(Blogger’s Note: Every Friday an excerpt from the soon to be published book, Faux Pas is French for Restaurant appears on this blog).
While be verbally instructed on the menu, and at the same time informed that there wouldn´t be a printed version that evening, I realized I was the only waiter in the pre shift meeting. I was given a pad of paper, a golf pencil, ten numbered guest checks, and a pep talk on what a great night it was going to be. "Chef Cobb", explained each item on the non printed menu with the verbal flare of an instructor at the Culinary Institute.
Even though I didn´t know how to order food, and was too stupid to ask, I was excited about the upcoming evening. There wasn´t a computer system in the house. No credit cards. Cash only. No banks. I was instructed to take the check to Kelly or Capra, as they were making change and checking orders. They assured me everything was going to be fine. But none of these small items mattered because I didn´t have any experience with any of them anyway.
And we never did discuss pay. I was too anxious to ask, for fear that they would tell me that I didn´t have the experience to get paid. And, they would´ve been right. I did know that at the end of the night, I would be the best waiter, no matter what happened and that meant I would have my job for at least two days. As a matter of fact, I was the only waiter, there fore making me a self-appointed floor supervisor. My resume was shaping up nicely.
Before any customers came in each one of my bosses complimented me on my superb dining room and wait station set-up. I still don´t know if they were being serious, sarcastic, or just attempting to appease me so I wouldn´t walk. As the only waiter, I am sure looking back they were just kissing my butt in an appeasing attempt to get me to not freak out and walk. I never assumed at the time I would ever use the same tactics in nearly the same situation. I learned early on when in dire wait staff straights you can always grab the first well groomed, decent looking person walking by and probably get through the shift. But that didn´t matter to me then. I was more concerned with my ability to take orders, communicate them to Chef Cobb, who had managed to change personalities once behind the stove, and deliver the food before I blew my cover.
"Hello, Welcome to Allen´s. I will be your waiter this evening. Recently I was robbed, dumped, and crushed, by my girlfriend, just last week. I have never done this before, so please bear with me. Sos-ya-know, there´s no dishwasher, prep cook, or real chef in the kitchen, just John Cobb, Bill Kelly, and Bill Capra, to assist if you need anything. Could I take your drink order before I tell you what is on the menu that isn´t printed yet?"
As I would learn by 6:30, Cobb´s description of the menu was more virtual than actual. His culinary presentation suffered through the process of preparation. The food was artistically presented for the early eighties. Cobb´s plate design was ahead of its time. Each plate came out with the New York Society Saloon garnish of the twisted orange slice atop a piece of Chicory. But Cobb had secret artillery when it came to the meals at Allen´s. His julienned candied carrots saved every plated entrée and had people begging, actually offering to pay extra, for the delectable delight that eventually became a plated standard and on some four tops, a special order side dish
The smoothness of the evening eventually ruffled with the first order of Veal Picata. Noticing that the veal the chef was pounding to fill the two orders resembled pork, I foolishly mentioned that he may have made a mistake with his menu description. Bluntly harsh, the Chef explained that he wrote the menu description, prepared the meal and he knew exactly what he was doing. My job was to tell the customer what he told me. I learned that day that chefs run the kitchen as he nicely told me to go screw myself in the style of one who went to Andover Academy. I thought at the he may have failed the pork course.
My concern focused on the couple that ordered the meal more than the chef preparing it. When I eventually served the Veal Picata the heavy set, less than muscular, Italian looking guy, and his overly made-up girlfriend mentioned that the veal tasted like pork. I told them I would speak to the chef about that. Conveying the message to Cobb was difficult as he was swamped with orders. He simply told me to "Tell Frank that it was in fact one of the highest quality veal that you could find in New York City."
I apologized to the nice couple and never went back to the table again except to present the check. I would later learn that Frank was an invited guest and that Cobb had in fact made a slight mistake on his chilled drawer grab into the pork rather than the veal section. The pork picata would occasionally appear on the menu. A trademark dish of sorts.
Stammering, stuttering, tripping over my words and full length apron became my opening act routine that first night. All the while using honesty rather than bull proved positive with the customers. Thanks to friends, family, a handful of inquisitive customers, and a lot of people who lived in the building, the night was successful. I look back on it frequently, as it really was the beginning of my career in both restaurants and life. In a very short time I had found a home, four mentors, and $126.00 to keep the lonely lint in my pocket company.