Anthony Caldwell is tired.
Don’t get it wrong, he’s grateful, too — for his faith, his family, the outpouring of community support, and his restaurant, 50Kitchen. Located in Dorchester’s Fields Corner, his place is an unlikely mix of Southern American and Vietnamese fare, which hasreceivedno shortage oflocal acclaim. As has Caldwell himself, the owner and head chef.
I talked to Caldwell recently. It was his day off and one of his primary objectives that afternoon was to wash his car. Unlike that automobile, Chef would like you to know he is “a man, not a machine.”
Sure, there are the exhausting intricacies of running a restaurant. The mornings that begin 12 hours before doors open to the public. The prepping, cooking and presenting meals. The assessment of inventory and the analysis of invoices. There are the emails that need answering, the staffing issues that need to be delicately handled. But for Caldwell, there’s also something else. There are the interviewers that come a-calling, the cameras that want to capture this success story.
His personal story — of falling in love with cooking while imprisoned, of renouncing intoxicating drink, of finding God, of successfullypitching his vision for a restaurant and then opening it — is something he sees as a central ingredient in what has so far been a highly successful enterprise. But, as Caldwell tells me, it’s also been something of an accepted burden. So, of course he’s grateful to be seen as both an inspiration to others in the neighborhood and a provider of nourishment; but, Anthony Caldwell is also tired.
“With all of the joy that my career brings to me,” Caldwell said, “there's also this fine line that has to be drawn because I have this thing called family that I'm obligated to take care of. When the restaurant's not there, family is always going to be there.”
The relationship Caldwell maintains between his family and his personal space and customers is nuanced. Relationships work two ways, and he hopes his customers will understand and respect that. “[People] don't see me getting up at 3:30 in the morning to open up a restaurant on a Wednesday that opens up at four o'clock in the afternoon.”
Today, our lives are lived on-demand, and while that works for marathoning 90s TV sitcoms or crafting playlists with impeccable sequencing, this does not translate well to the restaurant industry. When asked if he felt like he owed anyone anything, Caldwell provided a nimble response that illustrated the differences between reality and expectations. On one hand, he acknowledged the promise he made over three years ago to be there for the people.
"Part of my pitch to the community was 'I'm going to be here if you guys choose me. I'm going to be committed to being here.'"Chef Anthony Caldwell
But on the other hand, this on-demand economy drives unrealistic expectations. There are, for example, the requests for custom or held orders. Or there might be the occasional glib remark about the efficiency of the restaurant at any given moment, despite the reality that we are still in a pandemic. If one takes a step back, they may be able to consider just how hard running an independent restaurant is day to day, on top of the far-ranging impact of COVID-19 on the economics of the industry — like payroll competition with unemployment and stimulus checks. Surprised the restaurant is closed when it’s listed online as open? Of those situations, where life hits, he explains, “I didn't know that the dishwasher didn't show up, or two cooks quit without giving me a two week notice, or I'm ready for a busy Saturday service. And I'm the only one standing in the kitchen wondering where my staff is.”
He’s there for the community, but there’s a sense that we know someone simply because we see them, and that can’t be farther from the truth. Caldwell described his open kitchen layout as double edged in this way — while such a concept allows eaters to see the commitment to quality, it also invites a familiarity that in many other situations we’d call “unprofessional.”
“I'm afraid that my love for cooking and the commitment to the community is going to burn me out,” he confessed. “And because I'm a man of faith, I'm like ‘God, where are you? Right. You brought me this far. I know that you're not going to leave me.’”
Culturally, we cannot get enough of the “overcoming obstacles” narrative. We heap our expectations and assumptions onto those subjects. In the process, we risk forgetting that these are real people who have lived these experiences. Caldwell is well aware that life has its challenges, but he hasn’t forgotten the promise he made to the community — the promise that he would be there for them. He closed our conversation with words he often tells his daughter.
“You're running the race and you're hot and you're fatigued and you can see the finish line,” he said. “[But if] you just stop, you will never know if you lost. You will never know if you won. But you will know that you quit. Yeah, don't quit, don't quit whatever you do. Don't quit.”