Friday, March 13, 2009

"I've been working in restaurants all my life...but I hate this business"--Sirio Maccione; the first spoken words heard at the beginning of the HBO documentary "A Table in Heaven"

One busy Wednesday night recently:

As a crowd of people start to squeeze through the front door, "Good evening and wel--"

"There's nine of us!"

"Welcome, may I have the name on the reservation?"

"My name is Tommy, but we don't have a reservation. With the economy like it is, you're happy to have us. Now we'll take a table for nine--a big table--we want to stretch out."

"Certainly sir. We'll be ready to seat you in about two hours [big, big smile--like a great white shark]."

"Maybe in the old days pal, but not now. I've got money to spend, and you need my money. We'll sit now, got it?"

"If I had a table for nine available sir, or any table for that matter, I would absolutely be happy to seat you. As it is the dining room is currently full, and all those guests you see in the bar room there to your left have reservations and are patiently waiting their turn."

"Bullshit! Now way! Not with things the way they are."

"Sir, feel free to take a stroll through the dining room. If you can find a vacant table, no matter what the size, I will not only seat your party, but I will pay for dinner."

The look on my face tells the guy that I am not kidding.

"Come on guys, we're going to Asshat O'Herlihy's around the corner. Fuck this place, I know Asshat, he'll take real good care of us!"

"O'Herlihy's closed four months ago sir. Perhaps Asshat forgot to mention that the last time you two talked. Enjoy your meal."

The next night:

"The guy on table 40 wants to talk to a manager", says my sommelier with a tired look on his face.

"You are a manager."

"I know I am, but apparently the gentleman didn't like my responses..."

"Responses to what?"

"His demands that we take his offer on what he is willing to pay for a variety of the wines on our list."

"He's trying to bargain with the winelist prices?"

"Yup. I should have stayed in graduate school."

"Why? So you could be a waiter instead of a sommelier? All right, I'll be there in a minute."

The guest in question has been to the restaurant on a few occasions, and has always made a point to be uncomfortably self-deprecating--the "I know I'm not rich like the rest of these people" or "I'm surprised your valet would take my car, its just an old Pontiac" kind of comments that are supposed to be funny on the surface, but actually betray a predisposition to being affronted or disappointed because "I really shouldn't be here". On this particular evening the weather is very bad, and we have taken a ton of cancellations--we are slow. What I expect as I approach the table is quickly proven true.

"Good evening sir, you asked to see another manager?"

"Yeah, I want to talk to you about a favor I'm gonna do for you. I'm going to help keep you in business awhile longer. You see, I'm not crazy with my money like all the people that used to come in here, so I've still got mine. The rest of the people with the nice cars and the big suits and the $40 haircuts [I swear to God--"the big suits and the $40 haircuts" is an exact quote], where are they now? McDonald's, that's where. I'm still here, and I want to enjoy a nice bottle of wine or two with my friends here, but these prices...these prices were good when you people ruled the roost...but now some things are gonna change."

Before I can respond the gentleman opens the winelist with a flourish and points at a very tasty American Cabernet listed at...$36.00.

"This one I'm willing to spend $15 on. This other one, for the meal [the pages shuffle to a selection of French reds and this time I am shown to a $55 bottle from the Haut Medoc]...this one I'm gonna be a sweetheart about 'cuz I know the exchange with the europound and everything costs a little extra...this one I'm gonna give you $40 for. What do you say?"

"I'm afraid our pricing is not subject to discussion, sir. We have set what we believe are reasonable prices for all our offerings and we proudly stand behind them."

"But I don't want to pay your prices, and you need my business now. If you don't sell to me you're gonna go out of business. Then where will you be?"

"Probably packing up the restaurant and drinking wine, sir...for free. Enjoy your meal."

The night after that:

"Come quick!"

"What's wrong?" A server has just approached me at a table while I was speaking with guests and interrupted me with the above plea. Just the fact that she didn't wait until I was finished tells me we have a serious problem.

"Chef's down!"

Our chef has collapsed behind the line. An overweight alcoholic, he himself had been trying to fight off the flu while running a kitchen decimated by sick calls. Even with fill-ins from our other properties, we were still running one or two people down each night, and this had been going on for nearly three weeks. His lifestyle, the heat, and the extra work topped off with a weakened immune system had finally done him in, and down goes Frazier.

As he is helped off the line to his office, I turn to survey the remaining line staff and am met with a sea of mediocrity staring back at me through forty hanging dinner checks--each check representing not a single dinner but rather a whole table of hungry guests waiting for their meal.

For only the third time in well over a decade, I take off my jacket in the middle of service...and then I head behind the line.

Anyone who knows me knows I can't cook, and won't even pretend otherwise. What I do know is my restaurant, my food, and my people--and I set about trying to make the best of a bad situation. I failed, but I did manage to mitigate the damage as could be hoped for. I pulled the checks that belonged to regular guests of the restaurant that were reasonable people and moved them to the back of the line [and called on their servers to explain to them there would be a delay and make the necessary offerings to compensate]. I next pushed out a handful of easy checks to give a little breathing room, and then turned to the remaining checks and began to call "all days".

An "all day" is a total count called out to a station cook of everything he should have working at that moment. An "all day" lets someone confirm that they are cooking everything they are supposed to be cooking and to make the necessary additions if they missed a call or two here or there. It soon became apparent that the chef in his distress had stopped calling the tickets about fifteen minutes before he went down.

Fifteen minutes may not be very important in the real world, but in a restaurant kitchen it is a lifetime. Sixty dinners that should have been almost ready for the plate had not even been started.

I. Was. Fucked.

So, we started digging. And we dug and we dug and we dug, and in the end I comped about $800 in stuff and found reasonable, understanding, happy guests at every turn but one.

One set of four guys, or more specifically one guy out of one set of four guys. By my estimation the party waited eighteen minutes longer than they should have for dinner, and one steak, a huge porterhouse steak for two, was slightly underdone--I mean it was a coin toss. I brought the steak back to the table myself--not because I wanted to add little extra personal touch, but because we were finally caught up and winding down and more importantly their table was on the way to the bar, where I was planning to spend a lot of time.

"I'm sorry for the delay gentleman, here's your--"

"Fuck you sorry for the delay! We've been fucking waiting for dinner for a fucking hour and then it finally fucking comes out and its fucking raw. This is bullshit, fucking bullshit. You charge these fucking prices and you make us fucking dress up just to fucking eat here and you don't have any fucking Coors beer and then the steak finally fucking comes out and its fucking raw! I want to know what the fuck is going on and what the fuck you're going to do about it."

"Chef had a fucking stroke. I'm not going to charge you for the fucking steak. Enjoy your meal."

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

An Open Letter to the People of Great Britain

Dear Friends

Our long relationship is one born in adventure, raised in fealty, matured in blood, but yet still lived for nearly two hundred years in close, brotherly friendship.

For decades American and British sons and daughters have stood together to face dangers from all across the globe. Side by side, sometimes back to back, our blood and tears have run together, soaking the ground of far-away continents and unforgiving battlefields.

Though Presidents and Prime Ministers may come and go, our friendship--our Resolute friendship--has endured unwavering.

It is with this rich, invaluable history in mind that I offer my sincerest apologies for the affronts recently perpetrated against Great Britain and her Prime Minister by the United States government and her current President. Though our media will neither report on nor even acknowledge these shameful events or our horrified reaction to them, please trust that the complicit silence of our media does not reflect an endorsement of these offensive acts by the American People.

The symbolic and heartfelt gift of the Churchill bust in the days following the 9-11-01 attacks on the United States was a clear, obvious, and loving gesture of solidarity during one of the darkest times in our history. President Bush displayed the bust proudly in the Oval Office, allowing it to stand as public reminder of who our friends truly are.

Why President Obama attempted to return the bust immediately after taking office is a question troubling to many of us. At first, it could be supposed that a simple misunderstanding of the piece's significance was to blame. However, the President still insisted that the bust be collected by the British Government even after its significance was well-established and explained--an act wholly contrary to the goodwill so long in place between our respective nations.

During the recent visit to the United States by Prime Minister Gordon Brown, there came time for the traditional exchange of gifts between the two principals. From the Prime Minister came a custom-crafted pen made from wood originally part of HMS Resolute. Resolute, herself a truly noble British vessel for the ages, played an integral part in the forging of the strong bond between us. The two Resolute Desks, also made from her wood, that stand today in the Oval Office and in the Queen's personal study signify the roots of our relationship. The gifted pen from Prime Minister Brown made a handsome statement, an affirmation that we would see to the future just as we had seen to the past.

President Obama's gift to the Prime Minister, as I am sure you know, two dozen DVD's of American movies. Farcically impersonal as well as technically useless--the discs not even formatted for your European players.

I am no fan of your Prime Minister or of his politics, which I believe are as ill-considered and destructive as those of our own new President. However, no matter who leads your government and no matter what their policies, that person should always receive the utmost care and respect at the hands of our President and government.

Please know that millions of Americans feel as I do, and that we are regretful and embarrassed at the recent actions of our President.

With Brotherhood.

May God Bless Great Britain and The United States of America.