You do remember where we left the story last week, don’t you? A group of eager American tourists looking for somewhere to have dinner had just burst into Grumpy’s empty dining room.
Technically, the dining room was still open. Grumpy slid off the bar stool, adjusted his bowtie, and turned instantly into the consummate host. Seating his unexpected guests, and quietly barking orders at the disappointed staff who saw an early night turning into a late one, he handed out menus, took drink orders and joked with the guests asking for dinner recommendations. In short, Grumpy was in full flight. He even took one of the larger tables next to the bar under his wing, because suddenly, we were short staffed. Groups of thirty unexpected guests arriving all at once without a reservation just didn’t happen in Grumpy’s fine dining room.
‘You stand over there,’ he said hurrying past me. ‘Hold your hands behind your back and watch what I’m doing. Don’t say anything, don’t touch anything; just watch and learn.’ I did as I was told.
Grumpy served the entrees and then cleared the table with great flair. He was a pleasure to watch. ‘This is excellent experience for you,’ he said next time he walked past. ‘They’ve all ordered Chateaubriand. I’ll carve it at the table. ‘Get the trolley!’
I had something to do. I was part of the team! I got the carving trolley with the wooden chopping block on top from the kitchen and parked it next to the table. ‘Now step back and watch,’ said Grumpy. I’m getting the steak. I returned to my place by the bar – hands behind my back – and watched.
Moments later, Grumpy arrived carrying a large silver platter with a magnificent piece of beef in the middle. The guests ah-ed in admiration and watched Grumpy go to work with the carving knife. He carved the steak on the chopping block with great dexterity perfected by decades of practise, and then carefully placed the slices of beef in the middle of the silver platter next to the vegetables. Looking in my direction, he winked at me, reached for the serving spoon and fork, and balancing the lage platter on his left arm, began to serve.
Always serve from the left, I remembered him telling me, and go around the table anti-clockwise. Start with the meat, then the vegetables. Not too much, mind you, and keep an eye on colour; beans, carrots, then the spuds with a little parsley on top to make to plate look appetising and interesting. And work quickly, to keep the food warm.
With years of experience behind every well-practised move, Grumpy performed like an oiled machine. One day, I’ll be like him, I thought, watching in admiration as Grumpy quickly worked his way around the table of six.
At first, I didn’t see it because he had his back turned to me and the lights had been dimmed. Suddenly however, all the diners sitting at Grumpy’s table had fallen silent and were staring at something in front of them. Grumpy had just finished serving his last customer and was facing in my direction. That’s when I saw it.
Even the most hardened alcoholic can’t completely control the effect two water glasses full of Chivas Regal have on an empty stomach. Whilst Grumpy’s body was functioning perfectly on autopilot, the brain had temporarily retired from making rational decisions. Grumpy had done everything by the book, except for one thing: he forgot to put the dinner plates on the table before serving the splendid fare!
A large hotel is like a village; full of gossip and quite unforgiving. The story of Grumpy’s spectacular disaster and astronomical dry cleaning bill went around the hotel corridors faster than the fire alarm. “Chateaubriand a la tablecloth” became the toast of the kitchen and was spoken of for years.
Sadly, Grumpy left the hotel soon thereafter. Finger-pointing, ridicule, and sniggering behind his back had made it impossible for him to hold his head up high. The hotel lost a marvellous character, and I lost my mentor and a friend.
However, that wasn’t the end of it. We were destined to meet again two years later on an ocean liner. But that’s another story … Look out for Neptune and the Bombe Alaskaand you’ll find out what destiny had in store for us. It’s quite a surprise.