THE MAKING OF AN INNKEEPER
The bite of winter penetrated my feet as I stood on the cold tiles of
the bathroom floor. Shaking from the morning cold, I grabbed my long
sleeved Henley shirt from the back of the door and pulled it on over my
head, buttoning it up to the top, and tugged on a pair of corduroys.
Winters in Louisville were only ten degrees or so warmer than Chicago,
so I was thankful I’d brought all of my winter clothes with me. Thank
God for mukluks. They locked in the warmth of my heavy woolen socks. I
shuffled through the kitchen door and filled the coffee grinder with
French Roast. The smell of freshly ground coffee filled was
intoxicating, as I picked up my cookbook and thumbed through the pages.
Heavy thumping reverberated overhead as bright sunlight made its way
through the antique glass of the side door and flooded the kitchen. The
boys were up! It was time to begin my first breakfast as a
city-certified honest-to God innkeeper. Had to focus. I’d never done
this before, and didn’t really know where to start.
The night before, ten healthy looking farmers, had checked into my inn.
I felt a little overwhelmed as they marched into my small Victorian
parlor. Ned, the burley leader of the group stood at least a half foot
taller than all the rest, his bushy red hair crying out for a good hair
cut and some styling. His checked shirt and carefully pressed overalls
gave him away. “I’m a dairy farmer, missus. We all come down from
Wisconsin to give your Farm Machinery Show the once over,” he
announced. He thrust a huge hand forward and smiled broadly. “This
here is Charlie. This is Al and James” He went on down the line until
he’d introduced every last one of them.
“Well. I imagine you boys are tired after such a long drive. I’ll
take you up to your rooms so you can get a good night sleep” I grabbed
five keys from the reception desk and started up the stairs. They
groaned with the weight of each of the boys. “There are snacks and
drinks in the dining room. Just help yourselves,” I reminded them,
then deposited two in each of five rooms, being sure to tell them all
about locking the front door when they went out and coming down to
breakfast at the appointed time. The next morning, my house echoed with
the sound of boots on my hardwood floors. Soon my week-end visitors
would enter my dining room, ravenous, ready for breakfast. Without an
assistant or any help, I was on my own this week while the Farm
Machinery Trade Show, which brought 40,000 farmers to Louisville
I had had no idea what the Farm Machinery Show was, or that Louisville
was fifth in the United States for conferences and trade shows. But,
with the help of a couple of the local inn keepers I‘d befriended, I
managed to fill up my guest rooms and open my doors on time. In an
effort to recoup some of the money I’d spent on start up, I decided to
rent all five bedrooms including my own and sleep on a rollaway in the
little hall outside the kitchen. The roll away wasn’t too
comfortable, but I’d fallen asleep happy, thinking about all the money
I’d make that weekend. I was more concerned about the fact I knew
nothing about running a bed and breakfast and no business experience.
The whole thing was totally new to me. But, I kept thinking, how hard
can it be? I’ll just learn on the job.
I pushed the thermostat up to sixty-eight and turned on the oven. Warm
air permeated the room and the heady smell of French Roast energized me
as I tied the strings of a fresh apron around my waist. I carried a pot
of fresh coffee into the dining room and placed it along with a pot of
hot water on the hot plate next to the blue and white Meissen-ware
The thought that I’d never worked in a restaurant or hotel and never
prepared a breakfast for paying guests, never mind ten of them, made me
nervous and I wasn’t sure my plans were on track. I wanted my first
breakfast to be flawless. I was a good cook, but I’d lived alone for
years and ate mostly Cheerios for breakfast, which hadn‘t exactly
prepared me for gourmet mornings. So I called Doris the night before for
help with the menu. I told her I’d decided on a sausage ring,
scrambled eggs, Grand Marnier French Toast, fruit cup, muffins, toast,
orange juice, coffee or tea….
“Grand Marnier French Toast? What about Grits and Sausage gravy?
They’re farmers. And why so much food? Doris asked.
“Just because they’re farmers doesn’t mean they won’t like
Gourmet food” Doris was probably right about there being too much
food, but I wanted to make sure I covered myself.
When the oven was hot enough, I put the sausage ring in and started
breakfast. As soon as it finished baking, I took it out of the oven and
unmolded it onto a glass cake plate. It sat there looking miserable, all
battleship grey and unappetizing. It needed to be browned, so I popped
it back in the oven and went out to the dining room to make sure
everyone had orange juice and coffee.
The minute I returned to the kitchen, I heard a loud bang in the oven.
The cake plate had exploded and, through the glass door, I could see it
was melting all over the inside of the oven. Of course, a cake plate is
not meant to be put in the oven, I chastised myself. When I opened the
door, a thick cloud of black smoke gushed into the room, stinging my
eyes and forcing me back against the worktable. Grease oozed out all
over the floor and the smoke set off the fire alarm.
I ran around the work table to get the roll of paper towels from the
kitchen sink and slid halfway across the room. After grabbing onto the
edge of the worktable, I straightened myself up, grabbed the paper
towels and threw large strips of it all over the greasy floor, then
hurried to turn off the screeching smoke alarm. Thank God there was a
stone bearing wall between the kitchen and dining room. You couldn’t
hear a thing on the other side of it. I peeked in on my guests to make
sure, just as a Vivaldi Concerto Grosso wafted across the room. It was
such a lovely picture.
I grabbed a nearby ladder and leaned it against the wall under the
alarm, then climbed up to the twelve foot ceiling and yanked out the
batteries. Back in the kitchen, I got some ham from the fridge and
started plating the food as fast as I could. Splat! Something cold and
wet hit the back of my hand. I looked up and saw water drizzling from
the chandelier onto the prep table. It just missed the fruit bowl. Oh my
God! We’ll all be electrocuted.
The water trickled its way across the ceiling from where the bathroom
was on the second floor. The drywall bulged downward about ready to
burst. I knew I couldn’t do anything about it then. Just pray hard, I
thought, and get the food out fast. I grabbed a bucket and set it on the
table to catch the drips and began repeating to myself: Stay focused
and composed. And keep moving!
For a moment, the fiasco in the kitchen came to a standstill. I opened
the door to the dining room and walked through with a loaded tray of
breakfast food. The boys started clapping and raving about how wonderful
everything looked. They were completely unaware of the chaos all around
them. As I set each platter of food on the buffet table, they attacked
it like crazed animals, brushing me aside to get there first.
I watched as the scrambled eggs disappeared, and the French toast
dwindled piece by piece. The two largest men in the group loaded their
plates to the whopping brim. Eggs, bacon, ham, French toast, everything
they could get their forks into. I kept running back and forth to the
kitchen to get more muffins and butter and refill the orange juice and
milk pitchers. I managed to make more coffee and slip in a few more
pieces of ham amid dangerous stabs of fork tines.
“Ma’am, can I please have another glass of milk” became the
morning mantra. By the time they were finished the milk was all gone,
the orange juice carton was empty, and all of the muffins I’d stayed
up making the night before had disappeared. There was not a shred of
food in sight. It was like the locusts had come and gone.
I learned a couple of important lessons that day about letting guests
loose to devour the buffet table. It’s best to control the food
portions by plating everything in the kitchen and serving at the table.
And don’t make so much food. If my guests hadn’t been men with
large appetites, I would have thrown away half of what I made. The
health department had already warned me I couldn’t serve leftovers.
Tomorrow, it would be biscuits and gravy.
God I was tired, but there was no time to rest. I had to clean
everything up then run to the grocery store for milk and orange juice. I
fell into my kitchen desk chair, coffee pot still in hand, trying to
erase the sight from my mind of those ten stalwart farmers devouring all
that food. Then I remembered the grease and paper towels all over the
My feet were killing me and my whole body was aching. I got up and
yanked off my greasy, wet apron and pulled my shirt off over my head.
Sweat was running down the back of my neck catching strands of my hair
and turning them into twisted ribbons of wet liquorish. I grabbed a
clean shirt out of the dryer, tied on a clean apron, and walked out into
the cold air on the deck. I collapsed onto the chaise lounge and began
taking in deep breaths of clean fresh air, my wet hair cooling my neck
as I lay against the striped canvas. I closed my eyes against the
morning sun. The cold air caught my exhaled breaths and turned them into
smoky wisps that rose slowly toward the clear blue February sky.
Wow! What a morning that was. And that was only the first one. All I
could think of was how was I ever going to make any money if I kept
feeding groups like that one? Breakfast could cost more than the price
of a room. The crisp winter chill urged me from the chaise lounge back
into the warmth of the kitchen. I decided to call Doris to see if she
had any suggestions for feeding large groups of farmers. I hoped the
next day would be different.
Oh my God, I had forgotten all about the plumber. I needed a plumber. I
didn’t even know one in Louisville. But I needed to find one before I
did anything else. I headed for the phone to call Maggie. She knew
everyone in Old Louisville and always got the best deals on everything.
Maggie and I never stayed mad at each other for very long. Despite how I
felt about Christmas and Thanksgiving and the neighborhood, I wasn’t
about to hold that anger and disappointment inside. This is something I
learned from my mother a long time ago. “Let go of the anger,” she
would say. “It will only eat at you and make you depressed.” I’d
learned that lesson well.
“Maggie, I need a plumber asap.”
“I’ll explain later.”
Maggie could be a big help at times, especially when it didn’t involve
emotions. She gave me the numbers of a plumber and a general maintenance
man who lived in the neighborhood. I called both. After reaching and
pleading with the plumber for a few minutes, he finally agreed to come
by after breakfast and try to assess the damage. It was more serious
than I thought. The call to the maintenance man would have to wait.
The plumber arrived just after my guests finished breakfast and took off
for the Convention Center. They would be gone for the day. We walked
into the kitchen together. He stood and stared at the ceiling with his
hands in his pockets for what seemed like hours, occasionally running
his fingers through his hair slowly. A slight ringing in my ears was
beginning to unnerve me.
“Well?” I asked. ”Can you fix it?” The ringing in my ears had
gotten louder. I took a deep breath and looked him squarely in the face.
“Sorry to have to tell you this, Ms Hinchliff, but that’s a pretty
“Well the only way to really know is to tear out part of the wall in
the second floor bathroom.”
“Oh my God! Tear out part of the wall? Are you sure? Isn’t that a
little drastic? There’s got to be something else you can do
“No ma’am, that’s about the size of it.”
My heart was pounding so loud I could hardly think. I pictured a troop
of plumbers, wrenches and axes in hand, smashing the hell out of my
bathroom wall leaving dark gaping holes that oozed dirty, icy water. And
me pleading with them not to leave as they walked off the job. My
stomach was doing flip flops.
“How much will it cost?” I took another deep breath and tried to
calm down. I kept thinking, how will I ever pay for this?
“Well, it all depends on how much damage there is. The pipes are
probably pretty old and rusty. Cracks have most likely formed and water
has started seeping through. We’ll have to replace the old pipes with
PVC. I think you better do it right away. The water’s probably coming
down from the second or third floor shower or tub. All these pipes are
connected so every time someone uses them, you’ll have a problem.”
“It’ll have to wait until Monday when my guests check out,” I told
him. That way I’d have a little time to think about how I was going to
pay for the damage and maybe ask Maggie and Doris for advice.
“OK. I can do a temporary stop gap fix and if it leaks anymore
you’ll just have to put out some pails to catch the water. We’ll see
you Monday at seven am.”
“No not seven. My guests don’t check out until eleven.”
“OK,” he said, “see you at eleven fifteen.”
The front door slammed shut and I walked back into the kitchen and
started cleaning up the mess, thinking about ways to get some extra
money. I managed to soak up the rest of the grease in the kitchen with
more paper towels and mop the floor. I filled the dishwasher with
breakfast dishes, sprayed the inside of the oven with oven cleaner, and
wiped off all of the counters and the kitchen table. I had always been
good at house cleaning. In fact, I found it therapeutic.
A little more relaxed, I wandered into the parlor and collapsed into a
comfortable wing-backed chair. I thought maybe I could do some catering
or teach school part time, or borrow some money from Maggie. She had
come into a huge heritance when her mother died last year. I needed to
get my wits together and come up with something fast. I’ve always had
the notion I could do just about anything I set my mind to. That may
have been in the back of my mind when I decided to open up a bed and
breakfast in the first place. But I never wanted to be in business in
the first place; I just wanted this house. I sank back into my
wingback, and stared at the ceiling.
It had been a little over a year that Maggie and I stood face to face
under the original gas-light chandelier that hung overhead. At the time,
the house was empty and for sale.
"If I buy this place, Maggie, what am I going to do with five bedrooms?
This house is amazing. I really want it, stained glass and all. A house
like this would cost me over a million dollars in Chicago. They’re
only asking $108,000.”
“Why don’t you open a bed and breakfast?” Maggie had asked.
I hesitated for only a second or two. “What a great idea,” I said,
not having the slightest notion of what a bed and breakfast was all
about. I never thought of one as a place of business. I had stayed in
only a couple. They were comfortable and inviting places to get away to,
to relax in. They all had beautiful antiques, down comforters, and
gracious hosts serving gourmet breakfasts. I never saw the other side of
I made a decision right then and there that changed my life forever. I
would go ahead and do something I knew absolutely nothing about. I
didn’t know it at the time but I was about to spend every cent I had
saved for years, my annuity, and my severance pay from the Chicago
Public School System on an historic home in Old Louisville, Kentucky.
Furthermore, I was going to turn it into a bed and breakfast.
I loved trying new things like: Gateau of Vegetable Crepes, Spinach-herb
Quiches, Croissants au Gratin, and Terragon Eggs in Puff Pastry. All
are wonderful gourmet dishes. Most of my guests loved them, but every
now and then, a guest or two, or three just wants down home biscuits
and gravy or plain ole scrambled eggs. Well, I could do that too. In
fact, I’ve had the scrambled egg thing down pat.
When I first started making breakfast for 8-10 people on a regular
basis, I discovered I needed a few menues that would be easy to do for a
large group, or in a situation where my help didn’t show up, or when I
had come downstairs late in the morning, with only ten minutes to get it
all together. Or maybe I forgot to go shopping and the only ingredients
I had dictated the kind of breakfast I could make. I most often had eggs
on hand. I was never big on fried or poached eggs so I spent most of my
time perfecting the scrambled egg.
Most people like scrambled eggs, adults and kids alike. Some like them
plain, some with cheese, and some with ketchup or chili sauce. Some even
like sauteed mushrooms, tomatoes, or spinach stirred in. Kids seemed to
prefer them plain or with cheese. They didn’t want cream cheese, or
feta, or mozzarella. They wanted plain ole American or, maybe, mild
cheddar. I could do that, but my specialty was scrambled eggs with cream
cheese, onion, chives, basil, and dill.
Here is my take on “Gourmet” eggs. They are fabulous! And my guests,
except for some of the kids, love them. I get a lot of positive
feedback. Besides liking the flavor and ingredients of the eggs, they
also like the consistency and the appearance. To me, making scrambled
eggs correctly is an art. When I was first exploring the best way to
prepare them, a fellow innkeeper suggested microwaving them. I tried it
and they did puff up nicely and look appetizing, but they were rather
insipid. For some reason, the microwave cooked the flavor right out of
them. I wanted more control, and the only way to get it is with a heavy,
seasoned, wrought iron frying pan and a rubber spatula.
There are several things you must and must not do when preparing
scrambled eggs. First of all, if you cook for over 4 people, you should
mix them in the blender but for not too long. You want air in them, but
you don’t want them to be overly foamy. Secondly, never water them
down with milk or even cream. Next, before you cook them, always melt a
liberal amount of butter in the pan and have the pan very hot. Not too
hot, you don’t want the butter to turn brown. Test the pan with a
sprinkle of cold water. If it sizzles, you’re ready to add the beaten
Now, and this is one of the most important parts, start with the flame
on high, but gradually lower it, as you slowly cook the eggs. Scrambling
does not mean swishing the eggs around furiously in circles. The proper
motion is a pushing motion, back and forth slowly, as the eggs begin to
coagulate. Be sure you’re scraping all the way to the bottom of the
If you’re cooking for kids, try using shredded cheddar cheese. I hate
American! Do not add the cheese until the eggs are almost finished.
You don’t want them too wet or too dry. They should look like little
yellow mounds of whipped cream only they will be more firm. As you’re
finishing up, the cheese will be melting. Fold it in carefully.
Now if you’re doing the cream cheese version, start out the same way.
Sprinkle on the herbs, as the eggs begin to coagulate, then add 3 or 4
large dabs of Philadelphia cream cheese with chives and onions. Place
the cheese in different places around the pan, so it will be easier to
work in and distribute.
If your eggs finish before your family or guests are ready to eat, you
may leave them in the hot pan and cover with tin foil until ready to
serve. If they will be sitting in the pan a while, don’t finish them
completely. You don’t want them to get hard in the hot pan. You want
them firm, but not hard or, on the other hand, not wet and runny. Serve
your eggs with ham, bacon or sausage and hot buttered toast, biscuits or
croissants. Do Not let them get cold. Cold scrambled eggs are terrible!
Excerpted from "Operatic Divas and Naked Irishmen" by Nancy R. Hinchliff. Copyright © 2017 by Nancy R. Hinchliff. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.