A nice long story for you today about how I ended up in restaurants......
I must have been about 9 years old when I was first made aware of restaurant etiquette. It was quite literally kicked into me. My sister and I dined in a hotel two or three time a week for many years. It’s not as fancy as it’s sounds, we certainly didn’t have a privileged upbringing or anything remotely close to it. My father was the head chef and after mum fell ill, an illness from which she never recovered, Dad would summon us to the dry store he called his office for our evening tea. And I’m not exaggerating when I say summon. There was a very small window of opportunity to get something good to eat before Dad had to go back to work, the chefs wouldn’t shout at themselves! There we sat, two little urchins surrounded by tins of figs and exotic things like garlic and chilli peppers (this was 1980's Ireland). There were also huge tins of Heinz Baked beans and more than a few of pineapple rings. Hey these were the days when chicken came in a basket and gammon always came topped with a pineapple ring.
I remember sitting there peering out from the store into the huge kitchen watching as the chefs swished back and forward with pans sizzling and dad swearing. He insists to this day Gordon Ramsay stole his act. Believe me I could swear like a trooper, or even a chef, before I left primary school. It was a marvelous place for any boy with an inquisitive mind. But with all Dad’s swearing I never let my inquisitive mind wander very far. It was a hot, sweaty, hostile environment and I rarely ventured much further than the serving hatches, the waiters’ side that is.
But one day we were elevated from the smelly dry store with it’s bags of unwashed chefs whites and sweaty shoes. This day we were to dine in the restaurant with out Aunt and Uncle who were visiting from Waterford. Oh the glamour of it, dining in the restaurant that is, not Waterford. These were classy people who not only knew that it was uncouth to eat with your elbows on the table but practiced it too! They knew it wasn’t a race to get finished first and get first choice of the good seats to watch TV on. There was a calmness to their ordering that I hadn’t witnessed before. The other side of my family ordered along lines of quantity and speed, a good meal being one that delivered a lot and didn’t require you to wait very long.
After they ordered my Aunt Jean asked for a glass of water. There was a little chit chat as we waited for the waiter to return, as much chit chat as you can possibly muster with nine and ten year old children. A moment later the waiter returned with a large jug of water. This perplexed me. Aunt Jean had asked for a glass, but the waiter had brought a jug. How odd!
“Here, he’s brought you a jug…but….but…but you asked for a glass!” I exclaimed for the whole restaurant to hear, waiter included.
And right at that my Uncle Tim kicked me under the table.
He kicked me, a nine year old, under the table with his fancy shoes.
I was speechless.
I remember thinking, “What the fuck was this?” Remember I was nine but with the swearing habits of a teenager.
Thirty-Something Uncles weren’t supposed to go around kicking nine-year-old nephews. I was perplexed. What had I done that had upset him so much that he had to turn to kicking me? I said very little for the rest of the meal. I was small as a child and I feared that my frail legs wouldn’t take much more of a kicking. In fact I wasn’t going to take any further risks with old Uncle Kicks-a-Lot so I tucked my legs under my bottom out of his kicking range. I nearly squealed with fear when I was told to sit properly. I was back in moccasin range again.
As I lay in bed that night I wondered what I could have done to annoy him. Maybe he just didn’t like me. But we were family and you have to like your family and even if you don’t like them you certainly don’t go around kicking them. Maybe he was just one of those people who likes kicking children. There were a few people in school like that but they were nine years old, he was like 35 or something.
No it had to be something to do with the waiter and the water. Maybe the waiter had told him a lie about me. Maybe my Dad had shouted at the waiter, which was quite probable. He once barred all the waiting staff from the kitchen for annoying him. But why would Uncle Kicks-a-Lot care about the waiter? I needed answers. They were staying with us for a few days and I wasn’t going to live in fear in my own house. I would confront them in the morning and find out what his problem was. But I wasn’t going to take any chances and planned to stuff comics down my socks as padding in case he felt the need to fulfill his kicking rage under the breakfast table. I eventually drifted off to sleep with a little fear in my heart but with a resolve to get to the bottom of the problem. I was going to confront him first thing in the morning.
I couldn’t face him. All I could see was those ruby coloured moccasins. So I just said “good morning” from the other side of the kitchen and scampered away. My sister would know. She claimed to know everything about everything so maybe she knew what his problem was.
Two minutes later all was clear, the waiter brought a jug of water so that everyone could get some not just my aunt. It was good service. I was just being rude by pointing it out. That seemed like a good explanation. And the waiter had been good at his job. Still no reason to go about kicking nine-year-old nephews.
After a while the bruise on my shin had faded but I was still felt wary of Uncle Tim. And it wasn’t just a newfound distrust of adults that I had gained but also a fascination for all things service related. I couldn’t go to the hotel without watching the waiters and bar staff and wondering why they did things in the way that they did them.
Why was everything carried on a tray?
Why did they carry a tea towel?
What was vodka on the rocks? And when did the rocks go in, before or after the ice?
Why did Shauna pull her skirt up a little before taking the order from the Rugby Team?
My mind boggled at all these seemingly unimportant things but I was more than curious. Why did they do them? Was it important? And what did Uncle Kicks-a-Lot put in the waiters palm that made him so happy?
But it wasn’t just the incident with Uncle Tim that set me on the path to waiting we also happened to live in a house in the grounds of the hotel. And the hotel and it’s gardens, bars, and dining rooms became my playground. I would watch with fascination at the scripted choreography of each wedding, each different but following the exact same pattern. I loved it all, the laughter at the bar as the barmen held court to groups of men in bad golfing jumpers, the elegance of the waiting staff as they moved effortlessly and gracefully around the restaurant. The please and thank you’s of staff and customers alike made it much more appealing than the sweary furnace of the kitchen. The kitchen was as uncouth as the front of house was civilised.
I can still remember the very day I said to my Dad that I wanted to work in a restaurant,
“No you bloody don’t!” came the very stern response “It’s a hard job with bad pay, it’s no life for you.”
What did he know? He worked in the kitchen…