PROFILE: "Man of the Hourglass"
~something in the way he moves
Like Hitchcock, he quietly sneaks into frame when you least expect it. Sometimes by touching his fingers to a table’s edge as he slows past a group of diners. Sometimes en route to present a bottle of wine, or simply to confer with a server, his legs stopping long enough to share an exchange, his eyes promising pause to a group of diners at a nearby table.
There’s a sense of movement to the man, a movement that has little to do with moving and that works hand-in-hand with a knowing that has little to do with knowledge. Likewise, his lumbering body disguises the riddle his eyes daringly conceal: that from the time of the evening’s first diners, to the time of his sleight-of-hand exit after the last table is served–he is the magician’s hand.
~a rose by any other name
The man in motion is Theodore Bechakas, to some known as “Teddy,” which years ago morphed into “Terry” by those who didn’t eventually call him “Mr. B,” affectionately brief for Bechakas (pronounced Bee-chock-us)–and yet no name speaks more succinctly about the man than the name of the establishment he has owned for the last 35 years: The Hourglass Restaurant.
Mr. B’s Hourglass has been serving Buffalo, New York’s discriminating diners since 1966, the year he bought the establishment with his brother-in-law. Through the years, Bechakas became the sole owner of the restaurant whose name remains synonymous with excellent food, wine and service, three reasons the Hourglass reputation eased effortlessly throughout Buffalo’s society of “foodies” and wine
The restaurant’s success can be attributed to the fact that Bechakas personally selects, purchases and inventories every one of his more than 10,000 bottles of wine, the not-so-secret jewels of his mythically secret basement.
~shuffle off to Buffalo
Brantford Pennsylvania native, Theodore Bechakas owes his sense of knowing to a genuine love for food, wine, and business. His knowledge is owed to Penn State, where in 1955 he graduated with a degree in Hotel & Restaurant Management, and to employers like The Statler Hilton in Buffalo, New York, where the ambitious Bechakas worked summers while still in college. After graduation, he continued with the Hilton until 1964, at which time he accepted a position with Restaurant Associates in New York City. At that time, Restaurant Associates owned and operated high-end restaurants like New York’s famous Four Seasons, Charlie Brown’s and The Tower Suite.
“The Four Seasons had the best wine list in the city back then. They did so well, the bartenders were stealing $10,000 a month, almost undetected,” is how Bechakas explains his impetus for designing a system that disables cash-flow theft. “I was the control guy,” he smiles about his success as something of a corporate bouncer.
“Three years later, everything changed, the economy stunk, New York City started going bankrupt...” he trails off as if revisiting the moment. “One day my phone rings and it’s my brother-in-law calling to say there’s a restaurant for sale back in Buffalo, and would I be interested.” That phone call marked a new beginning for the man most would know as Mr. B.
~two degrees of separation
Much of what Bechakas does is dictated by his knowledge of variables, a knowledge that allows him to minimize the degrees that separate success from failure. For example, it’s good to know that fish kept refrigerated at 32 degrees will stay fresh for up to 14 days, not that Bechakas has ever had occasion to test the principle. Any variation by two degrees will shorten its life by one day. Subtle, but also good to know is that wine poured from a bottle that has been uncorked in seven slow seconds will taste better than that same wine released with a “pop.” But admittedly, there are some variations Bechakas can’t control, and when that happens he simply eliminates the problem.
“Thirty years ago, a whole prime rib weighed 85 pounds. Once it was trimmed, you were looking at anywhere from 40 to 45 pounds of meat. Today a whole prime rib weighs in at 20 pounds untrimmed; that’s not prime rib,” he cites as his reason for cutting the item from his menu.
~good food, service, atmosphere; in that order
Ask the man what makes him get up in the morning, whether it’s his love of elegant food or his love of collecting and sharing premium wines, and he’ll answer you with just one word–“Business.” Bechakas has a genuine respect for the business side of running a business. Of course, that happens to include the business of knowing how to purchase quality foods at marketable prices. It also includes the business of knowing when to respect and when to ignore trends, how to train a knowledgeable staff, and equally as important, how to keep them.
“Two of my servers have been with me for over twenty years,” Bechakas acknowledges. “I’ve had only four chefs in thirty-five years; my last chef changed careers after being with me twenty years,” he offers before citing the talent of current Hourglass chef, Jason Pahl. “Pahl was my former sous chef, who has done a great job staying true to our menu while still adding some terrific new ideas of his own,” Bechakas adds.
The man of The Hourglass knows his business acumen is equally evidenced by the number of years any given patron has been walking through his door every evening, two generations and growing.
~gold in them hills
Talk business, and the man is focused. Talk food, and the “foodie” appears. Talk wine, and witness the grin.
A small section of the building’s basement, a section about the size of a clothes closet, is devoted to pantry. The rest of the basement is ceiling to floor wine. Mile-high stacks of wine crates form narrow passageways that seem to graciously allow Bechakas’s broad frame to amble towards the Champagne Room, also home to his French Bordeaux and Burgundys, all kept 52 degrees cool. His 2,000 bottles of red wine nest in a room whose door still reads “MENS RESTROOM.”
Bechakas wades through the bulging rows of wooden boxes like a surfer sculling himself towards the big one. He disappears, but in a few moments his raised hand flails a bottle, his outcry muffled by his crated barrier, “Mouton Rothschild, Chateau Lafite!” He then moves a few steps closer and holds another bottle, this time one hand cradling each end, “1958 Chateau d’Yquem; best sweet wine in the world,” as proud as if he harvested the grapes himself.
Aside from Bechakas’s enviable collection of vintage labels, he admits that wines are no longer made to be put in cellars for 20 years. “With the exception of French Bordeaux and some Californians, most wines are meant to be devoured young,” he explains. “The trend is towards California wines, mostly because of availability–there’s so many new wineries.” But while there might be plenty new about the wineries, there’s nothing new about the grapes.
“It was during the 1800’s gold rush that Europeans, mostly Italians, poured into California looking for gold”, Bechakas explains academically. “When they didn’t find what they were looking for, they brought wines to the region, particularly Zinfandel, actually an Italian grape, planted over 100 years ago; they’re growing there still.”
What’s interesting is that in the 1800’s there were about 600 wineries in the country, but by 1960 there were only 60 remaining, due to Prohibition. It wasn’t until Mondavi appeared around 1964 that wines began to boom in California. And though the oldest wineries still remain in the forefront–names like Mondavi, Beaulieu, Joseph Phelps, Chateau Montelena and Beringer–it’s the new wineries that are demanding recent attention: Lokoya, Abreu, Dunn and Screaming Eagle.
“California winemakers are the new trendsetters in terms of growth and production; even the French kids are attending the Davis School in California (UC Davis) to learn winemaking,” Bechakas notes. “California’s methods of winemaking are more technology minded,” he explains as the primary reason for this transition.
~look to the border
The Niagara Peninsula wineries have also gained speed through the years. Bechakas recommends a 1999 Cabernet Franc to prove his point.
“Next time you’re in Canada, buy younger wines, they have more finesse. The Canadians know how to handle their vines and soil,” he poses as the primary reason for Canada’s successful wine production.
No matter from France, Italy, Chile or Canada, Bechakas’s 10,000 bottles of wine share one thing in common: if forensically scanned, his fingerprints would be revealed on every single bottle.
~all roads lead to wine
If you think the subject of food will keep the man off the subject of wine, well, guess again. For example, ask him about the duck entree.
“Try it with a Cote du Rhone; a nice Chateau Neuf du Pape,” he starts. “Or possibly a Burgundy, which would also go good with rabbit.”
Ask about the Sea Bass and expect to first learn the difference between Chilean Sea Bass and Black Sea Bass, the latter recommended with a nice Chablis or a California Pinot Noir.
And if, after being fair warned, you insist on venturing out for prime rib, then Bechakas implores you to at least try it with a French Bordeaux, particularly a Margaux.
~proof is in the puddin’
On the occasion of my first visit to The Hourglass Restaurant, I did what many before me have done: I declined a menu and let Mr. B decide. When there’s a talented chef in the kitchen like Jason Pahl, there’s no reason not to.
Enter the subtle drama of Lillet, a Vermouth made from grapes grown in the most Northern section of Bordeaux. Just prior to serving, an orange slice was squeezed over the glass, it’s nectar brought to flames with a match before the flaming garnish was dropped into the sweet aperitif. Delicately aromatic, Lillet was perfect preparation for what was to follow–a teaser of simple fresh tomato bruschetta.
Next up, Bechakas selected a glass of Chablis to accompany a succulent fillet of Halibut from the Pacific Northwest, subtle enough for the accompanying pineapple-mango marmalade and bright green snap peas, aesthetic and tasty companions. The Chablis continued to complement my next course–soft shell crab with lime butter sauce, this selection garnished with purple petite champagne grapes.
To be honest, I believed I was gastronomically content at this point. But that was before Bechakas presented a bottle of 1986 Cabernet Sauvignon from The Hess Collection, an astonishing velvety Napa Valley red. The wine and I settled nicely while waiting for what would be a perfect portion of veal. The tender cut was served upon mashed potatoes, it’s entirety offset with a sun-dried tomato and wild mushroom demi glace, wicked encouragements to a cabernet that threatens to improve with every sip, and does. In fact, the wine settled into a flavor that brought to mind words like “complete” and “round,” even “elegant,” present enough to meet the surprising maple butter sauce that completed the single chicken ravioli, a daring choice by Chef Pahl.
A more able drinker than I might have finished the cabernet before salad was served, but “able” I am not. I broke every rule in the book, maybe even Mr. B’s heart, as I continued to drink red wine straight through to dessert. The Hourglass is also proud of it’s perfect cup of coffee, which certainly would have better suited the flaky puff pastry that cradled a bounty of warm succulent Canadian sour cherries, handpicked days earlier by Bechakas and his wife, Eras.
In fact, Eras Bechakas bakes all the desserts, an art that put to rest her former career in microbiology at Roswell Park Cancer Institute. But that’s another story.
~something in the air that night
I was the last table in the restaurant that particular Tuesday evening, a situation I typically avoid, and might have noticed sooner had my thoughts been more practical. Instead I was remembering what Bechakas told me earlier, how he and Eras always shared a bottle of “red” with their mid-day dinner and how they always ended their evening with a bottle of Chablis and a bowl of home-popped popcorn. I remembered his gap-toothed grin and the way he navigated knowingly through his beloved wine cellar.
I remembered the dining room’s indifferent decor and how Bechakas explained it to be the reason his restaurant was packed after September 11th, the comfort, the familiarity, the easiness of it all. I found myself remembering everything about my experience and nothing about how it happened, like how long I waited between courses or if my server shared his personal favorites. I didn’t remember how many times my silver was freshened, my water refilled, not even how my wine glass remained full. It was then I realized that what I didn’t remember was exactly as it should be, and that any variation of the evening never seemed a possibility.
It was then I also realized my host had at some point vanished, and I started to smile as I thought about the popcorn that was undoubtedly beginning to pop, how the cork from a chilled Chablis would soon be slipping slowly, slowly. It was then I realized how even after Bechakas had slipped from frame, his impression remained—the mark of a brilliant wizard, a business man by any other name.