The busiest nights in a restaurant and bar can be predictable. The holidays? Sure. But there are some other events that coincide with a busy night. At my restaurant, any artistic or theatrical event equates to a busy night, as do conventions. But every so often, out of no where are we all blindsided, never having realized that what we were calling slow, was simply the calm before the storm.
It was a weekday -let’s say Wednesday- and I was walking through the back door of the kitchen. Typically, I am greeted with half a dozen cooks prepping for the evening. Each looks up at me to say hello while dicing, whipping, cleaving and carving the evening’s ingredients; Pantera gently blaring on the boombox beside with salamander. I usually spout out two “what ups!” there “holas“ and on occasion, a “ciao“. Perhaps it’s because I am a bartender, and to the kitchen I am a walking imperial pint of beer, but I’d like to say that they are all genuinely happy to see me.
Motive notwithstanding, I look forward to entering through the back kitchen and being welcomed. So, you can imagine how shocked I was to open the back door and be mid-hola to find that no chef was to be found. I stepped in, slowly closing the door behind me, and for the first time found myself saying, “Hello?”
Not a soul was in sight. I walked through the kitchen and knocked on the walk-in door to hear no knock back. I continued down the hall, passed the office- where no one was sitting- passed the coolers and opened the bar door to find my evening manager sending two waiters home. “We’ve got 12 couverts on the book. Want to send your cocktail waiter home?”
“Uh, I guess so. 12? Really?” I asked.
“Really. Start up a game of Exquisite Corpse- it’s going to be a long night,” replied my manager.
For the record, Exquisite Corpse is the best past time ever. A paper is folded into thirds and each person is designated a portion of the body: head, torso and legs. The first person draws their designated portion leaving lines for the corresponding parts ie: drawing a head and leaving necklines on the portion beneath it. Each person is not allowed to see beyond the lines provided until the drawing is finished, revealing an Exquisite Corpse. Leave it to Dali, Manet, Magrite and a bottle of Absinthe to invent such a game. Also, you’re welcome.
I send home my cocktail waiter and proceed to hunt for scrap paper.
The night begins as uneventfully as it had been predicted. I began avidly cleaning all the bottles in the bar, and like a slow wasn’t quite torture enough, no customer was drinking. I paced about the bar, then the restaurant and popped onto the line to chat with the chefs, who had taken to making a hanging sculpture from the ceiling with every set of thong, ladle and slotted spoon in-house.
After a few minutes, I walked into the bar to find a group of five people walking in for a drink- forty percent of the restaurant customers were now in my bar. I began shaking a few martinis and muddling some other concoction when I saw another couple come in…then another, and another. By the time I had finished the five drinks I had to make, my bar had filled up. I popped my head around the corner to find that the same was true for the floor.
My printer started to eject ribbons of paper with dozens, upon dozens of drink orders. People had not only arrived all at once, but were suddenly remarkably thirsty. Like a five-armed Hindi deity, I was slinging drinks left and right, occasionally popping into the kitchen to drop an order.
“Order in!” I yelled as I dropped a ticket in the basket. I looked up to find that each chef was catatonic; the restaurant was now at capacity in under 20 minutes, and my ticket was the first on the board.
“On the new-” squeaked the expo.
I zipped back into the bar to find that the printer paper had now reached the floor. New customers were seated around my entire section, their eyes fixated on me as if to say, “Yeah, we’re ready-”
What happened next, no one can recall. We had all just been ambushed like the Spartans, only no horse to show for it. I’m positive I blacked out- mid-back flip- and against all odds, landed on my feet to find that it was now an hour passed closing time. My bar looked like a crime scene: empty glasses coated in beads of condensation littered the bar top. Napkins covered plates whose sauces had permeated the linen like blood through a sheet at a homicide scene; white straws were scattered resembling a skeleton hit by a mortar. And dishes? Greek weddings looked like a display at Pottery Barn in comparison to my tables. I had my work cut out for me.
Not knowing where to begin, I turned to my iPod, put on The Smiths and tackled what was in front of me: three racks of crystal to be polished. No matter how stark the shock of an unannounced busy night is, upon closing, a calmness transcends it all. Rhythmically polishing, wiping, listening to the incessant hum of broken compressor -juxtaposed with the cacophony dishwashers slamming pans through the wash- one can’t help but to be lulled into a trance. I pour myself a stiff drink and reach a point of reflection.
Reflecting the evening havoc, reflecting my place within it and my place in general. I’m 28, with a strong curriculum vitae, I’m trilingual and yet here I am cleaning restaurant shrapnel. Time and again I am looked at with such curious eyes asking, “what on Earth are you doing here?” Oh, I don’t know- I think to myself- something about an economy crippling recession…ever heard of it? As if the question had never crossed my mind or I am simply to lazy to attempt the contrary. Other times, I’m hardly addressed at all- a waiter is clearly subhuman. Waiting tables may not be a real career, per se, but it is certainly a real job. Just ask the hundreds of thousands currently collecting unemployment.
I sip on my drink and begin to breakdown the bar. The reek of Windex and ammonia coupled with continuous humming of the compressor -and the now blaring ranchero music from the dish pit- bring me deeper into a state of tranquility. In this moment, harsh chemicals and what I consider Mexican sonic pollution, has the effect of being rocked to sleep by my mother.
The staff begins to congregates at my bar, sharing stories of complaint and triumph.
“Did you see that absolute harlot on table 42? Yeah, she’s the one who had all those fucking substitutions,” groaned one of the servers as two others grunt in commiseration.
I begin to pour drinks for the kitchen staff whose uniforms are tie-died with a combination of butter, wine, vinaigrette and sweat.
“Are you talking about the Veal Scallopini Carbonara, sub salmon for veal, olive oil for carbonara, no onions, no dairy?” asked the saute chef.
“That’s the one! She was sitting right at 42, did you see her?” asked the server.
“Did it ever occur to her to order the Catch?” whose description that night was exactly that.
Bantering about the evening continues and I proceed to drink and clean in silence, listening to the conversation taking place. Back of house staff surfaces, as do the cooks who were called in to work. I pour more drinks as each staff member sits down at the bar. Venting evolves into laughter and glasses clink together in cheers and truce. The kitchen and floor staff apologize to one another and for a few moments, pipe dreams like world peace suddenly seem possible.
“Hey, Katix- how was your night?” asks my sous chef.
I look up to find that my bar top is filled with some of my favorite people on this planet. Taking a moment, I relish in the cathartic relief bourbon has on physical exhaustion and mental strain.
“Couldn’t tell you. I blacked out around 6:30p.m.,” I reply while rediscovering the game of Exquisite Corpse I had started earlier. “Do you want to draw the head?”