Fine-dine restaurants are a performance space as much as a place to eat. Waiters know the script by heart but constantly improvise around it, making split-second judgements about what customers need to feel at ease and enjoy themselves. The best waiters are like master keys who can fit themselves to the lock of each table’s unique, collective personality. It’s an intellectual challenge, a thrill to get right.
One of my favourite things was to serve from the dessert trolley. The gâteaux, tarts, and miscellaneous pastry frou-frou were works of art already, thanks to the pâtissier, but plating at table is an art form too. To control the presentation of food is to engineer the enjoyment of eating it.
Start with a clean, white plate. Make a lake of crème anglaise and lay a trail of red drops across it with fine-sieved berry coulis. Drag a toothpick through, one deft sweep, to connect the dots. Voilà! Red dots, dipped and tailed, become love hearts dancing across the canvas. Cut a wedge of whatever the customer chose from the unctuous descriptions you gave when you moored the trolley at their table. Black forest gâteau? Certainly, madam! Use a hot, sharp knife.
Slide the slice onto the anglaise, upright and with all its decorative flourishes intact. Pipe some whipped cream. Garnish with a filigree of chocolate or sugar work, another thing of beauty spun by the pâtissier earlier. Now – and this is important if you want to be believed – transport the plate as if it were the most precious thing and place it in front of the lucky customer. Tweak its rotation, align it to the diner’s eyes in a way that accentuates the geometry, the chiaroscuro. Ahhh. It is perfect. Who’s next?
A good performance can make people order dessert who didn’t think they were hungry. The combination of sight and sound – and flames and smells, if it’s the flambé trolley – is a greater temptation than words on a printed menu could ever be.
I lost a wheel once. I’d turned the trolley back towards the kitchen when it gave a great lurch to one side. It was the near hind wheel that fell off rather than one of the front ones, so I managed to catch the trolley’s weight with a quick lift of the handle on that side. I stifled my surprise. The only squeak came from the trundling wheels, three suddenly doing the work of four, as I strong-armed the trolley back to the kitchen. No one noticed, which was good. The most important thing during restaurant service is to maintain the illusion that everything is under control.
Most fine-dine customers understand the rules of this environment. They play their parts just as the waiters play theirs. They dress well, sit tall, and come prepared to make an evening of it. They bring their best table manners and social graces and in return they can expect to enjoy a dining experience curated by experts. But some customers come for a different kind of entertainment.
Mr Smith – let’s call him that – was a regular. The restaurant manager put him in my section and came to brief me. ‘He’s a bit… unusual,’ he said, ‘but he’s a big tipper. Make sure you look after him.’ He didn’t need me to promise I would; I was a professional. I gave Mr Smith some time with his menu, then went to take his order, my hands clasped loosely behind my back. In this restaurant, we took orders by memory: starters, mains, side dishes, special additions and alterations for each guest – medium-rare for her steak, well done for his; no sauce on your duck, no problem madam. With a head full of who’d ordered what, we’d glide back to the kitchen and only then scramble for an order pad and write it all down. Table of one? Easy.
‘Good evening sir, my name’s Fiona and I’ll be looking after you this evening. Do you have any questions about the menu?’
‘No, I’ll order now. I’ll start with the chowder, then the filet mignon, rare.’ We had the usual back and forth about side dishes, and I said I’d send the sommelier over to suggest some wine. I took his menu and returned his smile, but he wasn’t done.
‘Fiona, I can’t help noticing that you have a beautifully-shaped philtrum. You don’t mind me saying so, do you? It’s quite exquisite.’
‘Your philtrum. It’s a beautiful shape.’ He smiled at my blank look. ‘That’s the groove in your top lip, running down from the nose to the mouth.’ To illustrate, he ran a finger down his own philtrum as he continued to stare at mine. I was taken aback. I could improvise with the best of them, but this was a long way off script.
We offered a five-star menu, with prices to match. Customers expected elegance and luxury from the moment they arrived, which was delivered in part by white-clothed tables that were softly pooled with candlelight, and generously spaced to afford privacy. As I stood over Mr Smith’s table – him smiling up at me, stroking his top lip, me with my hands behind my back – an unwelcome intimacy fell over us. I felt grossly exposed. He’d broken the unwritten rules of engagement, and he’d also made me feel stupid – he’d told me something about my body that I hadn’t known. A blush rolled in, and I was thankful for the dim lighting.
‘Yes, well. Thank you, sir.’ In this manufactured environment, this charade we were playing, I felt powerless to do anything else. With the merest nod of my head, I turned to go, saying, ‘I’ll get the sommelier for you now.’
The restaurant manager (a man), was neither surprised nor outraged when I reported what had happened. ‘Like I said, he’s an odd bod. Would you like one of the others to take over?’
I baulked at being thought a quitter. ‘No, I can handle him.’ And I did. I amped up the professionalism. More formality, less friendliness. No love hearts for his dessert plate. He must have known he’d gotten to me and been pleased with his night’s work. He left a generous tip, which felt wrong in my pocket.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Fiona Lincoln is a writer and parliamentary counsel based in Wellington. ‘Philtrum’ is an extract from a longer essay titled Middle of Man. She recently completed her MA at the IIML, and has a cat called Scone.