Vinegar and Honey: a Restaurateur’s Rant
Most nights, at least one of my kids works at the restaurant: seating customers, serving food, busing tables, washing dishes, answering the phone, making salad, plating desserts or tending bar. Each child began working for us at about twelve or thirteen years of age, usually just one night a week, but more frequently during school holidays. Employing our children is good for us and, I like to think, good for them. As my husband and I work 6 and up to 5 nights a week respectively, employing our children means we get to spend more time with them. Our kids see first-hand how hard we work and we hope that this will make them appreciate the advantages we provide them. Of course our children are paid for their labour which means that each child had, has or will have a chunk of money saved for their university education. (Depositing tax-deductible wages to your kid’s in trust bank account rather than making after-tax contributions to an education savings plan is a nice perk of having your own business – hey, I wasn’t a tax lawyer for nothing!)
We require our kids to work hard too, and we expect that this will make them appreciate the self-respect that comes with a job well done and the joy of “killing it”, the merit of responsibility, the value of a dollar and the necessity of money management, the advantage of working experience, the need for teamwork and collegiality, the importance of respect up and down the hierarchy, the satisfaction of relaxation after a gruelling shift, and the significance of having a skill or trade as part of a complete education. We also expect that, having worked in a restaurant, our kids have learned good manners, timeliness, respect for authority, safe practices, useful techniques and recipes, and have developed a discerning and adventurous palate. Most importantly, we hope that having our kids work for us means that none of them will ever want to go into the restaurant business themselves. I’ve been promoting orthodontia as a career alternative to my kids for years. I mean, is there a better job than being an orthodontist? In my experience, these guys (they’re mostly men) work only a couple of days a week, get paid a crap ton of money, drive a Mercedes, live in palaces, outsource unpleasantness like pulling teeth and, at the end of it all, make you look beautiful! “Be an orthodontist not a chef”, I used to whisper into my children’s sweaty little ears when they were sleeping.
One of the advantages of working in a restaurant is, of course, the food. At the end of every shift, after all the customers have gone home, after the kitchen is scrubbed down and all the silverware and wineglasses are polished, after the booze is restocked and the tables are set, we sit down to what folks in the restaurant business call “family dinner”. Kitchen and floor staff get together at a big table and finish off the heels of open bottles of house wine, the last of the daily special and the fish of the day, and whatever else my husband is inclined to cook for us. We are very lucky that our restaurant family often includes most, if not all, of our actual family.
On nights when I’m working and my kids aren’t, they fend for themselves. The freezer is usually pretty well-stocked with individual portions of homemade soups, stews, chillies, curries and spaghetti sauce, as well as various cuts of meat, chicken and fish. Often there are leftovers in the fridge, and there is always plenty of fruit, vegetables, cheese and bread. Frequently, there are homemade cookies, brownies, biscuits, bread, cake, tart or pie. Our home kitchen is well-stocked with cookbooks, pots and pans, the to-be-expected appliances (and then some), and the essential ingredients for making pretty much anything. Plus, all my kids are high school graduates who can presumably read and have hopefully learned a thing or two having worked in restaurants. So, if the cobbler’s children go barefoot, do the restaurateur’s children go hungry? That’s what my children might have you believe, but only because they are disinclined to cook for themselves. Sometimes they even offer to work just because they want to have their dad cook them a nice meal at the end of their shift.
Sadly, it often falls to my daughter to make dinner when I’m not home. I like to think that this is because she is the oldest and not because she is the girl. On our day off my husband cooks dinner while I have a cocktail and fart around on Facebook, so it’s not like our kids think cooking is women’s work. As far as the kids are concerned, my greatest skill is expertly juggling a martini, an iPad and a cigarette. Anyway, on one particular day, my youngest son came downstairs just as I was leaving for work. “What’s for dinner?” he asked. “I’m on my way out buddy”, I said, “there’s lots of stuff in the freezer.” So he turns to my daughter and says, “what’s for dinner?” To which she replies, “I don’t know. Whatever you feel like making I guess.” Whereupon he completely freaks out. “I’m studying! I have an exam tomorrow! Why can’t you make me dinner? You’re not doing anything!” “I’m going out with a friend tonight”, says my daughter, “you’re a big boy, I’m sure you can figure something out. And maybe clean up your fucking mess afterwards for a change.” Raging, stomping and door slamming ensues. Well, they are my monkeys, but it’s not my circus, so I’m out the door.
A few minutes later I call my daughter on the telephone. “I am not apologizing for your brother; he’s being a dick. But just remember that he is stressed out so maybe don’t antagonize him. No, it’s not your job to make his dinner, but remember how you felt during your final high school exams and maybe cut him a bit of slack. That’s what I used to do for you.” And then I call my son. “Buddy, it’s not your sister’s job to make your dinner. You were way out of line with her just now. It will be good for you to take a break for half an hour or so to make yourself some dinner later. Let all that studying soak in.” Incoherent “grrrs” from my son. “Here’s the thing buddy. You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” “What’s that supposed to mean?” he asks. “Well”, I reply, “when someone is nice to you, you want to return the favour. If someone is a dick to you, you’re probably going to be a dick right back. So, if you had just explained to your sister that you were studying for an exam (which is not her job to know) and that you were really stressed, and that you would really appreciate it if she would please make you some pasta or something, and that you would clean it up afterwards, and if you said this all very nicely, then she would probably have made you something to eat because you were nice and she wanted to be nice right back. You see how that works? Use a little honey. It’s not going to work now, of course, but you might want to apologize for barking so that maybe you can try the honey thing another day.”
A couple of days later, I am busing the detritus from a recently vacated table and quickly resetting it for the next customers who will be arriving at any moment. The restaurant is heaving and there is list in my head of everything I need to in the next 30 seconds: reset the table, adjust the air conditioning level, pour the guy at table 7 another glass of wine, dim the lights, clear the empty plates from table 3, check on table 19 to make sure they are enjoying their dinner, answer the telephone, greet the newly-arrived customers, turn up the music volume, get table 21 a pair of reading glasses, deliver dessert menus to table 11 and, at some point in the very near future, race to the bathroom for a pee. This stuff is all racing around in my brain, forming a checklist, prioritizing, competing with new stuff that is occurring to me every 10 seconds as I scan the room. I turn quickly, and the guy from table 5 is standing right in front of me. Shit! Was I supposed to have given him something and I forgot? What is he doing all the way over here, halfway across the dining room from his table?
“We need to move up here”, he says. “There is a guy coughing at the table next to us and my wife is PREGNANT!” He hisses and stage whispers “pregnant” like it is a four-letter word and it ends up being even louder than everything else he said. “Of course”, I say, “just give me a moment please. If you will return to your table very briefly I’ll get everything organized for you here and then I will come and get you.” I say this very nicely, although I am thinking “For real? First of all Mr. Oversharer, do I need to know that your wife is pregnant? Are you going to ask me for a cushion next because she has hemorrhoids? Should I have some Saltines standing by in case she starts feeling queasy? Is she the first woman in the history of the world who has ever been pregnant? Is she carrying the Messiah? Is that why you are so terrified of some airborne spittle from a guy who cleared his throat 10 feet away from you? Secondly, do you realize that one day your centre-of-the-universe fetus is going to leave his hermetically-sealed environment and eventually suck his own grubby toes, smear poop on his head, eat kitty litter, projectile vomit and pick up dog turds in the park? Back in your bubble Mr. Oversharer!” And then resetting this table, transferring the Madonna to it, alerting the kitchen to the change, switching the bill, and alerting the servers all become part of the amorphous and swirling list of things I have to do.
Instead of returning to his table, he starts to wave his wife over and says to me “but can you make it snappy?” I freeze. The million things that I need to do in the next 30 seconds, the million things that are wildly spinning around in my head, all stop and then settle in slow motion like dust motes. I feel my head rotate 360 degrees, like something out of the Exorcist. I can actually feel my blood get cold and slow down. I breathe in sharply and when I exhale, I can almost see freezing mist coming out of my mouth as I say, in a freakishly low snarl, “No. I. Cannot. Make. It. Snappy.” Was it my growling demonic response? Perhaps the lasers shooting out of my eyes? Maybe the alarming drop in temperature of the room? Could it have been the way the earth stopped rotating for just a moment? Who knows. Anyway, Mr. Oversharer beats a hasty retreat. And just as if a heavy hand is lifted off a record on a turntable, the music and the lights come back up, the temperature returns to normal, my horns dissipate, and the clatter of conversation and cutlery resumes.
Most of the time, my brain sorts and prioritizes its various tasks without my getting involved at all. I don’t tell my brain to make my heart beat, or to inflate and deflate my lungs. My brain just takes care of it all. It makes a list, even a prioritized list of lists, in order of importance, for tasks like resetting tables, getting reading glasses, regenerating brain cells, greeting customers, circulating blood, pouring wine, breathing, dimming lights, blinking, answering telephones and digesting lunch. But this time, I interfere with my brain. I think to myself: “If only he had asked nicely. Maybe said ‘please’. If only his mom had explained the whole vinegar and honey thing”. I put “transfer the couple from table 5 to table 27” at the very bottom of my brain’s list, and I underline it with my mind’s eye in venomous green so that I will remember that this is the very last thing I will do before I draw my final breath on this earth.