My kitchen chat with Carrie McCabe Johnston, chef and co-owner of Nightingale, begins and ends with a kiss. She owns the place with her partner of 19 years, Jasha Johnston, and they've been married "for seven or eight of those, I think." Though they've been joined at the hip for the almost three years that Nightingale has been in business -- she runs the kitchen and he's the front-of-house man -- he greets her with a smooch and says goodbye with one too, and they both seem genuinely happy about all of it.
They've got two sons, Levi, 9, and Jakob, 18. The job of parenting taught them a lot about this one, and the whole place is one big happy family. Except: Jakob just got a job as a host at Eli's. "I would never hire an 18-year-old to be a host and he knows that. Even if he is my son."
These days, Carrie and Jasha are both working "all the hours," except Monday night, which they religiously honor as date night (and because they're thoughtful like that, they've got a date night for you, too: Tuesdays from 6p.m to 10p.m., three courses for $20 bucks a person. Add a bottle of featured wine for an additional $20) and before that, Jasha coaches Levi's baseball game. Even so, the hardest part of running the restaurant is the guilt -- though Levi's school is right down the street, and he comes to the restaurant right afterward every day, and the sous chef and the dishwasher take him out back to play soccer, Carrie wishes she had more time to spend with him outside of the kitchen.
"But I do the job of six people right now. And I feel guilty every day. Every day."
But this life is the only life for them, neither can imagine it any differently -- Jasha was a bartender at Mortimer's for 17 years and Carrie's dad was the manager. They found themselves with a newborn baby when Carrie was just 19, and her dad said to Jasha, "Okay, let's get you some money," so he went to work at the bar, and that's the way it's been ever since. And now that he's got a sweet bar of his own, he still works a weekly shift at the infamous dive.
For her part, Carrie needed to figure out how to take care of a family. "I had no cooking skills at all, I would literally burn toast," so she picked up her mom's Betty Crocker cookbook, and an obsession with the recipes led her to shirk her studies in art history. And the rest is culinary history.
She worked for many years under Alex Roberts at Alma and Brasa, and he is her biggest mentor and influence. She loves his attention to ingredient sourcing, and she follows those protocols at Nightingale, always starting with what's good and what's fresh and then writing menus from there. But most importantly, he taught her humility: "He taught me that this is just cooking food for people. And yes, we're going to approach it with integrity and attention, but it's a humble job. There was never any room for arrogance."
And Nightingale is that very sort of restaurant -- no room for pretense, and not really "this" kind of restaurant or "that" kind of restaurant, which she says can work in their favor as well as to their detriment.
"I just want people to know that this is a restaurant to have a good time in. You can come in your jeans and baseball hat and have a burger and a Hamm's, or get all dressed up and have octopus and Barolo. And yes, I think sometimes people don't know what we are, but I still don't think I would want to change it."
So it's a restaurant for all things, and they're working all the hours, so you should totally go, all the time. Not only do they have one of the best happy hours in either city, with $3 drinks and $2 oysters and world-class fries with malt vinegar aioli, but their late-night program, open 'til 2 a.m. every night of the week means this: The entire menu is available until 2 a.m.
And what's on that menu? Aside from the big pan of ramp and veal sausages that she whips up in the time it takes me to fish out my notebook and pen? Well, chicken liver pate (her kid knows he's the only nine-year-old happily eating it, and thinks that's pretty cool), bruschettas, house pickles, crispy pig tail, wings, salt cod fritters, a big old rib eye -- basically anything that almost anyone would want to eat, almost anytime at all. An all things restaurant. See?
"We make everything from scratch except the ketchup, because you should never do that. Ketchup should always be Heinz, and that's it."
A girl after my own heart. I almost kissed her.
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