up in Sudbury, Massachusetts, thinking he hated mushrooms. That was because the only mushrooms he knew were the canned kind sprinkled on pizza. Years later he underwent his own epiphany. “When good mushrooms are properly cooked,” he says now, “it’s the best thing in the world.”
One day last year, Badach walked into the 22-seat Manhattan restaurant where Gaudet was running a two-man kitchen, whipping up American bistro food with a southern accent. Gaudet, 32, didn’t know who Badach was, but noticed him because he made a reservation for 5:30 the following day – an odd time. “He also flashed me a look, checking out the kitchen,” Gaudet remembered. “There was something about the guy…”
Donna Badach had read a magazine article about the restaurant – 9th Street Market, in the East Village – and wanted to try it. They liked it. They came back with Ricci.
“Matt’s food had that something extra,” she said.
In his own peripatetic way, Gaudet had put together an impressive resume. After earning an economics degree, with a minor in philosophy, at the University of Massachusetts, he had learned to cook in several types and sizes of restaurants in different settings, including Colorado ski resorts. In 1996, he was hired to cook at the upscale Grouse Mountain Grill at the Beaver Creek Resort.
“That was my first time in fine dining,” Gaudet said. “I didn’t know such a thing existed. It changed my perspective. I learned what it meant to work on a real line with other cooks, to be told things are wrong and to have to do them again. I thought, ‘This could be cool.’”
After graduating from the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts, in his home state, he polished his technique with stints at two of the best restaurants in New York City: JeanGeorge Vongerichten’s gastronomical palace, Jean Georges, and the Scandinavian restaurant Aquavit. “I learned amazing techniques at Jean-Georges,” he said. “Aquavit taught me a lot about textures and the artistry of presentation.”
In search of kitchen experience, and to be with his girlfriend, Gaudet had come to New York in 1999 with his center-parted blonde hair, his goatee, his tongue stud and his talent. “I wanted to work for one of those big dudes,” said the young chef, who looks a little like the actor Kiefer Southerland. “You gotta work at a four-star.”
When Badach laid out his vision for Raymond’s and described the space, Gaudet was intrigued and agreed to come to Montclair. He liked it. He realized he was ready to take on a big assignment. Workwise, he felt ready to settle down.
“I had a freewheeling twenties,” he admitted. “Working in the East Village was almost too much fun. There were too many places to go out after work. You’d wind up spending more than you made.”
FRENCH TOAST AND THE WITNESS PROTECTION PROGRAM
Gaudet started at Raymond’s on Jan. 4 of this year, about six weeks before the eventual opening. He had to hire and train a staff, find suppliers, test equipment. Most of all, he had to brainstorm the menu with Badach and Ricci and conduct a series of private tastings for friends and family willing to serve as guinea pigs.
The volunteers didn’t need much arm-twisting. Donna Lehner, a Montclair graphics designer, attended a tasting dinner on Wednesday, Feb. 4. The menu was matzoh ball soup, chicken Caesar salad, four-cheese ravioli, sliced pork tenderloin, hamburgers on brioche buns and butterscotch pudding with whipped cream.
The verdict? “Outrageous.”
Ricci told the new chef there would be certain non-negotiable carryovers form the old café’s menu. The popular corn batter cakes, for one. “I told Matt if we took the French toast off, we’d have to go into the witness protection program.”
SALAMANDER SAVES HAMBURGER
Everyone agreed that Raymond’s would need a killer burger. A fair amount of research and development went into it. They experimented with different cuts of meat, at different grinds, with different proportions of lean and fat, from different purveyors, with different seasonings. The first candidate, an 80-20 (lean to fat) blend of Certified Angus Beef., with a standard burger grind, from the venerable New York firm of DeBragga & Spitzer, produced smiles all around. After all the other contenders were put to the test, it was still the favorite.
The secret was not entirely in the beef, but also in the cooking technique. Upscale burgers are typically cooked on a grill. The three principals felt that grilled burgers were coming out too dry and crusty, and that a perfect rare burger was hard to nail. So Gaudet utilized a technique of browning on the grill, then finishing the burger in the restaurant’s variable-height, open-front broiler, which in kitchen lingo is known as a salamander.
“That was it,” Gaudet said. “When the juices dribble down both sides of your chin, yo know you’ve got it right.”
“PLEASE DON’T REMIND US…”
At last opening day arrived. Tuesday, Feb. 24. On Monday, the inevitable last-minute crisis was weathered – a malfunction in the state-of-the-art computer system that does everything from track inventory to spit out checks to keep tabs on what each server is selling. When the snow began to fall Tuesday morning, the staff did not take it as a bad omen. Even though the opening was not publicized, so many friends and neighbors had been anxiously awaiting the big day that Ricci worried that the staff would be overwhelmed if a lot of people showed up.
“We’d rather ramp up slowly,” she said.
Raymond’s officially opened at 8am. Ten minutes before that, Badach was standing on a stepladder behind the bar, Windexing the four glass panels under which white letters, pushed into creases in black cloth, spelled out important information.
The side-by-side panels looked great, providing a vintage diner tough. Yet just what information they should convey remained undecided until shortly before the opening.
Here’s how it worked out: On the far left the first panel gave the weather forcast. The next panel listed the previous week’s three top-grossing movies. The third panel listed the prices of hot and cold beverages. The last panel, on the far right, was the simplest.
It said, “Please don’t remind us how long this took.”
THE FIRST CUSTOMERS
At 8:01 a short thickset woman with gray hair and a baggy coat shuffled through the door, looking around blinkingly and asked to see the take-out menu. Ricci said she was sorry, but there was no take-out.
“Not even coffee?”
Three minutes later, Todd Edelson, the founder and head of Montclair Physical Therapy on South Park Street, looked in the window excitedly and came in. “I’m on my way to the office and I don’t have time to eat, but I’ll be back,” he told Ricci, and headed out , walking down the street with the usual spring in his step.
The waiters and waitresses, in their crisp white shirts and dark neckties, stood around looking at each other.
Then at 8:09, the door opened and in walked a pleasant middle-aged woman, who looked around and exclaimed, “How neat!” It was Elaine Huntington, who manages the apartment building down the block at 45 Church St.
“My husband and I are big eater-outers,” she said cheerfully. “We try every place in town.” Would she be having breakfast here this morning?
She held up a little white paper bag. “No, I already bought my muffin,” she said. “But we’ll be back.”
“GET OUT OF HERE!”
The illuminated electric clock above the room divider moved silently to 8:10. An older woman walked in, and began to take off her camel coat. Her eyeglasses matched the coat, which matched her blonde hair. Her outfit down to her shoes was solid black.
A reporter told her that she appeared to be the very first customer at Raymond’s, and was making local culinary history.
“Get out of here!” she said.
A moment later, her husband, walking slowly with a cane, came through the door. They chose a table in the back room. He had a gray beard and wore a brass-colored peace sign around his neck.
They were Ruth and Frank Rennie, retired Montclair educators who livew nearby in Hawthorne Towers. He had been principal of six different Montclair public schools in a 29-year career. She had taught second through fifth grades, mainly at Bradford and Watchung.
They received a warm greeting from Badach and also from one of the waitresses, Melany Banks, who it turned out knows the Rennies from another haunt of theirs, the Shubox Café in Cedar Grove, where Banks used to work.
“Hiya, Darling!” Banks said, giving Ruth a hug. “Good to see you!”
Ruth ordered a cheddar omelette, Frank the French toast. AS they waited, they explained that they used to eat at the original, little Raymond’s once or twice a week. “They always let me substitute fresh fruit for the home fries,” Ruth said. She had asked Banks to see if this was still possible. Banks returned to the table with a thumbs-up.
“Wonderful,” Ruth said.
KISSES FOR RAYMOND
Later that morning, Badach, a perpetual-motion machine, took a break to reflect on how things were going. “The people in Montclair have always been just incredibly supportive,” he said. “People have put their arms around me, given me a kiss on the cheek. The world can be overwhelming. I go to Mass every Sunday afternoon. If you read the Sermon on the Mount, it’s telling you that the world is a really hard place, and often we want it to be easy.”
“But if you’re reminded that the hardness is a natural part of life, it helps keep you centered. The people who are professing a way to make it easy I’m always dubious about. I’m very lucky. My parents gave me a lot of latitude. I have a beautiful son and a wife who loves me, and I’ve gotten to do the things I’ve really wanted to do.”
A few minutes later he was in motion again, speaking on the phone, huddling with the wait staff, talking in the back of the restaurant with Gaudet. The snow continued to fall. More people came in. The reporter took a stool at the counter and asked for a menu. It was a good morning to sit down and eat a hearty breakfast.