Which fish to fry

Of the more than ten jobs I’ve held, the one that shaped me most as a person was working as a server at an upscale restaurant downtown that shuttered a few years after I’d moved to New England and become a teacher. The name of the restaurant was OXO, and it was owned by a husband/wife power duo named John and Alice. John was the cutthroat chef de cuisine, and Alice, whom I revered, ran the front of the house as if it were a military unit. I could write pages upon pages about my years in their employ (actually, I already have, including lots of poetry, and no doubt I’ll write more on the subject), but suffice it to say that the influence of those years on my life even today, half a lifetime later, is substantial. Sometimes I wonder if one of the reasons I wanted to name my child “Arlo” is that OXO, where my adult self took shape, was in many ways Alice’s restaurant.

As a lead server, I had the experience of interfacing with many interesting people, some of whom happened to be famous. One night, there was a large VIP booking in the back dining room, a section of the restaurant assigned to one of my server friends for the evening, and it turned out that the reservation was for Michael J. Fox, his wife, and about eight other people. It was a busy night, and my friend had gotten double-seated twice in thirty minutes, so she was in the weeds and told me while we were picking up cocktails that she was worried about making the VIP table wait to order dinner. I had a rare to medium rare spare minute and a whole lot of fangirl feelings, so I offered to take their order and bring it to the line.

Michael was sitting near Tracy Pollan, his stunning spouse, and they were both as lovely and blithely urbane in real life as they were onscreen. When I asked him what he’d like for an entrée, he responded with what sounded like “snapper” but could have just as easily been “salmon”. His speech was only mildly affected by Parkinson’s, but that one word got a little lost among the others, the final syllable swallowed up in the rest of the sentence. I cursed our menu for containing two fish options beginning with “s” and possessing the short “a” sound, but I made up my mind in the moment that there was absolutely no way I was going to ask him to repeat it. The man was so dignified, so elegant, so self-assured, and I refused to let that little hitch in his speech claim any power over the situation. So I left that space blank while I took the rest of the order and decided what to do.

Time was of the essence, and I knew that the kitchen would have my head if I were responsible for serving this icon the wrong dinner, but I just couldn’t bring myself to go back and ask him again. This man deserved to go out to a nice restaurant and order his own meal and not be misheard, Parkinson’s notwithstanding. As far as I was concerned, no diagnosis was going to mess with his right to feel successful as a communicator, at least on that night in that single exchange. I was in control here, and it somehow felt critical to me that he have the moment of ordering his dinner be just that–simple, effortless, uncomplicated. So little else is, particularly for people with a lifelong disease.

I decided to make a guess and suffer the consequences in the event that I’d chosen the wrong fish. I’d take the impassioned, scathing insults from the chefs, the chagrin from my fellow servers, the disappointment from Alice, the possible annoyance from Michael himself, the embarrassment I’d surely feel: I’d take it all. I steeled myself for a long second and then wrote “snapper” on my order ticket, hoping hard that our signature entrée, that delicate pan-seared filet enrobed in a potato crêpe and served with roasted pearl onions, lardons of bacon, and sautéed baby spinach, topped with a nest of ribboned fennel salad and dressed with lemon Mosto oil and 100-year old balsamic vinegar, was the one that he’d intended to order.

I suffered through the drink and appetizer hour, helping to clear their plates and then firing the entrées, waiting on my own tables by masquerading as myself while my stomach knotted to the point that I had to ask for a “white coffee” from my bartender friend, Karen (“white coffee”, for a reason I don’t remember, was code for a shot of Jägermeister in a coffee cup). When it was finally time to deliver dinner to the VIPs, I made sure that I was the one to carry the snapper; if it were wrong, I knew I’d be the one who’d need to fire an extra salmon on the fly, pay for the snapper out of my tips for the night, and face the fire that was sure to follow. After the women at the table had been served, I approached Michael, held out his plate and said, “the snapper for you, sir”, to which he nodded and said, “Yes, thank you.” I almost passed out with relief.

Anyone who has worked in fine dining will agree that the processes involved in delivering a plate of food to a guest are much more complicated and intricately interconnected than they might appear. Nothing is as simple as it seems to a guest who is always a guest, and frequently what guests don’t encounter (clumps in the sugar bowl, crumbs on the banquettes, water marks on the flatware, creases in the menu, empty water glasses, inconsistencies with the food, servers who don’t know answers to every question they might be asked, for example) take an enormous amount of effort with respect to observation, preparation, and maintenance. But more important, perhaps, are the unseen efforts involved in the interactions between guests and those whose job it is not only to meet their needs but to exceed expectations. The pressure is immense, and I feel very fortunate that I didn’t have to face the music by serving the wrong sea animal to a star of the silver screen. I’m not sure why it felt like a point of integrity for me to take that chance in an effort to avoid drawing attention to a moment when Parkinson’s tried to interrupt the one and only conversation I’d ever have with Michael J. Fox, but it felt like a chance I had to take. I very much doubt that he remembers his meal that night, but I’ll never forget the most memorable plate of snapper I ever set down, an emblem of the private risk involved in a person’s choice to preserve a moment for the sake of another who would never even know that the choice had existed. There is so much beauty in the world that we never even know about, and sometimes the fact that it bypasses perception renders it all the more beautiful. We must remember that.

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