After two years of waiting tables in a shopping mall restaurant where clowns and kid’s nights featured heavily in branding, I got hired at a fancy country inn when I was about twenty-five. At the last place, I learned to study a massive menu, where one cut of steak stalked the pages like a food private dick, turning up in different disguises everywhere one looked. On page two, under a header that read ‘Southern Style’ in a zealous font, the fillet snuggled up with some mac and cheese and creamed peas, but it showed up again on page seven, wearing a lavish amount of teriyaki sauce and peering out from a forest of steamed broccoli that had somehow taken root on an unstable berm of dry pilaf. At the inn, the card stock menu was newly printed each day – you could smear the ink if you weren’t careful. It was a prix fixe menu, so lightly edited it only needed a glance when you got to work. The one stumbling block was learning new words, most of which were French.
Thankfully the chef was generous enough to demonstrate as well as explain how things like his sauces were accomplished. I grew up in a house where the fanciest foreign-sounding dish we made was Chicken a la King and even that stopped when the electric can opener broke and we couldn’t find the manual one. Yet rather than feeling out of place in Jean Pierre’s kitchen, I felt like I had finally claimed a birth right. Since childhood I was convinced I’d been kidnapped from Hollywood television icons Barbara Eden and Larry Hagman, who I imagined were secretly a real-life couple. No one would talk about my disappearance, but I knew they were out there, combing the streets of Beverly Hills, looking for their darling little Jonathan from the windows of a sleek powder blue convertible. Across all the miles me and Mommie Babs had a connection that could not be broken. She would have taught me about things like béchamel and velouté. As I learned about French cuisine – or at lest enough to sell it at the table – I was getting a taste of the childhood that was stolen from me by the same pair who would throw a paper towel at you to wipe away the orange grease of sloppy joes.
If I was getting a second chance at glamour with a ‘u’ in it, the inn was also getting a new life. It had burned down under unexplained circumstances two years before I was hired, and countless dollars were spent to rebuild it. As a matter of fact, finishing details were still being worked out in my first week there. They sent us home with scorched linens form the fire for us to wash, just the kind of curious cheapness that I soon discovered was infecting the place.
The owner came from money; the back porch chatter was that her people were in diamonds. The new incarnation of the inn was much grander than before, but due to tempestuous relations between the owner and the contractor, shoddy details turned up right and left. The handsome oak staircase terminated at a richly varnished plywood landing. Much ado was made of the seven piece crown moldings, but no one ever got back around to grout the bathroom tiles. The owner did a lot of talking about her designer cousin in Greenwich Village who she paid to do the bedrooms, but when the pink and purple coverlets started showing up, it looked strictly amateur. Even before I knew design, I knew this cousin was the family charity case. One of those trust fund kids with a thin shop on Bleecker Street, his was the kind of place where a ‘back in ten’ sign perpetually hangs on the door. Meanwhile he smokes cigarettes at the cafe across the street, loudly complaining to his best friend Leona – an aging dancer with good Vegas stories – about how no one understands his vision.
There was something about that job that felt a little wrong from day one. Even though it was nice to learn some dishes I could order out with my blood mother, should we ever reunite, I found it hard to warm to the owner. A thin little mouse with the gait of a marionette, Claudia had a habit of appearing at your shoulder, hands clasped before her, eyes probing you for misconduct. I kept my head down in general and hoped she wouldn’t pop up as I mangled the pronunciations of the wines, my greatest weakness at table side. Hoping to capitalize on the efficiency I had learned at the steak house, I threw myself into keeping the serving stations clean and filled, work that would have fallen to busboys if she’d funded the staff accounts more generously. The headwaiter who hired me was a class act, seasoned in fine dining and more than capable of running the place without Claudia’s interference, yet even he seemed nervous when she was around. With the chilly gaze of an outraged librarian, she was unsettling even when she tried to muster the occasional smile.
By contrast, her boyfriend was a human ox with a raspy laugh and a penchant for crass one liners. Former military, he said, Stan’s every attempt to inspire camaraderie did often tempt me to go AWOL. I think he wanted to show he was cool with myself and the headwaiter being gay when he made a joke one day about how nice guys always hold their ass cheeks open for sex. Like the inn itself, big burly Stan was a class act.
I started at that place in the fall and made the trek across county through many snowy winter days to follow. The shine of learning about fine food wore off by Valentine’s Day. By then I had taken about as much of Claudia and Stan as I could and I was discovering that I missed the simplicity of the old steak house. I made a lot more money waiting tables at the inn and had half the side work, but when I’d go back into the kitchen at my old job, there was always a new set of college kids, cutting up in the break room, making jokes as we rolled silverware wraps. We laughed a lot and the management didn’t give a rats ass as long as we checked our tables every so often and never left food to die under the heat lamps. The cooks were mean as hell if you didn’t get your food out quick, so the managers need not have worried. More and more, I couldn’t stand the quiet-step skulking of Claudia, and I found that the pretty drive to the inn filled me with dread.
She seemed to bother other people, too, because two of the waitresses who started with me had left before Thanksgiving. And shortly after Christmas, Jean Pierre quit, taking the kindness of his kitchen with him. Eschewing the gentle style of educating servers that the French man was so good at, the smirking sous chef who landed in his place instead posted admonishing notes and reminders all over the place. One day, Claudia cornered me in the dining room before our first seating and said, “I need you to smile when we pass one another.”
“Okay,” I said.
When I finished my shift, I did my side work with perfect precision, determined that the last napkins I folded at that place should be picture worthy. I folded my apron, shook a cigarette out of the pack in my coat, and paused for one last smoke on the kitchen porch. The headwaiter stood beside me as we blew smoke into the cold, starry night. When I said good night, I gave his arm a friendly squeeze and he cut his eyes at me quickly.
“You’re not coming back, are you?”
I shook my head, casting a glance through the kitchen door. Now I realize I should have given him more notice, but he didn’t seem to mind that much. He could have worked that dining room alone, he was so good, and I knew from a thousand sidewise glances how he felt about Claudia. He patted me on the shoulder.