On The Cusp Of Silly Season


On the cusp of silly season is lost on those without an inkling of what my job entails. The magnitude of Christmas party season poised to ignite defies explanation. I could say I’ll be busy, I’m always busy, busy isn’t silly. Silly is working 18 days straight, working 80 hours a week, getting home at 4 am, showering and heading back to work. Silly is loading and unloading 3 cargo vans in the middle of night, silly is brewing hot chocolate at 2:30 am, loading 7,000 pastries out at 6:30 am and serving canapes to 2,400 guests at the ballet. Silly is how many pounds of turkey and bottles of wine we’ll transport in the next three weeks.

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Those of us crazy enough to embrace my profession live for silly season. Surviving Christmas party season is a badge of honour, we live for silly season. The more extreme, physically challenging, convoluted, impossible timelines or elaborate execution, the better. Bring it on! It’s silly season and I’m stoked. See you in a few weeks.

Huh


Never assume a client appreciation cocktail reception hosted by a wealthy cosmetic dentist is going to be dull. Swanky venue, meticulous client, ice sculpture, money no object floral arrangements and enough food to feed an army. What could possibly go wrong? We’re on our game, everything on time and in place, staff graciously passing breathtaking canapes, copious platters of stationed cheese, antipasto and charcuterie artfully woven along the spine of a central table.

Wait a minute, what’s wrong with you people? See that tiny plate on the table, small plate means small bite. No one invited you to dinner, why are you behaving like this is your last meal? Congratulations on a new set of teeth, but I’m begging you, show some self respect. Forty minutes into a three hour reception, we’re out of food – oh crap! Time to inform client, ease concerns and dispatch a chef to secure reinforcements. Momentary lapses in unabashed consumption ripple through the crowd. One of my servers reports guests ate all the garnish on his platter. WTF!

Thirty minutes later two behemoth platters of deli meat and cheese hit the table, my chef sets a timer – gone in 22 minutes. Now client wants more dessert, politely drawing the line I decline and head back to the kitchen. Along the way a guest asks for a moment of my time.”What’s your favorite colour?” she asks, clearly surprised when I answer “green”. “Oh my, don’t know if I have green” she mumbles while digging in her purse. Now she’s holding one of my hands in hers, pressing a cellophane wrapped cross in the other and declaring “close enough”.

What’s happening, please let go of my hand! A missionary you say, made this cross yourself, sent 100,000 crosses to Haiti after the earthquake?  Please let go of my hand! Propriety kept me from calling bat shit on 100,000 Haitian crosses, I heard myself say “that was a kind gesture”. Thanking her for the gift relaxed her hand long enough to remove mine from her clutches.

Never let it be said that mine is a predictable profession.

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Crazy Train Rolls Into Work Town


Every so often crazy train rolls into work town. Usually we hear it coming, sometimes signals fail. Crazy train doesn’t discriminate, we never know who’ll climb aboard.

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Yesterday crazy train rolled into an all day professional conference for doctors. Repeat client, nothing too fussy, routine conference defined by breakfast, morning break, lunch and afternoon break. Despite leaving for work at 4:15 am, I looked forward to seeing this client again. Remarkably, special dietary requests were few, only one in fact, a Dr. B who identified as Celiac. I remembered Dr. B from the last conference – requested gluten free meals, rather than eat our food, provided her own meals to re-heat. No problem Dr. B, I’ll warm up your gluten free pizza.

This morning Dr. B arrived with Tupperware boxed lunch and polite request to reheat when appropriate. A few minutes later one of my servers presented a zip-loc sandwich bag of what looked like oatmeal. Server said “I was asked to add half a cup of boiling water to this”. Why didn’t Dr. B talk to me when she gave me her lunch? Never mind. Crazy train hadn’t whistled, how were we supposed to know it was about to derail?

Does this look like a restaurant, do you see anything else in a bowl? We’re off-site caterers, never mind, we have hot water, I’ll find a bowl. There you go Dr. B – nice ceramic bowl, half a cup boiling water, personally delivered by a keen young server smiling with a sense of accomplishment – enjoy your breakfast.

Moments later server returned with furrowed brow, exclaiming – “She snapped at me, said it wasn’t instant oats and demanded a microwave” . “We don’t have a microwave, she asked us to add hot water, where is she now” flew back in rapid succession. “Looking for a microwave and extremely upset” replied server. Barely had time to mutter “give me a break” when another co-worker announced Dr. B was in the bathroom crying hysterically. It’s too early for this shit Dr. B!

Everybody relax I’ll talk to Dr. B preceded reconnaissance of the ladies room, Dr. B’s sobs could be heard in the hallway – kill me now. I opened the door, “please don’t be locked in a stall”. Oh crap! What fresh hell is this? Note to self – caution staff to report accurate information – not in my wildest imagination could her performance be defined as shedding basic bathroom tears. Unaware of my presence, Dr. B wailed “I’m all alone, no one will help me. Why won’t anyone help me?” “Help me, someone help me” What the fuck, enough! “Excuse me” accompanied the knock on crazy train’s bathroom stall. “I’d like to help but you need to come out”. “Go away, I need to compose myself”. Gladly Dr. B, take all the time you need. I left to inform client that one of her doctors was in meltdown.

” Dr. B asked for hot water, no mention of microwave. We don’t have a microwave, would have told her so from the start. How are we supposed to know what’s in her sandwich bag? She’s crying in a bathroom stall, wailing pleas for help, threatening to go home” rolled off my lips. “She does this a couple times a year” sighed client. Really? In public? went unspoken. Professional obligation fulfilled, Dr. B was crazy train’s problem not mine.

An hour later servers cleared Dr. B’s oatmeal bowl – it was licked clean. Hang in there Dr. B! Nothing like a good cry, public display of crazy and chorus of despair tinged attention seeking outbursts to work up an appetite. Heat your lunch? No problem Dr. B.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pondering A Life Of Hospitality


Recently a client asked if any one situation stood out in my hospitality career. Hmm, that’s a loaded question.

There was the groom who begged for a make-up miracle to conceal his black eye. Pimps don’t care if it’s your wedding day – any man who slinks out between nuptials and reception to bang a hooker and refuses to pay, deserves more than a black eye.

Standing between drunks and free flowing alcohol is a barrel of laughs – “I thought they gassed all the Jews” stands out as one way to guarantee a call to security is handled promptly.

Being hired to manage a “birthday party”, arrive to find a Bris, explain politely we could have provided a loaf of bread to “break” had they bothered to ask, negotiate compromise with the Rabbi (technically ceremonial “breaking” of sliced bread for the spinach dip fulfills ritual requirements, right? ) Post party clean-up – realize the coffee cup in my hand contains blood soaked gauze and foreskin.

Applying red nail polish to a bowl of raw chicken feet (Metallica dressing room), assuring Neil Diamond I would fire any staff who made eye contact with him. Asked to deliver a bottle of Jack Daniels (won’t say whose dressing room) moments after they trotted in a sheep on a leash. Jack in hand, walked in on rock star performing a sex act with said sheep. Brushing lint off Elton John’s jacket. Giving Robert Plant a stern piece of my mind for ignoring tour protocol regarding production company approval of any additional expenses. His “sorry ma’am” still rings in my ears.

Joe Cocker wearing nothing but boxer shorts, mesmerized by imperfections of his vulnerable shell, I set dinner on a table. He strikes up a conversation, for 30 effortless minutes we discuss the cosmos. Myself, Tina Turner, Bonnie Raitt and Sarah McLachlan post show in a dark, empty arena – four ladies talking until the wee hours of morning. B.B. King holding court after his show, not a “meet and greet”, nothing formal, seems he just felt like hanging around. An hour passes, another, it’s after 1 am when he calls me over – “Darlin, I could really use some BBQ chips”.  He takes my hand, presses something into the palm and holds on for a peculiarly long time. He lets go, I open my hand to find a 14K gold pendant commemorating B.B. King’s final tour.

Menstrual calamities – cutting out red stained section of hysterical brides’ wedding dress, fashioning faux lace from white tissue paper, hand stitching in place with 10 minutes to spare before she walked down the aisle. Young Asian women with limited English, “help” drew my attention to blood running down both legs from crotch length spandex to 4 inch stilettos. Couldn’t find a feminine product but offered a jug of warm water and 2 clean bar rags. “You clean” she replied. “Wash your own legs” is universal in any language, she shrugged as I led her out the back door to tidy up in our cargo van. Hunched over, wobbling on stilettos, she used one cloth to wash, stuffed the other in her panties, ran back inside, jumped on stage to sing a karaoke rendition of Lady Gaga, I Was Born This Way.

Work is why I’m fearless, the reason my then teenage son once declared “Mom, you’re the MOST” (Master Of Small Talk). Amusement, satisfaction and unusual strokes knock without invitation. Truth be told, the stand out situation of hospitality life is recognizing the moment adrenalin flips a switch at “go time”. Unfazed, daunted, hesitant or perturbed, go time is my time to shine.

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18 Minutes


Today my world wears a badge embossed with “18 minutes”, a private honour reserved for individuals who share my profession. 18 minutes is the stuff of legend, an accomplishment of mythic proportion meaningless to all but a team of elite lunatics brave enough to prove it can be done.

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So why does 18 minutes have me beaming with pride? Last night with two teams of five servers we served 180 guests the main course of a plated dinner in 18 minutes. I’m talking flawless execution, no screw-ups or dead plates returned to the kitchen for “they ordered beef not salmon”. It was 18 minutes of perfection, feathers in the cap of our existence, testament to the power of professional satisfaction. If there were a catering Olympics, my team would be standing on a podium collecting a gold medal. 18 minutes is why I get out of bed in the morning.

 

Annoyances and Bad Form


Time for my annual Christmas party ponder. A grumpy, exhausted caterer’s list of annoyances and bad form –

You failed to inform us “Sparky” is a very bad dog. You – executive of a major corporation hosting a Christmas party with your lovely wife. Never mind ridiculous expectations and timeline, we’ll make it fabulous. Pardon me? Sparky is snarling at my chef because he doesn’t like men wearing caps? Would you like a hair in your prime rib? Never mind. Oh, Sparky is hungry. You want my chef to feed him while carving the beef? Maybe you should feed Sparky and put him in another room. How silly of me, Sparky is much too precious. Just watch him beg for food as your guests awkwardly pretend Sparky isn’t drooling at their feet. Let me assure you – bad dogs are neither cute or entertaining, Sparky is a very bad dog.

Bad dogs have nothing on bad people. Being a reflection of his clueless environment, Sparky pales in comparison to blithering clunk-heads oblivious to their surroundings. You’re a guest at a company dinner – guests at 6 pm, passed appetizers and drinks for an hour, please be seated for dinner at 7 pm. Look around – this isn’t a restaurant, did you notice the kitchen we set up behind pipe and drape. Never mind, please be seated. Oh wait, you changed tables and now are making a scene because servers couldn’t find you to deliver a gluten free vegan meal? My sincerest apologies, if you would be so kind as to take your seat we’ll have you eating in no time.

Place setting jumpers and bad dogs pale next to passed appetizer garbage dumpers. Garbage dumpers catapult beyond canape lunges. Pushing guests aside to ensure first crack at a platter,  only embarrasses individuals oblivious to polite decorum. Taking an appetizer then depositing the pick, spoon or napkin back on the tray of canapes epitomizes bad form. Garbage dumping eclipses annoyance, forcing an immediate server about face to the kitchen. Clearly common sense eludes these geniuses – why should they care when a full platter returns to the kitchen for a scrub because their garbage prevents servers from feeding co-workers.

Baked Brie is not a pie. Yes, I see you put half a pound on your plate but no, I don’t have a fork. See the little knife for spreading it on sliced baguette? Notice scores of people politely waiting to spread a morsel of Brie on that bread? Is grumpiness trickling from corners of my forced smile? Fair enough, you probably haven’t seen a wheel of Brie large enough for fifty people – figure it out – I still don’t have a fork.

I’m sorry, your host didn’t order coffee. No, I don’t have any hot water with lemon. Can I make an exception for you? With all due respect please don’t confuse my good nature with perceived ability to pull a kettle out of my ass. I’m sure you’re lovely, mean well and truly desire a warm beverage – please look around, this isn’t a restaurant, there isn’t a pot of coffee in the back. This is the observation deck of an office tower – even if I could boil water, your host didn’t pay for hot beverage service. Can you understand my limitations, has it occurred to you one exception opens a can of worms I haven’t the staff, authority or inclination to deal with. Do you really think one exception ends with you, that none of 200 in this room will demand equal consideration? You don’t like my attitude, poor customer service? Take it up with your host – I don’t have a freaking kettle.

Why are you blocking our service area? Are you vacant, oblivious, gripped with self importance vast enough to deem it your right to stand where you damn well please? How many times have I politely asked you to step aside? Are you passive aggressive, amused by my servers struggling to maneuver around you, honestly this inconsiderate? Did you notice that one ton truck outside? What crosses your mind each time I ask you to move? Are you conscious of exhausted staff struggling with enormous loads, dolly after dolly of heavy equipment hauled outside, loaded on that truck? Silly me, of course you didn’t.

I’m tired – Christmas party season is over in a week. Like childbirth and tequila, destined to seem like a good idea the next time it rolls around.

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Why The Bartender?


After restaurant meals we tip our server, the individual directly responsible for a pleasant experience. That server “tips out” the kitchen, hostess, bus people, bar and so on. Popped in for a cocktail – we leave the bartender a couple bucks. Tip the valet, coat check, washroom attendant – we recognize unspoken gratuity parameters.

Where polite acknowledgement goes the moment people attend catered events is beyond me. For some reason, every last expression of gratitude goes to the bartender.

Take tonight for example. With multiple events taking place, I found myself in a private home, managing a 70th birthday party with upwards of 70 guests. Multiple events spread our staff thin, translation – my chef and I had to rely on 2 temp agency staff scheduled to meet us on site. Arriving half an hour before their start time, we get to work unloading our truck, rolling tables in place, setting out chairs.

Five, now ten minutes late, I call the agency. Unsure if they’ll make it, now I’m setting up the bar, hauling racks of glassware, beer and wine, and setting up a water station as guests trickle in early. Half an hour late, two bewildered looking women arrive with their driver. Driver immediately compensates for their rather limited grasp of the English language with – we got lost, what time are they off and the bartender doesn’t know how to open wine could you do it for her.

Bartender immediately puts the red wine on ice. Oh my. Have you ever tended bar? “I’ve poured wine at hotel banquets” she replies. Can you pour beer into a glass? Bartender’s face lights up – “I’ve seen it done, you tip the glass a little, right?”. All I can politely muster is “give them the bottle unless they ask for a glass”. I uncork six bottles of wine and hope for the best.

My chef is in the weeds, I should have been helping him organize the kitchen. Our client indicated a few guests would bring food he’d like us to platter and pass. All we could do was exchange silent WTF’s as every last guest cheerfully plonked contributions on the counter. The merciful deposited frilly toothpicks strung with seafood or deli staples. Far too many good intentions arrived with assembly required. “Turn this baguette into crustini, spread it with guacamole, top with poached prawn and decorate with cherry tomato halves and petals of edible flowers”.

Oh shit, the bar! I run outside to find temp one and two debating possible ways of extracting a wine cork in light of a hinged corkscrew. Hard to say which caught my attention first – the bemused guest audience or valiant temp effort. Gotta hand it to those temps, man they wanted to open that bottle. “Where’s your bartenders tip jar?”  slurs one of the guests. “She’s doing a great job, let her have a tip jar”.

My chef hasn’t stopped in six hours, the yard is littered with empty glasses and kitchen looks like a bomb went off. I haven’t stopped moving, patience is becoming a premium and server temp now prefers offering moral support to bartender temp over bussing dirty dishes.

“I want to tip your bartender, where’s the tip jar – your bartender is working so hard”. “Thank you” I reply, that’s very kind.

What is it with bartenders? Did anyone think of the chef or notice temp couldn’t tend bar if her life depended on it? Why doesn’t it occur to anyone to tip the chef? His cheerful competence soldiered for stoic hours. I sent temp one and temp two home at 10 pm. Chef and I took down the tables, stacked chairs, cleaned the kitchen, loaded our truck, drove back to the shop and signed out after 12 hours of relentless shenanigans.

The next time you attend a wedding or catered party – look beyond the bartender. It takes much more than a bartender to make a party fabulous.