Last night was the official opening of the Blue Breeze Inn on Ponsonby.
Working the deck:
Mike, “Mr.Z” from Wisconsin (what are the odds?): with curly, sandy brown hair and a big grin, Mr. Z uses his Midwestern charm to please the crowd. His easy manner endears him to his tables quite quickly. He’s the kind of person you’re lucky to be working with, because you know he has your back. Until he’s in the sticks (by that time, hopefully, you’re out of them, and can return the favor).
Katja “Lucy Liu” from Germany: tall, with an angular face, freckles, and eye shape/make-up that gives her that Lucy Liu look, Katja aims for perfection. She’s methodical, a good communicator, and always trying to improve or top-up her service and knowledge of the menu. She’s also fabulous to work with, a true team-player.
Damien “Frenchie:” Charming and charismatic with dark hair, French flair, and a sideways smile.
Wayne, a Kiwi, our GM: Tall and skinny, Wayne jokes he wears a beard so he doesn’t look emaciated.
Mark, Part-owner: the man with the vision, Mark floats around the restaurant chatting up new customers and old friends. Mark’s funny and has a mean wit – the kind only a gay man can have, or get away with. Customer’s revel in his attention. His large, wide, black-framed glasses and brightly colored floral “Pacifica” shirt hangs open, revealing a white T-shirt underneath.
Shey, Head Chef: a gap-toothed Kiwi, Shey takes local, organic, cage-free food seriously. He’s passionate about his work but also volatile. Jokes run about how Chef has a big knife, so don’t ask too many questions…or make too many mistakes.
Sebastian “Baz,” Bar Manager: Knows a great deal about beer, wine, and spirits. He wants you to know and respect his expertise. Though Baz can come off as arrogant (indeed, on one of my first days he embarrassed me by insulting my wine service when he didn’t even watch me do it), he’s calm and cool during the storm of service.
Adam, Resident British “hipster” on the pass: lanky and dark haired, Adam’s full of dark humor and a bit snippy, but he gets the job done. It was his job to monitor orders, communicate with the kitchen, and make sure the right food gets delivered to the right tables in a timely fashion.
4pm: Wayne, Mr. Z, Lucy and I are setting up the dining room. The outside walls are all windows, and it’s a beautiful afternoon. Mark randomly calls out, “20 minutes!” “10 minutes!” though we have no idea what he’s referring to. The assumption is he’s trying to keep us all on our toes. Plates, glasses, chopsticks, napkins stamped with our Tiki logo, all go on the table.
5pm: We learn there will be no staff meal. It’s in our contract that we get fed, so we all came to work thinking we’d get dinner. Apparently, the kitchen’s too overwhelmed to provide this service just yet, and no one’s been notified.
5:30pm: We are open. Several changes have been made to the menu and Lucy and I peruse and discuss. It’s particularly difficult for me, because meat is the main ingredient in Chinese fare so I haven’t been able to taste most of the dishes. I got a lot of feedback from fellow servers about their personal favorites and the key flavors during our staff tasting. For whatever reason we didn’t get to try the vegetarian options. Sections have changed and I’m in “Ocean View,” which consists of 8 two-tops lining outside window. Even with a food runner and a good team of servers to back you up, 8 two-tops could easily get hellish. In the states, sections are rarely more than 6 tables. The thinking goes that servers are cheap labor, and people get better service when a server has fewer tables. So I’m eyeing my section warily.
6pm: My first table arrives. Things go relatively smoothly. Then another table sits. And another. I start to get into my groove, and I think I’ve got a handle on things. Working with a food-runner is a blessing and a curse: you are not responsible for waiting for/delivering/explaining the food, but if things get crazy you have no idea what was delivered, or wasn’t, or when. Mr. Z reminds me I haven’t been dropping off cutlery boxes (each table starts with only a spoon and some chop sticks).
Things start to get crazy. Food’s getting backed up. Wayne can’t work the floor or be available for questions because he only staffed four servers for opening night. The deck, where there are another 8 tables, starts filling up. So Wayne’s waiting tables too.
7:30pm: It’s like we are inside the perfect storm. Indeed, we are at sea and waves are crashing over the deck. Mark pulls me aside:
“Where’s the Pinto Grigio for table 14?”
Table 14, Baz told me, are important customers. The gentleman works as an architect, and he has constructed some of the major skyscrapers in Auckland.
“I ordered it, but it hasn’t been poured yet,” I say. I imagine myself, face flushed, wide-eyed.
“You need to be up at the bar, asking for your drinks,” Mark says.
I nod. I had assumed the bar was just a little backed up and didn’t want to hound them. But again and again, my drinks don’t show up. I’m losing time, checking the computer to make sure I ordered them and walking by the table to see if they have already been dropped. It’s making me feel crazy.
The storm breaks over Table 14. When I stop by, they tell me they’ve gotten their entree before the dumplings. I apologize and tell them (as I told them before) that food comes out as it’s prepared. The Tua Tua New Zealand clams came out, but I F***** up and didn’t make a note to take the pork out (why the F*** is there pork in the clams? isn’t there enough pork on the menu?!?!). Their drink orders got lost, but I manage a save and deliver a new wine just as he’s taking his last sip. The Tua Tua’s are fixed and arrive. The Beef Shin, a sort of hot pot made with our master broth and vegetables, arrives.
“Where’s the Prawn Har Gau?” the gentleman asks me.
I go do some recon on the Har Gau – a steamed dumpling with prawn and corriander – and find that it was crossed off, marked as delivered, though they never received it.
In the meantime, at Table 9: Julian and James, VIP customers and wine-makers extraordinaire, order a bottle of the Castagna Adam’s Rib red wine. I sigh to myself: my first wine service, for a couple of experts. Julian waves away the tasting, telling me the cork is of a special variety that cannot spoil wine, so there’s no need to taste it. Tasting the wine would be frowned upon (though they offer) so instead I am asked to get a glass so I can have a sniff.
“Julian put the label on this bottle,” James says.
Julian has soft features, wears round, black-rimmed Harry Potter glasses, and a black jacket. He’s definitely and fabulously gay. James, though metrosexual, is straight. I learned this later, when Julian accused James of flirting with me, to which I responded, “Well you’re just so charismatic!”
I look around. All my tables are full. How is this still happening? What time is it? I feel my chest tighten. I track down and deliver the Prawn Har Gau to Table 14 with a flourish. I send Baz to give his attentions and smooth things over.
“It’s all good, sweethart,” Baz says. “They understand. You can hold your head up high.”
I grab a wine glass and head over to see James and Julian.
“Close your eyes and tell me what you smell,” James says.
Shit. I’m really bad at this. I work with wine, and have for awhile. I drink a lot of wine. But I cannot smell it and tell you what intricate ingredients are sending signs to my olfactory.
“I smell a rich, smooth, full-bodied red,” I say. If I had time, I think, it would have been worthwhile to read the descriptive label on the bottle.
“What color red?” James asks. “Purple red or deep cherry red?”
“Never purple red,” Julian says.
“Definitely rose red. A beautiful, floral, rose red,” I say.
“Good,” James says.
I ordered three different kinds of dumplings, but only two have been delivered to James and Julian, though all three are crossed off. They ask me how long the Ma Po Tofu takes, and I find out it’s too long – I get them walnuts to snack on instead.
When I stop back by, James encourages me to take another sniff. We’ve already established I’m from Wisconsin, and I’ve made jokes at the expense of our cherry wine.
“Imagine you’re 12, and you’re riding your bike to school. The snow’s just melted and the air’s coming down off the hills and warming the – what do you call it?”
“Asphalt,” Julian says.
“So the air’s warming the asphalt, and it’s steaming. Can you smell the asphalt but also the fresh spring air?” James says.
“That’s perfect,” Julian says. “Perfect. Tar and Rose petal.”
“What an amazing journey,” I say. “An incredible story behind the scent.”
Later, Baz clears James’ glass, so he has to start drinking out of my “smelling” glass. He’s genuinely upset that the glass has been cleared and we can’t continue our olfactory journey. I’m vaguely relieved.
9:30pm: Things start to slow down. The restaurant’s a mess and we are low on everything. The Crispy Duck entree has been dropped to James and Julian and I swing by to check in. It’s too salty, and too spicy too. But really, the salt level is out of control.
“Forgive me,” James says. “I never do this. I never send anything back. But I can’t eat this. Tasting, smelling – it’s what I do for a living. This is just too salty.”
I bring it back to the kitchen and Baz has a look, and a taste. He agrees it’s too salty. We take it off the bill and I recommend sending out the Prawn Har Gau because it’s fresh and fabulous and will clear the salt off the palate (and because I suspect they never got it, though I ordered it). James also orders the Ma Pa Tofu.
10pm: Plates have been cleared on most tables. A few people remain drinking. The tofu dish was also too salty, but James wouldn’t let me say anything, or take it back. I make a mental note to mention salt levels to Millie, our maître d, who has the chef’s ear.
By the time James and Julian leave, they have my life story, and Julian encourages me to write every morning:
“Practice your art. You have to write every day. I make wine, so I drink a lot of it. I have to pair wine with food, so I try a lot of different dishes. But I used to be a filmmaker, so I understand where you’re coming from. You don’t need to make excuses about why you’re waiting tables. Just write every day.”
My head aches and it’s spinning. Still so much to do. Hunger’s gnawing in that vague way it does when dinner time was hours ago. I drink two glasses of water, and offer one to the Indian dishwasher, Sonny. Together, we start to put the restaurant back together.
Later Ian (our lovable, Kiwi, senior bartender), tells me that for whatever reason, my drink tickets were printing off in a different place from the rest of the staff. That’s why my orders kept getting lost. He’s told the IT guy about the problem, so it should be getting resolved.
It’s midnight before Mr. Z and I clock out and sit down with a Tiki Blonde. The bartenders are still polishing glasses.
“Wasn’t that fun?” Mr. Z says.
“Fun? I don’t know if I’d call it that.”
“Oh sure it was stressful. Full on. But it was fun. If I keep telling myself it was fun, I’ll remember it that way.”
“You’re so good,” I say.
Beers finished, we head for the door.
“Goodnight Cha-don-aaay!” Mr. Z calls.
That’s me – Cha-don-aaay – a nickname I earned because of the ghetto white girl way I jokingly pronounce it. Outside the streets are empty and the air feels crisp and cool. I wonder if it’s too late for the hot tub.