Dining in the Dark: A Beacon of Lower Manhattan at Tertulia During the Sandy Blackout

"It's really important to stick a big middle finger up in the air to Sandy and say, You can try to knock us down, but New Yorkers are resilient, and we're going to keep going on."

[Photographs: Benjamin Eisendrath, Grillworks, Inc.]

During last week's blackout, eating in near darkness at Tertulia challenged the senses. We couldn't figure out if the mushrooms in our kale salad were maitakes or oyster or something else entirely. The squash could have been acorn or carnival or delicata. All we we was the salad was incredibly tasty. So much so that halfway into our first order we requested a second. Grilled peppers, anchovies on toast with goat cheese and parsley, and seared steak served with salty potatoes made our meal.

How Chef Seamus Mullen and his staff pulled off such flavor in their fifth day without power after Hurricane Sandy is beyond me.

We'd trekked down the darkened streets from lower Chelsea, past a group generously serving hot food to anyone hungry, cops directing traffic with flashlights and flares, and people schlepping bags of groceries from just north of "SoPo"—the loving yet bitter name given to powerless lower Manhattan. Candlelight flickered from a random apartment, bright against the near-black streets that were unfamiliar in their emptiness.

Yet once we found Tertulia, New York City instantly felt like home again.

"Compared to what most people went through, we were remarkably fortunate." Chef Mullen expressed. "It was my third blackout in a restaurant, so I learned the hard way that if you know it's coming you need to really, really prepare." They'd layered their outside hatch and doors with plastic, "duct taped them a million times", and fortified them with sandbags; no water got into the space at all. All the protein in the fridge went on ice, so it was salvageable when they got back on Tuesday morning. After tossing anything questionable, they'd economized to one fridge, and packed boxes of dry ice up top to continually chill products below down to a colder-than-normal 36 degrees.

By the time we got there around 7 p.m., the restaurant was already full—warm with candlelight and the heat of diners brought together. We spent our twenty-minute wait outside with a bottle of red wine to allay the chill, and watched the minimal scene of surreally dark Manhattan.

"Wednesday we said, 'We have food and there are people in the neighborhood who have nothing and no place to eat. Let's open.'"

When we entered Tertulia, the greeting was friendly and welcoming, and overall the staff didn't seem to harbor any additional stress from what was definitely a challenging situation to work in. The bartender (who also took our order and was running back and forth from the dim kitchen) seemed only mildly concerned about making it to the midnight shuttle before its last trip back to Brooklyn.

"People in the restaurant industry work hand-to-mouth, paycheck-to-paycheck. To not have income is challenging, so we wanted to offer work as much as we could." Before they'd closed the bridges, Mullen drove around for four hours picking up whatever staff he could; others peddled their way in by bike. "I wasn't surprised, but I was glad to see that all of my staff just stepped up and put their heart into everything. The response was pretty much, 'we can do it, we're going to do it, and we'll get through this.' No one complained."

Mullen biked around Manhattan to find produce and made his way to the Bronx for the dry ice. At Costco, the team loaded up a "bazillion" candles, flashlights, and batteries. They washed dishes by hand with hot water from a gas hot-water heater and sanitzer, and his chefs cooked over two burners illuminated by their headlamps. Bills were paid with cash.

Why did Mullen feel he needed to open for business despite the challenges? "It's sorta like 'keep calm and carry on," he explained. "It also helped us just to keep in touch with our restaurant—the restaurant's job is to feed people, and if it's not feeding people it's not doing its job."

By 9 p.m. they started running out of food, and diners lingered over their wine. Candlelight bounced off the walls, making Tertulia's space cozy and warm. While awaiting their table near us at the bar we chatted with the guy who designed Tertulia's much-loved wood-fire grill. By the time we left, Tertulia's tiny spot on 6th Avenue showed us once again how incredibly resilient, creative and proactive New Yorkers can be.

"People were so incredibly grateful." Mullen told me over the phone a few days later. "I was amazed. I spoke to as many tables as I could and everyone was effusive that we were open. 'You guys are a beacon of light in the darkness.'"

Mullen plans to continue bringing his food to those who have been affected by the hurricane. Last night he hosted a dinner with chefs George Mendes, Marco Canora and Andrew Carmellini at Mendes' Aldea to benefit NYC FoodFlood. The funds raised will help the chefs rent a food truck, which they'll take turns driving to the city's hardest hit places, bringing a little of their kitchen expertise to those who need it most.

"It's really important to stick a big middle finger up in the air to Sandy and say, You can try to knock us down but New Yorkers are resilient, and we're going to keep going on."


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