Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Tom Schaudell. (Photo: Jim Lennon/jimlennon.com)

Tom Schaudel has met many life goals: He owns New York restaurants, he plays in a band called Hurricane that, by his words, “is still blowing hard enough to avoid being downgraded to a tropical depression,” and he’s written two books, starting with “Playing With Fire: Whining & Dining on the Gold Coast” in 2008. His most recent, “A Second Helping: Whining and Dining on Long Island,” was published this August.

“Second Helping” is a 500-page peek into the life of a Long Island restaurant owner filled with stories of the worst – and, as a result, funniest – customers. Some chapters, such as the one in which Schaudel discusses accents, may be difficult for the Cambridge reader to get through. Yet, in a world where we all live in a filtered bubble, it can be nice to get a peek outside of it. Besides, as Schaudel says, “Lord knows we could all use a laugh.”

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When did you begin recounting your interactions with customers?

I read an article years ago called “The Restaurant Goer’s Bill of Rights,” and it listed these 10 rights that they thought anybody who went to a restaurant was entitled to. Things like clean surroundings, a cheerful “hello,” hot food, cold drinks, whatever. I started thinking about that and realized that there’s another side to this – the restaurant owner’s bill of rights. So I wrote this little article about badly behaved customers that got picked up by a magazine. The editor asked me, “Do people really behave that way?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Well, could you give me your top three people and just write about them for the magazine?” So I did, and then expanded to ten the following year. It became this yearly section,“Tom’s Top 10,” and it was eventually the most popular part of the magazine. That’s what led me to the first book.

Was the publishing process difficult?

No, not at all. I self-published both, which is really easy. Nelson DeMille, an author, is a buddy of mine. When I wrote my first book, I gave him the manuscript and told him to take a look. And he said, “I think it’s pretty good. I’m gonna give it to my agent.” And his agent turned me down. I said, “Damn, I thought you were a big shot. I mean, I can get turned down on my own – I don’t need help to get turned down.” But it turns out that it was a blessing in disguise. When you go through a publishing company, or even Amazon or Barnes & Noble, they don’t pay very much for your book. They sell a book, you get a dollar or two back. When you publish your own, you can make $10 to $15 a book. I’m fortunate enough to have the ability to sell my book: I have a radio show and my restaurants, as well as many of the wineries in Long Island, carry it. I have some juice down here – The first book sold more than 8,000 copies. I think a lot of self-published people get stuck once their family and friends get it, because they don’t have that kind of advertising.

You’ve owned many restaurants. What challenges, apart from the crazy customers, come with the business?

The hardest part about the restaurant business now is the government. You’re fighting everything now. Every employee I have is a lawyer now – few of them know their job but they all know their rights. And then you have real lawyers who’re taking potshots at everybody. They’re trolling Spanish-speaking newspapers, and this whole sexual harassment thing is big now as well. In restaurants, the challenge used to be getting the thing open, but now everybody seems to be gunning for you. We’ve had incidents where people were accused of crimes that never happened. These things never really go to court, but we just wind up filing briefs until somebody says, “All right, I give up – How much money is it going to cost to make this go away?”

What do you love about the industry? 

I love the creative process. Opening a restaurant is a lot like raising a child. When the baby’s born, everybody’s so excited – there’s stuff to do and things to learn. And as the baby grows up, you try to mold it in a certain way. It’s the same thing with restaurants. For me the creative part in the kitchen is what really excites me, but building them is also a lot of fun. You’re able to create something that wasn’t there before. You have this whole entity that represents how you feel about food or wine. It’s just fabulous.

You write a lot about the diversity in your kitchens. What is your own background?

It turns out my great-grandmother was cooking for hotels in Switzerland, back in the turn of the century. Being a woman at that time, she couldn’t ascend to any position of authority in the kitchen, so she was relegated to entry. She was a fabulous cook, and she taught my grandmother, whom I would help cook when I was 5 or 6 years old. It was a lot of fun. My mother’s side is English from Liverpool. You can only imagine what kind of food my mother cooked as a kid. I mean, the English cuisine is terrible.

You also write about political tensions. What do you think of how polarized America has become?

I think it’s terrible. People used to be able to talk about politics and agree to disagree. Now, it’s just crazy. People are ending friendships, relationships and family over who’s in and who’s out. I did dinner in the Senate for 14 years – A U.S. senator from New York was assigned annually to pick five chefs to participate in “Farm Day.” This was a lobbying effort to show the Senate that New York was an agribusiness state, it wasn’t just finance. Hillary Clinton chose me from Long Island and a guy from the Hudson Valley to do this dinner. And the thing that I noticed about being there is that all these guys that you see arguing on TV, they’re all friends with each other. This is a big game down there. At some point, I think that the extreme right wing and the extreme left wing have taken over the conversation. And the people in the middle, which is most of us, are left out in the cold.

What do you hope readers will take away from your book?

I wrote the book to entertain. There was a show back in the ’60s called “Candid Camera,” with hidden cameras that would film people doing silly things. People in the act of being themselves are very funny. When I was younger, I used to get annoyed at the stuff I write about, like customers coming in with a ticket for dinner that looked Shakespearean, written with a whole set of instructions. As I got older, I started to see the humor in these situations, and wanted to share that with other people. And that’s really all it’s about. It’s a book about sitting down and having a laugh, because lord knows we could all use one. That’s the result I’d really like to see – I’d like to see somebody read one of those stories and laugh out loud.

  • “A Second Helping: Whining and Dining on Long Island” is available through bookstores.