Welcome back to Behind Closed Ovens, where we take a look at the best and strangest stories from inside the food industry. We’ve got a new topic this week: restaurant employees who knew what was up. As always, these are real e-mails from real readers.
We’d had a freak storm come through that day and it caused a lot of flooding in the region. As you’d expect, not too many people go out to eat when you need a boat to get to the restaurant, so we were especially slow that night. That is, until a group of about 15 showed up without a reservation. They were dressed like they were headed to an ironic prom—hilariously tacky taffeta dresses and “Dumb and Dumber” style ruffled tuxes. In the middle of this squad of outrageousness was a man in a top hat and a woman in a wedding dress. The group had been about to board a flight to Vegas so these two could get married, but all the heavy rains and flooding cancelled their flight. All dressed up with nowhere to go, they decided to come to our BBQ place instead, hoping to use our loft space for an impromptu wedding and reception.
Since we were dead, our manager was all, fuck yeah let’s have a wedding in our barn loft, so he had the remaining servers set up the section. The only decorations we had were for the weekly pig roast the restaurant threw—which was hula themed—so we did our best to make the leis, fake palm trees, and pineapple lights give the loft an ambiance of romance. I’m sure it wasn’t a “legal” marriage, but damned if they didn’t throw a wedding right then and there during the storm. The bride’s father walked her down a makeshift aisle, a friend stepped up and acted as the officiant, and they had their first kiss under the tractor that hung from our ceiling. We turned off the shitty corporate music that got pumped into the dining room and brought up the boombox the kitchen staff played in the BOH and they ate, drank, and danced the night away. The father-of-the-bride paid the bill, tipped generously, and thanked us all profusely for accommodating the group. One of the best nights of my serving years.
Kinja user iamtevya:
Many, many moons ago, I was a server at a small German restaurant. We were one of, if not the only, place around that served Warsteiner draft beer. We served it in these insane pilsner glasses that had a small base, and a V shaped vessel, causing them to be a bit top heavy and difficult to balance.
So, one day, I’m serving a large party and 12 guests ordered these beers. I place them on my tray and begin to walk to the table to serve them. I made it through the busy restaurant without incident, but as I got to the table, I must have tripped a bit on some lint.
Everything slowed down as I watched the inevitable: the tray tilted, and the very full pilsner glasses began to topple. I was able to tilt the tray back up to keep them all from spilling, but at least two of them went overboard and landed directly in the nearest guest’s lap. Without missing a beat, I smiled broadly at the surprised gentleman and said: “Congratulations! In Germany, it is considered good luck to have a beer spilled on you! As per tradition, this round is on the house!” I offered him my serving towel to clean up, and continued serving the rest of the beers.
Amazingly, it worked. The guy laughed, nobody complained, and my tip didn’t suffer.
A boyfriend of mine, whom we shall call Mark, worked in a fine dining restaurant in a casino. One night he’s working and he notices one of the chefs struggling with the range. The pilot light’s gone out and the guy has the gas full on and a lighter out, trying to relight it. Mark sees what’s about to happen and books it out of the kitchen immediately, opting to save his own skin. Everyone turns to watch him run out and are still standing in place when the fireball goes. Someone screams and they manage to turn the gas off.
Now that the explosion is over, quick thinking Mark pulls the fire extinguisher off the wall of the hallway and runs back towards the stunned and slightly singed chef, looking like a hero. The chef praises him for his quick thinking, not realizing that he had just tried to abandon his coworkers to their fiery dooms. He got a raise.
I was working at a relatively new restaurant in Portland, Oregon. We specialized in sandwiches made with fancy, local, organic ingredients.
One afternoon, a guy came in for a burger and a beer at our bar. Upon finishing his meal, he was raving about the deliciousness of it. To be fair, our chef and sous chef were (and I’m assuming are still) pretty badass dudes who put a lot of effort to make sure everything we served was on point. The customer was especially impressed by the type of cheese we were using.
“This may be akin to sacrilege here in Portland,” he told me, “but I’m so glad you’re not using Tilamook cheddar. Everyone thinks it’s like the beginning and end of cheese around here!”
Typically, we used Beecher’s cheddar. However, that day we were out and were using Tilamook. The dude was so nice and so happy about his burger, I didn’t have the heart to tell him about the temporary substitution.
I was working at this classy cafe in Scotland while studying for my masters degree. It was a brunch place of sorts: pancakes, scones, pastries, eggs with haggis (yes, they really do put it on everything) and the item which would become infamous to me: waffles. Now, waffles are incredible, and they are a staple of every breakfast/lunch place at most cafes. This lulled me into a false sense of security that all people knew what waffles were. It was only in Glasgow that I discovered my assumption had been wrong.
It was a fairly busy morning full of families with children and couples there for our breakfast menu. I seat this older couple near the window and notice that they have very thick accents, I cheerfully ask where they’re from, and they reply “The Shetlands.” For those of you who are unfamiliar with Scottish geography, the Shetlands are islands to the far north of Scotland in the middle of the nowhere. It was then, when I asked them if they were ready to order, that the woman posed the question that haunts me to this day.
It had never occurred to me that I would one day have to describe a waffle to someone who had no baseline to start from. So the conversation goes downhill fast.
“Well ma’am a waffle is like thick toast with little squares in it.”
Customer: “Aye, right...does it have crust, then?”
Me: “Well, no, ma’am, actually, I guess it’s more accurate to describe it like a thicker, more solid pancake with squares in it.”
Customer (looking concerned at the way this is going): “Aye…well…could ye make it wi’out the squares?”
Me: “Actually, we can’t, as we pour the batter into a waffle iron, and that makes the squares.”
MISTAKE. I have foolishly assumed this outlander has knowledge of waffle irons. Two steps back.
Customer (probably picturing me cheerfully ironing her food): “Whassa wafful iron, then?”
Me: “Well, it’s like a panini maker, ma’am, or a double-sided griddle, of sorts.”
Customer (thinking she’s got this under control now): “ Aye, right, so what comes in the wafful?”
Me (internally screaming): “ Well, actually, nothing comes IN the waffle, ma’am, as its not a sandwich. We do, however, have a number of toppings we can put on it for you.” I go on to list various items of waffle pleasure (nutella, fruit, yogurt, toffee, bacon, maple syrup, honey etc).
Customer (wilting..confused…hungry..accepting defeat): “Well…I guess I’ll just have toast, then, love.”
Me: “Okay, sure, coming right up.”
I am heartbroken that I have failed this women, that our waffle debate has resulted in her missing out on the wonderful experience of eating her first waffle. Two weeks later, though, the same woman came in again and bravely ordered a waffle with maple syrup. I could have cried with joy.
So, I’m stationed in Korea back in 2009 or so. My family is there—my wife, and two boys, about 3 & 4 at the time. We’re on a couples-vacation thing: you get to stay in a VERY nice hotel with childcare, listen to some classes about how to better communicate with your spouse, and get some date-night kinda time. They’re actually pretty awesome.
We’re in Gyeongju, which is north of Busan, east of Daegu. The best thing I can compare it to in the states is Branson, or Wisconsin Dells: a regional area people go to on vacation with parks, trails, waterparks, nice hotels, etc. A touristy area, not just one thing.
So: the VERY nice (3 or 4 star internationally rated) hotel has a full buffet spread for dinner, and the kids are having NONE of it. Normally, they’d scarf down some rice and pasta and such, but tonight, nothing. And they’re sure not going to eat Korean food. In desperation, we ask the Maître D—who spoke excellent English, Korean, Japanese, and I think some passing German—if he’d ask the cook for Hot Dogs. Or grilled cheese sandwiches. Just ANYTHING he has in the back to feed two starving and increasingly frantic kids. He promises to ask.
About a minute later, we hear this booming “Who wants a grilled cheese sandwich?” and out of the Kitchen walks this 6+ foot blond hair Viking. Dude is a certified chef (Michelin or whatever, I mean, CERTIFIED) from Minnesota working in Korea because the pay is good. He shakes our hands, smiles when I beg him for ANYTHING—grilled cheese, cheese quesadilla, etc. and promises to hook us up. Minutes later, a pair of the most amazing grilled cheese sandwiches you can imagine are hand delivered by him. They are crusty and golden and the cheese is a runny, gooey, perfect mess. On one hand, I’m ashamed, because I underutilized the talents of a master chef. On the other, as my kids dig in, I’m so grateful I could kiss this man. He talks with us for a while, an ex-pat happy to talk to fellow Americans, and then gets back to work as me and my wife finish off what the boys didn’t eat. Imagine the most amazing grilled cheese sandwich you’ve ever eaten, multiply it by three and square that, and that’s how good it was.
I don’t remember his name, but I will never forget him.
Kinja user Eldritch:
Due to the fact I am overburdened with intelligence, I left my lunch sitting on the kitchen counter this morning. Embracing my mistake, I decided to treat myself to a sandwich from Au Bon Pain. I work in a very busy downtown area of a major East Coast city, so anywhere I go at lunchtime is crowded. This Au Bon Pain is actually in the concourse of the train station across the street, so it’s usually not as bad. I felt #blessed when I walked in and saw the sandwich counter had no one in line.
So there I am, staring grimly at the menu and deciding what bad choice I’m going to make, when a woman cuts in front of me to make a fuss. This woman was a walking stock image for “older executive.” She had graying blonde hair styled within an inch of its life into what I like to call the Politician’s Wife Bob and wore a pastel blazer and skirt set with sensible slingbacks. A purse so enormous it could have been made from the hide of Godzilla was slung over one padded shoulder.
“Excuse me,” she said sharply as she held out an open sandwich box, “you made my sandwich wrong. My sandwich is upside down.”
The young woman at the counter gave her a thousand yard stare. This was a woman who had been in the customer service trenches for a long time. “Upside down?” she asked.
“Yes, it’s all wrong! It’s upside down!” The lady said again, refusing to expand on what the hell that meant. At this point I had scooted over to try and see what the blazes this lady was talking about. It looked like a normal sandwich to me. It was simply chicken, avocado, and tomatoes all arranged neatly on a sliced baguette with some kind of sauce.
“Upside down.” The employee repeated. It was not a question. It was the resigned statement of someone who would sooner breathe chlorine gas then try to sort of what the fuck was this person’s problem. I don’t know how long this woman had served in the ranks of customer service, but I wanted to give her a medal.
“Upside down.” The lady confirmed. “You need to remake it.”
“…Okay.” The employee said, turning around and taking the sandwich out of its wrapping. The older woman huffed and checked her phone. The employee looked at the sandwich for a long moment and then just turned it around so that the chicken side and not the avocado side was on top. She placed it back in the box and handed it to the woman.
The woman looked at it, proclaimed it perfect, and walked away.
I worked at a popular frozen yogurt place my senior year of high school.
Now, Frozen yogurt, as you know, is worse ice cream. It’s a dessert that could (maybe) be healthy in theory. In practice it is as bad for you as a bowl of french fries with chocolate syrup drizzled on top. Once you’ve piled your candies, syrups and cereals on, you might be halfway through a pizza calorically. Additionally, it is INCREDIBLY unhygienic. Flavors constantly mix with flavors, toppings get manhandled by staff and customers alike, and nothing is cleaned the right way. Ever.
In short, it is NOT the place you take a child with allergies.
Unfortunately, parents have their patience worn thin and make mistakes. Some mistakes are bigger than others.
One serious case of whoopsie-daisies is burned into my memory as being especially disastrous. I was working the early shift and in walks a woman who looks like someone has been smashing
symbolscymbals (Editor’s Note: Well-spotted, several readers) against her head for a few days. Behind her are two boppin’ kids, hype as f*** for some self-serve candy goo.
They zoom around the store like sticky Tasmanian devils while the woman stands and looks at the ceiling completely motionless. I thought for a moment that she fell asleep, until one of the kids threw a handful of captain crunch at her and she started to gently vibrate. The tornado ended, the goo was paid for, and the trio sat at a table. Suddenly, the older kid stopped eating.
“My throat is itchy.”
He started to cry. Loudly. He was having some sort of an allergic reaction and everyone started to panic. The woman started screaming along side him. Being Head Bitch In Charge, I ran over to asses/assist.
“PEANUTS! PPPEEEAAAAAA-NNUTTTTTTTSSSS,” was all I made out. She tried to remove an epi-pen from her purse but was shaking and crying too much to understand that it wouldn’t suddenly shoot from her grip and administer itself. I looked at her, I looked at the kid, grabbed the epi pen and said a little prayer. I grabbed the kids hand and said, “Okay, ready? 1, 2...” and WHAMMED that thing into his tiny, tiny thigh just like they taught me in first-aid class at the JCC.
After the kid was deemed not dead and the woman had taken her Xanax I asked what THE HECK she was thinking bringing a kid with a peanut allergy into a festering food soup of hell.
Her response? “I forgot.”
Do you have a crazy restaurant story you’d like to see appear in Behind Closed Ovens (on ANY subject, not just this one)? Please e-mail WilyUbertrout@gmail.com with “Behind Closed Ovens” in the subject line (or you can find me on Twitter @EyePatchGuy). Submissions are always welcome!
Note: I do not want poop/vomit stories. Please stop sending me poop/vomit stories.
Image via bitt24/Shutterstock. I actually did not intentionally do pancakes last week and waffles this week in an effort to appease both sides in the Great Breakfast Wars; it just worked out like that. Also, I’d never be neutral in that discussion, as waffles are clearly superior.
Contact the author at WilyUbertrout@gmail.com.