"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…


"Howard and Randy"

August 24, 2010

We were driving home from the Mall yesterday, listening to the local “Classic Rock” channel on the radio which, given my age, is a euphemism for the “Oldies” station. “Twilight Zone” by Golden Earring, circa 1982, comes on; and I was reminded of Howard and Randy.

Randy was an old restaurant warhorse, like myself, with whom I worked at the now-defunct St. George Restaurant in St. Helena. He was a server. I was Sous-Chef. We were both dedicated to upholding the long-standing dynamic of Kitchen vs. Dining Room; and, as required by tradition, we hated each other’s guts. The St. George, I can now admit, was no one’s ideal of a fine-dining Mecca; but I was in my first role as an official, fairly competent if somewhat slightly insecure, Sous. And as such I felt I had to wage war daily with what Chef Masa at Auberge had referred to as “The Evil Spirits”: Waiters.

Randy was fearlessly gay; I was a somewhat fearful, small-town breeder. Randy was a very intelligent, very well-read and well-spoken guy who could gut you like a fish with his comments. He was, in the parlance, a bitch. He took serious delight in baiting me with stuff like coming into the kitchen and, as he was grabbing the bottles of A-1 and Heinz 57 at the service station, says something like “The guy on Table 32 REALLY likes his steak. Ha-ha-ha-ha….”

We were at each others throats constantly; at work, anyway. After service, the whole crew hung out together, laughed, drank, and did whatever chemical compounds came our way; and the next day, just like the Sheepdog and the Coyote in the old Warner Brother’s cartoons, Randy and I would punch the clock and be back at it.

Randy also worked part-time bartending at the local Industry Bar in St. Helena, Pancho y Panchita’s Mexican Restaurant. Pancho’s, as it was known, was an intolerably bad Mexican restaurant by day; by night it was an equally intolerable Dive Bar. But, as it had one of the precious few hard-liquor licenses in St. Helena, it was the place. And it had the bonus of an owner who could provide us with the aforementioned chemical compounds. These were generally purchased and ingested in the kitchen at Pancho’s, as the cooks had gone home hours earlier. If you’d ever eaten the food there you would readily agree this was the best possible use for the facility. The food was something to definitely avoid; the employees sent out for pizza rather than eat there for free.

But, it was the after-work hangout for the kitchen, dining room, and management staff of every UpValley restaurant. If the tourists we all waited on and cooked for nightly asked about where to go for a drink after dinner, it was a Cardinal Sin for us restaurant folk to tell them about Pancho’s (or The Corner Bar in Rutherford). Those places were ours alone, and were not to be shared with anyone who wasn’t one of us.

At Pancho’s, it was the bartender’s (Randy’s) prerogative as to the musical selections that were to be played on the World’s Most Powerful Stereo System; and Randy had a massive music collection he would bring in. And so it came to be that, in 1982 along with stuff from U-2, INXS, and Talking Heads, “Twilight Zone” was one of the most-played songs there. It was that song that was playing one night when a patron, a non-local, non-restaurant guy who had somehow managed to find his way to Pancho’s, told Randy to “Turn that shit down…”

Randy, of course, responded as only he could. “Sure,” he says and, laughing quietly to himself, sashays out from behind the bar, over to the closet where the sound system lived. Looking back over his shoulder directly at the interloper, cranks the grapefruit-sized volume knob on the amp a quarter turn to the right. The volume was debilitating, and we loved it. It was the best in late-night entertainment to watch Randy be Randy.   Whenever I hear that song, I will always think of Randy working the bar, wearing his perfectly ironed satin bowling shirt, and his chrome “Steel Schnapps” hardhat, flipping the tourists the musical bird.

Randy’s running partner for years, was Howard. Howard was the Maitre’D at the St. George in those days, and remains a local legend. A gravelly-voiced queen from Georgia, at the door he had no equal. He could charm the pants off even the touchiest and most demanding of guests. In the days before Open Table’s data-based “Cheat Sheet”, Howard could remember everyone even if he hadn’t seen them in years. With the volume of his daily weed regimen, he quite understandably might not remember everyone’s names every time; but he would remember something about them from the last time. Something like, “How’s that cute little dawg of yours…” or “Still drivin’ that big Jew Canoe, bay-buh?” Or he would simply drawl out a “Hi BUH-ddy!” or a “Hey BAY-beh!” and then fake it until the name came to him. Anyone who came through that door was made to feel like they had just found a long-lost friend’s party. The guy smoked like a chimney, drank like a fish, and would do just about any drug put in front of him, and we all loved working with him.

Howard had such thick, sincere, grizzled Southern Charm, that he could say anything to anyone, and they would think it was a compliment. One night there was a party of four who had been waiting about a half-hour to be seated for their reservation. Howard approached them at the bar, told them their table would be ready in just a few more minutes. An indignant woman in the group said “Well, I should hope so. I can walk into any restaurant on Manhattan and get seated instantly…”

Howard responds with, “Well it must be because you’re such a bitch…” and bursts into an uproarious, gravelly laugh, and the rest of the group joined in. He was apparently on target with that one. The bitchy woman, looking slightly confused, chuckled nervously.

When they are finally seated at their table, Howard approaches with a bottle of a cheap Italian white to placate them. He presents it and says, more than a little sarcastically,

“We’d like you to have this for your extraordinary patience.”

The bitchy woman looks at Howard, then looks at the bottle, and replies, “What’s this? Is it any good?”

Howard tells her, “Bay-buh, it’s FREE!” and walks off. The Stuff of Legends.

Howard Lane: The Man, The Myth, The Legend...

Howard ate a New York steak every night he worked when I was at The St. George. One night, he’s cutting into his steak, standing as he always did at the service station in the kitchen, all the better to leer at the young boys on the crew. Randy is standing there with him, mooching some, and an innocent, young, male busser asks them,

“Can I have a bite of that?”

Howard’s checking the kid out from behind, looking him up and down; and Randy says,

“Play your cards right and you can have the whole thing…”

Or when the cocktail waitress that worked on Friday and Saturday nights would be standing in the kitchen waiting for appetizers, wearing whatever short, slutty dress she had selected for the evening, Randy reaches into the salad station, grabs an anchovy filét, and drops it between her feet; and Howard says, “Oh, bay-buh, look what just fell outta your poonie…”

The both of them are gone now, Howard passing away long after anyone who ever knew him thought he would, and Randy passing from a sudden illness a few years earlier. They’re in “The Twilight Zone” now, probably smoking doobs, drinking Coors, and cranking the tunes way too loud for the tourists. Fellas, this one’s for you…

"Of Travel, I've Had My Share, Man…"

June 14, 2010

“I been to Reno, Chicago, Fargo, Minnesota,

Buffalo, Toronto, Winslow, Sarasota,

Wichita, Tulsa, Ottawa, Oklahoma,

Tampa, Panama, Mattawa, La Paloma…”

Even though I’ve not completed Johnny’s full list, I will be checking  quite a few off this trip.  Our long-anticipated, on again/off again move to Atlanta, GA is finally happening and it’s a trip, in more ways than one.  Yes, Sportsfans, Nativenapkin has finally taken his show on the road.

Making that final drive away from someplace I have not only lived in for the past three years, but also have so many connections with, via family, friends and business, is rather disorienting.  I have driven down The Five dozens of times in my life, but this is only the second time in history that I have driven past the Windmill Farm near Altamont, knowing I will not be breezing back by them in a week or so, when vacation is over.  I won’t be rolling up my window to stifle the manure smell as I near Harris Ranch (Hey! Cows!), nor will I be gassing up in Santa Clarita at the top of the Grapevine before heading back up through the heart of the Central Valley.  No, like Thelma and Louise, we are going to just keep going, but we will hopefully stop just a little bit sooner than they did on our visit to The Grand Canyon later today.

So, here we are in Flagstaff, in State #2 of our Nine State Tour.  The first stop was in L.A.  Not “L.A., proper,” but the vapid and widespread area we Nor-Cals will often mistakenly refer to as L.A.:  The Valley.  Most Angelenos will bristle at having Riverside County, Pasadena, or anywhere else in The Valley referred to as “L.A.”; but to most of us who live North of Monterey, anything south of Santa Barbara is considered L.A.  (It has been only been on a couple of  rare occasions that I have experienced the real L.A. and, as much as it grinds against everything in my makeup as a Bay Area Boy to admit it, I have seen why Angelenos love their City like we do ours.)

This trip bypassed our friend Angela, the Wine Gique’s beautiful little bungalow in Larchmont Village, in favor of the Mother-In-Laws in Sun City in Riverside County.  We must have been emanating Guilt Waves both strong and wide-ranging, as she rang us as we were passing very nearby her exit.  She gave us a good and thorough tongue lashing for not coming by to stage a repeat performance of the now-legendary Coq Au Vin dinner we enjoyed the last time.

No, not this time.  We are zooming by, out to stay two nights in a La Quinta (Spanish for “Next to Denny’s”) in San Bernadino, of all places.  What a depressingly depressed area this is, with no less than three shuttered restaurants within sight of our hotel.  We had a lovely time at the M.I.L.’s, though, eating two very good meals that we prepared ourselves.  We wanted to have as many home cooked meals as possible before embarking on what was sure to be six days of fast food-franchised-formula-concept restaurant meals as we make our way across The Forty.

Here in Flagstaff which, if you listen to Yelp, Urban Spoon, or Trip Advisor, is pretty much a Restaurant Wasteland, we actually found some of the best thin-crusted pizza I have ever eaten.  A small chain called Oregano’s has an outpost here and, even though we had to help the manager clear up some fuzzy logic his POS system had imprinted on our bill, it was fantastic.  Tomorrow will hopefully be some great Southwest or Mexican during our stop in Albuquerque, then a fat-ass Rib Eye at Red Primesteak in Oklahoma City.  Memphis is our last night on the road, and I don’t think I need to tell you what we’ll be eating that night.

I think I’ll rewrite that Johnny Cash tune with new lyrics:

“I’ve eaten everywhere, man;

I’ve eaten the Rib Eye, rare, man.

Of Ribs I’ve had my share, man…”

"Deliver Me From The Warehouse…"

May 28, 2010

When we first opened the new restaurant, Chef correctly decided to get out of the Bottled Water Business and help reduce the Bigfoot-sized Carbon Footprint from the production, importing, shipping, and the pain-in-the-ass bottle recycling involved with it.  We serve our guests filtered sparkling or still water at no charge, from a very cool, compact little machine that sits on a counter top in the Wait Station. During almost two years of use and breakage, our bottle inventory has been reduced to an impractically low level, and we needed more.  We buy them from a company that has an office here in Napa, but their warehouse is over in Benicia.  Not an unmanageable distance, so I thought I’d save some time and some delivery charges and just go pick up the 10 cases we had asked for. So, breaking my own “First Rule of The Restaurant Business” to Never Volunteer, yes, I volunteered.

I had made the arrangements with the bottle company’s sales office to have our order ready on Thursday morning.  And, as I know that  doing favors of this kind, or any work-related errand that happens outside of work hours, are best done with a screaming hangover, I went out for a beverage or two the night before (Big Shout-Out to Zins Valley’s Muddled Margarita, by the way.  You have to go a ways to find a Margarita I would consider Perfect In Every Way, but theirs is!)  So with a couple of Advil and some coffee to help clear my still-cloudy brain, and proving the axiom that No Good Deed Goes Unpunished, I set out in a torrential downpour for Benicia.

This El Nino-year, raining-like-we-are-living-in-Seattle bullshit is really getting old.  I want my Springtime weather!  I have been totally Gypped out of what is probably my last springtime in The Napa Valley for some time, due to our impending move out of state.  So it’s pouring rain, and people are driving like idiots; but I’m cruising along, not even cursing, really, at the bumper to bumper backup in Jamison Canyon.  As I am heading east, I will eventually be driving out from under this deluge.  The bad news is I will have to drive back under it again when I make the return trip.  Out on 680, the lonely Luther Gibson Freeway between Cordelia and Benicia, I find myself in nearly white-out conditions from the Truckers’ Spray as I make my way past them.  I am heading for the very appropriately-named Industrial Road exit near Benicia’s refinery and warehouse district, and despite the weather,  I am making decent time.

Warehouse districts, (except the one in New Orleans) are generally in the most desolate, lonely areas possible.  Their main features are long stretches of two-lane road, interrupted only by the occasional “tuh-thump” of a railroad crossing.  The roads are lined with cyclone fences topped with razor wire, guarding long, homogeneous rows of football-field sized buildings.  Apparently, building and zoning ordinances prohibit warehouses from posting their addresses in anything bigger than four-inch, stick-on numbers from Ace Hardware and, with the rain and my Old Man Eyes, I was having a hell of a time finding this place. I was doing a back-and-forth, thinking I missed the place, driving up and down the road, looking for any clue to the location of 439 Industrial Court.  As I was retracing my route for the umpteenth time, I saw a Mail Truck making stops. I was sufficiently frustrated, to the point of throwing in the towel on my Manly-Man Instinct of never asking for directions; so I ask the Mail Carrier if he can tell me where the fuck this place is.  He peers through the pouring rain, across the street, to a row of buildings wa-a-a-ay over there, and starts in with “Well, I think it must be around the front there somewhere…” Are you friggin’ kidding me?  The Gee Dee Mailman can’t even find this place!

He’s rambling on about something now, doing a monologue he is obviously making up as he goes, trying to sound authoritative, because he, like me, just can’t admit he doesn’t know where the fuck this place is.  I have ceased listening to him as my phone is ringing in my earpiece.  I answer, and on the other end is Mr. Tracy, our Beverage Director, calling to see how my “adventure” is going.  He is smart, in that he is Smart-Phone equipped; so with his GPS talking me in, I finally arrive at my destination. God bless you, Masked Man!

The Warehouses in these Warehouse Districts are always composed of three main parts:  The Office, The Dock, and The Pallets.  Sometimes there is a desolate little lunch room, with some old Formica-topped tables and those curvy orange plastic, metal-framed chairs from the 60’s; and, perhaps a couple of vending machines selling Fanta and those little cans of hot Chef Boy-Ar-Dee Raviolis.  A place so depressing you would surely slash your wrists if you had to eat there every day; but all they have in the way of sharps are three old plastic knives, so doing yourself in will have to wait.  And there is always a bathroom in the warehouse, one that has seen no apparent janitorial services in years, other than a weekly dumping of the trash and the very occasional cursory floor mopping.

The Pallets are the pallets, row upon row of stacks of boxes, soaring to the ceiling.  The Pallet areas are always dimly lit, brightened only by the flashing amber Safety Lights of passing forklifts, driven by guys on their way to get anything except the order you are looking for.  This particular warehouse stored clean, unused, empty glass bottles, all in the same white boxes; so identification is made only by the six-digit number printed on them.  It was dizzying in its monochromatic immensity.

The Office is always equally depressing, usually lined with fake-wood paneling, a Company Wall Calendar (two years out of date), a picture of the Company Softball Team from 1971 (Second Place!); the floor is covered in really dirty indoor-outdoor type carpeting that has suffered from years of the same lack of a cleaning schedule as the bathrooms.

As you enter, there is a counter you must dutifully stand behind, waiting for someone to notice you.  The sound of the opening and closing of The Door To The Outside World alerts the nice ladies working there that, “Oh My God! Look!  There is actually somebody here besides us!” They leap to their feet like there are poisonous snakes under their desks.  Any break in their routine is welcome, and they are appropriately chatty.

There is a fine tradition in the Warehouse/Salesperson relationship of blaming each other for never doing things right.  Much as a good waiter will always blame the kitchen for fuckups of his own creation and vice versa, warehouse people will always blame the salesmen in the field when things aren’t done to their liking and by the book.  In my experience, though, it usually IS the Warehouse that knows more about the whats, wheres, whys, and hows of my order than the salespeople who took it.

So these ladies, being True To Their School, are shaking their heads and deriding my salesperson for not alerting them that I was coming, for screwing up the order, using the wrong form, and what-not.  They get on the Walkie-Talkies and rattle off something like “Jorge, can you bring up 10 cases of Whisky Tango Juliet Four Niner Seven Three?”  In a couple of minutes, I can see the flashing amber Safety Light of Jorge’s approaching forklift.   Compared to the other orders rolling by, piled two or three pallets high, my little 10-case order looks a bit sad and pathetic.  I’m almost embarrassed to have him help me load it into the back my Highlander, which looks equally sad and pathetic next to all the Eighteen Wheelers backed up to the various loading docks.  But help he does, and soon I am on my way back to The Six-Eighty, ready to drive back under the same deluge of rain I negotiated on my way over.  Lighting a smoke, I am silently thankful I never learned to drive a forklift and that I still might get home in time for a nap.

"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.

"Did you find this post: Useful? Funny? Cool?"

March 25, 2010

We couldn't be more proud...

Yelp is a scourge that needs to be purged.  As much as I hate myself for it, I  do occasionally look at our reviews on Yelp, mostly for the comic relief; but the latest one really pissed me off.

I’m not angry at the idea of someone claiming they got sick at a restaurant; happens all the time here.  People travel to Napa Valley to eat and to drink.  They often travel here on airplanes, which are basically one big incubator.  The day they arrive, they usually overdo it.  Much like your first day on a Mexican vacation, where you worship the sun for 10 hours then spend the next three days as Lobster Man in the shade of the poolside palapa, they will eat like pigs at a four course lunch when their usual fare is a salad at their desk.  Then they drink like fish in the middle of the day while visiting half a dozen wineries.  After all that, they go out to dinner, order four courses, eat their appetizer, and begin to feel ill; and think they’ve gotten “food poisoning”.   As someone who has gotten a Staphylococcus  infection (the most common type of food-borne illness, as it usually comes from someone not washing their hands) a couple of times, I can tell you it’s no picnic.  But the symptoms take between 6 to 24 hours to manifest, not the ten minutes that have passed since you ate your first course.

The higher quality restaurants here are used to the above-mentioned scenario, and generally have enough confidence in their sanitation that they let it slide, and don’t take the accusations personally.  They will take the high road, and perform their due diligence by lending a sympathetic ear, and usually refunding the guest.  But they also know that if it were a true case of a food-borne pathogen that it wouldn’t manifest immediately, as is so often the claim; and there would likely be more than just the one occurrence that night.   So let’s think a little bit deeper about the causes before you make the “food poisoning” accusation.

No, the real rub for me on this latest Yelp bullshit is the fact that these two ate three of their four courses, felt ill, paid their bill and left;  yet said nothing to anyone who could have made a difference.  The male half of this duo told their server his girlfriend wasn’t feeling well while she was in the restroom, and asked their server if he could pack up the rest of their entrees (not much left) and their desserts, and bring the check.  On the way out, I thanked them for coming, and told them I hoped the lady feels better soon.  They said thank you and left.

Yelp is a haven for those that are just looking for some attention, want to complain about something, but don’t have the balls to come forward, other than in an anonymous forum.   They will zip their lips at the restaurant, not say a word to anyone who truly has the desire to help them and address their problem at the moment.  Then they will go on-line and write their cute, funny, and “useful” review,  tell everyone how awful it was, and how the restaurant did nothing to help.

So here’s the ruling from the judges:  If you don’t say anything to anyone at the time, you have no, I repeat, no license to bitch about it later.  If you don’t give us a chance to help, you can’t complain that we did nothing.

“Why” you ask, “would you give any attention to a forum for which you have such low regard?”  The only answer I can give is that I guess it’s that proverbial last straw.  This one sticks in my craw worse than others I have seen about the restaurant and, trust me here, I have seen some doosies.  I debated long and hard about whether or not to respond; as well as where and how.  Hence this post, and not a direct reply to the reviewer on Yelp’s site, as that would only bring out the rest of the Trolls.

While there are some well written and well thought-out posts on Yelp, they are few and far between.  Their impact  is diminished by the majority that are just vindictive dreck.

The name says it all.  Here is the definition of “yelp” from Princeton University’s online dictionary:


(noun)  a sharp high-pitched cry (especially by a dog).

(verb)  to bark in a high-pitched tone. “the puppies yelped”

Getting Gassed at The Mus-(re)-tard Festival

March 15, 2010

This past weekend saw Downtown Napa hosting one of the main events of the two-month long “Mustard Festival” which has firmly established itself as one of those good ideas gone bad. The Mustard Festival was started in the early 90’s as a way to generate some business in the “slow season” here in Napa Valley.  Mustard flowers, originally planted as a cover crop to hold topsoil in place during winter rains, come into bloom as soon as we get a few sunny days and turn the still dormant acres of grapevines into seas of golden blossoms.  So someone decided that maybe more tourists would come to see them if there was a party involved, and the Mustard Festival was born.  Originally held on a single weekend at the end of February, it has now turned into two months of events like marathons, photo contests, winery-hosted parties and other marketing ploys that start after President’s Day weekend and continue well into March.

The festival, especially the “Marketplace” weekend, has morphed into a drunkfest, filling hotels and eateries with crowds of people who feel that coming to Napa is a license to drink like a fish and act like morons (or more of a moron, as drunken idiots are usually idiots to start with).  They act as if  “what happens in Napa, stays in Napa” which is, for the most part, true.  But we who live and work here, and have had the unpleasant task of cleaning up your vomit the last time you visited, also “stay in Napa”.  So “what happens in Napa” will be waiting for you when you return; and we will most certainly remember you even if you don’t remember what you did.

This unfortunate transformation has posed a real dilemma for restaurants in the area over the past few years.  Do we take part in the event, show up and dole out tastes of our food and wine to the throngs of people hoping they will pick up a menu or business card and maybe visit the restaurant for a full meal later?  And will the wineries pass on what would appear at first glance to be a golden “marketing opportunity”?  Many of us have learned there is too little of a return for manning a table and giving away thousands of dollars worth of free food and/or wine.   After a couple of years of the drunken masses sticking a glass in our faces and demanding “Red!” or “Chard!” without so much as making eye contact or really giving a rat’s ass what they are eating or drinking, we have taken a pass on participation in the “Marketplace”.  We have learned that the vast majority of attendees are not interested in any details about our food, or in joining a wine club.  Their primary, driving motivation every year is eating and drinking as much as they possibly can to get their $40 worth, and then bitching wildly about it when they feel they haven’t.

Even those of us who don’t participate have to deal with the run-off crowds of drunks at 5:30 when the Marketplace ends, and this year was no exception.  We were fully booked on Saturday, with almost 90 reservations.  Saturday nights have more ups and downs than Chrysler stock, with people canceling and booking at the last minute.  I usually overbook by a table or two because of the strong possibility of 9:00 no-shows, and I am always ready to sell the menu to people who pop their heads in the door at opening.  Getting a table, any table, in at 5:30 is like finding money.  I have, however, learned a valuable lesson about drunk diners and having to go through the uncomfortable song and dance of cutting people off:  if you don’t let them in, you don’t have to worry about cutting them off later.

Two guys have walked in just as we are opening the doors, and they are hammered.  They are either the the drunkest of the group, and as such, were easily convinced (or volunteered) to find some place for the rest to eat. Or, equally frightening, they are the most sober of their group and were chosen as the envoys because the rest are unable to speak coherently.  Either way, all I can see is a Lose-Lose by letting these two and the rest of their merry band in the door.

“Can I help you gents?”

“Could we speak to the Manager?” My hostess had already told them we are booked, but they felt going up the ladder would help their case.

“That would be me…”

“So, you’re the Manager?”  Slurred speech, elevated voices, questionable equilibrium.  Oh, boy.

“Yes, how can I help you?”

“We had a reservation for 7.”

“Seven o’clock?”

“Shevven pee pull…”

This is when I love having the awesome power of the Open Table database at my fingertips.  “What’s the name on the reservation?” I ask, knowing full well this is all bullshit and I have no seven tops on the book.  He gives me a name, I type it in the search box, letter for letter.  Not in the system.  LLPOF, you drunk mo-fo.

“Sorry gents, there’s nothing under that name and I am completely booked tonight.”

“Well, we’re from El Dorado County, and we came on down for the Mustard Festival this weekend…” he continues, unabashed.

His wingman on this mission has decided he needs to take the wheel here, and he chimes in with, “Listen, I own a Chevy dealership in Auburn and I need a party of seven tonight.  Can you do anything for me?”  Oh my!  A Chevy dealership!  Well, why didn’t you say so in the first place?  That’s an El Camino of a different color altogether…

“Sorry guys, but I’m full.”  And now you can leave, as my early reservations are beginning to arrive.

“So you’ve got 15 tables and they’re all booked?”

“No, I have 23 tables and they’re all booked.  Sorry…”

“Would this make a difference?” Wingman asks, literally waving a Franklin under my nose, as if it was coated with magic smelling salts that would make me snap to and do whatever he wanted.   While I have no moral problem with taking a discreetly palmed C-note from a guest as a thank you for special considerations, I have no patience with people who think I will dance to whatever drunken tune they are calling just because there’s money involved.   I might be cheap, but I’m not easy, and this guy is a douche besides.  I resist the very strong urge to unload on this dolt by telling him what function that hundo might serve the next time I need to use the Men’s Room.  Instead I just give him my best Maitre’ D stink-eye, shake my head,  and say quietly, “No it wouldn’t (you retard).”

So these two, suitably rebuffed, finally give up and stagger off.  Next!

A woman who was in with a party of six the night before has returned with her boyfriend.  She left her camera in the Ladies’ Room and has been in twice already, bugging the hotel desk to check Lost and Found.  They obliged both times and found nothing.   Now she wants me to stop what I’m doing, go to Housekeeping and check for a third time, like I have some magic ability to make her camera reappear.   Instead, I take down her name and phone number and promise to look later (I won’t).  I tell her I’ll call her either way.  I’ll wait a few hours and then call and tell her I couldn’t find it; and that I’m really sorry she was so stupid, and got so drunk she couldn’t keep her shit together.  She gives me an exasperated “thank you” and they leave.  Next!

The boyfriend comes back a couple of minutes later with that sheepish look of embarrassment by association, hands me a twenty and thanks me for putting up with her.  No problem dude;  I only had to deal with her  for a few hours.  You get her 24/7, and good luck with that.

And that’s the real lesson here:  there is really not enough money in the world to make dealing with drunken assholes a profitable enterprise for me or the business.  The real rub is that I probably could have squeezed the party of seven in, but they would no doubt prove themselves to be as obnoxious as I already suspected they were, disrupt the entire dining room and piss off the majority of my other tables for the better part of three hours; and, in the end, it would just not be worth it.

Maybe I need to find a different line of work; or maybe just a different place to do it.  Somewhere that has some other reason for people to visit besides getting hammered. Whichever the case, I am finding myself increasingly impatient when it comes to dealing with people who don’t know when it’s time to say when and go to bed.  And I have really come to enjoy the power of being able to turn off the taps on them.