A Hot Plate of Gravy
I needed a job. I was out of college for the summer and was going door to door on M Street in Georgetown asking if they needed help. I really had no experience in the restaurant business, other than gorging, but one of the joys of being young is that you often don’t know better so I just plunged ahead and kept asking, “Do you need any help, do you need any help, do you need any help?” and I kept hearing, “No, no,” until I heard “yes.”
Ann Sutherland said yes. She was the chef at a top end restaurant called The Big Cheese, and she needed help in the kitchen making salads and assisting the dessert chef, who, she mentioned, was also the dessert chef at the White House. “Was I interested?” she asked. “Yes,” I said quickly, “I like desserts.”
I worked a The Big Cheese on and off for seven years on school breaks and when I got out. I started in the kitchen, making salads and amazing sweets, then moved up eventually to the chef’s station where I worked under Ann and her sous chef. I loved learning to cook and really enjoyed my time with most of the staff on those sweaty, hot summer nights that smelled of garlic and gruyere.
The sous chef was a young woman from Washington, DC, and a very hard worker. We were both at the counter away cutting carrots, lamb and our fingers at 7am one morning when she said to me, “I think it’s great what you are doing.” I casually replied, “What?” “You know, working, like the rest of us,” she said. “What do you mean?” I asked. “Well, your father is a major architect, quite wealthy I suspect, so you don’t really need to work.” That stunned me, and I actually didn’t say anything because it hurt me. I just kept on cutting, carrot after carrot, and worked for my money like everyone else. But it was somewhere around this time that I started to realize that sometimes people hold prejudices and that they sometimes say mean things that reveal their own fears. They can be forgiven for that, because they are just so scared and I feel sorry for them. Living in fear is painful.
But that hard working sous chef and I did share one thing, which a lot of us do, and that is the fear of having no money so it didn’t take long for me to notice how non-sweating and beautiful smelling the waiters were. One in particular, think Suzanne Summers back then, would glide into the kitchen fluffing her permed blond hair, laughing and singing “Your love, is taking me higher…”, and then she’d say something like, “Oh my god, they just left me a hundred dollar tip!” She’d smile and waive her pile of bills at me and say something like, “You have parsley in your teeth,” and she’d glide out of the kitchen in those tight little pants leaving me dumbfounded and in awe.
I started working as a waiter soon thereafter, although my pants were not as tight. One Saturday night – the big night in the restaurant biz – the maître d’ came over as I counted my money in the kitchen and told me he had just sat an 8 top. I fixed my hair and went out to the table.
It was a Parisian family, in town to celebrate the graduation of their daughter from Georgetown University. So charming and elegant, and their daughter, who was about my age, was beautiful, and bonus, in a low cut dress. Sorry, but I was a healthy heterosexual male full of hormones and, well, you can’t help but notice that sort of thing when you stand above the table trying to take dinner orders, no matter how hard you try. She wore a cream colored luxuriously laced, underwire bra with lightly padded cups for subtle, natural-looking enhancement made of smooth stretch nylon, with a fascinating graphic floral print from, if I read the label correctly, Lord and Taylors.
I could suddenly feel the cold, death-like stare coming from her father. “Yes, sir, may I take your order?” I managed to get out. In his heavily accented English, he ordered Crystal Champagne, and then I went around the table noting their appetizers and entrées wishes. The father asked for the soft shell crabs, and was very disappointed when I told him we had just run out. “Zoot alors! (he didn’t really say “Zoot alors, it’s just fun to say it now) Zat is why I came here, but OK, fine…I’ll take the Steak Goujons.” I wrote that down and said, “C’est un bon choix, monsieur,” trying to impress the young lady. The father looked at me and said, “You sound like Tarzan when you speak French.”
I think then I said, “Me go now,” when the young lady reminded me she hadn’t ordered. She asked for the cheese soufflé, a specialty of the house. “Of course,” I said, “But I do have to tell you that the soufflé takes a half hour to prepare.” She smiled and said that would be fine, they had champagne coming and then appetizers, and she was in no hurry on this special night.
I took that as a good sign and glided into the kitchen singing, “Your love, is taking me higher…” where my former co-workers sweated away cooking. The sous chef stared at me and said, “You have parsley in your teeth.”
No matter. I brushed my teeth and went on about my night which was going well. The champagne and the appetizers had been served and consumed, and now it was time to serve my graduating lovely her soufflé. Now, as you may know, the preparation of the soufflé is a tricky thing and has to be taken out of the oven and rushed to the table before it falls. So I had my pal, Sean, an Iranian who looked just like Omar Sharif, clear the table of the plates, I loaded all the other prepared dishes including the father’s Steak Goujons
, onto the tray which I hoisted on my shoulder, and I awaited the sous chef’s delivery of the soufflé.
She stood there, the sous chef, watching me sing, then she reached into the red hot oven, pulled out the stunningly beautiful perfect soufflé, and dropped it. “Ooops, I burned myself,” she said.
Wow. I was beginning to question my ability to forgive her. But, all the rest of the food was still hot and ready and had to be delivered so I rushed it out into the restaurant and placed it before each guest. I explained to the young lady with the fascinating graphic floral print bra that we had dropped her soufflé in the kitchen and that I would be happy to get her anything else she desired, on the house. She smiled and said she understood, which showed her ability to forgive, but her father seemed to lack that kind of compassion.
“What kind of restaurant is thiz, where you throw ze food around ze kitchen.” He barked. “Ah, well, it wasn’t actually thrown, more like a drop,” I muttered. “And you are out of half ze menu!” he went on, to which I not so cleverly got out, “Only one thing, actually.” He demanded to see the chef, and I suggested he didn’t really want to do that, it was the sous chef and she had… definite opinions about things. It was about this time I saw my fellow waiters starting to hide.
“And look at zis mess!” He pointed to his Steak Goujon, “It looks like a dog stopped by and did hiz bizness on my plate.” It did, sort of, now that I looked at it, with the pile of meat surrounded by gravy. “Take it away!” he yelled. I tried to convince him otherwise, as did his daughter begging him to calm down, but it was no use. I lifted the plate from the table and turned towards the relative safety of the kitchen.
“Wait!” he commanded and I stopped and turned back to him. He went on to yell at me for a couple of minutes and I stood there holding the plate and taking it when all of a sudden he just stopped. His mouth went slack and he started to point, which is about when I heard the young lady scream.
I looked down to see that while getting yelled at I had let the plate tip just ever so much and the very hot gravy was following the path of least resistance off said plate and was now pouring into the young lady’s cleavage.
The rest was like a slow motion movie: I cried out something like, “Oh dear god,” which no one really heard because the now scalded girl was screaming so loudly herself. I turned to the bar behind me to put down the offending Steak Goujons and the bartender who had already decided to hide on the floor threw up a towel for me which I caught like in an action film. I turned to the howling damsel in distress, took that rag with only the best intentions I swear to you, and started trying to rub that hot gravy off her breasts.
In hide sight, I can see why her father got upset. He grabbed my hands away from his daughter's scalding globes, yelling something in French that translates to the equivalent of “You American capitalistic pig, take your hands off my daughter’s breasts!”
The rest of the night didn’t go too much better, but on subsequent shifts in the following weeks, I would often hear laughing in the dining room and peer through the door to see that lovely young lady re-enacting the breast burning incident to her just as lovely friends, laughing and laughing. I would have gone out to say hi, but my boss the sous chef demanded I return to cutting the carrots, as I had been demoted back into the kitchen for the rest of the year.