We used local purveyors, avoided food waste, took care of our workers, served food we believed in, and made our guests smile. It wasn't enough.
We were known for the silk chili bow ties in lemon butter sauce. It was a dish that made people giggle. “This is a dish from the kid’s menu,” Musi's menu description read. Except there was no kid’s menu. Everyone ordered them. The ingredients: silk chili flakes from Turkey by way of Burlap & Barrel, a company actively working to empower farmers and disrupt a demonic international spice trade. The flour was local to my Philadelphia restaurant from Small Valley Milling in Halifax, Pennsylvania. We used whole, pastured eggs – a ratio of 1:1 yolks to whites – from Henry at Gobbler’s Ridge by way of our butcher, Primal Supply Meats.
My cooks would emulsify the fatty butter with starchy pasta water, rigorously tilting and jostling the pan to create the ethereal sauce that became our signature. Care, thought, and intention went into each plate, the same way the pasta dough was mixed, rolled into sheets, cut into little rectangles, and pinched into bow ties. My cooks were a group of talented empaths, committed to building a welcoming and nurturing work environment. Our interest in a functional space of employment was matched by our interest in whole eggs — as an exercise in respect.
Wasting egg whites is a sin.
There’s only so much a kitchen can do with surplus egg whites. We’d whip them into meringues, for example. But Musi was more of a pasta-based operation than it was about meringues. Wasting egg whites is a sin.
But sinning is a wide, elastic spectrum.
Let me tell you about the other ingredients in and around the bow ties. The lemons, a necessary ingredient for lemon butter, were shipped from industrial farms in California or Mexico all year round. I couldn’t tell you much about the derivation of the Diamond Crystal kosher salt we used. And, I have no idea where or how the metal was dug out of the ground for the pans in which those bow ties were tossed. Nevermind the dish soap used, the natural gas burned, what can be recycled, how you approach composting, or the maddening depth of detail you can pay attention to when you’re trying to do everything right.
But there is no such thing as right.
If you think meat is murder, which it is, but legal, then we were complicit in that crime. If you thought that animal flesh should be the centerpiece of your dinner plate then you’d likely judge our vegetable-forward approach rather unfavorably.
You should know that our linens were sewn from repurposed button-down shirts and salvaged grain sacks by my friend Heidi Barr at Kitchen Garden Textiles. Our animal proteins came from Primal Supply, owned by my friend Heather Thomason, whose operation connects small, Pennsylvania farmers practicing regenerative farming with chefs and consumers, filling a void in a market otherwise dominated by industrial monocultures. Every single vegetable that came through our door was grown and harvested by a farmer within two degrees of separation through the Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative or I knew personally, like Ian Brendle, the second generation farmer at Green Meadow Farm.
That’s a lot of “right things” in actual practice, despite a lot of buzzy marketing terms.
What I need you to understand is that the goal was to create beauty, which does not exist without brutality. Our professional task was to pursue beauty on your behalf and we did so via the creation of delicious things using as many non-industrial ingredients as possible. But sometimes it required the death of an animal or a pan of unknown metallurgical provenance. We never denied the brutality and we never said we were doing anything right. We conjured the divine and we sinned just the same, all in the professional pursuit of deliciousness, beauty, delight, and profit. We all had to feed ourselves, house ourselves, clothe ourselves and heal ourselves and we needed your money to do that. Right and wrong exist in an uncomfortable imbalance and Musi was condemned to exist within that reality.
We failed with lessons learned but no regrets.
And we existed rather well despite the ups and downs of being a couple of wide-eyed friends scratching pennies to open a spot without a “plan” and then experiencing wild, “overnight” success. Despite a worldwide pandemic that mostly seemed to just highlight all the world's deep, violent dysfunction. And despite our decision to start all our employees at $15 an hour in a market with a minimum wage of $7.25 and a minimum tipped wage of $2.83. Those policies aren’t wrong, by the way; they’re evil. And despite our right decisions, we still were not able to provide our employees with any traditional benefits, which is wrong.
But there was no turning back. There was no paying our employees less, only the pursuit of offering them more. There was no sourcing cheaper ingredients, just the obsessive pursuit towards a zero-waste ideal. And there was no romantic notion that these decisions would shield us from the huge risk of failure for a 30-seat BYO on a sleepy corner in Pennsport, Philadelphia, hobbling out of a pandemic, in pursuit of beauty in a dysfunctional world.
Romance is dangerous and has no place in a business, just the illusion of it. So we failed with lessons learned but no regrets. We set an example. It wasn’t right but it was beautiful.