The summer I turned 15, a friend called me and asked if I would be interested in bussing with her at the Italian restaurant in town called “Silvesterie’s.”
Bob, the owner and Executive Chef was a Sicilian man with deeply sunken dark-rimed eyes and a Burt Remolds mustache. He had been a sniper in the Marines and a professional chef ever since.
His food was good. I mean really good.
His standards of service were high and he was passionate about his guests’ dinning experience.
It was not his skills in the kitchen or his back office accounting that sealed his fate. It was his skills at the bar down the street that lead to his death and the eventual closing of Silvesterie’s.
My first day, I was faced with this tired beaten looking man. He gave the distinct silhouette of being in his third trimester of pregnancy- though that couldn’t be.
Except for the ‘not baby bump’ he was a slim man. He seemed to lumber when he walked like each step was a tremendous effort. He looked me up and down and told me that next time I came in; I needed to iron my shirt much better.
He explained in no uncertain terms that this was a serious job. I was to arrive on time and ready to work, immediately.
I was to look presentable and leave any problems I was having at home, there. He was in no way interested in my teen angst.
He explained that by being “on time” he meant at least five minutes early. Any missed shift would result in instant termination. In these four walls HE was the king and anything that I was told or taught was to be treated like holy law.
After about ten minutes of hearing all the ways it was possible to loose my new found job; I was tuned over to the head waitress, Jan.
She was a beautiful tall woman who looked like a ballerina. An impression accentuated by the way she wore her long red hair- pinned in a bun on top of her head.
She looked at my face and giggled a bit. I can only imagine the expression I must have had after such a warm welcome by the management.
She cooed “he is not that bad. Plus it’s easy. Just stick with me, I’ll take care of you.” She was a true service professional. One of those people that knows it is not a job but an attitude towards life.
That first day I was shown how to cut the bread and fold the napkin in the basket over perfectly.
How to pour the oil and vinegar so that the dark liquid pools at the base of the garlic- neatly surrounded by the oil. More importantly I leaned how to make them in such a way so that you don’t spill oil all over the table cloth or your diners.
As time went on and with the constant help of Jan, I came to love the fast paced precision that was necessary to complete a busy dinner service smoothly.
It was not easy.
Bob was militant about the way everything should be done. The slightest infraction often resulted in a torrent of profanities coming from the kitchen. We managed to have a new person somewhere in the mix every month and it was often better not to ask right away what happened to the former coworker.
The restaurant was pretty busy during the weekend with every seat occupied at least once. For a large upscale restaurant in a small town this was an achievement. On nights like that- getting everything done required no mistakes. If the floor (dinning room) was not properly prepped it would quickly descend into a living hell.
At the end of the night you were handed a wad of cash. It always looked huge, accentuated but he fact that bussers usually get all the small bills.
When I started, Bob looked swollen because- he was.
He had been recently told by a doctor that if he did not instantly reduce and then stop his consumption of alcohol his swelling organs would shut down and he would die.
Jan was a recovering alcoholic, sober 20 years. Her and him often clashed about his drinking. They had an intense relationship; one that could result in shouting matches before she had finished her night’s paper work.
A midnight tryst on top of a table in the back room.
It was always hard to tell which one it would be on any given night.
With Jan’s help over the next few months Bob had actually managed to stop drinking entirely.
His belly shrunk and though he still took his nightly stroll down to Joe’s Bar he was actually able to drink only cranberry juice. Sadly, his progress did not last. By the same time the following year his cranberry juice became light again, with vodka.
One day our dishwasher didn’t show. While cutting bread in the kitchen Bob asked my if I would be interested in a few dishwashing shifts.
I jumped at the chance, “did I ever!!” It paid more; even though the tips were less, but most importantly I didn’t have to iron my shirt and I got to hang out in the kitchen.
I had decided early in my employment that it looked like a lot more fun back there. Plus I love the idea of learning more about food.
I got to play in hot sudsy water and I had no problem being elbow deep in other peoples’ leftovers.
I really wanted to cook on the line. Anytime the prepcook took a smoke break and tickets came back, I would jump in. Pull everything out for the order before anyone else could beat me to it.
I watched closely to every little detail of each dish’s preparation so that I could preform any part of the process without needing to be told how.
I LOVED how complicated it was. How many little things are involved so that food hits the table at the same time- with each selection perfectly executed.
I appreciated the amount of tasks that had to be preformed in order to accomplish this goal. It involved playing with sharp knifes, fire and ended in amazing food. What could be better?!
Bob saw this passion in me, he liked me and my desire to learn. Our relationship over the years was of the apprentice- craftsman verity. He taught me a great many things. It was not easy. Him liking me didn’t result in any slack. He was a demanding, tough man to work for, drunk or sober.
I still laugh when people who work in offices talk about how well they have learned to multi task.
A fax doesn’t burn if you leave it in the tray for a minute too long, making all your other paperwork invalid and necessitating starting everything over again.
The immediacy and perfect execution of each action necessary to pull off technically perfect food is a challenge I have spent my whole life trying to accomplish.
The fact remains; that you have to be more than a little crazy to want to pass your time in a sweltering box, covered in food, stressing over filets that NEED to go out within the two minutes when they are perfectly rested.
Kitchens were no place for girls either. I have been a novelty in almost every kitchen I have ever worked in.
Kitchen humor is of the black, gallows varity. Resulting from the fact that most of your days start with your hands wrist deep in one animal carcass or another.
Pranks are constant and you have to be on your toes at all times or someone is going to make a fool of you, cut you or burn you. Other restaurant truths are constant and go as follows:
Whatever can go wrong; will.
Whatever you lack will be the day’s only demand.
The health inspector always comes in on the day the reach-in breaks down.
You get the idea.
Things progressed both in my career and his illness.
Within a few months I was on the line full time. Bob started to keep soup cups of wine on the line during service. As if I would be tricked into thinking that it was just our new pink soup.
His drinking soon reached the level of his former glory. I would often come in to prep and he would be laying on the kitchen floor or the back deck, either drunk or sick from not drinking.
The wine in a soup cup turned into empty vodka pints on top of the trash by 3pm with no attempt being made anymore to cover it up. His body was swelling again and with me on the line, there wasn’t enough business during the week to stop him from spending most of the night at the bar.
Jan had lost her patients with the situation and their romance had ended for good months before. Mostly because he kept sneaking off to get hammered.
We all decided to have an intervention. One night, after service we sat him down and told him our concerns. We gave him our bottom lines, if he did not make an effort to get help that were all giving him notice and enough time to replace us.
We could not come into work everyday wondering which one of us was going to find him dead or dying.
He denied that his drinking was a problem and stormed out (to the bar) saying he would find replacements for all of us.
We all stayed on for more than a month to train the new staff. After all, we were not trying to screw him over. We just couldn’t watch him blatantly kill himself anymore.
During this transition Bob was only nice enough to us so that we would not walk out. Any chance he got to take a shot at us in front of the new staff- he took. He would snidey joke about our lack of professionalism, commitment or work ethic.
We let him, it was not worth fighting with a fool.
On my last day I gathered the two new bussers around the trash in the kitchen before service. On top was the now familiar empty pint of vodka. I showed the newbies that bottle and said “this, this is why I am leaving. Please, take care of him but don’t let his drinking ruin you too.”
Our departure from Silvestierie’s was not the straw that broke the camel’s back. Silvesterie’s stayed open for about a year after we left. It had business till the day Bob decided he was done.
He was an extremely talented man but it wasn’t enough to save his life.
One night, he bought a gallon of Vodka. Drove home and tried to drink it all in one sitting.
Two days later, fireman had to break down his door. They found him in a coma. He was taken to the hospital but within a couple day, his abused organs finally shutdown.
He was gone.
Bob was the first person I watched die from drug addiction but he would not be the last. It is a heart wrenching thing to watch good and otherwise wonderful people, wither daily by their own hand.
It is hard to understand that the love you have for them means nothing, since they cannot love themselves.
He was a good man. He didn’t have kids and was survived solely by his sister.
In the end the thing that hurt the most was knowing that he had died utterly alone even though he had many people who loved him. Knowing him the way I did gave me an unwanted insight into the kind of internal dialog he most likely perished to.
I want believe that in the end he made peace.
I have a much stronger feeling that he died believing that no one cared- that his life didn’t matter. I believe this is the mantra of addiction.
He did matter though. He mattered to me.
I had to leave, to save myself the trauma of watching from the front row.
I wished I could have done more.
I wish I had known how to wake him up so he could see something worth living for, but wishing does not raise the dead.
Just as your love for someone can not protect them from themselves if they won’t let it.
Bob’s intervention was my first of many- so many I lost count years ago.
In the end you can only try your best. Maintain healthy boundaries for yourself and let them know that you love them.
Everyone is on their own path.
Be honest with yourself- because wine is wine, even when you put it in a soup cup.