Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Day to Day Workings of Excellence

Wrote an article for the SM Observer on the Santa Monica restaurant Typhoon. 

The Day to Day Workings of Excellence

“Your job is to be excellent, and if you can't be excellent then you can be excellent at trying to be excellent.”  My long time writing teacher John Hindman uttered these words specifically about writing, but even he is one to admit the philosophy is applicable to absolutely everything in anyone’s life, including your own.   About a month ago a massive earthquake hit Japan.  Three weeks ago a Santa Monica restaurant held a 12 hour “Jazz for Japan” fundraiser where ticket paying guests were treated to nine different jazz and blues musicians and a couple of 20 piece big bands while enjoying Pacific Rim style Bento boxes. In the end this event, between ticket sales and waiters donating the entirety of their tips, raised $10,000, 100% of which was donated to the Santa Monica branch of the American Red Cross.  The restaurant, which ran this event from 11 in the morning to 11 at night, who did this most excellent of actions (in the words of the immortal Bill and Ted)? Typhoon restaurant and its new Pan Am Room. 

Now we can’t go any further without confronting the pink elephant in the room; well it’s the pink elephant in the room as much as a two week national media story will create a pink elephant in the room: The Pan Am Room space was formerly the Hump, the Santa Monica sushi restaurant that became national news in March of last year for serving illegal and endangered whale meat.   But the thing about national media cameras is that eventually they all leave for the next story and Typhoon, a restaurant that’s been there for almost twenty years, and is still there, continues on. 

It’s easy to judge each of us on the days when we done the shittiest things possible.  But the thing is we’ve all done shitty things.  We’ve all betrayed the people who trusted us the most. We’ve all let people down.  We’ve all broken people’s hearts.   The question is: what do we do the day after that?    How do we own up to our wrongs and be excellent?  How do we seek forgiveness and move on, because really forgiveness is just the act of remembering we’re all human.  

Brian Vidor, owner of Typhoon and the Pan Am room, is a man of little words.    A man of little words in the way someone who’s lived a full life doesn’t have to fill the space surrounding him with a constant dribble of talk, his actions speak for themselves.   Vidor’s lived an adventurous life.  He spent fifteen years in Asia transporting animals to zoos, personally helping to bring over 4,000 animals to the Taipei zoo. Later in his life he owned an airplane, an airplane that one day he flew into the hundred year old Santa Monica Airport.  It was there he saw a building located where a fuel pit used to be with a sign in the window noting there was restaurant space.  The space, a location where you could watch the planes land and takeoff and that showcased an unobstructed view of the setting sun over the pacific to the west, and Century City to the east, was what he called, anyone really would, a no brainer.  

Thus the community focused Pan Asian cuisine Typhoon restaurant opened twenty years ago, with the sushi based Hump to follow five years later.  The Hump was a smaller separate space restaurant housed within the larger Typhoon restaurant, a space that is now filled with the Pan-Latin cuisine Pan Am Room.  The Hump was open for 12 years before closing last year as part of self-imposed punishment on top of the punitive fines determined by the court for a national media misdemeanor. 

Typhoon restaurant kept its doors open.

Open to a Sunday brunch where parents and their kids (and dogs) can watch planes take off.  Open to a Monday night Jazz night that is populated by hardcore Santa Monica locals (one of Typhoon’s day managers actually met her husband, a musician in one of those bands, during one of these nights) and that broadcasts these performances on YouTube for anyone who can’t make a Monday.   Open to Wednesday night community band night where local bands from high schools such as Crossroads and New Roads perform for friends and family at no charge.

The menu of Typhoon hasn’t changed in 20 years. There’s free parking and nary an entrée over twenty dollars.  The 70 dish menu includes elements from Thailand, China, Vietnam, Philippines, Taiwan, Korea, Burma and Singapore.  Some are classics: such as homemade Korean Kimichi (made with American cabbage) and Filipino Grilled Pork with Garlic-Vinegar dip.    Some definitely fare into more exotic elements: Thai Style Frog Legs, Taiwanese Crickets, and the Singapore Style Scorpions.

The forty-five seat Pan Am Room, which opened last summer, is a little more gourmet, a little bit more très cher (but all the entrees are under thirty dollars), and with a second floor location has an unparalleled view of the Santa Monica Airport’s landing strip. For over seventy years, Pan American World Airways introduced its passengers to exotic cultures in Latin America. Thus the aptly named restaurant’s menu features Argentine Empanadas, Uruguayan (yes totally a real word) Beef Tenderloin with Chimichuri, and a bevy of different style Ceviches from countries such as Ecuador, Panama, and Peru.  It’s an adventurous menu that reminds one of the potential found in the discovery of travel, of experiencing new cultures and dishes.     

We’re all looking for ways to become the person we want to become instead of the person we sometimes are, the person who’s made a mistake or two.  But the funny thing about getting there, the funny thing about forgiveness, is that the only one way to get it is to go out and earn it.   And to earn it one must be completely and totally honest, to own up to the totality of one’s actions. Last year when the allegations emerged the Hump did just this.  On their website they posted the following statement: “We write to address the misdemeanor charge recently filed by the U.S. Attorney. The charge against the restaurant is true: The Hump served whale meat to customers looking to eat what in Japan is widely served as a delicacy. In serving this meat, The Hump ignored its responsibilities to help save endangered whales from extinction and failed to support the world community in its uphill fight to protect all endangered species. While The Hump cannot undo the damage it caused, it will put into place procedures to ensure that it strictly complies with the laws and becomes a good corporate citizen. We sincerely apologize. We pledge to work hard to re-earn the trust of the public and respect of our customers." 

Think about it, in the world of plausible deniability that we live in these days how often does that happen? That, my friend, is ownership.

We can all aspire for excellence.   Whether it’s in the form of taking ownership, creating the best restaurant experience for families and the Santa Monica community at large, or helping raise over $10,000 for a country who’s definitely dealing with some hard core real problems.   We might not always hit the target, but we can sure as hell try. 

Typhoon Restaurant and Pan Am Room are located overlooking the runway of the Santa Monica Airport at 3221 Donald Douglas Loop South, Santa Monica, CA  90405.

Kat Thomas is a writer in Santa Monica.  Check out more of her writings at edibleskinny.com

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