Assembling the Troops
Today I am only half awake when I feel Chris kiss my cheek. "I love you," he whispers. Then he takes five steps into the living room, picks up the phone, and speaks in his usual megaphone voice. "HELLO, IS CHAD THERE? CHAD, I FORGOT TO ORDER FISH LAST NIGHT. IS IT TOO LATE? GOOD. I NEED A MEDIUM SALMON AND A BOX OF 21 / 25s. AND SEND ME FIFTEEN POUNDS OF WHATEVER YOU HAVE THAT'S GOOD. THANKS, MAN. I'LL TALK TO YOU LATER TODAY." Then he clomps down the stairs in his navy blue rubber clogs and slams the front door. Fully awake, I open my eyes just enough to read the red digital clock. Seven thirty-one. The time glows even after I squeeze my eyes shut and roll over to the cool side of the pillow. As I quickly drift back to sleep, I know that it won't be for long. I vaguely remember a work-related nightmare that I have been fighting all night. Something about a line of people at the door and no chairs anywhere in the restaurant to seat them. At 7:54 I roll back toward the clock. I'm pretty sure that I went to bed at two, and I'm positive that I need to go to the bathroom. I slowly push my legs off the side of the warm bed, sit up, and eventually end up on the couch with a glass of orange juice, flipping between Headline News, the Travel Channel, the Weather Channel, and, of course, the Food Network. When I am finally awake enough to function, I jump in the shower, pull an outfit off of the floor, and head for the car.
As I walk across the front yard, I am accosted by my next-door neighbor. She has a concern about the maintenance of the building we share. I don't spend much time at home, and I can't be bothered with shoveling, raking, mowing, and garbage removal. (The landlord finally gave us our own garbage pail so that we would be responsible for taking it to the street rather than allowing it to overflow in the backyard.) As my neighbor prattles on about one such issue (I'm not really listening), I attempt, politely, to get into my car. Then she stops midsentence and asks, "Don't you own your own business? With your boyfriend?"
"Then you must understand what I'm talking about. I own my own hairdressing business."
I manage a sympathetic smile until she says, "Oh, but I'm sure it's easier for you because you own it with your husband."
I get in my car and drive away.
The ride to Metro Bis is just under twenty minutes. I constantly flip between radio stations, trying to find music. Chris likes to listen to the news in his car, but his stereo has been broken for six months. I don't know why I bother to change the channels; I'm not really listening, anyway. I'm thinking about the two caterings that are going out of Metro Express, the tomato ginger salad dressing that needs to be repacked because it separated, the twenty-seven dinner reservations, and the new guy who needs to fill out paperwork today. When I pull into the parking lot, I have a good idea of what I'm going to do first. By the time I get from the bar to the office, my plans have evaporated.
I always start the workday by entering the front door of the restaurant. This is the first place customers see when entering; it's where they get their first impression. As I fly through the door, I straighten the menus and replenish the business cards on the display table to the left. I pull the paperwork from yesterday's sales. I check the reservations for tonight. We're up to thirty-four people and lunch hasn't even started. I answer the phone and take a reservation for Saturday. Jerry, our manager, greets me, smiling with a hearty and sarcastic "Good morning, Sunshine!" He asks when I'm going to put out the next Metro Mail and tells me that he has been bugging Chris all morning to finish the Mondavi wine dinner menu. As usual, Chris has been attached to the phone since nine a.m. I've been thinking about implanting a phone in his head. Before I can answer Jerry, the phone rings again. It's the produce company trying to get an order from Chris. I already know where he is, though I haven't seen him yet. I can hear him "chatting" at the top of his lungs not more than sixty feet from me, on the other phone in the back of the dining room. As I'm walking toward the kitchen, I tell Jerry that I will have a Metro Mail done by dinner tonight. I stop by table eight and glance at Chris. He's always smiling, so I can't tell if he's happy to see me or just having a good conversation. I quickly realize he's just gossiping, which is part of his morning routine. There is a whole network of underground restaurant information transmitted daily by salesmen with the dirt on job openings and sales figures. I tell Chris that the produce company is on line two. While he switches lines, I poke through the paperwork on table eight. All of our staff jokingly call the two-top closest to the kitchen Chris's desk. I kicked him out of the restaurant's real office. After the first three months of sharing it with him, he left a dirty crÃ¨me brÃ»lÃ©e dish underneath a stack of papers on the desk. I cleaned the ants, the dish, his papers, and Chris out of the office the next day. He eventually settled on table eight. It was originally a table for four until Jerry decided he couldn't stand the mess either and took half of the "desk" away. Today there are a couple of phone messages for me and a fax for an upcoming March of Dimes event. I add them to the receipts from yesterday, roll my eyes at Chris, and head for the kitchen. He waves as I walk away, looking as though he'll be on the phone for at least another twenty minutes.
Everyone in the kitchen looks pretty busy, but it's very quiet. The caffeine won't really kick in until the middle of lunch. The dishwasher already has a pile of dishes in the pot sink from the early-morning prep work that Chris must have done before he got on the phone. Instead of doing the dishes, he's busy dumping out the Fry-O-Lator oil into a five-gallon bucket. We do it in the morning when the oil is cool. Chris once had a line cook who emptied the hot oil into a plastic bucket at the end of the night. As the pail melted, an ocean of oil was released over the kitchen, floating rafts of French fries and extra-crispy calamari. It was funny to everyone except the line cook, who spent the next two hours cleaning it up. Today the dishwasher still needs to degrease the Fry-O-Lator bay, refill it with fresh oil, and put the old oil in the grease Dumpster. (Cosmetic companies make lipstick and other products that I would never use from the recycled oil.) The lunch chef is setting up his station. Chris is still on the phone. I grab the invoices off the back bulletin board and head out the door.
Metro Bis is located in an old shopping center. We rent four spaces: the restaurant, office, storage, and Metro Express, the takeout store. In order to get to the office, I walk out the kitchen door, down a flight of stairs, past
the Dumpster, and back into the building. It's nice to get the chance to go outside unless it's raining. I finally reach the office by ten-thirty and toss my pile of papers on the desk. I sit down, pick up the phone, and call Chris in the kitchen. He always seems to get off the phone right after I leave the kitchen.
"What's the soup for Express?" I ask.
"Curried carrot and potato leek and Cheddar. Do we have anything on the fourteenth?"
I roll my chair to the right and look up at the three months of calendar pages on the wall.
"Not yet," I reply.
"Good. I just booked my cooking class that day. The grocery store called. They need a delivery today."
"What do they need?"
"I think they wanted ten Caesar, ten balsamics, and four tomato gingers, but I'm not positive."
"Check and let me know. Is there anything else?"
"Did you hear about Ryan yet? He got a ticket last night in New York. He was hanging out the window of a car after a Yankee game waving an Orioles T-shirt. What an idiot! Anyway, I'll be right down to do specials."
"Okay. Wait. What were those soups again?"
"Curried carrot potato-"
"Leek and Cheddar. Thanks. Bye."
I call Express next.
"Do you have everything on the special sheet from yesterday?" I ask.
"Did the kitchen send you anything new?"
"Yeah, I got meat loaf, but I'm out of lasagne. Oh, and I need aprons and decaf."
"All right. I'll be down in a minute."
I quickly make changes to the Express specials, start printing them, then listen to the phone messages on the answering machine. Reservations for next Tuesday and a question about catering. I scribble down the numbers and grab the special sheets from the printer, the aprons from the laundry bin, and the coffee from the cabinet. I keep the laundry in the office because the chefs would use fifty towels per person per day if I let them. At thirty cents each they can really add up. Coffee beans are also in the office because they tend to wander off when not locked up.
I walk left out of the office, down the hallway, back out of the building, and across the courtyard, where we have an outside dining area for Metro Express. I have a vague memory of what I was planning on doing today, but I can't quite remember what it was. I can't believe that Ryan didn't get shot in New York last night. I pick up a napkin, throw it away, and check to see if the tables are clean under the table mats before going downstairs into Express.
"The courtyard looks good. I've got your specials, coffee, and aprons," I say as I lay them on top of the deli case. "Do you need anything else?"
"I still need my soup, and there's water on the floor by the phone."
"Where's it coming from?"
"I don't know."
"Did you check the sump pump?"
I examine the water on the floor and check on the pump. I run some water in the sink, flip on the breaker, and hear the pump kick in. Metro Express is now ready for service. The bread is on display, the coffee has been made, the cookies have been baked, and I am on my way back to the office. I spot the dishwasher coming through the parking lot on his way to get fresh fry oil from storage as I'm crossing the courtyard.
When I get back to the office, Chris and Jerry have settled in. Chris is at the computer pecking out the lunch specials for Metro Bis with two fingers and Jerry is asking, "What do you think we should do?"
"About what?" I ask.
"The dishwasher," Chris replies, and begins printing the special sheets.
"The person or the machine?" I ask, only half kidding.
"The machine," says Jerry. "It's been leaking, and we're waiting for the guy to come fix it."
"I was hoping he would come before lunch. We're not going to be able to do any dishes," Chris adds.
"It's leaking that bad?" I really can't afford to fix the dishwasher right now.
"It's not that bad," says Jerry. "Chicken Little is exaggerating again. We haven't leaked into the downstairs yet, and we can probably do the dishes during lunch if we keep a bucket under the machine."
As he finishes, the specials stop printing and they both get up to leave.
"Let me know what's going on," I request as they head out the door.
Chris yells from the hallway that the repairman should be in after lunch. I walk around to the other side of the desk as the phone rings. My father, our attorney, is on the other line.
"Did you get a chance to read the lease modification?" I ask.
"Yeah, everything looks fine with that. I'm calling to let you know that I got another letter from your linen company today."
"Uh-huh. What did they have to say?"
"They wanted to let me know that they are working hard to maintain the standards that are laid out in your contract."
I moan, "Why won't they just end the contract?"
"I don't think they want to, honey. Listen, we were thinking about coming for dinner tonight. Two at six o'clock?"
"Okay. Well. I've got to go. Take it easy. Have a good day. I'll see you later. Bye."
I attribute his brisk phone manner to his having been a divorce attorney for twenty-five years. After I hang up, I check the e-mail. Four new messages. Two are junk, one is from a friend in Tennessee, and the other's from the TV show that Chris taped last week. The host wants the recipes of the dishes. I'm just about to call Chris upstairs when the phone rings. It's Express, and it's busy.
I race back down the hall, outside, across the courtyard, and into the entryway of Express, where six people are crammed. I wait on the next three people and take a phone order. One wants a turkey wrap with bacon, bean sprouts, roasted red-pepper hummus, and romaine instead of spinach, the next wants the veggie wrap with no cheese and a baby-green salad, and the third is allergic to citrus and garlic. What can she eat? We settle on cranberry-stuffed chicken with whipped potatoes. After all the waiting customers have gotten their lunches, I make two pesto chicken wraps, one Caesar chicken wrap, and a spinach salad, and pack a pint of udon noodles for the phone order. I put away the bean sprouts, the chicken, and the lettuces and refill the udon noodle bowl from the supply underneath the deli case. I wipe down the counter and head back to the office.
While I am unlocking the door, I can hear the intercom from the restaurant ringing. I race for the phone and knock a pile of cookbooks onto the floor.
"Where have you been?" demands Chris. "We need help up here. We're getting spanked."
As I run (they never call unless they really, really need help) past the office display window, I catch my reflection in the glass. I probably should have ironed my shirt this morning. It looks as if I pulled it off the floor of the backseat of my car. I also notice the wry smile. Who would have thought I would have ended up here?From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Wife of the Chef by Courtney Febbroriello. Copyright © 2003 by Courtney Febbroriello. Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.