I was a food snob until I needed a job. I applied at Le Salon, the pseudonym I'll give this tiny Orange County establishment where the freshest ingredients are assembled daily in an exquisitely designed, ever-changing bill of fare. Where patrons are treated to delicate multicourse meals of smoked lobster tail and hand-harvested scallops. Where bits of truffle are dropped into tablespoon-sized servings of chilled asparagus soup before being presented upon the white linen-covered table. Where waiters in jacket and tie clear and set tables in timed unison. Where each dish is quietly announced; without a narrator, the meal—a piece of theater, really—would be indecipherable. Where the entire scene plays out in a candlelit room only slightly larger than my apartment.
From the patron's perspective, Le Salon is the ultimate dining experience; at around $90 per person, it ought to be. But through my eyes, Le Salon was a comic nightmare.
As a part of my application process, I was asked to come in for a few days to try out. I would receive no pay and no tips. A little unsure of the legality of this request, I agreed anyway. Le Salon is a different type of restaurant, I figured. And with 10 years of food service behind me, I was hardly intimidated.
My first night, I was assigned to follow the head waiter. I watched as he greeted each table with quiet reserve and poured the wine. He dabbed each stray droplet with a black linen napkin. I was asked not to try this, however, because I suppose it was too complicated.
At the end of the night, I was sent home with an invitation to return the following day. Uneasiness stirred in my gut. I was haunted by the sight of a food runner returning to the kitchen with an armload of dirty plates where he helped himself to morsels of a patron's unfinished meal before whisking the next order to its intended destination. Or maybe it was the crystal glasses being washed by hand with little more than soap and warm water. Or maybe I just hated myself for agreeing to work for free. Nevertheless, I elected to return.
Night two found me in the kitchen running food and learning an impossible menu. The general manager pushed me to jump in. "It's okay," he said. "Fucking up is how we learn." Yet he so browbeat the rest of the staff for such infractions as clattering silverware that I was terrified about pulling the pin on any unseen hand grenades. Glancing around the kitchen, I couldn't find a smile. Not a hint from anyone that they were enjoying themselves. The cooks appeared scared. The busboys—usually a raucous breed—were silent.
It was about this time that the constant smell of food sharpened my appetite; anyone who has ever worked in a restaurant knows the phenomenon. Usually, there is some morsel of bread, some lost piece of meat gone cold, something to set aside and eat later in the corner like a hamster. But Le Salon offered no scraps. Only forbidden cuisine too lofty for the average palate. I began to hate those little bowls of asparagus soup. The salads of pale micro-greens passing under my nose became repulsive.
I was hungry. I was scared and confused. And I was working for free. Something had to give.
And then, all at once, disaster. The assistant sommelier was discussing champagne with a server. They were immersed in an analysis of bubble consistency when, just like those bubbles, something in me rose to the surface.
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"Korbel," I said, "is fine with me."
"Korbel." A belch would have punctuated the sentence perfectly.
The sommelier burst out with a laugh that sounded nervous with a woody overtone of condescension.
I didn't get the job at Le Salon. I went for a long walk and reflected on what I'd learned. I don't fault Le Salon for their legally questionable hiring practices; I could have refused their terms at any point. I now know it's possible to love food without getting manic about marbling in meat. Food should be fun. Serving it should be a pleasure. And on that walk what I really wanted wasn't a job, but rather a burger and Korbel.