"You Can Leave Your Hat On…"

Last night was one of those “Mad Hatter” nights at work. Some years ago my wife made her escape from the Restaurant World, going to work for some boutique wineries in Napa Valley. She often referred to herself as the “Mad Hatter”, as she found herself spread between her marketing duties, running the tasting room, and the office; she even did some inoculations when the “consulting winemaker” at one place did a no-show during crush. She indeed wore many hats, sometimes several at once.

I found myself in a similar situation last night. I had to wear the hats of Restaurant Manager, Host, Maitre’D, Sommelier, expeditor, bartender; I even did some windows (this is no joke; the windows had been “cleaned” by the dishwashers and I swear they must have used the greasy side-towels that hang from their aprons to smear some Windex around and then call it a day. Not a pretty picture when the sunset comes blazing through around 7:30pm every night.). But, with things being the way they are in the World these days, running with a lean crew so we can all make some dough each night, I need to be a lot of different things to a lot of people, all at the same time.

So this night was nothing new; it’s what I’ve been doing for the last 6 months or so. I actually enjoy being the grease that helps all the different wheels turn. I greeted the guests as they arrived and seated them; I made and delivered cocktails to many of them. I poured the wines and did my Sommelier schpiel at their tables if they opted to do the menu-suggested wine pairings (and almost everyone did them last night). No one got any less service than usual; but it must have seemed a little odd to the guests, though, that this same guy kept showing up at their table, “wearing a different hat” each time. They all had a great time, many tipped over and above the 18% service charge added to their bill, and I even got palmed $20 from a very nice couple from Vancouver on their way out at the end of the night. When even the Canadians give you a bump, you must be doing things right.

I was reminded, though, of a past experience with people wearing too many hats at once, and not doing as good of a job as us at disguising the fact their crew was running so lean.

I was in my twenties and had just quit a job in the kitchen at a place in St. Helena. I had recently been promoted to the Executive Chef position, re-vamped a dinosaur of a menu, and was getting positive feedback from both the locals and the tourists. The place was finally starting to make a little money for the first time in it’s short history. I had gotten in a tiff with the owner over some menu changes he wanted to make. He had made all his money as a used car salesman, owned several dealerships in Sacramento and elsewhere, and knew less than nothing about the restaurant business. He dropped in once a month or so, waved his checkbook and his penis around, and demanded some senseless change or another. We would comply for a week or two, then go back to the way we had been operating until his next visit. As good restaurant professionals, we wanted the place to be a success no matter what stupid shit the owner asked for, and were on our way to getting there; but he wanted me to put his personal favorite chili (Hormel, no beans, straight out of a can) on the menu. I don’t think I need to tell you what a hard kick in the balls this was to my sensibilities and ego, being a young and fairly creative guy who had worked for some excellent Chefs in his career. Forget fresh, local ingredients, prepared with respect, using classic techniques to mold them into popular, tasty dishes; this Yayhoo wanted canned chili, listed by name, on the printed menu. Feel free to sink your own boat, pal, but I am done rowing.

I drove down the road to a new “Roadhouse” that had recently opened and had made a big splash on the food scene in the Valley and the Bay Area. They had already hired all their kitchen crew, but were purchasing another place in Carmel, converting it to a clone of the Napa Valley spot. The new Chef in Carmel was overwhelmed and needed a good right hand man. I had just been an Executive Chef and didn’t really want to take that backwards career step, but they were stroking me by offering to fly me down to Carmel and interview, work a day or two, see how I liked it. My ego was so sufficiently bloated by the offer of someone (anyone) flying me anywhere for free that I agreed.

The airport in Carmel (Monterey, actually) is about the size of a coffee table and not served by any major carriers. I arrived at Oakland airport and found the check-in counter for my “airline”, with the fiendishly clever and creative name of West Coast Air. I think they may have purchased their two turbo-prop planes already painted, from a company called “West Coast Air-Freight”, scratched off the “Freight”, and stuck in some seats. They were the very definition of rinky-dink. The “ticket agent” looked over my reservation and issued my boarding pass. Several minutes later, she shed an ill-fitting blazer, put on a jaunty beret, and morphed into the “Gate Attendant”, announcing the boarding of Flight Blah-blah-blah to Monterey. She took tickets from the dozen or so passengers and directed us through a door that led outside. The plane was too small for a jet-way link-up, so it had to be accessed by walking across the tarmac and up the stairs that were part of the flipped-down cabin door. By the time we arrived at the plane to board, she had lost the beret and was now wearing her “flight attendant” hat. It was one of those puffy, multi-colored “Twiggy” hats, very much in style back in the 70’s, but now only worn by aging British starlets and teenage girls at the Cin-A-Bon stands at the mall. She ushered us in and waited for the “ground crew” to close the cabin door. From my seat next to the door, I could hear a conversation between the pilot, his arm out the cockpit’s side window like a trucker waiting for gas at a Stuckey’s on I-40, and the guy who was gassing the plane. “Are we all gassed up?” the pilot is inquiring. “Yeah, let’s get these Crackers off the ground!” was the response from the guy outside the plane, who then proceeded to come inside and take the co-pilot’s seat. He removed his ball cap, donning a pilot’s cap that was in need of a serious dry-cleaning. The cockpit door was closed and Rinky Dink Air pushed back for the flight to Monterey with one seriously white-knuckled passenger buckled extremely tight into seat 1A. We managed to make the loud, bumpy trip to the Monterey Peninsula, the only fatality being my pumped-up self-worth.

Wearing a lot of different hats all at once can be a real high-wire act, but we pull it off; and our guests never feel that one of our hats should be a crash helmet.

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