About a month or so back, I introduced a new segment to this column titled ‘Confessions of a Restaurant Guy’. It’s a piece that I mentioned I’d be periodically revisiting. This is essentially where I tell you stories from my lengthy restaurant career that prior to now have been locked up in the proverbial vault. Most of these stories are being told here for the first time. They’re stories about things I have done or experienced that I wasn’t really proud of or comfortable sharing until now. These were the times that I was in the wrong and kept quiet for fear of repercussions. Well, I feel that the statute of limitations has run out on each of these, so I’m going to systematically wash my hands of them by confessing to all of you. You may recall in my first story in the Confessions series; I allowed a pair of innocent toddlers to take the blame for my flatulence. Ever since sharing that story with all of you, I’ve felt cleansed. Having recovered from Catholicism long ago, this is about as close as I’m going to get to a confessional.
For this next story, I’m going to throw it all the way back to around 1985 or 86. It was the height of the decadent 80’s in the restaurant biz. The economy was strong, drunk driving laws weren’t as stringent, no one had heard the words cholesterol, carbohydrates, or gluten yet, and people took dining seriously. It was a glorious time when dishes were designed by chefs with an intense focus on being flavorful and filling. They weren’t yet trying to trick diners by presenting meager flavorless portions in the form of works of art. The plate was a plate, not a palate, and all 5 Mother sauces were still in use. It was a wonderful time to be in the service industry.
The restaurant I worked in was a fine dining establishment. And I mean true fine dining, not the modern definition of fine dining, or the Ocean City Metropolitan regional translation of it. This was the tuxedo wearing, table-side cooking, 7-course serving, expensive wine selling, mid 80’s, no B.S. fine freakin dining. I was in my mid-teens at the time and my only concerns were hooking up with as many girls as possible, throwing a football, partying, and busing tables at the best restaurant in the area. And at the time, I was really, really good at all of the above.
On Friday and Saturday evenings, the parking lot of this place was full of Jaguars, Rolls Royces, and Porsches, and the coat check room was full of so many varieties of animal hide that it was a veritable petting zoo in there. If you wanted to get seated for dinner, you better have made reservations well in advance. You could almost always see local celebrities and A-listers coming and going. This is where I gained my passion for food, wine, and money, as well as my love for the business. It’s also where my hatred of people began. I had no idea at the time that 30 years later I’d still be doing it. I also had no idea that during that era I would make the best money I’d ever make in this business.
We were strategically located near a wealthy region of a Baltimore suburb. We had a notably particular clientele, for lack of better words. The restaurant was in a 200-year-old, 3-story house, so it was broken up into several small, cozy dining rooms. It was a Friday or Saturday night, and I was working on the first floor in the busiest dining room. I don’t often pat myself on the back, but I was a beast of a busboy. Of all the restaurant positions I’ve held, from dish washer to G.M., it’s the job I was best at. And oddly, I really loved doing it. Part of me wishes my career would come full circle and I could go back to being just a busboy. Just put my head down, do my thing, and not have to talk to people.
We had a party of 8 seated at a large round table in the corner. For some reason, I remember that this day that the table number was CK-1. One of the members of this party was a middle aged woman of a much higher tax bracket than me, and to say that she was a bit of a handful would be a gross understatement. Even though we were perhaps the most reputable restaurant in the area, and we had a designated coat check room that was staffed by 2 young ladies, this woman insisted on keeping her coat at the table. Rather than have it safely hanging and attended to, she demanded it be draped over the back of her own chair. **This will come into play later on**
I don’t recall what I had for lunch today, I have no idea where my reading glasses are, and I haven’t seen the remote in a month, but I remember this woman and her slaughtered animal outer vestment as if I had just seen it 5 minutes ago. She looked as if she had taken her makeup application tips from Tammy Faye Baker, and she most certainly used the same team of doctors that Joan Rivers does. The finished product eerily resembled Madame, the ventriloquist puppet from the 80’s show Solid Gold. (It was kind of the Soul Train for white folk).
Her full length and very bulky mink coat had to have been made from an entire pack of minks. (Or whatever a group of them is called). To this day, I have yet to own a vehicle that cost as much as this coat. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t cop a feel every time I went near that table. Despite the fact that a large portion of the mink population of Baltimore County was running around naked and cold at the time, I was inexplicably compelled to touch this blanket as often and as vigorously as I could. At one point, I even deliberately dropped a fork so I could crouch down and rub my face against it on the way back up. The fact that I was so incompetent in my job to have dropped a piece of silverware of course was enough to leave plastic face completely disgusted. She wrinkled up the portion of her face that was still capable of movement and made a noise with her throat as if she were about to cough up a quart of phlegm. I didn’t care I had just rubbed my sweaty face on her pet cemetery, so she can think whatever she wants about me. And later on in this story, karma comes in to play.
Well, I hate to do this to you all, but you’re going to have to check back next week for the conclusion. There’s plenty more to tell, and I don’t have enough space. I promise it will be worth the wait. Thanks for playing along.
Until next week, Syd Nichols
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