Served: Party Season: Laughter and Tears, Over Cookies


Hannah Howard has worked in several restaurants, but she's made the switch to the grocery side of the industry. She's now a cheesemonger for a small market chain, and will share her experience here.

20080616-servedbug.jpgWe are a tiny restaurant with a tiny staff, a postage stamp sized kitchen, and a huge garden. Which means people want to book weddings for 120 guests. Since our food is intricate and labor-intensive—no steak on this menu—this is uniquely, laughably challenging. But we do it, and we do it well.

I can count the number of employees on two hands. Our packed party schedule, along with regular dinner service, means no one is getting much sleep these days. I played hooky during brunch last week, but Micky hasn't had a day off in 14 days and counting. He wraps up work at midnight at the earliest, and returns back to the kitchen at 10 a.m., at the latest. His eyes are starting to glaze over. I worry about him.

I'm tired too. I'm writing this a day late. My eyes are struggling to focus on the computer screen, but my brain is faring worse. I'm out of 14-hour day practice myself.

Last night was our fifth party in two weeks. A sweet, chatty couple had decided to pay to close the restaurant and host their wedding rehearsal dinner with us.

I like watching the vastly different circles of people at our parties. We've had prim ladies who lunch, overgrown frat boys, nerdy medical students, and librarians. Last night's bunch was set on having a good time. They arrived early and beelined for the bar. Shots were thrown back, more rounds ordered.

Sometimes the servers walk around endlessly with full trays of canapes—no one is biting. Picky eaters and dieters abound. Last night, the situation was quite the opposite. One foot out of the kitchen and party guests were pouncing on kaffir lime shrimp and piquillo chicken skewers. The kitchen was turning out more, more, more, and more. It was nice to see how much they enjoyed our food. Or at least scarfed it down.

Dinner was served. Orders were taken for the entree: wild Alaskan salmon with heirloom chickpeas; poached chicken breast wrapped around dark meat chicken confit; braised and glazed short ribs with wheatberries. Everyone ate greens and herbs with vergus-roasted beets, and fresh sweet corn polenta (a.k.a. the Platonic ideal of corn—it elicits actual gasps).

Then the main course. Later, Micky and I decided our strategy wasn't the best. We gave the kitchen an order for all the 42 guests at once: 15 salmon, 15 short ribs, 8 chickens, and one lonely vegetarian. So the salmon went out. Beat, beat. Then the chicken. Then another few beats.

A walk through the dining room calmed my fear that the food was moving a bit slowly. The small room was reverberating with laughter. The guests were drinking, smiling, and clearly enjoying themselves. They loved the food; it was easy to see that.

As time for dessert approached, I asked the host (a nervous mom) how she wanted to proceed. We had a giant, fluffy cake waiting in the walk-in. I had also been told they would bring cookies, but as far as I knew our restaurant was cookie-free. Perhaps the mom had stashed them somewhere, so I inquired.

The loud dining room went quiet; the mom's smile turned instantly to fury.

"There are no cookies?" she screamed, "Why didn't you call me?"

"I'm sorry," I said, "I didn't know to expect them."

Our guests sometimes bring dessert to such events. As we have no real pastry program, we allow it. Last party, three different guests arrived with tiny cupcakes and cream puffs and raspberry tarts. The tarts came out of a beautiful red Louis Vuitton bag, which our staff very much admired.

My head was zooming with coordinating toasts and numbers and table arrangements and seating numbers. The cookies didn't really cross my mind.

I got a verbal beating in front of the party. I had ruined the night, she informed me (and everyone else). If I had alerted her earlier about the cookies' absence, she could have made a move. They were supposed to be delivered with the cake. She would have called the bakery and given them, too, a piece of her mind, but now it was too late. The bakery was closed. I was stupid. Amazingly stupid. Record-breaking stupid. This was a big failure. I had taken her big night and turned it into a terrible mess.

And then, there was more! Debbie arrived from a photo shoot to be greeted by her fuming husband.

He took us outside and yelled more. How could we run a business like this? This was the biggest disaster he had witnessed in several decades. The salmon and the chicken and the short ribs came out not all at once, but one at a time. Unbelievable. Disgusting. Unforgivable.

I went to tell Micky what had unfolded. I hate conflict, I hate being yelled at. And that was probably the most intense yell I ever received.

He laughed. "They waited five minutes! Less! What's the problem?" I know he was right, and that Mr. Angry was way out of line. But I thought about the cookies, and felt like a failure.

Debbie worked her magic. She talked to the pissed-off lady and her pissed-off hubby, and told stories. Turns out she and the mean man were from the same small town. Turns out he used to own a big box kind of catering hall, with lots of frozen food. The antithesis of what we do. She actually got him to laugh.

Micky went out to talk to the bride and groom, who had chosen our restaurant because they love his food. The snarly man watched as guests enthused:

"Can I have your card? Those were the best short ribs I had in my life."

"We love your polenta! We're coming back to eat here all the time."

Micky and Debbie turned everything around. Mom and Debbie actually hugged goodbye!

The party, despite all that, was a tremendous success. But I left feeling a little wounded. "Are you OK?" one of my servers asked me. Sort of.

And now, time to go to work. Tonight: a wedding. Tomorrow: Father's day brunch. Monday: first day off in what feels like forever.

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