The night Elvis tipped me $100...
"Thank you. Thank you very much..."
Once upon a time, I was employed as the Chef of an nieghborhood restaurant, and while it wasn't exactly fine dining, I enjoyed the fact that I was able to toss pizza dough in front of the customers, create some great specials and most importantly, put on a nightly cooking show for patrons sitting at the bar. Thanks to the fact that the previous Chef/Owner had designed the restaurant with showing off and drinking in mind, I seemed right at home doing my thing until the restaurant group unfortunately changed hands. Things weren't always a party though. Because it was my first job employed in the capacity as Executive Chef, I really had to work my ass off. I had to prove myself, and I did so by agreeing to work 65 hours per week on salary (can you say $3.75 per hour?)
I did manage to learn a tremendous amount about Napolitan cuisine while working there though, and I enjoyed learning the nuances of using an authentic wood-fired brick oven (I still can't grow hair on certain parts of my forearms). When I first started (you'll read about that night from hell in another future post...), the GM decided to bring a previous Sous-Chef back on as a temporary consultant to help me adopt my skills to a more traditional "sauce and strings" menu. At first I was a bit offended, but when I found out that this guy's second language was English and he enjoyed Corona Beer as much as I did, I lightened up a bit.
One interesting quirk the consultant from Naples had was that he wouldn't allow subsitutions or take special requests... ever. He was very vocal about it to which I'm sure ended up losing more than a lion's share of loyal regulars. Keep in mind that the kitchen was open to the diners and the acoustics were just right for everyone in the dining room to hear everything the kitchen staff said. "I Don'ta Fuckin' CARE Iffa She's Allergic! She Shoulda Stayeda Home!"
I, as well as many of the servers, were a bit intimidated by this guy's flat-out refusal to accomodate special requests, and it gave me no pleasure to see a server freeze up whenever a customer would ask for a side of soup instead of vegetables. It was like watching Bambi in the headlights of a big rig. I asked him on several occasions why he refused to be more accomodating to the customers and he said "They gonna breaka your balls if you let 'em! Tonight, maybe no cheese on top butta next time, they bringing in there own food for me to cook! They no gonna breaka my balls!"
Thankfully, he would usually get pretty hammered on the box wine by about 7:00 and take off for the night leaving me to run my own damned kitchen! At that point, everyone seemed to breathe a sigh of relief (including the Owner), and at that point I would gladly fulfill any requests made by the customers. Tips would increase, servers would actually smile and I didn't have to worry about a crocked Italian setting my kitchen on fire... oh yeah, he did that too one night. Long story - another post.
One particularly slow Thursday night, a guy came in right as I had pretty much finished closing the kitchen. I overheard him ask one of the waiters for a menu and the waiter turned his head to me looking like a terrified chipmunk, and it made me think of the consultant's bad behavior regarding requests. I did not have any desire to be at all like him. To me, the customer's always been the boss. Even though I was literally five minutes from having the freedom to leave, I simply nodded yes to the server and turned the oven and fryer back on. The server (we'll call him Chris), explained to the guy that he could order from the appetizer menu because the kitchen was already cleaned and then went out back to smoke. While Chris was on his break, the guy at the bar said "Excuse me, Chef? I know you're only serving appetizers right now, but I literally just drove in from Vegas (a ten hour trip) and haven't eaten anything all day. You think there's any way you can cook something a bit more substantial? Whatever's easy for you. I'm just starved!"
For just a split second, I could hear the consultant's voice in the back of my mind "He's no gonna breaka my balls!" and I decided to feed this guy and feed him right! I told him to go ahead and order whatever he felt like off the menu but he asked what I would recommend. Being that I'm a genious on the grill, I told him I'd make him a filet mignon with the condition being that I'd try out a new sauce I had going in my mind. He would be my guinea pig and I would make sure he had a great meal. He said to go for it and I started cooking. As I was plating the finished filet, he offered to buy me a beer for my troubles. I told him he didn't have to because I also fed the bartender, but I thanked him anyways. As he was eating, I cleaned up the mess I'd made and wrapped everything up for a second time that night feeling good that I was nothing at all like the pissy consultant. I could only imagine if he had seen the whole thing. He'd probably throw a chair through the window.
Before I left for the night, I asked the customer how his steak was, and he said these exact words. "I spend most of my time dining in the best restaurants in Vegas and I rub shoulders with some of the top entertainers on the marquees. Never before have I had a finer steak. I know you didn't have to stay and cook but I'm glad you did. You've got some magic. Thank you. Thank you very much..."
And then he reached out to shake my hand and in it was a hundred dollar bill. One... hundred... dollars. Holy shit! I told him that wasn't necessary but he refused to take it back. I told him he was welcome to eat after hours anytime I was still there and introduced myself. He handed me a business card, gave me a playful hand gesture of shooting a gun and left. When I looked down at the card after he was gone, it read "Elvis Presley - Musician and Actor"
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