If a diner had to ask, for escargot tongs, or for the tiny fork for prizing out the snail, for a napkin, or more of the delicious butter from Normandy, we had failed. To be asked to bring the pepper mill…but a table already had their dinner salads…hmm, no. One brought the pepper mill to the table beneath one’s arm, salads balanced along wrists and forearms. What course came next, what items would be needed for the consumption of that course, these were first laid down, ready to be put to use, the bone dish for the trout, the deep bowl for mussel shells. Any need that we could anticipate, we did, setting down the sugar and coffee spoons, a small pitcher of cream, long before the French press pot arrived at the table. It was rather perverse psychology, certainly contrary to hospitality, to bring something to the table and then to make the diner wait for whatever was needed for them to eat or drink this item. Excitement was in the table prepared for them to partake, ready and waiting, and then the course set down, perhaps turned a bit to make sure it was presented, meat closest to the diner, for their ease with fork and knife, and the rest, say potatoes and various vegetables or purées at the top of the plate nearest the middle of the table. If it were a steak that had been ordered, or roast duck, the more serious knife with a serrated edge had been laid down beside the dinner knife long before these entrees arrived. Tending to a table of diners was a readiness, a quiet vigilance, not an afterthought. We were taking care of them. It wasn’t servitude; it was care. Our eyes were always taking a table in, assessing its condition, its needs, its direction, and usually this from a comfortable distance, gauging also the conversation, the tenor of the table, what was happening there—without exactly listening—looking for pauses, feeling the vibes, easy or demanding, tense or jolly, or was there a clock on the meal, a show or the opera to be gotten to, or were people there for an evening out, dining, perhaps a conversation needing time and some ease within which it might unfold … within which it might get to the more difficult aspects.
One did not talk at a table, or approach speaking to the table already, interrupting the conversation. If you had a question, something that needed to be settled, that hadn’t been settled at ordering, then one approached and waited for a break before asking, waiting to be acknowledged, looked up at. It wasn’t some sort of servile deference; it was common politeness not to just talk at or over people.
We watched. We listened. We brought lovely food to people, much of it simple. It was theatre. We had a great time. We made a lot of money, too, and we made it because we were good at something, something exquisite really, something vital to how food was presented and consumed. Our chefs trusted us. Their plates left the pass-through perfectly appointed and garnished and they arrived at the table looking that way, and they were presented for the work they displayed, work done for that diner expressly. How busy the restaurant was—and I worked in two restaurants that were always busy, Au Relais in Sonoma and Le St. Tropez in San Francisco—did not matter. A sloppy plate was a sloppy plate, and to set that down at a table was a bad reflection on you as much as on the chef; we didn’t do it. Some drop of sauce, some mound tumbled from its placement, the plate was set down and neatened. If it was worth doing, then it was worth doing well. I don’t ever remember resenting any of this, or finding it silly, or unimportant. How could caring for people, making sure they ate well, how could that ever be ironized, ridiculed, and we didn’t. But we were not pretentious about it, either, and therein lies a difference, a great one. Pretentiousness versus care, and I do draw distinctions, though I am assured of ridicule from a crew that already thinks I’m trafficking in pretention, caring in any way about any of this. They are wrong, of course, and there will always be those who run the horses through the garden, who clap their buds on the shoulder, angrily happy in their brutality. Of course. And I assure you they were not cared for at some formative time in their lives.
Assholes. Sure. We were good at waiting on them, too. We drew distinctions. An asshole’s first time dining at Le St. Tropez, an asshole handled well, might mean a customer for life, “a regular.” We were good at creating regulars; our incomes depended on regulars, the restaurant depended on regulars, we weren’t stupid about our work, its ur source, and so grumpy people being greeted by the host or hostess, being seated, their unsmiling faces casting about the restaurant, “What is this place? Why’s it so popular? Is it going to cost my child’s first year of college?”—we could see these faces, faces not quite ready to have a good meal, a good time, an easy time. I knew to bring our delicious bread and butter to the table, sometimes a bowl of radishes and salt, I knew to get some food down in front of tables like this, to get their blood sugar up, though we didn’t use those phrases, the pseudo medical, the pseudo scientific—we just thought, oh, they’re hungry. We said to the busboy “stick a roll in it.” And it was amazingly true. A complete raging asshole fed just a bit of bread often calmed down immediately and was civilized the rest of the dinner. We knew that person needed to be fed, to be taken care of a little, was just hungry, a venial sin, not a cardinal one.
Then there was the asshole who’d gotten talked into French food, lordy! and was so out of his depth, so uncomfortable, so insecure in his role as diner, male diner, that he had defaulted to difficulty. We knew when to say, “May I show you a wine that I think would go beautifully with your veal and duck, a wine that won’t break the bank, too. We had a bottle at family dinner,” and sometimes the man would ask, “Oh, you all eat together,” and the exchange would become familiar, familial, as though the couple were dining with all of us, at home. There were so many ways to put a diner at ease, particularly one footing the bill, one already uncomfortable with that prospect, one refusing to enjoy this experience because the bill loomed, and loomed large. We were all just an evening’s tips away from the sidewalk ourselves; we understood a diner like this, and any whiff of inflating the bill, or nudging it up, well, that would undermine all of our good work, would ensure that man and his wife never graced our doorway again.
In many ways, eating out at a good restaurant was the working man’s luxury, and when Le St. Tropez did better during the recession than it had ever done, we all realized that a good meal out was at most a hundred dollars, or a few hundred dollars; it wasn’t a fur coat, a yacht. Almost anyone could afford that, and we loved these diners because we became their luxury, their trip to Hawaii, their relaxation, their trip to Europe, an evening of a different culture.
Unreadable assholes, or assholes who seemingly were constitutionally that, well, you waited their table in the most blameless, impeccable manner; it was on them, and you made sure it remained on them. Our owner was good about this, too. An impossible customer was an impossible customer; did we really want him or her back anyway? After all, if someone can’t be pleased no matter what you do, or how well you treat them, then perform exquisitely, but deduct the prospect of appreciation. Chalk it up for what it is, an impossible situation. Forget about them. If those customers came back maybe it was because a restaurant’s staff had performed anonymity and that’s what the customer sought, or the staff had treated him or her well no matter how badly they had behaved, and that alone could be the test, whether or not you’d let them control your behavior. We didn’t; we were consummate professionals, as we’d often joke later … and they were consummate assholes.
Our chef at Le St. Tropez was known for his paté, and it was delicious, and once, a man, holding a cigarette in his hand as he spoke to me, complained about the paté, that he didn’t think it was well flavored or salted enough, or some such cavil. How hard it was not to say, well, you’re smoking and pretty much all you can taste is your cigarette and the sugars of the slurries the tobacco was cured in. Shut the fuck up! Harder still not to tell the chef, who had been known to appear in the restaurant holding a chef’s knife in his hand, toweling it off as though to have it immaculate before plunging it into someone’s heart. It was all great fun, and it was all very serious, too. Every bit of a diner’s experience had been thought about, had been prepared for, and to have petty and wildly idiosyncratic grousing brought everyone down, even if we had serious aesthetic resources by which we could rebuff a complaint. Nothing got struck from the record, went unheard, went un-discussed or un-thought about.
Michelle Latiolais is a professor of English at University of California, Irvine. The author of several books of fiction, her most recent novel is She (Norton). In Issue 111, she was interviewed by Matt Sumell. You can read her essay “Hospitality” in its entirety in Issue 116.