Photography by Michael Harlan Turkell
Brad McDonald has worked in many kitchens, honing his techniques and absorbing the brilliance of some of the planet’s finest chefs – at Essex House under Ducasse, Per Se with Keller, and Noma with Redzepi. Earlier this year, Brad opened Governor, in Dumbo, where he’s been steadily pushing the boundaries and raising the bar, exploring our seasonal, regional cuisine with uncommon creativity and depth.
Governor lies steps from the waterfront park in Dumbo. As Sandy’s surge submerged the park, then the streets of the neighborhood, seawater began to seep, then squirt, spout and flood into the kitchen and dining room from every direction. Five feet of water rushed into the space, destroying just about everything. We spoke with Brad about how events unfolded on the night of the storm, and what comes next.
So Brad, what’s the situation?
It’s devastating. The restaurant took on a minimum of five feet of water. I haven’t measured it. I don’t really care to know. Every piece of equipment on the ground floor took on water. So we’re in a situation of pretty much total devastation for the restaurant. It definitely puts us in a process of reconstruction. It’s not just a cleanup. Walls are going to have to be ripped out. Equipment is either going to have to be replaced or have a lot of work done on it, to flush out all the salt water and repair it, if we can even get somebody to work on it before it starts to corrode. Sewage backed up everywhere. Black mold will start to take over pretty soon if we can’t get a handle on it.
But our first realization was and is that we are not a priority right now. People have lost family. People are stranded. People have lost their homes. People are still trapped out there without power and food in the Rockaways and Coney Island and Staten Island. We’re just a business. Our loss is physical but still very much sustainable in relation to the losses other people out there are experiencing right now. We don’t want to lament our own fate too much without realizing that there are other people out there who have lost far more than we have. We can recover from this. We’re not necessarily looking at it as the worst thing that’s ever happened to us. We’re trying to look at it as an opportunity.
Look, the restaurant is definitely in a state of needing a lot of repair. Our back of the napkin calculations indicate that it’s going to take a couple of hundred thousand dollars to repair and reopen, depending on how badly the equipment is damaged, and how much exposure it all had to the salt water during the flooding.
How did it all go down? What happened in the run up and during the storm?
We knew it was coming. We decided to close on Sunday night, the night before the storm, largely because the city was shutting transportation down and a lot of our staff rely on public transportation to get home. The last thing we wanted to do was compromise anyone’s safety when trying to get home as a hurricane approached. It’s not a terribly high income industry, especially as a line cook, and as much as we would have been willing to pay for car services to get people to where they were going, we didn’t know what was going to be happening with the storm by the time we finished service either. We just didn’t want to roll the dice, so we shut it down.
Sunday night kind of passed with fair and mild weather compared to what came the next evening. On Monday we all went down to Governor to have a look, and just as everybody else was doing, we tried to figure out how best to protect the space against flooding. We were able to round up some sandbags. Not many. We maybe had eighteen inches or so of sandbags stacked up against our door. We made some of our own by filling garbage bags with flour and we set those on top for a little bit of reinforcement. We really had no idea what was coming our way. No idea.
About two o’clock in the afternoon new winds started to pick up. I was at home and feeling curious about what was happening, I just live a few blocks away, so I went back down to take another look. I looked around. I said, “Well, there are some electronics on the floor, there’s some booze at the bar stored pretty close to the floor. Let me get those to a higher elevation up on the mezzanine.” I removed the sound system and put it up there too because I understood it was an expensive piece of equipment. I moved some computers from the floor up to the top of the desk. And I said, “OK, we’ve done enough here.”
I went back home. Like everybody else I was watching the news that evening. I think my cable shut out sometime in the afternoon and I started watching Twitter to see what was going on. Around six o’clock someone posted a photo of the East River, shot from an upper floor of a building on Main Street. The water was up, but you could still see the rocks on the pathway to the carousel. At about six thirty, it was totally dark outside and somebody sent me a picture of Main Street, right in front of the restaurant. Water was at street level, over the sidewalk.
The comment on the photo was, “Is this real or fake?” At that point there were already a lot of fake photos circulating in the Twittersphere. So I was incredibly curious. I could not believe the water was that high. I looked around online and found more photos that seemed to corroborate it.
Our general manager Axel and his girlfriend were holed up at their place at 220 Water Street, which is a block away from where I live and just a few blocks away from the restaurant. I knew that his brother has an apartment in the One Main Street building where Governor is located, and that you needed a special electronic fob key in order to access the building at that point. There were still people inside, but they really locked things down after the mandatory evacuation deadline.
So I asked Axel to see if his brother could get us into the building to check the restaurant. He said, “Yeah. Sure we can.” So the four of us, Axel, Sebastian, Antonia and I went down. The wind was fierce, really fierce at that point. When it would pick up and gust we would all duck behind a car. Signs were being ripped off the sides of buildings. Metal sheeting ripped off something and was blowing up the street. The little Chinese lumber yard I live next to had had their fencing blown completely out already.
So we got down there to the restaurant, and the water was incredibly high on Water Street. It was probably two and a half to three feet deep outside the building. We got inside the restaurant through the back door. It was about seven thirty at that point. The bar area was like a little wading pool. Maybe ten inches of water. The water was definitely rising a little bit. We decided we’d get all of the hardware and the booze out of the bar and upstairs, but we weren’t too worried. We still thought everything would be ok.
About fifteen minutes later, that started to change. We started to see that the water was really coming on. The water had risen to the height of the front windows, and the seals on the windows started giving way. Little streams of water started pissing in from the outside, like little water fountains. We tried to plug those up by stuffing them with table linens.
It kind of held it off a little bit. But really what you had was just four people who didn’t realize what was happening or just how late it was to be trying to stop that kind of water. Over the course of the next hour the water rose another two feet inside. We knew the tide was supposed to be going out by that point, but water was still coming in. We ran back outside and grabbed some more sandbags from the front of a building just up the hill where the water had already receeded.
It’s three steps down from the bar level to the main dining level – about eighteen inches. We started trying to make a sandbag barrier there. And you know, it was like herding cats. As soon as we got that barrier up and secure, we turned around and were about to leave and the grease traps in the kitchen started overflowing, spewing water. I guess that’s when all the sewers and drains started being flooded. That was the last thing I saw as we walked out the back door. We share a back entrance with One Girl Cookies. They took on as much water as we did. Water was flowing out of their back door and into our back door. We had never even thought of securing the back.
So really as much as we could have tried, it was just all around kind of a situation without hope. Nobody knew to be prepared for this. We realized then that the water was just coming from everywhere. It was coming in the front. Water had risen through the back corridors in the building and was flowing in from there. It was flooding up with force through all the drains and sewer hookups. It was unstoppable, so we decided to leave.
As we were leaving there were a few people evacuating from the building and we helped them get out. As we were walking out we witnessed the explosion of the electrical substation in the building behind us which caused a massive fire and the loss of power to the building.
That all sounds pretty intense. Were you freaking out at this point or taking it all in stride?
Honestly at that point I was thinking about things like the fact that our beautiful tongue-in-groove hardwood floor was screwed and we were going to have to rip it up and start over. I still had no idea the water was going to rise to the level that it did. When we left the restaurant it was about eight forty, which was supposed to be high tide, and there was probably two and a half feet of water in the place. We didn’t think it was going to get worse. But between then and the time the surge actually peaked, which must have been around nine o’clock, the water more than doubled in depth, to something close to five feet. So those few extra minutes of flooding made a huge difference.
Anyway after that I just went home. I made myself a big plate of spaghetti. Good old home-style spaghetti with dry noodles, a can of Prego, some top sirloin ground and some Kraft parmesan cheese. And there was something about that that was really comforting, I gotta say, because that was the kind of food I grew up eating. I went to bed at about ten thirty. The last thing I did before I went to bed was send out an email to everyone I know asking them not to contact me until they heard from me the following morning. I didn’t want to be disturbed. I just wanted to get a good night’s rest and wake up naturally.
I knew the cleanup would begin the next day and that we’d be looking at a lot of work rebuilding, for a very long time. Of course I woke up at seven o’clock anyway. I stayed in bed until nine, because I knew it would probably be the last morning for a long time that I’d be able to do that. I went down to the restaurant. I was the first one there and I kind of took it all in on my own, and I was just shocked. I was absolutely shocked. I could not believe the water had come up that much higher than where it had been when we’d left.
It was heavy. Just so many things going through your mind at that point as a business owner, partner, employer, as a chef, a person…just so much to think about. What to do? At that point I wasn’t really thinking in terms of the glass being half empty or half full. It just was. It was just what it was.
The silver lining with these kinds of things is that they make you feel alive. One of the reasons I moved to New York City was because it’s a place that makes you feel alive. I’m not trying to play it down. It’s a major, major tragedy. It’s also a test. When it comes to our situation at Governor? I like a challenge. I like solving problems. I didn’t want this to happen but it did. I’ve always believed that things happen for a reason or for a purpose. You can find inspiration in things like this.
After a couple of days to contemplate it all, I actually feel like this may be the best opportunity that Governor has ever had. We have a lot of hurdles to get over. We have a long road ahead of us, but if we allow it to be, this could be very positive for us. We get a do over. And that’s something that’s very rare in this business.
I told the staff today – this is an unfortunate situation, but it’s also a business. It’s just a business. As much as I care about it and it’s my responsibility, this is not a bad thing. Losing a family member or a friend or your home is a bad thing. We can recover from this and we will recover from this, and we will be better than we were before.
It provides us an opportunity to reflect. It provides us a break from the hardships of opening a restaurant. It provides an opportunity to prepare for the future. I do believe this will happen again and rebuilding will give us the opportunity to better prepare for that. And perhaps better than everything is that this has already really drawn us closer together as the restaurant family that we are.
There’s only one kind of person really that works in a restaurant. If you’re a restaurant person and you’re working at a restaurant it’s like you’ve gone far out in space and found people that understand you. You like to work this many hours for this little money? You like to be creative? You like to see your work enjoyed by others? You like stress? You like performing under pressure? You like making people happy? You like feeding people better than you feed yourself? Not many people would say yes to all of those things.
And it’s really good to know that you’re part of a team that’s so glued together and understands the trials and triumphs collectively. In a restaurant you laugh together, you cry together, you celebrate together and you suffer together. You’re already close, you’re already a family, but something like this draws you even closer. And that is a good thing.
So this is completely devastating, but there’s nothing here that we can’t overcome.
Where do you go from here? Is there anything people can do to help?
To us, people eating at our other restaurants, Colonie and Gran Electrica, shows us great moral support, and that is extremely important. Both Colonie and G.E. were open the night after the storm and people were out in droves. People were telling us they love us and how much they’re going to miss us while we rebuild and that is both comforting and motivating.
This is our first time through something like this and it seems like the rules are constantly changing in terms of relief – what’s available to us, what’s not available. Obviously, we have to get the place cleaned up as soon as possible. We were able to empty out all the perishable food today, and it was greatly perished. We put a little bit of bleach down. We’re getting a contractor in for estimates. We’re going to look at all our equipment. We’re going to write to the people who make our equipment to ask them for advice about water damage. So we start the cleaning process. We clean. We demolish. My dad is on his way here with one of my uncles, who’s a contractor. They’re bringing a generator, pressure washers and other things so we can get to work.
And we’re putting together a campaign for comeback. We’re meeting with our investors. We’re trying to get in touch with our insurance company. We haven’t been able to contact them yet. We have to talk to FEMA. We’ve put together a social media campaign so people can donate to us if they are inclined to do so. We certainly don’t feel like we should be the first people anyone should donate to. There are people in much more need. But we do have people who love us and who want to help us and who are able to give both to people who are in more need as well as to us. And if we can use those donations to pay some of our employees so we can support them and retain them during this tough period, then we think that’s a good thing.
Asking for anything is difficult for us as cooks. We’re not the type of people who like to ask for anything without being able to give something in return. It’s a humbling experience. But we have to take care of our restaurant family and to do that while rebuilding, we do need some help.
As far as the city and the state and government relief? There are far higher priorities than helping a restaurant that’s been flooded in Dumbo. There are people without power, people who have lost their homes, who have lost loved ones. Those are the people who have to be the priority right now.
Photography by Michael Harlan Turkell. All rights reserved.