It’s not often I get to flip my role and enter the backdoor of a restaurant as dining critic, rather than the front. I had never, until recently, for example, wound my way through the kitchen of Enrique Tomás, the Iberian palace on North Henderson—eyes peeled, I should say, for a haunch of jamón de bellota—through the swinging doors and into the women’s restroom, which is where the linens are stored: the snowy napkins and equally pearly kitchen towels.
A year ago, I heard of the little linen company that was beginning to make waves among the city’s top chefs. It was a whisper, barely on any radar. There was a disruptor, a tiny David based in the Design District taking on the iron-clad linen companies Goliaths and their Draconian contracts. Furthermore, as the pandemic registered its first blows and dining rooms shuttered, AltLinen’s two founders, who counted among their clients Teiichi Sakurai of Tei An and the chic steakhouse Georgie, were laundering what was being used—their few clients’ kitchen rags and floor mats, even as fine dining turned to bavette steaks in take-out boxes—for free.
As I delved in, I learned more from restaurateurs. They were weary. They were voiceless. And they were irate.
The system had been ponderous, impersonal. And here was this manic guy, jumping around in designer Nike sneakers and athletic wear. As I aired the chefs’ grievances, I fondly called the piece “Much Ado About Linens: The untold wrinkle of the restaurant industry and the duo trying to fix it. A Dallas tale of David and Goliath.”
Twelve months later, after an epic ride-along and several lunches in the warehouse where linens tumble in industrial-size machines and many, many invoices, I wrote the story that is featured in the March issue of the magazine and goes live today.
Even now, since the story went to press, splashy new openings count AltLinen as their procurers and others are facing lawsuits to jump ship. It’s the downy dawn of a new era.
If you do not think of linens as vital to the fine orchestration that is a restaurant’s exquisite pageantry, you will. Even I, who have dined in many restaurant dining rooms and hope to tarry in many more when safety allows, will never look at a simple napkin the same way.