By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
It was long after midnight, and I was hours late for home, but it had been a great party — the tenth or thirtieth or fiftieth in a row; I'd lost count. We'd closed the restaurant, seen the last lingering tables out the door, then occupied the place like a conquering army, helping ourselves to wine from the bar, snacks from the kitchen, seats that, during business hours, none of us could have afforded to occupy. It was a perk, recompense for fourteen-hour shifts seven days a week and paychecks that some gas-station attendants would've laughed at — a nightly bacchanal that went far beyond the traditional shift drink and staff meal because the owners' bookkeeping was atrocious, and the restaurant was making so much money that our pilfering was a cinch to hide.
Matty and I were drunk, and we had been for hours. We'd already moved from our restaurant to the bar down the street, where we'd shot pool, bragged and weighed our balls (figuratively, not literally) against those of the dozen other crews propping up the long oak. Then we'd come back to the restaurant, unlocked the doors and hosted a second, private party: industry-only, French omelettes (not an easy thing to cook when drinking) and California merlots and our bar manager's good hydro. Morning bakers and porters were due in around six, which meant that we'd have to get the mess cleaned up and shuffle all the victims along soon, but we were stalling, talking about the only things that cooks really care about that isn't pussy or pay or what station the galley radio is turned to: food.
At the other bar, the biggest balls had been ours: most covers per capita (about 180), most turns (four or more of a forty-seat floor), worst conditions endured (tiny kitchen, ridiculously small staff, worst heat because of an unfortunate over/under arrangement of flat grill, sauté four-burner and blasting, face-level salamander). But our thunder had been stolen by the crew from a new restaurant a few blocks away that was in every way cooler, luckier, better-looking and more bad-ass. These guys didn't slouch into the bar in their bloody whites and bandannas, because their restaurant had a proper locker room. They walked upright like champions, swaggering and smiling, because they had enough staff on their line and their chef was a genius, and everything in the back of the house was clean and cool and calm.
"A hundred and eighty?" they'd said, pitching their voices like they were talking to small, slow children or someone's doddering aunt. "Well, that is a lot. We only did, what? Sixty, maybe? But you know..."
But you know...
But you know, we're better than you, was what they were saying. But you know, that's 180 stuffed foccaccia pies, buffalo carpaccio, moules et frites and ploughman's plates of sliced prosciutto and grilled bread and rillette du porc — in other words, 180 plates of nothing. Their sixty? Braised rabbit with caramelized shallots and demi. Roasted duckling with port-wine reduction. Sea scallops in an Allemande sauce and vegetables forestière. Seriously, when was the last time anyone cooked a fucking Allemande sauce?
This was what Matty and I were talking about in the depths of night, the depths of our good drunk. We'd made fun of them at the bar, the new crew. We'd laughed and acted like numbers — the pure, raw volume of tables and turns and plates to the rail — were what truly mattered. But it was all bluff. We knew they were better than us. We'd studied their menus, drooling and marveling over what they did every night, the kind of plates they were able to sell. And at some point during our hushed, intimate conversation on the patio, Matty finally said what we'd both been thinking — admitting to the betrayal that was already in our hearts.
"Jesus, I wish I worked there..."
That's the ultimate compliment a cook can give a restaurant, the ultimate admission of being outworked, outcooked and outclassed. To say that your own house will never, could never, rise to that level and that you covet the menu of another? That's like looking your wife right in the eye and telling her that you really, really wish you could fuck her sister.
It's twelve years later. I'm in Boulder, sitting at Radda Trattoria across from Laura, my wife. Our table is a mess — evidence of terrible gluttony and a complete inability to stop ordering at anything even remotely resembling a reasonable amount of food. We're surrounded by half-eaten pizzas and plates of Tuscan salami, bowls of olives, scraps of prosciutto-wrapped pork loin with braised peppers and artichokes, and bruschetta with white-bean purée. I am eating mascarpone polenta, drooling with butter and speckled with tiny bits of chive, off the tip of my finger while still smelling the delicate, sweaty, earthy stink of black Italian truffles from a plate somewhere on Laura's side of the table. I pull my finger out of my mouth, look her right in the eye and, from the bottom of my heart, say, "Jesus, I wish I worked here..."