The Serial That Takes You to Dinner
by Chef Bob Munnich
Back of the House is a real chef's fictional story about running a restaurant and the politics behind the scenes that diners rarely see.
It was Friday. Five o'clock and both Tom and Jan were ready for dinner. They were just finishing bathing the kids when the door bell rang. It was the baby-sitter. Tom let her in and Jan finished putting pajamas on little Ellen. El was the older and she loved to just talk. She was going on and on about how the last time that Mrs. Miller was there, they got to bake cookies and watch the Lion King (for the hundredth time).
By the time El was downstairs with Tom Jr., the door bell rang again. "We've got a surprise for you," Jan told the kids. When they opened the door, little Joey and Karen came in . Phoebe and Joe followed them in with the typical, "finally we're here" look on their faces. The kids went right downstairs to the play room and the parents sighed a mutual sigh of relief. Tom and Jan had played it safe and not told the kids who was coming. They just had to deal with the normal excitement Mrs. Miller brings with her. "Well, shall we go?" Tom asked. "They hate it when you're late!"
They gave Mrs. Miller the phone number of the restaurant. "This looks familiar," she said sarcastically, and wished them all a good time. They left with a quick "good bye" to the kids (who didn't even notice).
They took Joe's car. It had a phone, just in case they got lost. Although Tom assured them that wouldn't happen. They arrived 5 minutes before their reservation and parked the car. The restaurant looked sharp from outside. It was a little earlier than the last time they were in and it was still light out. They could see the expensive landscaping and imported Italian tile that adorned the outside vestibule.
As they entered the foyer, Marcel, the apologetic host, was waiting. He quickly acknowledged them. "Mr. And Mrs. Johnston, so glad you decided to visit us again. I assure you that you will enjoy your experience this evening. I see you brought guests. We will do our best to show you all a wonderful evening!"
Marcel was much more charming than they remembered. He took their coats and handed them to the coat check. Then he showed them right into the dining room. On his way he said, "I have saved a very special table for you. Mandy, your waitress from last time, asked to serve you this evening. She really is quite good, and would like to show you." They were kind of surprised that she would try to impress them; but, heh, they were game if she was.
They had a lovely table by the windows again. It was large, round and big enough to seat all four of them comfortably. When they arrived at the table there was a delightful surprise for them. Marcel had chilled a nice bottle of Chardonnay and had the chef prepare an "Amuse-Bouche" for them. "Amuse-Bouche" Marcel explained was a "mouth teaser"—sort of a pre-appetizer only prepared for special guests and celebrities who dine at Tuttopronto.
After they were settled, Mandy greeted them. "Thank you for accepting our invitation," she said graciously. She was speaking almost directly to Jan, but addressed the whole table. "Would you like me to pour your wine while you look over the menu?" She asked. She went on to describe the "Amuse Bouche" as foccacia crostini with an assortment of toppings including nicoise tapenade, Ahi Tuna with grated fresh horseradish, dried tomatoes provencal and fresh pesto.
As soon as Mandy was done pouring the wine, handing out the menus and describing the specials, she excused herself from the table. They were all a little shocked at how professional yet gracious everyone was being. They were extremely impressed with the hors d'oeuvres and the wine. They looked forward to a delightful evening.
They chose their dinners and decided on a shared Caesar salad for 4 as the first course. Someone had told Phoebe that they make a great Caesar, and there are "so few restaurants who do," she added. After Mandy took their order, she half-jokingly assured Tom and Jan "she'd put it in immediately;" and their dinner began, very enjoyably.
The dining room was now starting to really fill up. They were glad to be away from their jobs, their homes, their children and their routines. It was time to relax. They began talking about their plans for the summer. Tom was going to paint the outside of his house himself, and Jan was taking roller blade lessons. Phoebe was listening but observing the dining room at the same time. She noticed several well-dressed couples come in and sit down for dinner. She also noticed a young couple with an infant sit down at the next table.
"How cute," she said. Both she and Joe loved being parents and were looking forward to more children in the future. Tom and Jan loved their kids but 2 were enough. They all looked over on the sleeping angel and "oohed and ahhed" for a minute until Mandy rolled the Caesar salad cart over to the table and introduced Enrico, the Chef who would prepare their salad.
Enrico greeted them and asked if they wanted their salad "strong or mild". They all agreed on strong, and Enrico performed his Caesar salad making with a flair. The salad was wonderful. They obviously used only the best anchovy, romaine, olive oil and imported parmesan. They discussed how such a simple dish could be so great with the right ingredients.
Just as they were finishing the salad course the angelic infant right next to them began to cry. She was waking up and was hungry. The baby's mom quickly picked her up and nuzzled her to her chest. The baby was still crying. Jan then noticed the mom unbutton her blouse and begin to breast feed the infant. This immediately started a heated debate at the table. Phoebe and Joe believed that breast feeding was natural and OK, no matter where you were. Jan had a much stronger opinion. She breast fed her children, but not in public, and especially not in a dining room. Jan was very polite about her feelings, but still felt very strongly about it.
While they were discussing the breast feeding, a busboy came and cleared the plates. Then Mandy came and delivered their entrees. Mandy presented each plate with a graceful spin to position it properly in front of the guest. The meals looked delightful. As they were about to eat, the baby started to cry again.
This time the baby wouldn't stop. At first it was just a nuisance. It became apparent that the parents were either deaf or had no intention of soothing the child. Mandy went over to the table and volunteered to hold the baby for a minute. Thinking that would send a message to the parents. But after she had to run, they just continued to eat, undisturbed by the child. The crying was really getting on Tom's nerves. He didn't come out to listen to a baby cry. The nerve of these people, he thought to himself, as he flagged Marcel over.
"I've asked them to calm the child down, sir", Marcel said. "but it doesn't seem to be working. They are just about finished with their dinner, They should be leaving in 15 minutes or so" Marcel assured them.
Tom and his friends had to bear the crying for 15 minutes. They had a hard time relaxing to the sound of a crying infant. They were a little tense; but the food was delicious, and the service was very attentive.
Dinner proceeded without a hitch after the baby left. They enjoyed some wonderful desserts and the most delightful cappuccino and latte they had had in a long time. Dinner was great, except for the crying baby. When Mandy presented the check they were all enjoying themselves. Tom gave her the gift certificate, the difference in cash, and a tip large enough to make up for the last dinner as well. They all thanked her and thanked Marcel on their way out.
On the way home they discussed the crying baby. "Boy, they shouldn't let children in those types of restaurants," Tom said. This sparked serious debate from Phoebe and Joe. Jan agreed somewhat with Tom. She thought Marcel should have asked them to leave when they permitted the baby to cry without doing anything about it. She also thought Marcel should have asked the mother not to breast feed in the dining room. Jan found it embarrassing.
What do you think?
Copyright © 1996, 1997 Bob Munnich. All Rights Reserved.
This page originally published as part of the electronic Gourmet Guide between 1994 and 1998.
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