by John Ryan
On a good Saturday night, the Blue Angel could do 150 to 200 covers in four hours. That's a cruising speed of 40 or 50 meals, from cocktails to coffee, an hour. But numbers like that only happened if everyone pulled together.
We opened for dinner at five thirty. Since there was no lunch on Saturday, the dinner cooks would get to work around noon. The first dishwasher would punch in at two, the waiters and bartenders would start arriving at four or four thirty. You'd think Saturday nights would be routine, the same as any other night, just more so; that cooks would just have to mince and chop a little more and bartenders bring extra bottles of vodka and gin up from the store room. But every Saturday is different. It's like opening a safe. Some days the tumblers fall decidedly into place and other days they don't.
On this particular Saturday things were humming along. The coffee Ed made was perfect, not as strong as he usually made it. My produce order had arrived and was even put away. And for once the college radio station was playing music we agreed on. And it was a beautiful fall day. We left the back door open so the occasional autumn breeze could wander in as we went through the familiar rhythms of putting ducks on roasting pans, of cutting and pounding veal....
It was feeling good. The first tumblers were dropping right into place. Clarence, our dishwasher, was due in at two. He was fairly new, but he'd made that leap from being the new guy to being one of us. During the previous weeks we had been telling him that pastrami was an animal from Argentina. This wasn't done from mean-spiritedness, it had spontaneously erupted as a kind of game. We'd make up bits of trivia about pastrami and he'd try to trip us up on an inconsistency. Anyway, by two he'd have a pile of pots to get started on. At four the other dishwasher would come in. To even things out, the early dishwasher punched out right after dinner, leaving the four o'clock guy to finish up and mop the floor.
On Saturdays we needed two dishwashers through dinner or a bottle neck would form about seven thirty and ripple through the restaurant. Cooks would find themselves waiting for clean plates, which meant waiters had to wait longer for their food to come up. If this went on for long, it reached the hostess. Instead of greeting and seating, customers would be asking why the table that, half an hour ago was supposed to be ready in 10 or 15 minutes, wasn't ready yet.
It must have been a little after two when The Owner came through the kitchen on his way to the bank. "Good coffee...say, isn't the new kid supposed to be in by now?" "Yeah,I said, looking up at the clock, "He oughta be in any minute." On the way out the back door The Owner shot back "Don't be so sure. Kids don't have rent to pay...they'll blow off their job for a date. I don't know why you even deal with 'em. Call George." George was the weekday dishwasher. If I called him in, assuming he was even home, he'd be getting overtime and I'd hear about it when I turned in the payroll. "Don't worry," I said, "Clarence'll be in."
He didn't hear me, but it didn't matter. I felt it in the place where you get stage fright: a tumbler wasn't falling into place. But it was early yet. About an hour later The Owner walked back through the kitchen. The pans were piling up. "John, how late does this kid have to be before you learn?" Then he pulled me aside, put his hand on my shoulder, and gave me a sort of father-son talk about how I had to learn that certain people couldn't be counted on. About how it was a hard lesson, but as a chef I'd have to learn it sooner or later. On his way out of the kitchen he asked "Do you want me to call George?" "Don't worry" I said "Clarence is a good man. He'll be in."
But I wasn't so sure. I went to the phone by the back door and looked for his number on the sheet of paper stapled to the wall. His was scrawled vertically in a margin. No answer.
Time was passing. The pots were piling up. About three thirty I could hear that a busboy had arrived by the dull drone of a vacuum cleaner somewhere in the dining room. I was tempted to throw him on pots for a while. But that would put him behind and start a ripple effect in the dining room set up. Bad move.
At four the waitstaff started punching in, each one with a "Hey, how's it going?" On seeing the pile of pots in the sink, they'd slip out of the kitchen without waiting for an answer. The consequences of not having a second dishwasher was sinking in for all of us. As the staff passed through the kitchen—carrying ice to the bar, getting half & half from the walk-in—the same questions were asked. They were the verbal equivalent of looking for lost keys in the same places—"Are you sure he knew he was on the schedule?" "Did he say anything? I mean, Clarence wouldn't just not show up." "What are we going to do?"
Somewhere in the middle of this The Owner slammed through the kitchen doors "Damn it, it's Saturday night and we're booked solid. And look at this!" as if we hadn't noticed the mountain of pots and pans before now, "With all that pastrami crap it's no wonder he picked a Saturday night to stick it to you. Now why the hell haven't you called George?" His explosion was meant for me, but it hit everyone. There was a long quiet moment before The Owner stormed out. This was no longer about a dishwasher. This was about us: if one of us would do this to us. It was past looking bad.
A ray of hope arrived when the second dishwasher wandered in. For his part, however, the sight of all the pots was a ray of crap. "Don't worry," I said, "Clarence will be here. I'll make him stay late and close." That didn't wipe the look off his face, but it got him started.
We were opening in a little while. I had been calling Clarence's number every ten minutes. I knew I should have tried to call George, but I also knew that on a day like this, even if he was home he wouldn't be stupid enough to pick up the phone. I knew we could get through the night. It would be a miserable night, but we could do it. The possibility that Clarence would do this had extinguished the banter that usually preceded a big night. About then things seemed to go into slow motion—the ducks weren't browning, the rice seemed to be in suspended animation...pretty soon a drain would probably back up. Despite the exhaust fans, the kitchen felt still. Then, just a few minutes before opening, Clarence came through the back door. I didn't see him, just heard someone call his name. I wanted to kill him. But then I saw what he looked like. I actually asked him to sit down on a plastic milk crate by the back door. "What's the matter?" I asked.
A few of the staff had gathered. He looked so pitiful that a waitress was kneeling beside him with her hand on his shoulder. "I was at the hospital all night with my asthma." Clarence whispered. "They wanted to keep me, but it's Saturday and I know you need a dishwasher...I'll be okay... the doctors just told me to take it easy." We all felt it: Clarence was one of us. The tumblers suddenly dropped into place. It was going to be a good night.
Note: John Ryan is assisting in the Chicago conference of the International Association of Culinary Professionals and will be back next month with his column and usual recipes.—Kate Heyhoe, Ed.
Both chef and musician, John Ryan wrote the Just Good Food blog from 1996 through 2001.
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