Friday, November 6, 2020

Number 43 by Sheila Kinsella

Sheila Kinsella gives us a behind-the-scenes look at a busy restaurant, where waiters Charles and Anton are competing for a promotion.

Charles whisks the braised lamb from the serving window and marches to table two. On his way to pick up an order, Anton steps aside to allow him to pass, smiling as he does so. As the counter is empty, he pokes his head through to the kitchen. On his face he feels the steam billowing up from the boiling pans on the gas hobs. The whirr of the extractor fans drowns out his voice.

'Chef, table ten, lamb?' His voice echoes against the tiled walls of the kitchen.

'What?' Chef replies.

Anton repeats his request.

'Gone out already mate,' Chef says.

'Can't be right. Check again,' Anton asks.

Chef prepares a side order of French fries in a fancy paper cone and a plate of green beans sprinkled with almonds and shoves it on the countertop. Upon his return, Charles sweeps the two items up and turns swiftly on his heels. Anton challenges him.

'Did you pick up my braised lamb for table ten?'

'What? Haven't a clue. Better get yourself organised if you want to keep your job,' Charles replies.

'But...' Anton replies to Charles' back.

Anton is certain he placed table ten's order on the hook but, having no time to investigate, he asks Chef to prepare another lamb. He apologises to the customer for the delay and offers him a free beer.

The bar is busy with customers waiting for their tables. Jarring noises collide, chinking glasses, the clunk of set down bottles, the scrape of chairs on the tiled floor. The background mood music is drowned out by the constant babble of excited people enjoying their Friday night freedom from cramped offices. With such a high turnover, there's little time for a break. All the waiters are busy meeting and greeting, taking orders, delivering food and drinks and clearing tables. When the last goodbyes of the evening have been said and the kitchen staff are cleaning up, Nick the restaurant manager takes Anton aside.

'Look, Anton, we had a complaint. I know it's your first week, but we've got our reputation to consider and with all this social media stuff going on, we can't afford bad reviews.' Nick touches Anton's arm.

'Sorry, it won't happen again.' Anton sees a crumpled piece of paper near the bar rubbish bin, he bends to retrieve it and throw it away, but some instinct tells him to read it first. It was his table ten braised lamb order with a side of fries and green beans. His gut feeling was right. He turns to Nick.

'Hey Nick, have you thought of investing in waiter tablets to take orders?'

'Yes,' Nick replies, 'A friend of mine did mention it. What's your experience?'

'I used them in the last restaurant I worked in. They increased turnover and the waiters liked them.' Anton says. 'Mistakes in the ordering process were much reduced.'

'Worth looking at then,' Nick says. 'I'll lock up, you and Charles can clock off.'

Two weeks later, Nick calls a staff meeting just before the Monday evening shift. A representative from the waiter tablet company gives a demonstration of how the Number 43 restaurant can use technology to ease workflow.

'What's wrong with pen and paper?' Charles asks, raising his palms upwards.

'Nothing,' the rep replies, 'but this is child's play in comparison. Everything is automatic. All menu options are visible. For a table you select the required meals and drinks, the orders are automatically updated in the system for the bar and kitchen to prepare.'

Nick intervenes, 'No chits to lose, no illegible handwriting and I have a global overview of order status.'

'Nothing wrong with the old ways,' Charles mutters and glares at Anton. 'I suppose you're behind this.'

'Well, it is easy to use,' Anton replies.

'You'll be having the customers ordering their own dinners before we know it,' Charles scoffs.

'We'll start our trial tomorrow. Thanks guys, back to work. Oh, and by the way, I'm on the lookout for a deputy.' Nick claps his hands together.

Tuesday night is quiet, the customers are few, and spread out over different sections of the restaurant. Anton masters the waiter tablet with ease and thinks he's a good candidate for the deputy job. He knows Nick is monitoring the trial. Anton sees Nick pull Charles aside and overhears the conversation.

'You've ordered three sea bass for table one, there are only two diners?'

'What? It can't be. Must be a system error.' Charles sets his tablet down on the bar in front of Nick.

Nick swipes through the menus and identifies the issue. 'You pushed the sea bass icon three times because you have one sirloin steak and three sea bass. I'll cancel it and warn Chef.' Nick gives the tablet to Charles and heads to the kitchen.

Charles takes the tablet and sighs. 'Too bloody sensitive by half.' And, once Nick is out of earshot. 'I need a drink.'

Anton notices the barman is on a break and sees Charles pour himself a double vodka and knock it back.

Over the next few days, Anton notices Charles is a little unsteady on his feet and not quite the nimble waiter he usually is. But from Thursday onwards, the restaurant is busier and busier, and he has little time to chat.

Friday night comes around again. Anton's serving beers on the terrace when a customer from one of Charles' tables attracts his attention.

'Can I help?' Anton asks.

'Two lagers and a bowl of nuts please,' the elderly man says.

'Sorry, we don't serve nuts due to allergy risks. I'll bring your beers,' Anton replies, but wonders why he is covering Charles' tables and where he's got to.

Anton zigzags through the tables to collect the drinks from the bar. He catches sight of Charles through the window, leaning against the wall of the house on the side street, cigarette in hand. Not wanting to snitch to Nick on him, he waves at him and gestures for him to come in.

'I've covered your tables outside, but it's busy. You can't just take off like that. Nick will notice.' Anton looks around for Nick but doesn't find him.

'He can see who serves which table.'

'I've been here longer than you. That job's mine.' Charles prods Anton's chest, straightens his apron and goes outside.

Charming, that's gratitude for you, Anton thinks as he clears a nearby table, balancing three dinner plates on one arm and picking up the glasses with his other hand. He avoids Charles for the rest of the evening.

Before the Saturday evening opening, Nick addresses all the staff.

'Ok guys, well done on the move to waiter tablets. The trial has been successful, and we'll stick with them!' Nick says.

The staff mutter among themselves.

'Tonight, we've got a big group in for a birthday meal. Anton and Charles, you'll be working the table together.' Nick claps his hands. 'All hands on deck!'

Table legs screech on the tiled floor as Anton and Charles shift them together. Cutlery clashes as they lay the table. Anton watches Charles fold the serviettes and set down the glasses. The two waiters meet and greet customers, working in tandem to take beverage orders, deliver the drinks and explain the menu. Anton listens to Charles advising on the choice of wines with each course and realises that he is very knowledgeable.

'I'd recommend a dry French rosé with the salmon Madam. Perhaps an organic Cabernet d'Anjou?' Charles says.

Anton nods to Charles to indicate that he'll get it.

The starter service goes smoothly, and the birthday group is in good spirits. The volume of chatter increases as the evening goes on. The sound of glasses clinking reverberates throughout the restaurant.

Only when the mains are delivered can the waiters relax a little. Anton serves the last sirloin steak to an elderly man and retires to the bar.

'Good work Anton,' Charles says, 'you have a flair for serving.'

'Well, thanks Charles, you're not so bad yourself,' Anton laughs.

Suddenly there's a commotion, several diners are on their feet, shuffling their chairs to the side and shouting. A woman's voice cries out, 'Hit him on the back.' Amid the fracas, Anton hears a hacking, coughing sound and rushes over. He grabs the elderly man, bends him over at the waist and hits him between the shoulders five times. He seizes him from behind, places his fist just above his navel, puts his other hand over it and pulls hard, in and up, five times. The man's legs dangle as he's lifted off the floor before he spits out the offending piece of steak. Anton helps him sit down and calmly talks to him.

'You're fine now. Relax, let's breathe together. In, one, two, three. Out, one, two, three.' Anton places his hand on the man's shoulder. 'Good. You're ok.'

Like a taut thread snapping, tension is released, and hushed diners resume their conversations. The atmosphere in the restaurant returns to normal. The gentleman jokes that he'll stick to soup from now on and thanks Anton, calling him a hero.

Anton notices Charles watching him and nods in his direction, Charles gives him the thumbs-up. Nick hurries towards the front section.

'Guys, what happened?'

'It's ok, 'Anton says.

'This young man saved my life,' the elderly man says. 'I can't thank him enough.'

'Shall I call an ambulance?' Nick asks.

'No, no, I'm fine now, thank you.'

'Ok, if you're sure,' Nick beckons to Anton to follow him to the bar.

'Well done Anton. You saved the day there. Nothing more stressful than a choking diner,' Nick pats Anton on the shoulder. 'By the way, are you interested in the deputy job?'

'You know Nick, I thought I was, but to be honest I think someone more senior than me deserves it more.' Anton looks in the direction of Charles.

3 comments:

  1. Anton was a good waiter in more ways than one. The ambiance of a busy restaurant is well created.

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  2. Hotshot youngster vs. experienced veteran. Nice that they realize they've been underestimating each other and manage to earn each other's respect.

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  3. First, I'll echo Harris On, I thought the story did a great job of depicting a busy restaurant and all the little sights and sounds.
    A very nice story about the differences between generations.
    Well done.

    ReplyDelete