"More Thanksgiving Stuff of Legends…"

November 25, 2010

Back in The Day, when I was a fledgling line cook on his way up the culinary food chain of Napa Valley, Thanksgiving had sort of become a Holiday of Accommodation for me.  With a new-found disdain born of my recent experiences working with “the real thing”, my thinking went that if it wasn’t straight out of Ecoffier, my wanna-be French nose was in the air immediately.  How could I possibly sit by and subject myself to overcooked green beans and dry Turkey after I had spent all week making Sauce Écrivisse, trimming bones for Carré D’Agneau En Croûte, and slicing beautiful loins of milk-fed Veal?  Would I, yet again, have to suffer through another meal of those “time-tested recipes” used by my Mom and Aunts for years?  I had become such an ass, as Thanksgiving up to then had been a perfectly fine dinner we all enjoyed together, over-cooked turkey notwithstanding.

One year, I decided to take the reins, and took the pompous ass thing to new levels.  I called my Mom to inform her that I would be preparing the most vital portion of the Thanksgiving meal: the bird, the stuffing and sauce.

“This year, we are having Red Wine and Cognac Marinated Turkey with Wild Rice, Sausage and Chestnut Stuffing, and Wild Mushroom Sauce, and I’m doing the cooking.”

“No, Mom, not gravy.  Sauce.”

“No, really I want to.  Mom, it’ll be great.  I can do it.  Mom…”

Mom grudgingly agreed; the grudging part came mostly from her being forced to relinquish the all-important control factor of the dinner.   But also, if I pulled off the coup I was attempting, she would finally have to admit my career choice was actually valid.  For years now, she had been patiently waiting for the day when I would put down the knives and pans, go back to school, and get “a real job”.

The recipe called for a 48-hour marinade of the massive 21-pound bird I had purchased.  At the time I was a true bachelor who worked in a restaurant kitchen, which meant that at home I had one or two old frying pans, a motley assortment of  utensils, and nothing in the fridge except Dijon mustard, beer, and a bottle of Old Crow in the freezer.  I ate at work.  So preparing the meal I was attempting, and doing so at home, meant borrowing pans of suitable sizes and a vessel to marinate a bird the size of a Dodo, from the Chef.  We were closed at the restaurant for Thanksgiving, and I assured him all equipment would be returned unscathed on Friday. 

Home, at the time, was up in Angwin, a sleepy little conclave of hippies and Seventh Day Adventist college students in the hills, nine miles up from the restaurant in St. Helena.  My parents’ house, where the clan would gather, was in Napa, twenty miles or so down-valley.  Without realizing it, I had become what every self-respecting Chef Di Partie dreads:  I was a Caterer.  Restaurant cooks have a saying, paraphrasing Nancy Reagan:  “Just say No To Catering”.  Catering is always fraught with the potential for disaster and the need to be constantly “stomping out fires” when the main course for the event goes sliding across the floor of a van en route to the site; or some essential ingredient is left back at the prep kitchen, thirty minutes away.  My Thanksgiving adventure would prove no different. I loaded the groceries, my frozen Pterodactyl, and all the equipment into the back seat my 1971 Chevy Vega (one of a series of $250 cars I had back then) and headed for home around 10:30pm in a driving rainstorm.

The Chevy Vega, even in showroom condition, was a poor excuse for a vehicle; and mine could never be confused with anything remotely resembling dependable.  It had transmission issues, bad suspension, and a passenger-side window that was stuck either halfway up or halfway down, depending on your philosophy and that day’s weather.  Of course I had no insurance, no valid driver’s license, and about three cups of gas in the tank.  I told you I was a true bachelor restaurant cook, didn’t I?  But pride and reckless youth were powering this adventure and so A-Catering I will go…

About halfway up the hill to Angwin, the Vega decided to live up (or down) to its reputation.  The rear axle of this 70’s Detroit P.O.S. is held together by a small horseshoe-shaped pin, which secured the right rear wheel to the axle rod and left rear wheel.  As I rounded one of several hairpin turns on the road up the mountain, with my little car Loaded For Bear with pots and pans, the World’s Largest Turkey, as well as 5 or 6 bags of groceries, this pin decided that a rainy night in November on a dark mountain road would be an optimal time to let go. It disintegrated, detaching the right rear wheel from the axle assembly and turning my car into a three-legged Billy Goat. The Vega’s right rear side dropped with a sickening thud and some disconcerting grinding noises. It’s a particularly odd sensation, to be looking out the driver’s side window and see your right rear wheel passing you on the left, and disappear over the cliff on the other side of the road.  I managed to limp the Vega off onto the narrow shoulder, and began to assess.

I was at least two miles from home; and it was 10:30pm, and pouring rain.  Of course, this was back when Cell Phones were still the size of a shoe box, and pretty much a novelty item for people like Gordon Gecko, so I had no one to call and no way to call them anyway.  A triage of the situation called for leaving the Chef’s equipment locked in the dead car and hoping for the best.  I hoisted the bags of groceries onto my back, and started walking the last leg of the journey.  To add insult to injury, the last mile of the drive was up and over a 7% grade and down into town.

You never realize just how friggin’ heavy a 20-pound turkey is until it needs to be carried uphill, in the rain, in a plastic grocery bag while getting soaked to the bone.   Stumbling along a pitch-dark mountain road with six bags of groceries can cause one to ponder one’s career choices; and the drive and determination to not let Mom be right, yet again, and pull off my first Thanksgiving Dinner despite the obstacles, was fading fast. Just as I was seriously considering spinning the bag with the Turkey over my head and letting it fly for the first time in its life, headlights appeared behind me.  My next-door neighbor, a contractor, was on his way up the hill, returning home from tarping over an exposed construction site down in the Valley.  He zoomed up in his massive Ford F-250.  I loaded my stuff in the back and, after doubling back to the corpse of my Vega for the borrowed kitchen equipment, we arrived home and off-loaded.

The Thanksgiving meal was a roaring success, with the red-wine marinade turning out a bird that was juicy and magnificently bronzed.  The Wild Rice Stuffing and Mushroom Sauce were big hits too, even with my uncle, Big Mike, a staunch traditionalist when it comes to Holiday meals.  Friday was spent retrieving a used 1971 Vega rear end from the junk yard and I came away from that Thanksgiving with a new-found appreciation for the complexities of gray green beans, Durkee Fried Onions, and Sweet Potatoes topped with tiny marshmallows.

I suppose it could have been worse…

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"Bustin' Out All Over…"

April 13, 2010

We have been having a fairly decent early Spring uptick in business lately.  Signs are upon us that yes, it’s April, and the tourists are beginning to gather.  The locals are still with us too, as they have been all winter, and we love them and thank them for it.  But with the impending closure of the ski resorts in the Sierras and the resulting weekly onslaught of tourists from the 714, 650, and 916, they will soon fade off into the sunset and disappear; and most of them will likely not be seen again until Harvest.

We have had some definite signs of the “season” being upon us, and thank God. This, however, is one of those Good News/Bad News situation.   Last year, winter lasted until August; but this year, we’ve already had indicators that we don’t usually see until Memorial Day.   Apple Martinis have been officially served in our dining room, we’ve seen our first group of tourists in flip-flops and board shorts trying to dine,  and we had a large party on our patio last week that brought in a I-Pod Dock and wanted to have a dance party.  If they hadn’t been a bunch of drunk, No-Riddim-Havin’ Crackers in their late forties, we might have accommodated them.  But their dancing, for the few brief moments they got away with it before we shut them down, was like a bad car wreck on the highway in the middle of the night; and all the diners on the other side of our glass patio doors were like the passing motorists, horrified by the scene illuminated in their headlights, yet unable to look away.

Spring is always a challenge here in Napa Valley, trying to maintain consistency when the weeknights are still fairly quiet, but weekends are packed.  Having a few busy shifts, other than just Friday and Saturday is always helpful, as it is so much easier to gear up for a full house when it happens more than just once or twice a week.   Patios, and other outside dining venues, are beginning to open here and there as the weather improves; and the increases in seating capacity and the need for more staff to serve them is a big challenge.  Many restaurants are just now beginning the process of hiring on their seasonal help, and trying to get them trained and up to speed.  Reservation slots have to be closely controlled at this time of year, as having more tables available makes for more opportunities for problems to occur, especially if you are slightly understaffed.  At this time of year I would much rather do 10 to 15 fewer covers and do them all perfectly, than risk compromising our reputation for the sake of a few more bucks on a Saturday.

We have recently made a return to the “Top Ten Lists” on Open Table for Food, Service, and Overall quality, and being there helps our business volume immensely.  The crew at the restaurant is working well together, becoming more and more precise; and rather than being tunnel-visioned into taking care of only their own little world within the grand scheme of things, everyone seems much more in-tune with “The Big Picture” and have really worked together to make it happen.

The feedback provided by our guests via OT’s reviews of the restaurant over the past few months has also been helpful in fine-tuning things.   If one or two guests mention the same service miscue, that particular point of service goes straight to the top of the list for reinforcement.  And although past readers of this blog will no doubt know what complete disdain I have for Yelp, as well as Trip Advisor as “discussion forums”, I do pay attention to what is said there.  Sort of.

One recent commenter on Trip Advisor objected to being asked if he would like to see a menu before being seated as a walk-in deuce.  The couple in question thought I was looking down my nose at them financially, and that just staying at our hotel should have put them above reproach.  Even though years of experience at higher end hotels and restaurants has taught me to embrace the axiom of “Never underestimate your guest’s need or ability to spend money”, I have also learned to spot the road signs that point the other direction.  These two were not dressed down in “casual” outfits that cost more than my entire wardrobe; they were sloppy.  They weren’t wearing sweatshirts and jean accented by five thousand dollars worth of watches, pearls or earrings.   They were all about Old Navy.  The man was wearing socks from Costco, for God’s sake.  How did I know?  Because I wear socks from Costco.  When confronted with such indicators, I try to be courteous by presenting the menu first, in order to save the guest the embarrassment of making up a lame excuse to leave after they have been seated and gone into sticker shock over the menu prices.  “Oh, we were looking for something lighter…”  Uh-huh.

So Friday night, and here they are:   a walk-in four top, with that haggard “Been-Dragging-Our-Asses-Through-Airports-All-Day” look about them.  One of them is the guy I mentioned above, with the board shorts and flip-flops.  I know for a drop-dead certainty that they are looking for a quick bite, then off to bed, and that they would be oh-so-much happier at our other, more casual restaurant in the Lobby; but the spokesperson for this particular group was very abrupt and cranky, and refused my offer to preview the menu.  So, I was all “Fine.  You won’t let me help, you want to sit anyway?  Come on in, pal.”  Of course they came in, were presented menus, saw the prices and the format; and when I looked over a few minutes later, they had disappeared like a set of testicles in a cold swimming pool.  If they had just been a little nicer, and taken my advice as the sincere desire to help that it was, it would’ve saved us all a little time and a lot of embarrassment.  Some people you just can’t reach, no matter what the season.


"Well Boys, Break's Over!"

April 2, 2010

Well, we are back from vacation.  The wife just left for her first day back at work; mine begins later today.

Returning to work after a vacation is always a bitter/sweet situation for me.  I am a realist and, as such, know that I am nowhere near having the financial wherewithal to be on a permanent vacation (a.k.a. retired); and that having bills and working for a living to pay them will be a necessity for many years to come.  Still, after a week of having nothing to do and plenty of time to do it, going back to work can be a depressing reality.  That’s the bitter.  The sweet?  I really do love my job and what I do; and I generally don’t mind going back to it.  So, as they say, “It is what it is…”

Anyone who knows us will tell you that eating and drinking is a big priority for us on our vacations.  Being in Atlanta afforded us copious opportunities to do both.  We had some good, some very good, and some excellent food at restaurants there; but there always seemed to be just one or two pieces missing from the puzzle.  Food is great, service is poor.  Service is great in one aspect, but lackadaisical in others.  With the closing last year of the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton (see a lament on their closing here…), there are now no dining venues in Metro Atlanta that require a jacket.   This is not such a huge deal for us, as this trip was on somewhat of a budget; so the $150 per head places were off the itinerary.  Service in general here has been suffering of late from a “casual dining” malaise; and the lack of attention to many of the seemingly small details is an unfortunate result.

Our last meal of the trip was at a supposedly great, fairly new (1 year) neighborhood restaurant run by a well-known, highly-regarded local Chef.  It’s in one of those converted warehouse spaces so popular in Atlanta because there are so many of them:  condos or lofts upstairs, Big Name restaurant downstairs.  We were a party of 5, but arrived as four, with one in transit.  It was a lovely, warm Spring evening, and their patio tables were available; our thinking was the outside might become too cool later to enjoy what was surely to be a two-hour dinner, so we asked if we could sit outside for a drink while we waited for our “fifth”.

The hostess was quick to oblige, and told us we could stay outside or move in for dinner, whatever we wanted.  Good first step; but before we had even ordered our drinks she informed us that the waiter inside would be a different person from the one outside, and would we mind settling our tab before we went inside, if that’s what we decided to do?  I am always willing to settle up, or at least tip, a bartender or server if there is to be a transfer involved; but I am decidedly against being required to do so.  I recognized their POS system, and knew it had the capacity (as most all of them do) to transfer a check, so why put the onus on the guest?  Bad form.

Then came the “outside server” who looked to be about 16 years old.  She was friendly enough, but didn’t know the liquors available, and had to return two different times to inform us they didn’t have the particular spirits we had asked for.  Okay, bring me a Hangar One Lemon instead of Ketel One Citron.  Five minutes later:  Okay, bring my wife’s Negroni with Hendricks instead of 209.

There were maybe six tables already sitting inside a cavernous dining room that just screamed “Cafeteria” in its decor, with some banquettes around the perimeter but dozens of tiny tables all in perfect, straight lines out in the middle.  The place was practically empty, and yet a solid ten minutes passed between ordering and the server returning to inform us of the liquor substitutions.  Through the windows I could see the bartender, (not exactly a bolt of lightning he, when it came to making drinks), serving four people at the bar.  There were four others at the bar, already with cocktails in-hand.  This guy was not busy, yet when I inquired about our drinks taking so long, she informed us the bartender was “slammed” and he was trying to get to our order.   As I have mentioned in a previous post, using the excuse that you are busy to explain away poor service is a big, big Restaurant No-No.  You are supposed to be busy, you dolt!!  It would be more honest to just say, “Sorry, we are too lame to have hired and trained our people properly, and the long wait for service you are experiencing is the result.”  Bad form.

Another five minutes passed so I went in to inform the hostess, and someone who looked to be a manager, that they were really getting off on the wrong foot with us.   I was assured that our cocktails were on the way, so I returned to our spot on the patio.

Then the drinks started appearing in “Chinese Restaurant Service” fashion: one at a time.  First our friend’s Hendricks and Tonic; two minutes later, my wife’s Negroni.  Then came my Hangar One martini.  It had a slight pinkish tinge and a distinctly bitter flavor, likely from being made in the same shaker as the Negroni, without rinsing.   I don’t think it’s being overly picky, considering the $12 they were charging for this drink, and the fact that it was the subtle flavor of it’s one and only ingredient I was after by ordering it, that it should be free of any unwanted residue left by a lazy bartender.  Bad, bad form.

Now we are in a real quandary.  Our fifth guest had arrived and we are faced with cutting our losses and leaving, or taking a leap of faith that the “inside server” would be better and things would improve.  Literally having a bitter taste in my mouth from the poorly made drink and the bad service up to this point, I was in favor of the bolt.

Fortunately, for us and for the restaurant, we decided to stay and things went decidedly uphill from there.  Our “inside server”, a pro, was lots of fun; and all the dishes we ordered (many on her recommendations) were delightful.  Corner turned, we ended up having a great time for the rest of the night.

Even though there are positive signs of recovery from our recent economic downturn, the impact on service quality due to the rise of the lower priced, casual dining venue cannot be ignored.  In addition to some relatively new places that had the wisdom and foresight to keep menu prices more realistic, and have been packing in the guests as a result, many others have also “down-priced” their menus, or offered other economic concessions, in order to put the butts in the seats.  Great idea; but  allowing service  to slide, with the excuse being that “we are casual dining”, is not so great.  There has also been a thinning of the herd with regards to the labor pool, both in management and service staff, with the result being a general drop-off in overall service quality.   Patrons have learned (or been forced) to settle for less in terms of good service standards and fundamentals.  Service quality has now somehow been linked to price; and as a result has spiraled downward alongside the check average.

At several other meals, some at “top tier” spots, there were glaring service gaffes; things that just made me cringe.

  • Many occurrences of what I refer to as “pivot point” service, where the waiter serving or the busser clearing, stands at a fixed point at the corner or end of the table and just reaches across to put down drinks or clear/serve plates.  This is an understandable tactic in booth service, but not on tables that have the easements available for staff to move around their perimeter to serve guests individually.  Just plain lazy.
  • “Chinese Restaurant” Style Service, where the food is brought according to when the dishes are ready, with no concern by the kitchen over timing the plates so everyone’s eating at the same time.  This also happened with drinks, as I already noted.
  • Auctioning food:  One local restaurateur told me that people have gotten so used to this “Waiter 101” rule being ignored, that they are blown away when a table is served without asking who had what.  Many guests will now ask for verbal verification that what is being served to them is actually what they ordered, because staff didn’t have to ask.
  • Silverware in “roll-ups”.  (Sigh.)  There are some battles that will probably never be won.

"Your Main Course Will Be Out In Just A Minute…"

March 24, 2010

Lots of stuff going on this week, so I don’t have time to post a full-blown entry.  That and I’m just a little lazy and well into “Vacation Mode,” which starts tomorrow.  I’m excited about a spring vacation that will refresh and revive; but I’m also a little worried that by mid-June I’ll be totally fried again and staring straight into five more months of “season” with no possibility of relief, as my vacay days will be gone until next year.

Being in the restaurant business dictates that I work when everyone else is playing and vice-versa.  I have gotten used to going out to dinner on Tuesdays instead of Saturdays, working on every significant holiday like Thanksgiving or Christmas; and I kind of enjoy the luxury of never having to wait in line for stuff like going to the movies, because nobody is there for Monday matinees in March.  But because we have a daughter that is in 8th grade, we are subject to taking our  vacations when the school calendar says to.  So it’s Christmas Break, Spring Break, and June-July-August, right when all the people with the “real jobs” are all in line at the Airport Security Checkpoints and on the freeways.  Not fair.  I should get a special lanyard to wear at airports that says “Works Every Weekend and Holiday.  Please Step Aside!”  I should automatically get to be one of those “Cart People” in the airport, whisking by all the losers who actually have to walk to their gate and are forced to jump out of the way when the little golf carts with the flashing yellow light goes beep-beep-beeping past.  “Restaurant Guy!  Coming through!  Get your ass out of the way!  Restaurant Guy!”

I’m not sure if it is a sign of being totally relaxed and ready for vacation, or worrying about what shit will hit the fan at work the minute I buckle into my airline seat next to the single mom with the two screaming kids; but I have been taking some deep-sleeping coma-naps in the afternoons lately, complete with the attendant “Waiter Nightmares”.  Some are from the “Greatest Hits” archives in my brain, some are new.  But they have all been fairly vivid and disturbing.  My fellow blogger, Waiternotes, who has lived the same life as me, but in a parallel universe in Southern California, wrote a couple of blogs on the topic that are hilarious and also frighteningly unnerving in their familiarity.  You can read his posts here, and here, and here.

"Oh my God! Six Hot Teas!!??"

So in the interest of laziness and a general lack of mental stimuli, I am re-posting one of my very first entries, from back in June of ’09, on the Waiter Nightmare topic.  I didn’t have what you might call a huge readership back then so, to my wife and the other three people that have seen this before, my apologies.  To the rest of you out there (and Waiternotes this is especially for you):  Enjoy!

“To Sleep, Perchance To Dream…”

The long hours and high stress of the restaurant business can lead to a lot of things. Drug abuse, failed relationships, and bad eating habits are some of the many side effects of the tense situations we can find ourselves dealing with at work. But, God help us, we love it. I think about Harry Dean Stanton in Repo-Man, looking at a group of civilians emerging from a church on a Sunday morning: “Ordinary fuckin’ people, I hate ‘em. They spend their entire lives avoiding tense situations; Repo-Man spends his life getting INTO intense situations.”

One of the things this life has led me to is a nap. Like most kids, you could not get me to even think about a nap when I was 8. When I turned 30, I lived for them. This was partially due to the late hours I kept, working as a bartender, and all the attendant lifestyle choices we denizens of the bar and club scene made back then.

Naps became an important part of the routine and remain so, but for different reasons now. These days, I usually get home from work around 12:30am, sometimes later, sometimes earlier. After winding down by watching a little TV, I crawl off to bed around 1:30 or so. Several years ago, my wife went over the wall, making her escape from the restaurant world. She now has a “real job”, 8:30 to 5:30. My daughter is in junior high. So if I didn’t get my ass up at 6:45am, I would see them only on my days off. As an investment in my relationships with them, I get up, have some coffee, chat, and when they go off to work/school I do a couple of things (like writing this) and then crawl off for at least an hour’s worth of nap time before I head to work at around 2:00pm.

In my experience, naps need to be either 20 minutes or more than 1 hour; anything in between makes you more tired than if you had stayed awake. Twenty minutes will refresh and revive. Two hours will give you the chance to hit that really deep REM sleep stage. Although you might be groggy and drooling with a wrinkled face when you awake, the long nap gives you that “starting a brand new day” feeling and that can be a pretty good thing. A little more coffee, a shower and I’m out the door.

One side effect of the long nap, however, is the Waiter Nightmare. These are generally disturbing, stressful and always recurring. I have talked to former waiters who have gone on to be doctors, and lawyers, and business executives, and many have had Waiter Nightmares years after they finished their last shift. Maybe subconsciously they are wishing for a return to simpler times. Maybe they long for the adrenaline and go-go-go of a busy restaurant, or the camaraderie. Maybe they are just twisted.

Even though it’s been many years since I worked as a waiter, I still have them. Hell, I still have Kitchen Nightmares. I still have bits and pieces of a recurring Kitchen Nightmare wherein I am a grill cook at a very busy bar and grill in Carmel back in the 80’s. This was in the olden times, before the widespread use of computerized POS systems that print orders in a neat, uniform fashion. Back then it was hand-written checks. Trying to decipher the hastily written scrawl from 10 different waiters was a nightmare in itself; plus the fact that the Guest Checks we used were made of three parts you could tear off. Designed so you could separately order apps, mains, and desserts, all the tags were different sizes: little tiny skinny stubs for the apps, larger squares for mains, and small rectangles for dessert. My dream was usually that I had dozens of plates in the window ready to be picked up and cooling rapidly, but I was always missing one item on a ticket, so nothing could go out. I am frantically looking through the tiny scraps of paper that are my tickets; and as I look down the line asking “Where’s the Chinese Chicken Salad for Table 16?” the hot line is stretching out and away from me like the upstairs hallway in the haunted house in Poltergeist. And no one else is there to help me. Cue the alarm clock!

Lately, though, I have unintentionally began employing a kind of “Directed Dreaming’ technique when I have the occasional Waiter Nightmare. I have somehow developed the ability to realize in my dream-state that even the biggest idiot to work the door at any restaurant, anywhere, would not seat me 10 six-tops in a parking lot with a foot of standing water in it; and that the people at those tables would surely notice something like that. Or that I no longer work at the place I am dreaming about, and that there is no way I would not know the table numbers, or where my station was; and I always wore shoes to work, didn’t I? And I never wore a big bow tie like Dianne Feinstein used to wear. I would also think that if I just ignored some of these tables, maybe they would get up and walk out and be gone by the next time I came by. There was no way I was getting to all of them anyway.

"I know my station is around here somewhere..."

I have worked shifts in my career that were living Waiter Nightmares. Once, while I was a waiter at a very expensive local hotel, I was working a Thanksgiving Day shift. My friend Mitch and I were the waiters assigned to a downstairs banquet room that was set up to take all the large parties that wouldn’t fit in the main room upstairs. On Thanksgiving, it is nothing BUT big parties. Sixes, eights, twelve tops all began appearing in my station. The host/manager would walk these people down the stairs, seat them and disappear. I had a food runner, a back-waiter and the two of us shared a busser; but the computer to ring all our orders into the kitchen was UPSTAIRS. So every time I needed anything from the kitchen or had to run a credit card, there was flight of 22 stairs to be negotiated. I was so busy, I remember at one point thinking, “I know SOMEBODY in my station needs an Iced Tea, but I can’t remember who”.

Hamlet was bat-shit crazy and driven to the brink when he uttered those lines about dreaming. Maybe he used to be a waiter?


"Ladies and Gentlemen, Tonight's Main Event…"

February 14, 2010

So we have survived Round 2 of our three-round Valentine’s Weekend bout.  I channeled Michael Buffer on Friday night, trying to inspire the crew with a little “Let’s get ready to RUMMMMMMMMM-BULLLLLLLLL!”  to get them in the proper mood for the next three nights.  Pretty appropriate then, that when I got home last night at 1am, HBO was showing “Ali” with Will Smith.

The crew must have been pretty whupped after last night’s service, as the late night Facebook postings were at a minimum.  Round One on Friday night was like buttah, and I was fully expecting the Other Shoe to drop, hard, last night; but it didn’t.  I look forward to tonight with anticipation and just a little dread…

(Interesting little follow-up to the Atlanta Reservation Scalper storyline:  I had a second cancellation Voice Mail for one of our phony resos, from a different caller than the previous one.  Were these guys selling the same reservations twice?)

We had two “surprise” four tops that added to the fun last night.  One was a group of four guys, who told me the concierge at the hotel had booked them lots of activities for their “Guys Weekend,” one of which was supposed to be dinner with us.  And what better weekend for a testosterone charged adventure than Valentine’s Day in the Napa Valley?  Have you heard of a little place called Las Vegas, boys?  Or maybe Scottsdale, Arizona?  They have a little thing going on down there called Spring Training?

Anyway, she had, for some inexplicable reason, called me two days ago and canceled their reservation.  She had told everyone except them.  Since I work with so many people who are so good at creating them for me,  I had planned ahead for such contingencies by holding a couple of open spots on the reservation book.  I had no trouble finding them a table.  They ate, had a great time, and thanked me over and over for accommodating them.

The other “surprise” table was a little more irritating and problematic.  They were a four top who had no-showed on Friday night.  Now this woman is standing in front of me, lying to my face, that her reservation was for Saturday, not Friday; and that someone (me) had called and “left her a message at work” to confirm for Saturday.

She is either stupid, or a liar, or both, as she made the reservation herself, on Open Table.  Don’t people know that when they make a reso on OT, I have a “Change Log” on my end that shows me, in glorious 3-color graphics, all the steps and alterations to said reservation?  Her table was reserved, by her, on Open Table, on January 11th (nice job, with the planning ahead); a message was left, by me from my office computer, on Thursday, February 11th, with a request to please call to confirm said reservation (not so nice a job with ignoring the call back); and the party was marked as a no-show at 8:50 (pretty long Grace Period for a 7pm reservation) on Friday night.  This woman had received two e-mail confirmations from OT, one the day she made the reservation, and one 24-hours before the reservation to remind her; plus the Voice Mail from me asking for a confirmation call, yet here she was, trying to tell me I was wrong and had screwed it up.  I always try to subtly let people know that I am on to their game in these situations, but this broad is doing a pretty good Stone-Faced-Bitch to reinforce her position.  Had she just responded with the courtesy of confirming her reservation as I had requested, we wouldn’t all be in this mess right now.

Being the gracious host, I apologized for the “confusion,” found them a table in about 10 minutes, and it was all good.  It put us a little bit behind in seating a couple of late parties; but people can be a little more understanding when they see a place is packed, as they think it must be THE Hot Spot.  They don’t mind waiting a bit,  and while they wait they can congratulate themselves on the good choice they have made in picking such a popular place.  But, it’s a sickening feeling to walk through the dining room, looking for tables that are close to being finished so you can seat somebody soon that has been patiently waiting, and finding that the only table that is even remotely close to being done has just been “marked” for their Cheese course…

A personal note to my own Valentine:  Fifteen years (almost) you have been my better half, my Sous-Chef, my greatest strength and support, my biggest fan.  You are an inspiration to me every day, constantly challenging me to be better.  When we first met, I discovered your eye for detail on the even the tiniest of things, (like the way you wanted the Mortadella folded for your Hero; and I thought “How the hell could that make a difference?”)   We have always had our “Vidal Sassoon” pact:  “If you don’t look good, I don’t look good…”  And Baby, you always make me look good.  Happy Valentine’s Day.  I love you.


"Mike From Reno"

February 4, 2010

We were busy at work last night.  Not so many reservations, but one of those “all at once” nights where the several parties we did have were all scheduled within a half an hour of each other.

I had checked with the Front Desk of the hotel and found out we had only a dozen or so check-ins that night, so I didn’t think the Walk-In factor would be in play.  I decided to go with a lean crew to give us all a chance to make some dough on what looked to be a fairly quiet February weeknight.

Our Wine Director was off, out sick actually; and our other Somm was getting ready for his Master Sommelier’s Exam coming up later in the month, so I had let him have the night off to study.  So, it was just me, again, wearing the many hats of Manager, Host, Bartender, Sommelier, Expediter, Food Runner and Whatever The Hell Else Needed To Be Done Guy.  I would be walking the tightrope again; in a situation that is manageable, but can easily go all to hell if I get a stupid phone call, or get Tractor Beamed in by a table.

We had four parties all arriving at 6:00pm: three deuces and a 7 top.  Two of the deuces we knew (one an employee comp, the other a local vintner’s daughter) so I didn’t think it would be an issue getting them going. Usually, though, someone is late, someone is early; so it all tends to work out.  And whadaya know, that’s exactly how it happened.

We got them all seated, orders taken, and I had poured and explained the first course wines to the one table of the three that had opted for the Wine Pairing.  The other two ordered bottles off the list, so we were on cruise control.  I had even managed to take care of a local who had walked in to buy a Gift Certificate, which requires me to run back to the Chef’s Office and get on the computer, type it up and print.  Back to the POS to run the credit card, get them to sign and here you go, thank you very much.

The 7-top, which was due to arrive any minute, was a group from some of our “sister” hotels, although “Rich Uncle” would be a more accurate metaphor.  They were a bunch of GM’s from hotels in ‘The Luxury Collection,” a much higher priced group of properties under the Starwood umbrella.  They had proven themselves to be fairly demanding in their dealings with our Private Dining Department during their meetings earlier in the week, and with the crew at the other, more casual restaurant on the property, during breakfast.  But we deal with demanding all the damn time, so I wasn’t worried.  One of the seven was the GM from the 100-plus year-old Palace Hotel in San Francisco and was also the President of the San Francisco Hotel Council, a fairly high-powered trade group, and I wanted to show him some mighty Napa Valley Kung Fu. I could hear the sound of their voices from down the hall as they approached, but we were all set for them.  So it was all good, so far.  Just as the first of the group came into view, the phone rang.

“Thank you for calling La Toque, this is Patrick…”

Really drunk sounding guy on the other end:  “Who?!?  Is this La Toque?!?”

“Yes this is La Toque Restaurant, can I help you?”

“Didn’t you guys used to be somewhere up in North Napa?”

“Yes, sir we were in Rutherford for 10 years.”

“WHERE?!!?”

“Rutherford.”

“RUTHERFORD?!!?”

“Yes sir, Rutherford.”

“Where the hell is that?”

“About a half an hour north of here.”

“RUTHERFORD?!!?”

“Yes, Rutherford.”

“Rutherford.  Hey, that’s where you guys used to be, isn’t it?”

By this time my 7-top of Hoi Polloi Hoteliers had fully formed at the podium but were still occupied with their own conversations, and no one had really approached me to check in.  Etiquette in this situation demands putting the caller on hold, and dealing with the live bodies in front of you; and I could feel the quicksand of the drunk guy on the phone starting to pull me down.  I figured I had 30 seconds or so to see what he wanted or get rid of him before I had to deal with the GMs.

“How can I help you sir?”

“Your name is Patrick?”

“Yes sir.  How can I help you?”

“Patrick, this Mike from Reno.  Howya doin’?”

“Very well, sir.”

“Well, Patrick, The Wife and I,  we’re gonna be comin’ down from Reno next month and we thought we might stop in and see ya, ya know, have a little dinner, have some wine, visit some wineries…”

“Yes sir?”

“You know, Patrick, we were gonna drive on over from Susanville down across to Fortuna and then on down your way, so I figure what the hell, let’s go all the way down and have some dinner…”

“Uh-huh”

“So lemme ask ya Patrick…didn’t you guys use to be up North somewhere?”

Oh shit.  Circular conversation.

“Hey Mike?  Can I put you on hold for just a second?”

“So Patrick, you got some pretty good food there?”

I realized Mike from Reno wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon.  And much as I would have liked to, I couldn’t just blow him off, as the designated envoy from the 7-top of Hoteliers was now standing in front of me, ready to be acknowledged, and he was listening to my end of the conversation.

“So, Mike, did you want to make a reservation?”

“Well, ya know, I gotta talk to The Wife, figure out the days and alla that, so I’ll do that and give ya a call…you got a website or sumpin’?”

“Yes, sir, it’s La Toque dot com.  There’s menus, pictures of the restaurant (as I was certain reading was beyond Mike’s capability at this point) and links to maps and directions.”

“Oh, well, that’s great. I’ll take a look at that and I’ll talk to The Wife and I’ll give ya a call back…”

“Fantastic, Mike.  Thanks for calling.”

Whew!

“Good evening, are the seven of you ready for dinner?”

So the 7-top was seated, ordered some wine and displayed a real knack for the annoying tendency to all ask for stuff at the same time.  But being a pretty good multi-tasker/prioritizer, I listened to everyone at once then decided who got what first according to my own personal hierarchy of the table.  White wine?  Yessir, the Gruner would be excellent.  Red wine?  Sure, medium bodied Cab Franc.  Copy of the wine list?  Can I see the menu again?  Some lime for the water?  And a Campari and Soda, a Hendricks and Tonic, and ya-da-ya-da-ya-da.

I got the white opened and poured, made cocktails, served them, got the back waiters on the water and lime. I brought the menu and wine list as requested, and had retrieved the Cab Franc from the wine room, marked them with the proper glasses, and was on my way back to the table to present and open it.

Then it’s the phone again.

“Thank you for calling La Toque, this is Patrick.”

“HEY PATRICK!!”   Mike from Reno was back.

“So I’m lookin’ at this website of yours and it says ‘Three courses plus dessert, $78.’  What’s that mean?  How do I do that?”

Our menu is divided into three sections, first courses, middle courses, and main courses.  Desserts are listed on the last page.

“I mean, how do I pick stuff.  Do I just pick three things?”

“Well, Mike, do you see where it says ‘First Courses?”

“Yeah.”

“And, do you see where it says ‘Middle Courses’?”  Really wanting to get mad now, but keeping it together, barely.

“Yeah.”

“Well, you pick one from each of those, then a Main Course and a Dessert.”

“Oh, so that’s how ya do it…”

“Yes, that’s how you do it.”

“Well, that explains that.  Listen, Patrick, I’m gonna talk to The Wife…”

I got myself disengaged from Mike again, got the wine to the table, and the first two courses were served to my VIPs.

We are all at the table, clearing the second course plates, and as I am walking back toward the scullery with an armload, I hear the phone.  I dropped my load at the Dish Pit and hustled back to the podium to get the call before it went to Voice Mail.  My bad.  I looked down at the Caller ID window.

You got it:  Mike from Reno.

But me and Old Mike,  we’re way past the formalities of any kind of phone etiquette by now.  I pick up the receiver.

“Hey Mike!”

He doesn’t miss a beat.

“So Patrick, I talked to The Wife and it looks like we’re not gonna get by to see ya this trip, but we’ll be down real soon, okay?”

“Sorry to hear that Mike.  But give my best to The Wife and we’ll see you sometime real soon.”

“Okay, Patrick…”   Mike From Reno, ladies and gentlemen.  Let’s give him a big hand…

Good news and bad news, as I was now pretty certain that would be Mike’s last phone incursion for the evening; but had I been able to get a reservation out of him that night, I wouldn’t have to live with the Mike From Reno Sword of Damocles that will be hanging over my head until that happy day arrives when he and The Wife pack up the Pace Arrow and hit the road.

Oh God.  He’ll actually be driving.


"This Is No Hash House…"

February 2, 2010

In previous posts about “The Continuing Saga of nativenapkin” I recalled how I had finally made my move from Prep Cook to the Hot Line.  I had transitioned from an almost invisible member of the crew to a bona fide member of the restaurant social elite.  As a cook on the hot line, I partied with the Big Boys, got laid a lot, and could make waiters cower in fear. Granted these are not the best characteristics for a team player whose only interest should be providing fine food and service to our guests; but as a 20 year-old line cook my investment in guest satisfaction ended when the plates left the window.  I could give a rat’s ass if the guy’s coffee or water was re-filled, or if the dining room was clean and comfortable.  In my mind, the food was all-important; servers were just there as “plate porters,” a necessary evil because someone had to bring the food from kitchen to table.  In my mind, these people would sit on over-turned boxes at picnic tables to eat the perfection that emanated from the Hot Line pick-up window.  It wasn’t until years later that I would begin to see the Big Picture and back down from my mental pedestal.

After my somewhat unceremonious promotion to the Hot Line at Lyon’s of Napa (I know, I know.  You’re saying, “You were a cook at Lyon’s, and thought you were just the shizit?”), I stayed on the schedule as a full timer for several months until an internal Kitchen Mutiny resulted in 6 of us quitting in unison over wage demands, thinking the place would go down in flames without us.  (You can read more on this in my post “Are You…Experienced.” If you are so inclined.)   Some of us, like me, went on to other jobs; some went back to prison for the parole violation of quitting a job without having something else lined up; some just disappeared.

I made my way up the local restaurant food chain, going from fry cook at some “hash houses” to nicer “Dinner Houses”.  I was in the throes of “New Restaurant Fever” and every time a newer, more stylish place would swing its doors open, I would jump ship.  It was partially an insatiable desire to learn new techniques and dishes and elevate myself to an eventual Executive Chef’s position; it was partially the lure of the shiny new stainless steel appliances in a new place; but ultimately it was just for a new gaggle of waitresses and hostesses to bone.  Like I said, I was in my 20’s.

I worked at a couple of dinner houses.  One was a glorified Steak and Potato joint opened by the second generation of a venerable San Francisco restaurant family; one, an Italian place run by a dysfunctional local family whose only real claim to fame was the patriarch’s hand rolled ravioli and malfatti, which were the stuff of legends at Knight’s of Columbus and Catholic Church fundraisers.

After the Judgement of Paris in 1976, Napa Valley wines were beginning to receive their due, so investors thought the time was ripe for a few restaurants that were on a par with the wines being produced.  Some of my contemporaries had gone on to work at The Restaurant at Domaine Chandon when it made its splashy Napa Valley debut in 1978, propelling Napa Valley onto the Bay Area’s fine-dining radar.   This was a real, world-class dining destination in an area where the Mom and Pop Shops had held sway over the dining scene for decades. The Miramonte in St. Helena, owned by the unceremoniously deposed opening Chef at Chandon, Udo Nechutny, made some headlines when it opened about a year later;  as well as La Belle Helene, owned a raving madman of a Chef named Gregory Lyons.  And a funky little place named Chez Panisse had opened in Berkeley.  But the real buzz for the Napa Valley and the Bay Area began in earnest in 1980, when San Francisco restaurateur Claude Rouas lured Chef Masataka Kobayashi away from Le Plasir in New York’s Palace Hotel, and broke ground in Rutherford for The Auberge du Soleil.

As someone born and raised in the Napa Valley, to me the borders of civilization in those days ended at Trancas Street in the City of Napa, and didn’t start up again until you reached St. Helena.  All that was in between were prune and walnut orchards, a few bars and the Veteran’s Home in Yountville, and some vineyards that supplied the several dozen “stinky wineries” we’d been subjected to as kids when out of town relatives came to visit.  So when the Auberge opened and my former Restaurant Guru from Lyon’s, Brian Porterfield, reached out to me to apply, I was confused.  Why would someone put a restaurant, and a fine dining restaurant at that, in Rutherford of all places?  Rutherford was literally just a Post Office, a bar, and the La Luna Market (old timers may remember the sign that said La Luna Market, “The Handy Store,” on the old building that faced Highway 29 back then, before it moved down Rutherford Cross Road about a hundred yards).   If you blinked while driving through, you missed it.  But prohibitions on hillside building in The Valley weren’t yet even a twinkle in the eyes of the Board of Supervisors, and the Jaeger family had carved Rutherford Hill Road out of a rocky eastern hillside to access their aptly named, new Rutherford Hill Winery.  Monsieur Rouas had jumped on the opportunity and grabbed a chunk of the valuable, newly accessible real estate overlooking the Valley.

I was working mostly day shifts at my current posting then, so I  made my way up in the dark one night after work, about a week before the scheduled opening date.  I was heading up to apply for work with Brian, who had gotten the job as the Sous Chef.  I followed the unlit, pristine new single lane of blacktop upward, thinking it looked more like the road into a State Park than a restaurant site; and I followed the sharp curves toward the soft glow of light emanating from the new restaurant’s parking lot.  When I arrived at the entrance, I was transported to a scene that was more like Disneyland than a State Park.  The curved, terra-cotta colored walls of the building were lit by footlights, as were the mature olive trees from the original grove that covered most of the hill, and were now part of the new landscape design.  It was a surreal setting, this brightly glowing island of light in the inky blackness.  I parked and found my way to the delivery entrance off to the side, way too intimidated to just walk in the front door.

As I walked in the back door to the kitchen, I saw a huge Groen steam-jacketed kettle, the size of a Hot Tub, simmering slowly in the prep area, filled to the brim with Veal knuckle bones and Mire-Poix.  (I had no idea at the time what Mire Poix was, or what it meant; or that the controlled slow cooking of this gigantic kettle was beginning to transform the mixture of bones, vegetables and water into Fond du Veau, the source of all goodness and light when it came to sauces.)  There was a smaller, more conventional stockpot simmering on a stovetop.  It was filled with Crayfish bodies, doing the same thing to them.  I walked up and took a whiff of the steam rising from this second pot.  It was unlike anything I’d ever seen or smelled before.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but that moment was my first true “Food Epiphany,” a sudden opening of my eyes and mind to how new and different this experience was going to be for me.

Brian noticed me standing there, trying to take in food and equipment that were as foreign to me as a Martian landscape, and beckoned me over to the Chef’s office.  He was sitting on the floor just inside the door, sipping a cold Coors, and chatting with a tiny little man who was sitting at the desk with an opened book and a yellow legal pad full of scribbling in front of him.  The two of them had just finished up a 12-hour day of unpacking equipment and setting up the walk-ins and hot line.  That tiny little man was Chef Masa; the book was Le Guide Culinaire by Auguste Escoffier; and I was about to enter a whole new culinary world.

The "Holy Bible" of Cooking

Next Up: Pommes du Terre, a Wilkes-Bashford Fashion Show, and Opening Day.