First they came for the bussers…

Drug dealers. Rapists. Refugees. Terrorists.

According to some who speak ignorantly and irresponsibly, these are the kinds of people I have worked alongside for over twenty years. Having infiltrated this country to work 12 hour shifts, 6 days a week clearing away people’s dirty dishes, cooking their food, cleaning up the messes made in the restroom, they are biding their time until the moment when they can all rise up and awaken from their conspiratorial slumber, impose sharia law on all of us and establish a dystopian Caliphate in America. Yes, it is only a matter of time before these good, hard working, loyal people throw away all they have worked for by taking on many of the menial, thankless jobs that we think we are too good to do,  to become jihadists and overthrow the American government. These cooks from Mexico, and barbacks from Ecuador, bussers from Bangladesh, washroom attendants from Senegal, Porters from Mali, doormen from Nigeria, bartenders from Morocco, Maitre D’s from Tunisia. All of them are in fact, simply committed to quality service, to making people happy and to making a decent living so they can provide for their families and themselves. They have all been next to me in the trenches of service during the combat that is dinner rush on Friday night. Armed with freshly polished silverware, uniformed with a smile, decorated with a Sommelier’s pin or a Cake tester, their Esprit de Corps is unshakable, and their work ethic is incredible. The restaurant industry has given me a lot, but nothing more valuable than the quality and diversity of the people I have met while working in it.

 

Several years ago, before 9/11, I worked at an iconic restaurant in TriBeCa called The Odeon. The Twin Towers loomed in the background every day as I rode my bike the 17 minutes it took to get there down West Broadway from my apartment in the East Village. Knowing that I would never see that view again was one of many things that shattered my heart the day they came down.

I formed a lot of special friendships at The Odeon and many of them persist to this day.

When I began working there, there were a lot of Moroccan people working there, so much so we all used to joke and call it the Moroccan mafia. One of the Manager/Maitre’ D’s, several servers, a bartender, a veteran food runner, a barback, and many others were all from Morocco or Algeria and they were an integral part of a team there that crushed service every single night at one of the busiest, most profitable restaurants in the city. Everyone at The Odeon knew each other’s name, we knew the owner’s children, we went to ball games together. And, as is the case in any restaurant, you chat about each other’s lives and we saw each other through a lot of milestones in life. From relationships (some of them with each other), to kids, to moving. It was very much like a family there. We had great perks too. We would stay after our shift and get a nice table and have a big dinner and several bottles of wine with the regulars, we’d go visit Paul and Michelle who lived above the restaurant, I could borrow Cameron’s BMW to run errands. Back then the bartender closed the restaurant so we’d wrap up at around 2-2:30am, and sometimes sip wine and chat until 3 or 4am, clean up after ourselves and go home. We never overdid it and management allowed us to treat the restaurant like our home. We’d sit there and gripe about service issues, share stories about sports, politics, books and sometimes, religion. I grew up fairly Agnostic but went to Catholic school for first and second grade and was primarily Methodist on both sides of my family. I got to learn all kinds of things about Islam from my Muslim friends at The Odeon and, as I got to know them better, I was fascinated by the devotion they showed to their religion.

Long before the word Inshallah was perverted into something death cultists say before they blow themselves up or murder innocent people, I overheard it there, from a very erudite, alcoholic, cartoonist regular of ours who was talking with my fellow bartender Abdul. Abdul was from Casablanca and they were talking about how in Portugal it is fairly common to say Oxala as a salutation. They were talking about it’s origins coming from when the Moors ruled there from the 8th to the 15th century and it was a way to bestow blessings on something, or someone. I remember thinking how special the historical convergence of these two things were, and I was moved further as Abdul and I talked a bit more about it afterwards.

 

As I have said, as friends and co-workers, we saw each other through various periods and milestones. And the holidays were a big part of this, since often the keenest expressions of culture and belief come through their observance. When Ramadan came around all of the people of Muslim faith at The Odeon fasted during daylight hours. This meant no food or water of any kind when the sun was up. I was astonished since somehow I had never heard of this practice before. Odeon had a very busy lunch and dinner setup started early so there was a often a lot to do before the sun went down and the thought of not being able to drink or eat anything was unfathomable to me. Yet, everyone who practiced Islam there did it for a month with relative ease. I was so impressed I thought I’d try it but I flunked after 2 or three days when I accidentally sipped a beer when I was out with some friends on the weekend. These people I worked with were not fanatics, they were not fundamentalists, they merely practiced their faith with deep commitment and discipline. They were kind to others, true to their beliefs, and sought to balance their spiritual growth with some degree material success.

The food runner Yusef was going to Medical school then and is now an Anesthesioligist, one of the servers is a very well known hairdresser who lives on Park Avenue South and has a house in East Hampton, the bartender Abdul is now a partner in two successful restaurants here in the city, one of which is located in an iconic hotel in Times Square. I think of the countless people they have served and saved, and made look beautiful and feel happy over the 16 plus years since then and it is truly inspiring,

 

As I look back on those times, I am so very thankful to have known that precious group of people and to continue to know them. I am also sad though because the things that I am hearing proposed now are frightening and awful and ignorant and dangerous. I wonder what my life and experience at The Odeon might have been like back then if not for Yusef, and Abdul, and Sebnem, and Hafid, and Tariq, and Mohammed. Without having fresh Moroccan tea to sip on all night when we had to work on Thanksgiving, without the band that played and the dancing we did at Abdul’s wedding party at Layla. Without the obsessive talks about Jeter’s batting average with Yusef and why the acronym RBI didn’t make sense to him. About Fadwa being upset because I didn’t make it to Marrakech from Haifa that summer due to a travel snafu. Or yelling at Tariq to stop talking to guests because he loved talking and laughing with the guests so much and he needed to hurry up and bring Lincoln and his wife their bread before their Country Salad arrived. If you take all of those experiences and people like that away from our lives, is there anything truly worth experiencing? To me, it becomes just a damn job. A series of trips back and forth to the Micros terminal and making drinks and dropping checks. Putting down full plates and picking up empty ones. If you remove all of those kind, loving, passionate, hard working people, just a building remains, made of wood, held together by metal and stone, lit up by talking wires, marked with a sign out front, and empty inside.

 

Cocktail Epilogue

The Moroccan Martini created by Abdul Tabini:

2 parts Stoli Ohranj

1/2 part fresh lime juice

1/2 part Agave nectar

Splash fresh orange juice

4 mint leaves

Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass along with ice. Shake passionately to insure the breaking up of the mint leaves. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with a mint leaf.

 

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Drinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Secret [see-krit]: faithful or cautious in keeping confidential matters confidential; close-mouthed; reticent.

In this time of NSA eavesdropping and data mining, of leaks and whistleblowers, let us take a moment to consider privilege. Not Attorney/Client, nor Doctor/Patient, but something perhaps even more treasured and ubiquitous. Let us consider the privilege that exists between bartender and guest.

 Those of us that frequent bars and restaurants entrust our bartenders with a great many things. We often do this without even really thinking about it. There are the material things: the bartender holds your credit card when you run a tab, we’ll safely guard your phone that’s charging and not read your text messages. When you ask for a Ketel One and soda, you get a Ketel One and Soda. When you are at a table and request that obscure $32 Age D’or Calvados that pairs perfectly with your dessert, it goes without saying that the contents of your glass have not been surreptitiously replaced with some spirit of far lesser quality. You take for granted that your bartender is washing their bar tools and their hands thoroughly and frequently, and, when visiting a craft cocktail bar, that all the garnishes are market fresh and have been carefully chosen and maintained. The social contract and guest-to-host dynamic in our bars affords us a certain civility and comfort and on this we heavily rely.

A good, observant bartender bears witness to a great many private things and hears a great many secrets. We know where the bodies are buried and who did the burying; we know the numbers and the data behind them. We know what’s cooking in the kitchen and in the office. Bartenders are exposed to all these things, yet as professionals we are all sworn to obey the prime directive of bartending:  Discretion.

My favorite example of this involves a legendary NYC bar owner and colleague of mine. Even though he is incredibly knowledgeable and fluent about wash lines, the science of shaking and the importance of the surface area of ice cubes in cooling your cocktail, he is equally  concerned with preserving the sanctity of his bars as places where all his guests, be they famous or just a face in the crowd, can feel well looked after and have their privacy maintained.

One particular night at his bar he had a guest he had never seen before drinking with a friend. This person happened to be drinking the cocktail equivalent of a Dead Man’s hand in Poker: a drink invented by Ernest Hemingway called a “Death in The Afternoon.” After having several of these, he promptly passed out at the table and was abandoned by his friend. In search of a relative or significant other he could contact to come retrieve the fellow , my colleague scrolled through his texts and recent calls. He found  the number of the guy’s girlfriend, but not before discovering some salacious texts from a second girlfriend. He promptly deleted the incriminating texts to save the guy from the wrath of the first girlfriend and then contacts her. She asks him to put him in a cab, which he does, but the driver will not take him home alone in such an unresponsive state, so he  rides home with him. Along the way the guy soils himself. In spite of this, he takes the guy to his door and left him safely in the care of his girlfriend . He played Alfred to his Batman and fulfilled his duty, he saved him from himself and asked for no reward

It also pays to have a short memory. I once worked with a guy who, like a lot of bartenders, worked two bar jobs. Both places were owned by the same person and, while differing in concept, they shared a similar clientele. One was a French-American bistro and the other a trendy subterranean Russian-Inspired cocktail bar. Said bartender had a male regular that he knew quite well. This gentleman liked to frequent the bar at the bistro with his wife and the cocktail bar with his mistress. At one bar he’d laugh raucously and passionately grope his paramour, and at the other he’d enjoy a more placid date night with his spouse. In visiting both places it was implicitly understood that his bartender would never disclose having seen him with another woman, and further that he even visited him at the other bar at all.

While thoughts of such deception may seem distasteful, this guest felt very secure in doing this because he trusted his bartender.  It is not our place to judge or comment on such matters it is simply to serve and provide a safe harbor from the stress and strife of life outside those swinging doors. Regular or rookie, this benefit is afforded by bar professionals to all of our guests. One veteran bartender I know follows this code to such an extreme that if you walk into his bar with someone he’s never seen you with before he will behave as though does not know you. More than once when walking into his bar I have been greeted with a blank stare found myself feeling like the star of another remake of “Total Recall.”.

Those of us that choose to do this professionally believe in the inviolability of the bar. We work for tips, but that alone does not sustain us, your trust does.

Waitresses can chat about their cramps and their love lives, the owner will grouse about his business partners and the General Manager spending all his money, the GM will complain about the owner being a skinflint and we are privy to it all.  It is priceless information, and at the end of our shift it gets placed into the vault of our memories and we dutifully forget the combination.

 

Cocktail Epilogue:

Death In The Afternoon

1 oz. Absinthe

4 oz. chilled Champagne

Method as per Ernest Hemingway as published in “So Red The Nose” ca. 1935:

“Pour one jigger absinthe into a Champagne glass. Add iced Champagne until it attains the proper opalescent milkiness. Drink three to five of these slowly.”

Men Sipping Through Straws

I fell off my bike the other day.

I was riding the wrong way down Elizabeth St. and unaware of the large pothole looming before me. When my wheel hit the edge of it, off I tumbled. Luckily I rolled with the fall and only ended up feeling a little bruised. Like a fool, I wasn’t wearing a helmet and it was a bit painful. Far more painful, however, has been the philosophical bruisings I’ve suffered in witnessing the bizarre drinking habits of the modern American male these days.

Time was when bars were places where men went to do Manly things: to drink, to carouse and chase women, to engage in discourse both civil and raunchy, and to grouse about their troubles. Read Hemingway, or Fitzgerald, watch Bogey, or Gable; for God’s sake, listen to Tom Waits or Leadbelly, and there you will find the perfect essence of life and bar culture distilled down and perfectly expressed. These men of yore weren’t concerned with their carb intake or the state of their prostate. If they were hungry they ate steak and potatoes. They slaked their thirst with a Scotch and water or a Boilermaker, not a Jack and Diet Coke or Bud Light. Their problems and concerns were simple and timeless and they didn’t spend thousands of dollars on psychotherapy. Their shrink was their barber or their bartender. Viagra? It was served in a tumbler. All you needed was a couple of stiff belts and you felt like Rhett Butler primed to carry Scarlett up the stairs at Tara. The doctor’s prescription read: Vodka, Rum, Gin, Rye, Bourbon, Irish Whiskey, and Blended Scotch.

Yes, Blended Scotch.

Before every pisher with 20 crumpled bucks in his pocket assumed aged single-malt always meant a better whiskey, men had the taste, experience and individuality to order what they wanted, rather than what they felt they were supposed to order. And they often ordered blended Scotch. These days too many men order what they feel is sensible and expected; the beverage equivalent of a bicycle helmet in a glass, or a Martini with training wheels. Sam Peckinpah, Raymond Chandler, and Langston Hughes smoked and drank unrepentantly and I believe their work reflected and conveyed much richer experiences largely because of this.

Try for a moment, to imagine Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca” slumped over the bar at Rick’s Place, broken-hearted by Ingrid Bergman’s return, without a cigarette burning in the ashtray and nursing a Vodka Red Bull. Or Peter O’Toole and Richard Harris regaling their fellow patrons at the local pub over an Amstel light instead of a frothy pint of Guinness, and you’ll begin to understand what I’m talking about. Bombarded by strange, conflicting images emanating from our movie and television screens and our iPads, we men now feel a pathological need to behave like the practical, colon-conscious, offspring of Dr. Oz and Martha Stewart. We do everything we can to avoid offending the public’s increasingly delicate sensibilities. This strange neurosis seems to overly mitigate our drinking and culinary choices and nowhere is this more sadly apparent than in a bar. Bukowski and Pollock, for better or worse, are forever as linked to bar culture as they are to their bodies of work. Moreover, this complex ecosystem informed their work greatly. Quoth John Barrymore in reference to acting: “ There are lots of methods. Mine involves a lot of talent, a glass, and some cracked ice.”

This modern preoccupation with “health” seems to involve consuming only decaf espresso, ”lite” beer, and my personal bête noire, Diet Coke. Of the tiny percentage of coffee drinkers that drink coffee for the taste, which of them can say they actually enjoy the taste of decaf?!? Light beer, and Diet Coke, and decaf coffee are unique and unfortunate American concepts and the world of adult beverages is all the worse for them.

Which brings me to perhaps the most misbegotten drinking accessory of them all: the soda straw. Not to be confused with the sipping straw whose primary purpose is to mix or stir your iced drink as you progress through consuming it, the soda straw was until recently under the purview of milkshakes and various children’s beverages. Now it is the equivalent of short pants for your drink. Something that, with the exception of certain types of cocktails: Cobblers, Slings, Mint Juleps, and Tiki drinks, every adult should have outgrown long ago. These days I see grown men drinking a whiskey and soda, or the aforementioned Jack and Diet Coke through a soda straw. Watching a grown man eat a bunless burger with a knife and fork while he drinks his beer with a straw is akin to watching him consume his own entrails. Horrifying.

Do I propose that we eliminate such things as drinking Jack Daniels through a straw, or putting Sweet ‘n’ Low in your Irish Coffee? Far be it from me to even suggest such an audacious thing. I merely suggest that we shun things like Light Beer back to the grimy, dark corners of the beer cooler next to the O’Douls. That the Diet Coke button on the soda gun be rigid and unpressable from neglect, and that the underused can of decaf coffee be so old that Juan Valdez’ moustache has begun to gray. Say what you will about the French, their lifestyle has made it necessary for scientists to study the “French Paradox” in trying to figure out why, despite their consumption of foods that food science tells us are very unhealthy, they actually have a lower rate of heart disease than Americans do. And to oversimplify their findings a bit, they have determined that this has less to do with what they eat and drink, than how they eat and drink. They don’t drink to get drunk. They enjoy themselves. They eat slowly and savor the experience and the company, with balanced tastes and little to no direct concern for carbs and cholesterol, only quality. The American male could benefit tremendously from this uniquely epicurean perspective on life. So gentlemen, let’s get off our libationary tricycles and ride the wrong way down that street.

You might just rediscover your manhood.

Cocktail Epilogue:

The Fitzgerald Cocktail
1.5 oz dry gin
0.75 oz lemon juice
0.75 oz simple syrup
2 dashes Angostura Bitters

Method: Combine and shake all ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass, or strain over fresh ice into a rocks glass.

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