The customers were bad, the bosses worse: novelist Kathleen Alcott recalls her days in the food trade
My first tastes of fine food were just that mouthfuls, just enough that I could later describe the dishes to diners, meted out by mingy restaurateurs who ran what was then one of the greatest performances of elegance in San Francisco. On an alley nestled between two streets that ran dramatically uphill, the citys rich clientele chose from a row of restaurants of different European provenance. It was my job to lie to them, to make them believe that these were places of sophistication when what I saw was financial collapse, internecine rivalry, and lives stalled and forgotten on that lane that appeared so charming and vivacious. San Francisco was afflicted by fog the first day I wandered down that lane, an accidental college dropout, my education placed on hold by the recession, my bank account in the low triple digits. I was freezing in the dress and thin tights I had worn, and when I found the restaurant that had placed a vague Craigslist ad, the middle-aged man who greeted me hardly glanced at my rsum. It was the first in an army of red flags. He complimented my cheekbones, my platinum blonde hair, and asked if I could start the next day it was an easy job, one he would explain in the morning.
The restaurants in the alley were owned half by a pair of French men, the other half by Italians; their contempt for each other was a daily performance, enacted in the greetings not offered as they passed, or by the way a large partys arrival at one of the French restaurants meant the simultaneous ignition of 10 angry cigarettes by the Italians and their employees. The evil brilliance in the scheme was that each establishment was marketed as independent offering the finest in seafood or in paella or in New American or in authentic Naples cuisine and my job, the most shameful Ive ever had, was to stand before one of those restaurants with a menu in my hand, to court each potential customer with a lush description of the food. I could sell the menu so well precisely because its offerings were out of my reach, very rarely sampled but watched all day arriving on immaculate platters. The pork chop with peaches, I would say, really sings atop the goat cheese mashed potatoes, with the savoury and the sweet truly harmonised. The Dungeness crab mac and cheese marries a classic comfort food with the unmistakable zest of the sea. For six hours I stood in the same place, to my right a Spanish beauty whose Castilian lisp caught many customers, and to my left a woman who had stood there for rumoured decades, an Italian with calves like rifles who would mock my posture or voice as she whistled and waved her menu in semaphore. She still shows up in nightmares, Piera, her canine teeth exposed, one translucent platform heel turned out in an obscene show of thigh.
The American who hired me quit soon after, citing the insanity of owners, Salvatore and Paolo. I had begun to notice that eccentricity was the rule on the alley: the two Italians kept an office above, opposite the restaurants, from which they lowered everything, from financial statements to $300 bottles of champagne, in a straw basket. When a gust blew the papers toward the street, or the rope jerked and a bottle shattered, everyone put their hands to their head, cursing, betrayed by fate, but the ridiculous system was never retired. Tips were often doled out as pieces of paper that said: IOU $100, IOU $75.56, and one had to wait until Salvatore or Paolo seemed in amenable spirits to approach them with a collection of these slips. Waiters and bussers said their pay cheques bounced more often than not, and many advised me to take mine to a cheque-cashing centre rather than a bank; I was more likely to get the money that way, but only if I went to this place or that, where they still accepted Salvatore and Paolos cheques. When my first manager left, Paolos younger brother Vincenzo appeared, a tall, gleaming caricature, all cheekbones and hair gel and immaculate suede shoes. The gossip said hed once been up for co-ownership, but had disappeared on a motorcycle for days or weeks, and Paolo had been punishing him ever since, humiliating him before the customers and employees of whichever restaurant hed been assigned to manage.
With the earnestness of an algebra teacher, Vincenzo quickly set about dismissing the staff he found unprofessional or under-groomed or otherwise unworthy, placing two fingers at the bridge of his nose and murmuring, Pleece. It is not acceptable. I have to ask you to pleece get the fuck out of here. He was remarkable to watch, taking steps two at a time and corners like a jet plane without so much as tipping any of four plates rested on his forearms. He appeased angry diners with his enormous eyes and graceful bows, pouring a sancerre from a great height without spilling a drop. He could be as vicious as he was charming, and one could sense his displeasure immediately by a certain gesture and sound, a raised arm that ended in a rigid pointer finger and an OH! that seemed to contain all known profanities. The OH! uttered at a chardonnay presented sloppily or a table clearly neglected signified that Vincenzo was coming for you, and that his storm that would destroy the next hour for everyone, guilty or innocent.