“A Beautiful Thing to Behold”
When “not having a plan” gave way to financial crisis I went around the corner and put in my service resume at Café Cuvee on Market Street. It was a bare-bones place that served smoky, Italian roast coffee, a brunch that burbled with Francophile flair and for dinner something called New California Cuisine. Having once landed at a private university armed with modest life experiences with my civil servant parents and a career in typically under-funded public school systems, restaurant work had become a learned necessity. But aside from all the reasons I would tell the chef/owner in my interview about wanting the job, applying to Café Cuvee was a better option than phoning my parents to borrow money. Eight months had passed since I left New York, and the last thing I wanted to do in San Francisco was fail.
Two days later, I returned home and had a message that the restaurant wanted to hire me immediately. It would be brunch and dinner on Saturdays and brunch on Sunday. Three shifts. At my interview, Chef Anne was impressed by my abhorrence for the “quick turnover”—when diners are shuttled like cattle from foyer to table to exit inside seventy-five minutes to maximize the number of “covers” (patrons) the “floor” (dining room) can accommodate during “service” (hours of operation). Concurrently, after giving the menu a once-over: roasted organic vegetables en papillote, grilled Delmonico steak, aromatic pilaf, appetizers involving puff pastry and desserts rife with sabayon– every dish a la minute– I was equally impressed with Café Cuvee. Chef Anne was not messing around. Before the Slow Food Movement that reminds us to spiritualize food and practice meditative cooking and dining mainstreamed into American food phenomena, Anne wedged a large saute pan into the hyper-clockwork of modern life, presented us with small plates of roast peaches, goat cheese and port and said, “Sit down. Take a breath.”
Saturday dinner service with Anne at the burners and a doe-eyed waiter named Joe on the floor was simple enough. As hostess, I led a steady flow of patrons to sanded-down pine tables, recited a short list of “Specials”, filled water, served wine and removed empty plates. Joe’s professionalism (he was a ten-year fine-dining veteran) inspired a rapport, and while working the front of the house we commanded a ballet-like fluidity. With a Rachmaninoff compact disc catalogue in the stereo, working dinner could almost be relaxing especially when most nights started with Anne seating me in the dining room with a bowl of wild mushroom bisque and a glass of Poully Fuisse—at a front table, window-facing—to attract customers.
Hosting Saturday and Sunday brunch was an entirely different dimension. I worked with Rogelio, a Salvadorian cook who wore rubber-soled white loafers—all the better to zip between the hot station (range, grill and oven) and the prep station (Cuisinart, chopping blocks and pantry). The lone waiter on the floor (acquiescing to the whims of up to sixty covers with a full-house) was Erin, a lean auburn-haired girl from Upstate NY who had trained her dancer’s body to serve piping cups of espresso, oozing omelet’s and tiny bowls of house-made apple-berry jam en pointe. Despite Rogelio’s gravity defying speed and Erin’s unfailing grace, they entirely ignored my hostessing system. Wound up on bottomless double espressos, Rogelio couldn’t help chatting with waiting patrons, projecting boyishness from the open kitchen, then misdirecting them to reserved tables. Erin, only one of her sins, stacked dirty dishes and glassware without prejudice. They upended my work flow into jagged, unpredictable turns. Suddenly, I had to come up with a non-confrontational dialogue to remove hungry diners from reserved tables then confess they would have another 20 to 40 minutes wait. Or, I found myself with my hands deep in overflowing bus trays reconfiguring thick dinner plates such that their weight would not crush Anne’s rapidly diminishing supply of stemware. But, as it is in any restaurant that opens its doors with love and only hires people with rhythm and sense, it only took a couple crazy shifts to snap out the kinks. People came. People were fed. We all got along.
Take it from me who poured two-hundred cups of Grafeo Dark Roast per brunch and cut a hundred or so squares of hand-turned focaccia at night, Café Cuvee was hard, satisfying work. At the end of the day shift, when Rogelio slid our staff meal of coddled eggs with fresh cream and new potato homefries flecked with garlic across the hotline and poured Brut and pulpy orange juice for our Mimosa refresher, my satisfaction tripled. When I was handed the days’ tip-out in cash, my focus and attention to the nuances—measures of Dutch cocoa and sugar for hot chocolate, precise profiles on our compendium of Mexican hot sauces—were directly appreciated. Walking out of the restaurant in the late afternoon sun still gleaming off the Twin Peaks hills, the job encapsulated everything that was good about San Francisco: People, food and the ability to give of yourself. If I could have kept it up it could have been a Beautiful thing.
In my bi-monthly phone-call to my mother on the East Coast, an act stemming from some primal need to hear her voice, my new-found San Francisco/food service euphoria withered.
“Do you have job yet?” she asked under the blare of Friday night prime-time television.
“Well, yes, I’m working,” I said feeling caution rise in my throat.
Although she was already a semi-retired RN, I pictured her head to toe in starched nurses whites—a gold Saint Christopher’s medallion catching the light.
“How much are you making now?” she asked.
“Well, I’m paid hourly. But, the tips are pretty good–“
“What do you mean tips?” she blared. “Are you working in a restaurant?”
The word “tips” to my mother seemed to conjure the basest characters—renegade airport cabbies who touch your luggage without consent. I looked down at the discernible iced-tea and ketchup stains on my shoes.
“The chef at brunch is named Rogelio– just like Dad– isn’t that neat?”
“I don’t know why you quit your job. You had a good job. But, instead, you want to work in a restaurant.”
The “job” conversation was that brick wall that we loved to run our heads into. The “good job” she referred to was the Television Food Network where I had been a field producer—“assistant producer” by official title and pay, but certainly not by actual work—a place wrought with food snobs and drunken line cooks who couldn’t move fast enough to hack it in real New York restaurants.
“You had an apartment, a car, a good job,” she rehashed. “What else do you want?”
Tears welled in my eyes and streamed down my face. I reached for the half-finished bottle of Chilean red while my mother relegated restaurant work to the uneducated and non-english speaking then drove her point home.
“Honey, I don’t know why you wasted your time and money at an expensive university if you’re going to be a waitress? What is your degree for? What was the point?”
If the “job” conversation brought on mild to hysterical tears, which it usually did when I first came to San Francisco, I would curl up in front of my roommate’s 30-inch TV flicking through cable channels. What was the point? Moving to San Francisco and avoiding any job that involved television, Katie Couric wanna-be’s and production of commercialized media for as long as possible felt right—at twenty-four (at thirty, thirty-one, two). But, it was amazing how six grand in a savings account had slipped through my fingers. Money eventually came up short, but at that point in my life—1996, ’97, part of ’98—romanticism was bottomless. It was like the decision to walk away from my close immigrant family life on the East Coast to head to the unknown Midwest for college. As I considered what life after high school would hold for me, I observed my hardworking aunties and cousins dutifully opting for the least expensive (and nearby) City and State colleges, living with their parents in the family basement until they married and taking board certification tests or nighttime computer classes until they could bolster their surnames with officious acronyms—C.P.A, D.D.S., Ph.D. Since childhood, I was apt to laying in the grass and watching cloud patterns or for hours staring at ocean waves; my family tree’s well-tread career routes eluded me. I always seemed to be asking, What’s out there? What can I do? In the spring of my junior year in high school, an English teacher who had studied at Oxford and seemed to resemble their bearded, wizened Dons updated in chino pants and running shoes recommended a university outside of Chicago. When I was accepted, I packed my romantic notions and left home for the first time.
Thirty to forty-five minutes into my TV-induced vegetable state, the phone rang.
“Why did you tell mom you were working in a restaurant?” my sister said.
I envisioned her in one of those putty-coloured suits you buy off the rack, perhaps at a thirty-percent discount, at a department store. She would be hunched-over some kind of spreadsheet fingers poised above the keys of her laptop as if beginning a masterpiece.
“Well, I am working at a restaurant,” I said.
She tapped quickly at her keys; it sounded like the skitter of rodents.
“How much are you making there per week?”
I gave her a sum and she punched away at the keys again. What are your monthly expenses? she asked. Entertainment budget? Are you spending too much on clothes?
“I just sold some CD’s back to the record store,” I said. If I had sold clothes at a second-hand shop she calculated the buy-back rate as a percentage.
Despite a complete void of accredited University degrees or even a CPA certificate, my sister could crunch numbers with the best of them; she was a marketing director at a large East Coast mortgage bank.
“I thought you wanted to go to Europe?” she asked rhetorically. “You’re not going there on this salary. You can afford to take the bus to San Diego and visit Auntie Layda. Maybe.”
I poured coffee, tastes of wine, recited specials, cleaned the psychotic espresso machine and laughed at Chef Anne’s jokes. To supplement, I took low-paying temporary day-jobs when I could get them. San Francisco was not and is not a haven for job-seeking television producers.
“You look so happy when you’re behind the line,” I said to Anne while she plated lavender honey infused chicken thighs, organic Blue Lake beans and Yukon Gold potatoes mashed with tender nuggets of Rocambole garlic.
She finished the plate with a sprinkle of chopped fresh chives. A Mandarin family grew the chives and all of Café Cuvee’s herbs on a rooftop garden in Chinatown.
“When you love what you do,” she said. “It’s easy to be happy.”
When I was down, the restaurant was there. I sought Anne’s white, pillowy hugs and turned myself over to her umami of roasted root vegetables and citrus skins and the soft hands that put it all together brilliantly night after night. Why hadn’t it been like that with mother? Affection. Back home I had developed a hardness. Maybe, New Yorkers are born with the armor of apathy, of knowing everything and needing nothing. But, each night as I walked North on Church Street and turned right on Market and saw Café Cuvee’s black and white banner pulled taut against a square of twilight, I was walking toward the kind of acceptance we so rarely know.
Doe-eyed Joe polished soupspoons and stocked bottles of Sancerre sometimes reminiscing about his father’s Mission High glory days with Carlos Santana. Slabs of focaccia were pulled—dimpled and hot—from the oven and laid on racks in view of neighbourhood passers-by. After a couple of years, when I graduated from hostess/brunch waitress to garde manger, I worked in the narrow scullery at my own workstation on salad assembly and dessert plating. Rows of knives were neatly sized on a thick magnet mounted against the wall and stainless ladles, spoons and tongs swung overhead keeping me company. I roasted hazelnuts and skinned them between striped towels—the chopped, toasty pieces forming the crust on a ball of Laurel Chenel goat cheese. I spooned Anne’s ethereal chocolate mousse with my steadiest hand onto sugar coated phyllo triangles—layering and building addictive dessert “Towers”—and finished with warmed Belgian chocolate sauce poured from the lip of a battered sauté pan.
At the end of the night, a single glass of Cote du Rhone soothed me before we dove into Anne’s staff dinners—one evenings’ pinnacle: grilled Petaluma chicken supremes with Moroccan charmoula and wild rice pilaf. The tangy charmoula, created in part from the Bay Areas rich gifts of Meyer Lemon trees and wild cilantro leaf, captured such an earthy brightness that all of us were suddenly re-energized. After begging Anne for small take-home containers of the sauce to share with our loved ones, I and the rest of the staff proceeded to a pub crawl up Market street—shrill with Charmoula energy. Not wanting him to feel left out, before we left I snuck my second glass of Cote du Rhone into a tall porcelain mug for Victor, the nineteen year-old dishwasher who would pull mats and hose down the floors after we left. It might be hokey to say ‘Those were the days…,” but how do you honour the moments when you and everything fell into place in the most unlikely circumstances? How could I hold onto a separate peace made real in the weathered corners of Cave Cuvee when my “real” family had decided that working as “unskilled labour” in a restaurant is wrong? If in life I am looking for my own path and I do not believe in being ruled by the fragile pride of my elders, are the Beautiful things discovered along the way enough to sustain me? Simply by remembering them?
I poured coffee, tastes of wine, recited specials, cleaned the psychotically temperamental espresso machine, laughed at Chef Anne’s jokes, and booked slightly higher-paying production crew work when I could get it. I noticed how the sun struck Twin Peaks and shimmered all along Market Street once the fog rolled out at so many ten a.m’s. I discovered a jazz singer named Ledisi at the Café DuNord who sang a cover of “In a Sentimental Mood” in such a way that made me weep. I cooked Thai chicken curry with chilies and baked roasted hazelnut-banana cakes from scratch to the astonishment of friends.
Once, while compressed in my 3’x5’x8.5’ cubicle at Food Network, I read that eighty-percent of the our produce is grown in Northern California, from San Joaquin Valley to Sacramento Valley. A light went on in my belly. Did I need another reason? I respected food—it is of the earth and I am of the earth—I loved being around food. On Wednesday and Saturday afternoons at Café Cuvee before we began prepping for dinner service, Anne would arrive pink-cheeked from the Farmer’s Market. We unloaded her cart like children receiving long-awaited gifts: A box of hardy Fuji apples, overflowing bags of wild roquette, spring onions, leeks, vibrant French carrots, cinched and bulbous heirloom tomatoes nearly purple with sweetness.
version: 12 December 2004