Served: The Hook-Up
I blog by day and wait tables in a New York City restaurant by night. I'm excited to bring you Served, dispatches from the front of the house. Enjoy!
The restaurant owner’s parents had flown in from Texas. After all, their son B. was opening his first restaurant, in Manhattan. They sat on table one, which had yet to be designated table one. It was our second night of service, and we were still ruminating about how to classify our tables and split them up into waiter stations.
Yet somehow, it happened that I was to wait on B.’s mom and dad. They seemed thoroughly easy-going and amiable, yet I was mildly terrified. They made maybe the seventh assemblage whom I had served, and I felt ill-equipped to wow them. I hoped I wouldn’t spill their Hungarian wine or cheerfully relay flawed cheese info.
It turned out to be painless. They had come in the previous night, too, and decided on evening number two to order what they had not eaten on night number one. B. introduced me, talked to them, and relayed their wine order to me. I scribbled down the rest of what they wanted and uneventfully brought it to their table.
“Make sure to show me their check,” B. said, “before you drop it.” In the early days, we were computer-free. I diligently recorded what they ordered and added up the damage. We kept losing the calculator that would tell us what was 8.725% of the bill—tax.
When the time came, I handed the check-in-progress to B.. Next to the three dollar olives and mustard miso pickles, he scribbled “comp.” In other words, B. bought his parents six bucks worth of freebies. “That’s it?” I asked, surprised. I was expecting a more drastic rewrite of their check. But that was it.
To Comp or Not To Comp
B.’s philosophy, I think, was that he was just opening his first, little place; friends, family, our initial (and almost instantaneously loyal) customers, even investors were expected to support us financially when they came to drink and eat and grace us with their presence. Our gifts to them tended to be eight dollar nibbles rather than eighty dollar bottles of wine.
But that was not always the case. Old friends, old bosses, the occasional industry person we wanted to impress might get a dazzling array of food, cheese, meats and beverage pairings.
I learned to keep the wine glasses of certain friends and regulars full. And it only made sense to send the couple who owned an adored dessert restaurant an extra dessert or two. I learned that it is better to bestow something extra as a sign of appreciation: a snazzy dessert wine, some truffles, then it was to simply discount the check
New Year's Eve Eve
The last time I came to eat and drink at my restaurant, it was December 30th. We would close for the next two days for New Year's. It was late, and brutally cold outside. My friend who I had dragged along with the promise of cheese, the staff, and I were the only people inside.
I was craving some la tur. It’s a mixed milk cheese: sheep, cow and goat. It tastes like buttery cheesecake. We ordered three cheeses, la tur among them, and J. came back with five. “They’re not going to make it til Friday,” she said, gazing at the cheeses, “and I didn’t want them to go to waste.” My friend was all about the wasabi pickled green beans that we sometimes serve with gorgonzola picante. I couldn’t get enough of the silky, herbaceous pecorino toscano which J. brilliantly paired with sage pesto.
And then, the cook slid a chocolate cake in front of us, dousing it in heavy cream.
“No you didn’t!” I said, scooping up a bite. My friend got props for knowing intuitively to roll around the cake in the cream, letting it get nice and soggy.
The bubbly wines would go flat in 48 hours, so we finished those off, too. J. gave me two open bottles of rosé to take with me. They would be good tomorrow but no good by Friday. “They should go to a good home,” J. insisted. My stomach was certainly a good home.
Out and About
An old friend, a cook, came into town last night before heading off to Spain to work in a kitchen there for nine months. Where should I take him? I deliberated obsessively.
I settled on the sister restaurant of where I used to work, a bistro with solid food, kickass gnocchi, and a chef who loves me (I love him too, of course). The maître d’ is a regular where I work now, as is the sommelier; the general manager used to be my boss. The place feels like home.
The bartender poured me sparkling rosé while I waited for him. They brought more sparkly wine to the table, a basket of the best, fluffiest gougères I have tasted, and menus. We ordered sparingly, as the kitchen would send us what we had failed to ask for: their homemade mozzarella, duck and foie gras rillettes, tuna carpaccio. And all was well with the world.
I wanted to go back to my restaurant for some chocolate cake, but no way were we getting out of their without dessert. Crème brulée, chocolate fondue, and a couple of glasses of scotch later, we left happy, full and tipsy.
I would never deliberately hook up someone with the intention of going to where they work and getting some love in return. But in a more inconspicuous and loose way, that is exactly how the biz works. Cooks make little money, but they are sure to get some capital in pork belly or risotto in the small New York restaurant world. I want to send a manager at a great restaurant down the street our new chicken liver dish. I know she will love it.
When J. and I went out to eat a few weeks ago, we picked a spot where we knew a cook and the wine director. That scallop dish and the tart, nutty white that they paired with it rocked, as did the warm greeting, friendly faces, inside jokes, and conviviality we exchanged.
One of my favorite parts of working in a restaurant is getting to meet people from other restaurants. It’s getting to see what they do, and getting to eat somewhere the big perk of being a sort of VIP. And it’s just as cool being on the other side: making someone’s night with a little bowl of stuffed peppadews, a splash of sparkling shiraz, and some love.