My Friend Marcel....
Last month we were super busy.....no way to even much answer emails, much less write.
Normally, Christmas is slow for us....we hate fucking Christmas as the ultimate hypocrisy (great idea....bad execution, and the whole thing is supposed to be in March!), and strongly resist working on the cheap for doctors and lawyers for their one token party per year to pay back all the expensive dinner parties folks have treated them to all year.
Our hatred of Christmas is deep, wide and multi-faceted.
Personally, the boys and I recoil from the concept after our experience in 1993. The wife took off four days before Christmas with no notice while we were at a soccer match. We came home to an empty house, empty bank accounts, and no dogs. Still wrapped presents under the tree, though. I got to deal with heartbroken, weeping children for months.....but I still have the presents. Still wrapped.
Strike 2 for Christmas was the infamous Starlite International employee Christmas party.
Starlite was a network marketing outfit that rose from the ashes of Cambridge. Get your friends to buy this shit and you can retire to the Kona Coast. Nutritional supplements, I think. Because Starlite wouldn't pause production for a morning, we had to feed the workers in shifts starting at 10:45 am.....and lasting all the way to 2:45 pm. We set up a buffet in the lobby on Garden Road, blessed with Christmas music from a DJ with giant speakers.
And apparently only one CD.....Nat King Cole and Natalie Cole Christmas songs.
I have heard recently that the CIA uses Black Sabbath, Kiss and Metallica to get Al Qaeda to confess stuff at Guantamo. Fuckers blew it....the needed Nat and Natalie. They should call me....I have the DJ's number....after two hours of this stuff we were ready to confess to the Black Dahlia murder. After four hours we were all ready to volunteer for suicide missions anywhere.
I went up to the DJ at one point and asked if he didn't have the Eminem Christmas album. Joke. Irony.
"Eminem......He is disgusting!"
The corker was when the CEO came through dressed in a Santa suit with his trusty companion, Kurt the beautiful, large and malevolent Alsatian. Santa handed out candy canes to his African and Latino workers (Oh, goody! The Boss smiled at me!) and admonished them not to disturb Kurt unduly.
Strike 2.5 might have been this year when we did another employee Christmas party for a giant golf/real estate/fake environmental thing on an historical ranch in Carmel Valley. The AA's who booked the party insisted on a 100% American menu....with a veggie option. We suggested beef, a stuffed portabella, and maybe some tamales dulces or pavo mole also. Their was plenty of money in the budget.
"No.....Nothing Mexican! We want a real American Christmas."
Of the resulting 175 workers for the meal......160 were Latino. Maybe 60 were comfortable enough to speak English to us on the line.....
"Lo siento...no hay salsa. Este cosa se llama "horseradish con crema". Pica. Es como salsa para gabachos."
"Merry Christmas, you fucking wetbacks! You'll eat American food....and be grateful!"
Normally we serve about 10 people per quart of any given dish. 175 people.....18 quarts of gorgeous wild rice salad with cranberries, pumpkin seeds, currants, etc. 18 quarts of organic French green beans with mint. 30 quarts of mashed potatoes, and gallons of really nice mushroom gravy.
The workers ate TWO quarts of wild rice....about a grain per person. Maybe six quarts of green beans.
Merry Christmas.....the chickens in Cachagua were really festive.
Strike 3 for Christmas was one Christmas Eve at Macy's fifteen years ago. Something technical of ours had broken, and I had to run into the housewares department for a knife or a pan or a blender or some such. In and out, and on to Maggi Weston's....where he have spent the last 30 Xmas eves.
While paying for my blender/knife/pan I ran into Milton Bonilla....one of my star soccer players from Seaside. Milton's family is from El Salvador, and his older brother Walter was the best player ever to play in Seaside or Monterey. Despite my hurry to get out and get to Maggi's, the look of despair and desperation on Milton's face stopped me in my tracks.
"Milton, what's wrong?"
"Oh, Coach.....I have to get a present for my mother. I don't know what to do. I only have eighteen dollars....."
Milton and his family live in a converted motel room off Canyon Del Rey across from what is now Chile's. Eight to ten folks, Dad works as a cook at the yacht club on Wharf 2. Milton was 11 at the time. When not in school or on the soccer pitch, Milton sits in the little apartment and watches TV. For six weeks the kid had been bombarded with Xmas ads......what you give is how much you love. A Lexus with a big bow for the black family.....A diamond of a carat or more.
The message had sunk in with Milton. Message delivered. His eighteen dollars....in the face of the gale force of modern corporate advertising had let him know exactly what is love for his mother was worth....and what he was worth by extension. The expression on his face was the reflection of the seismic shift taking place in the boy.
Love mom with my whole heart and soul. Eighteen bucks don't mean shit.
Of course.....I downed tools. Blew off Maggi because I knew she would cry at the story after she stopped screaming at me for being late......Milton and I went up to the third floor and bought Mom a cashmere sweater. It wasn't the money.....it was soft as her kisses, and her favorite color.....rich and vibrant, just like the space her hard work and love created in their little apartment. Bob Cratchett....stand back!
Anyway....despite our antipathy, we were super-busy this year. The recession must have dropped whatever businesses used to do down to our price-point. I am thinking that lots of these folks used to go to restaurants....bad news for my restaurant buddies.
So, back to the point.........Last night, our Jenny was telling a story about working at From Scratch and some disappearing eggs. Jenny is in the Hall of Fame of local bartenders, having survived 14 years at the Running Iron. She now works three jobs...two for us....and is going to school full-time to become a nurse.
Her story about the disappearing eggs at From Scratch immediately made me think of Marcel.....
And.....I just now see that I started a post on Dec 13th....also about my friend Marcel, the waiter.
Marcel and I worked together at the Colony in New York City back in the day.....1971.
The Colony was an old school place....Truman Capote, Jacque Kennedy kind of place. Salvador Dali, Tricia Nixon Cox, Andy Warhol.............Cordelia Biddle Duke Robertson even.
Here is the kind of old school The Colony represents: my son gave me a Christmas present of a book about the history of New York restaurants. The Colony and I are about two thirds of the way through the 300 year history of NYC restaurants. OLD school.
Billy Joel was our piano guy. Really. He wrote the song at the Colony with us on long, despairing broke summer nights in 1971.
Marcel was a French guy....very slim and very short....maybe 5'7" and 110 pounds. He favored the big lapelled tuxedos he found in the basement locker room of the 70 year old restaurant.....and Marcel always went to work armed. He had a little .22 automatic with six rounds in the magazine that snuggled right up next to his corkscrew. Those big lapelled tuxes had an inside pocket virtually designed for a piece.....but that is another story.
I was befuddled why I started writing about Marcel in December in the middle of the rush. Something about disappearing eggs at a cocktail party.....
Marcel was the consummate professional. He could deal with all, every and any situation that could arise in a dining room filled with celebrities.
Marcel was from Marseille and started working in restaurants when he was twelve. He got his first big break when he landed a job at sixteen at a cafe on the Champs Elysee in Paris as a commis de suite.
In French dining rooms the waiters work in teams: a commis de suite and a commis de rang. A waiter and a runner. The waiter...the commis de rang....never leaves the station. The rang, pronounced "wrong". He takes the orders, fusses and does all the sidewalk monkey work. The commis de suite....the runner.....delivers the orders to the kitchen, deals with the chefs, and brings the food back to the station. Typically, the commis de rang has a guerridon (a war wagon) which is a rolling cart he uses to serve all the meals. Dishes are delivered on silver platters to the guerridon. The commis de rang moves the dishes from the platters to individual plates with flair and little touches, and the two partners serve the meal.
The commis de rang is the senior partner. He makes probably four or five times the money of the runner. There is a captain above both commis, and a maitre d'hotel above the captains, so the flow of tips is a trickle when it gets to the commis de suites. Truth be told, there are awesome commis de suites who earn as much as the waiters or even captains...but it is only age, experience, politics and flat out speed that allow this to happen. And the ability to produce the only thing that matters to waiters......major tips.
So....back to Marcel on the Champs Elysee.
As a new guy, albeit with a connection that got him the job to begin with....Marcel got the worst station with the worst tip situation. His station was all the way out by the sidewalk. The cafe had an inside area, an upper level deck, an intemediate deck.....and the sidewalk deck. This meant that Marcel had to run up two flights of steps and all the way through the restaurant to the kitchen....four or five times for each table, two meals a day, a hundred covers per meal. He made.... for a full day's work....the price of two beers in the cafe, although he had a room in the dorm and three crappy meals per day.
I was Marcel once....only in Austria. I have lived this life.
Even though it was a shitty station....Marcel and his waiter still had their regulars. Business guys would pop in daily for coffee, an omelette, a light lunch, a couple of pops....and some time to read the papers and correspondence from the office. Steady, predictable, kind...good tippers. Plus all the tourist douche bags. Heaven and Hell.
One day, the ultimate thing happened for a commis de suite: the waiter called in sick at the last minute. No way to get a replacement....Marcel stepped up and told the captain and the maitre d' that he could cover the station.
This was a huge chance to show off his skills and make some serious dough. Like the rookie pitcher being called in to pitch in Yankee Stadium in relief in the 15th inning.
Marcel rose to the occasion. He polished his shoes, brushed down his jacket, slicked back his hair and got pumped. He took the orders, delivered the drinks, ran the food...sprinting like a maniac up the two sets of steps, through the other stations, through the indoor restaurant....and navigated the craziness of the kitchen to protect his folks.
Marcel ran like a nut....but when he got to his station, he shifted gears......slowed down, and transformed from commis de suite into commis de rang. He was calm, smooth, contained.....attentive. And he had flair.
And he was making major dough.
As always each day....M. Blanc arrived for his table just in the nook of the last set of steps down to the sidewalk. M. Blanc owned this table...the way he owned a major seat on the Bourse. He arrived every day at precisely 11:45 and had precisely the same order: Vichy water, Ricard, omelette aux fines herbes, cafe. M. Blanc always left by 1pm.....and was ritually generous with his gratuity.
Day of.....Marcel was ready for M'sieur. Had the Vichy and Ricard all ready on his side station.
Marcel reassured M. Blanc that all was cool without the waiter, and brought him his water, drink and paper. Marcel had already set up the order, so when he raced back to the kitchen it was already fired and he jumped to the head of the line to pick up.
Marcel held the silver tray with the omelette over his shoulder as the dodged the kitchen melee, through the doors and through the chaos of the inside dining room.....down the steps to the first terrace, held held high....perfect posture.
Down the steps to the sidewalk...guerridon waiting next to M. Blanc's table.... anticipating the turn at full speed with the platter ever so.....
And the omelette aux fines herbes slid off the silver platter on the turn.....
And dropped directly into the side pocket of M. Blanc's suit jacket.......
M. Blanc was engrossed in his Paris Match....
Marcel had a decision:
Grovel as the incompetent, over-reaching commis de suite failing..... his big chance to cover the spot of the missing commis de rang....what could one expect?
Race back to the kitchen.
Elbow aside all the other "suites".....
And get a new omelette.
Through the restaurant, head held high.....
Down the steps to the first terrace.....
Down the steps to the sidewalk with the silver platter held ear-high ever so.....
To the waiting guerridon....
Where he moved the gorgeous omelette aux fines herbes from the sliver to the plate and laid it before M. Blanc with as much elan as any waiter ever in the history of France.
"M'sieur....May I get you anything else?"
"Perhaps a coffee in a few minutes. Merci bien......"
Back to work. All good. Check paid, generous routine tip.....
Strikeout on a 3-2 count with the bases loaded in the 16th inning.
One only wonders what M. Blanc thought when he got back to the office and reached for his keys......
So....now I remember what brought Marcel to mind last month.....
I served an hors d'oeuvre to an old guy at a nice party.....bone marrow with some local chanterelles. The guy grabbed the bite, and as he guided it to his mouth everything dropped off the crouton directly into his pocket....marrow, chanterelles, butter...the works.
The guy mowed the crouton.
"Delicious. You are the best, as always....."
And our Jenny....working her third job at From Scratch at breakfast on Sunday. Plate of eggs, slammed, not enough time or help......she is both the commis de suite and commis de rang every day of her life in all three jobs....
Jenny turns quickly....busts through the door and out to the regular customer in his place by the stairs.
When she arrives......no eggs on the plate.
Jenny goes back to the kitchen....
And laughs hysterically with the Mexican chef about the missing eggs....
Restaurant People live in a different Universe than Normal White People.
We have a different God.....
And I love Her....... Sense of Humor.
Props to Marcel.....Wherever you are.
I was reminded of Marcel tonight while serving a clueless older guy at a cocktail party. Chanterelles with bone marrow.....the guy took the canape, tried to study it, and dropped both the chanterelles and the bone marrow into the pocket of his blazer as he struggled with the appetizer.
What to do? Tell him about it.....or get over it and move on?
Omelette in the pocket. Cab to the elevator.