Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Perfect Employee....

First.....I must cringe and apologize to the world at large, and Fresno culture in particular.

Last post I was grunting about our new client who wanted piles of food, including twice baked potatoes. I speculated about sending the Rio Grill illegals over with their heaps o' grease.

Brendan and I had a long heart-to-heart about what to do. Real food we do well, or Pretend Food From The Jetson's Kitchen?

We decided that we would do real food. The major deciding factor was that the New Dude himself had booked the party, not his wife. He may not know how to run the pool skimmer, either.....why should he necessarily know how to run the caterer?

Fact in point: Mr. Hatfield, our dearest, most easy-going guy.....has only ever booked one party himself: his own birthday party. He had a few key hors d'oeuvres, iceberg wedgie salad with blue cheese dressing, filet and potatoes......and maybe pie and ice cream for dessert. Mrs. H, who would never stoop to condescension.....laughed and went along for the ride. Normally, she takes care of the visuals.....matching the shape and color of the plates to the texture and color of the food.....and the guests, and the flowers. We are in awe, and clueless. Like Helen Keller directing a film shoot. We are not Martha Stewart, we are Jimmy Stewart.

Meanwhile........Iceberg wedgie. Go with it.....if it makes the big guy happy, we are happy. And meanwhile we about shit ourselves trying to make a decent blue-cheese dressing......

Aficionados will note the immediate appearance after the birthday party of The Blue Cheese Wedgie every week on our Monday Dinner menu.....and the best selling item, even against Brendan's bizzare, cool, high-tech salads. Named for Mr. H, of course. Naturally, we fly the blue cheese in from some obscure place in Wisconsin.....but we are capable of learning......and capable of culinary humility. There is a royalty check probably waiting for Mr. H.......

We also remembered a famous rehearsal dinner. We met the bride and groom at Holman Ranch one fall day and talked about doing something in the spring. The wedding was to be at The Beach Club, and was full on Bridezilla-Land.

We heard nothing back from them and gave it up for lost. Come spring, the groom calls us up on a Tuesday and says: "Are we all set? It looks like about 175 people."

Sure......No problem.

The guy was clueless, and had put zero thought into ''his'' part of the wedding. Meanwhile, at the Beach Club staff were suicidal under the crushing weight of the detail coming from the future Mrs. X.

We pulled our food thing together....Easy: just don't serve anything the Beach Club is serving. No problem: avoid frozen farm salmon, commercial beef, and things in cans. Still, it occurred to us that we had to break form and step up to deal with the details: the table decorations, linen, lighting, etc.

With only a TINY bit of irony and passive-aggression, I had Anne at Flowers, Ltd make us twenty centerpieces using size 14, black, high-top, Chuck Taylor All Stars basketball shoes as a base. It was a huge hit.....well, maybe not with the bride. She had a well-functioning irony meter.

Anyway.....on Sunday, we decided to ignore the host and just do our own thing. We broke the meal up into four courses! This is craziness in Pebble Beach. Akin to wearing seersucker after Labor Day.

There are rules in Pebble, established over three generations: Guests arrive on the dot. The second hand sweeps the 12 of the assigned minute, and the doorbell rings. Cocktails last 58 minutes.....max. Dinner must be served by eight o' Dinner must be over by 10 o' No one eats a single thing until they have had half a drink. Three hors d'oeuvres, max. The "Tom Lowary Rule" is in effect at all times......."Michael. Sometimes I go to a party. I walk in and give them my coat....and I have to wait twenty or thirty seconds for a drink! I ask myself: 'What the hell am I doing here?'"

Hors d'oeuvres must be bite. The must not self-destruct and fall. They must not drip. They must not stain carpets or dresses. They must not be crunchy bread! (We beat our interns senseless until they get just the right toast on the croutons.....).

Dinner is three courses: a salad or soup; entrée with veg and potato; dessert.

This all worked fine for years and years. People did not have much to say, and the food was bland and the system ran like a well-oiled watch.

Recently we started noticing changes. People interested in the appetizers.....and they only eat one of each. People on weird diets. Gotta have 8-10, minimum.....and sneak them by the hostess.

Then, people started actually talking and hanging out over dinner. Sometimes they stayed until 11! They enjoyed the meal and each other's company....Crazy, I know.

Brendan rebelled first: "Why pile the food on the entrée plate and have this confused mountain of food that just gets cold before they finish? Break it up into courses." Our service is crack....we can serve four or five courses in the space of the old three with no problem.

Still, no one would buy in. Until....the new guy. His wife was out of town....he booked it with his secretary. We are the new guys......Screw it. Let's do it right and get fired.

Meanwhile the guests were kind of scary: Bollywood film star; jazz loving Oscar winning film guy; famously cranky old-school California Democrat leader. Mr. and Mrs. H!!!

So, we did a salad first course. We gave him a break and used actual lettuce and made a recognizable salad. We snuck in roasted baby beets,though!

We found local salmon and served it over farro, with laboriously cleaned baby artichoke hearts....stem and all...from the Odello Ranch. Everyone thought that was the entrée......"Where is the beef?"

"What? Fish AND beef? Four courses?"

Brendan insisted on serving the beef on his rectangular plates. He used a Michel Bras recipe: cut the filets and line them with poached bacon before roasting; thinly sliced Yukon gold potatoes laid together and roasted to make long ribbons....

We went back to ranch basics with Gardiner's Tennis Ranch apricot souflées for dessert......passing them Russian style and bringing out more and more like the Sorcerer's Apprentice......

Result: a winner. The boss was thrilled. The gamble worked. We got in four courses and everybody got back to the jetport on time for the flight home. The boss recognized and appreciated all our weird nuances. I stand corrected for my pessimism and sarcasm. As the nuns say: "To ASSUME is to make an ASS out of U and ME...."

Meanwhile....back to the point.

Yesterday we did another NATO party on the beach at Carmel. We call it NATO because often there are squads of NATO generals and admirals at these deals. Or Pakistani and Indian generals and admirals. Our client is an NPS guy with a goal to try to stop the next war now by bringing divergent groups together......and getting them fucked up on the beach around a bonfire with our food and some big cigars.

It runs to more than 100 folks. The table talk is about living in the tribal areas of Pakistan, or the food in Pyongyang. And it is on the it is a bitch.

Tables and chairs. Plates and silver and glass. Linens. Flowers. All dragged down the 23 steps and out onto the sand. Only the hard core can do it......and the hard core are sick and tired by a Tuesday in the summer.

So.....Brendan got a new guy, George. George is the friend of a friend from Madera and recently quit his long-term job. George can't find work in the construction biz.....not so many white guys at the entry George is fresh bait for me and my Beach Parties.

George arrives on time, neat and ready to go. Fit, handsome, intelligent, ironic, cheerful. He charged the three or four tons of equipment an lumped it down to the beach with a big smile. He looked good in the chef uniform....and rolled with all the punches and conflicting demands of our gig: "Cut this.....No! Exactly like this!" "Fix that!" "Build a fire!" "Set up two Webers....and don't get dirty!" "Pass these trays, smile and be smart!" "Take the puppy for a walk!"

George did it all, and kept smiling.......

At ten, the bus comes.....and the admirals and generals go. We start lumping the shit back off the beach and up the stairs. George is right there, but I notice he is limping. Aw, shit.....I hope he didn't overdo it and screw himself up.....

"George...did you hurt your leg? Take it easy, dude."

"No....I did this on my last gig. I stepped in a hole running through the desert last knee is all fucked up. I am used to it."

Running through the desert? What job has you RUN through the desert?

Turns out George is just back from Iraq. He was a fireman, but wound up working at an airbase in Bumfuck, Iraq. Every week the insurgents would get their new coordinates and start mortaring the base and machine-gunning dudes, so they had to move the base constantly. Not far...just a few hundred yards. The base was an airstrip made up of giant steel plates camlocked together on the sand. George's job was to continually breakdown and rebuild an airstrip in the middle of the desert under constant mortar fire. "Every day was a gunfight. A gunfight in the the 120 degree heat.....building shit."

George's injury to his knee was ignored by the Army....and it just got worse and worse until he rotated out. George might get sent back....but right now he allows as how he would rather go to prison than go back. "Iraq is hell......literally hell......" This is coming from a guy from fucking Madera, California for chrissakes.......

George has been back for two months. He has not yet even found the right channel to begin to process his medical file: the knee.....oh, and the nightmares and all that normal PTSD stuff. He blushes and looks away as he mentions this as an aside.

He can't find work. All the construction crews are booked out with illegals making $10-12 an hour. Even a highly skilled, extremely fit, FUCKING IRAQ VETERAN is working for me chopping veggies and lumping boxes on the beach......on a bum knee.

And smiling......still.

In George we built a warrior. An honest-to-God, handsome, smart, resourceful, experienced.....and like Ulysses, when he got back to Ithaca....his house is full of bums eating his food, drinking his wine, and trying to screw his wife.

Regardless of the correctness of the mission we built this guy for......there has to be a better way. This is criminal.

Don't close Guantanamo yet.....I have some ideas for new tenants.


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