"Anything That Can Happen, Does…"

My wife stopped by to visit me at work last night as she had a little time to kill while our daughter was at her nightly swimming practice. She will often come in to sit at the bar, have a beverage, and chat a little. Because she has a “real job” and works 8 to 5, we see each other for about half an hour in the morning, and then that’s it until my days off. So a visit from her is always welcome.

As an anal-retentive manager, my eyes and my mind are constantly on the move when I am at work. John Madden used to call it “Linebacker Eyes,” always moving, looking, trying to stay ahead of the curve and on top of the situation. So it’s not that I feel justified in giving more of my attention to the “paying guests” than I do her; and it’s not because the restaurant is so slammingly busy that I need to go bail out some server, or run food (indeed, last night we had only a handful of tables, as it is January in Napa Valley, after all); but I usually end up feeling a little guilty for not giving her my full attention while she is there.

The main reason I am distracted is that I have learned, through years of personal experience, that I absolutely need to watch and be aware of everything that is going on in the restaurant, because the minute I am not something shitty happens. This is not a theory, or a matter of coincidences; it is a proven postulate that bears out every single time I let my guard down.

Example 1: I look around the dining room and see that we have only two tables left, one that has paid their bill and is lingering over coffee, the other finishing dessert; so maybe I can step away to hit the bathroom or grab a quick smoke. As I am raising Bic to Camel, my cell phone buzzes and I am summoned back because the very last person left in the restaurant is going into anaphylactic shock. They have ruined my moment of peace, quiet and nicotine ingestion because they have eaten a dessert that has nuts, they are allergic, and they are about to die. This scenario has actually happened to me several times resulting in the arrival of Ambulances, Paramedics, the whole dealio.

Many people are so intimidated by a restaurant menu or a Chef’s resume, that they will risk their lives for fear of “offending the Chef.” So, I always worry when we serve an Amuse Bouche that contains fish or shellfish, as it can literally be a recipe for disaster. I have had people eat the complimentary little bite that had been clearly announced as “Sashimi of Blue Fin Tuna,” then call me over to ask, “Was there fish in that?” as their wife is gasping for breath and turning blue.

I am not allergic to anything that I have eaten, drank or otherwise ingested up to this point in my life, and that pretty much covers the whole spectrum. But if I did have the possibility of a life-threatening reaction to something I might encounter on a restaurant menu, the minute my waiter approached the table I would be shouting at the top of my lungs “If I eat nuts, I will die!”

Example 2: Service is cruising along, pretty much on Auto-Pilot, so I think this might be a good time to catch up on a project like finishing inventory, or making a schedule for the coming week. As soon as I pick up the clipboard, or sit down and boot up the computer, I will get called back because a woman is so drunk she has puked in an ice bucket in the dining room. This is another one that actually happened to me.

A party of five had been celebrating the 21st birthday of a woman who couldn’t have weighed more than 90 lbs soaking wet, by putting her in a limo and visiting 10 wineries. They have eaten nothing all day long other than the Carr’s Water Crackers that many winery tasting rooms have on their bars. They have decided that the frosting on their cupcake should be a multi-course dinner packed with Foie Gras, oysters, butter, and cream; and yet they are shocked when the teeny tiny Birthday Girl has what should have been an expected reaction to the combination of champagne and rich food.

By the time I arrive on the scene the other woman in the party has left the three men at the table, and has hustled the Birthday Girl off to the Ladies Room. As I approach them, one of the men says, “We are going to need another napkin,” as it was obvious to him that the one his date had stuffed over her mouth to hold back vomit was just not going to do. I tell him that no, he would not need another napkin, but instead would need a taxi, as you are most definitely leaving, my friend.

Other less dramatic calamities have occurred the minute I diverted my attention, like a food spill on expensive clothing or a guest choking on a piece of meat (the latter situation I quickly remedied by simply walking up to the table, visually assessing the guest’s condition, and performing the World’s Quickest Heimlich Maneuver. I nearly killed the choking man’s dinner date with shock at the speed of my reaction).

It’s not that I am such an integral part of service that things go all to hell when I turn my back; nor do I have some kind of magic aura that makes everything automatically hunky-dory when I am around. One of the tenets of Murphy’s Law is that “Anything that can happen will.” But the corollary is that it absolutely won’t if you are watching. I hope my wife will forgive me if I seem distracted.

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