Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Something to shake up my perspective

Or, How Did This Post Get To Be So Long?

When I was little, I had a saying to describe my parents: "Mom's the boss, and Dad knows everything."

While I think, for the most part, my parents got a happy kick out of their five-year-old's silly sayings (much like me calling high heels "stompers" and scarves "swiffers"), occasionally one of them would question my small (which I think made it very precise) logic.

Usually it was my mother. "Why do I have to be the boss, Jolan?" she'd ask. "Why does Dad know everything?"

"I don't know why," I'd say. "Ask him. He'll probably know."*

This phrase faded over time, as it is less cute for a snotty thirteen-year-old to remark on her parents' relationship dynamics than a young child. Occasionally, though, something will happen to bring up the old saying, and it's always a welcome sign of familiar family (redundancy? redundancy!) structure.

Most recently, we were reminded of Dad Knowing Everything on a car trip from Jersey to New York, the last time I saw my parents before moving down here. I was discussing the possibilities of working with wine in Argentina, and I told my parents about a special gift I'd gotten from my boss at the restaurant in DC. "It's a really nice corkscrew," I explained. "It comes from France and is made out of like, ivory or something. Apparently this kind is really valuable. I forget what it's called, though."

My dad said, "Laguiole." (Pronounced, "La-yoll".)

I watched my mother's head swing fast to look at my father. "How do you know that?" she asked.

"I just do."

"But how do you know that?"

"Laguiole. It's an area in France that makes traditional, high-quality knives. Hunters and farmers use them. They're made of fine wood, or mammoth ivory. They usually have a trademark bee on them, a symbol of expert craftsmanship. They also make corkscrews. They're of excellent quality. Why don't you know that?"

My mother, reading between the lines, settled back in her seat, satisfied. My father is a mechanic, and a hunter. He enjoys working with his hands, and appreciates the tools which help him complete his tasks expertly. His knowledge of a fine knife produced in a small area in France was bound to come to light, eventually.

The corkscrew was a gift given to me by WW, the manager at the restaurant where I'd learn to love, among many other things, wine. When WW first came to work at the restaurant, we were without a sommelier.** This, according to WW, needed to be remedied -- a fair enough objective, given that the wine menu had over 300 bottles, and over twenty wines by the glass. Clients didn't want to ask their server about the $250 bottle of Hillside Select, only to be met with an apologetic shrug.

I'd like to say that out of the whole staff, WW noticed my palate, my presence, my impeccable pronunciation of foreign labels. But that would be a gross misrepresentation of myself.*** When he asked if anyone would be interested in learning about wines, and possibly taking over some sort of person-in-charge role, I was the only one who raised my hand. WW got excited, told me I had an advantage in the business due to my gender (women have more refined tastebuds, it seems; also being a young, bright woman in the world of old, stuffy men could be of help), and gave me a list of books to buy.

Over the course of the next several months, I studied, and studied, and drank. I read about wine regions in France, in Germany, in Canada, in Uruguay, in China. I studied the chemistry of alcohol fermentation, and the geology of soil, sand, and clay. I read about wine as history, and wine as anthropology. I studied the differences in grape varietals, in wine bottle shapes, in cork materials. (I forgot a lot of it.)

Thanks to my new role as wine apprentice, I was able to taste a world of wines I never imagined I'd be introduced to. WW told wine representatives that I was the restaurant's buyer, and wine makers from all over the world wooed me with their fare. I tasted Duckhorn Merlot for the first time, in a pair of ripped jean shorts and one of Bennett's button-downs. (After that, WW told me I should invest in a suit.) I met the winemaker from Catena vineyards in Mendoza, whose evident pride for his product could not be properly expressed in his slow English. I met Jed Steele, the winemaker behind the wild success of Kendall-Jackson, a millionaire and one of the most humble people I've met in the wine, food, and restaurant business.****

Eventually, though, along with learning much about wine, and what I loved about it, I also learned what I didn't love. I didn't love the hospitality business. After almost four years of catering to clients with high expectations (which are good, and provide interesting challenges) and insane demands (which are terrible, and would drive me to tears in the stewarding room), I was ready to resign. It's difficult to work for a company whose customer service philosophy is "Never say no", but whose clientele would frequently ask for things that were not on the menu, nor in the entire building. Want a well-done filet mignon? Want osetra caviar? Want a Caesar salad with grilled unicorn meat? It would be my pleasure.

I suppose there is a certain humility necessary to be a good hospitality person, a character trait I do not possess. Maybe others get by with a passion for haut culture, and a devotion to the cause. I learned to love what our tables were set with, but grew to despise many of the people who sat around them. I was becoming weirdly bitter for someone in her mid-twenties. I was, I finally concluded, too young to not like my job.

For all my love of full-bodied Alsatian wines, and the gentle bubble of a good Champagne, I could not be happy with myself, or my work environment, if I didn't respect the people I was serving as much as I respected what I was serving. I remember one evening when I placed a silver platter of Berkshire pork chops, beautifully stacked one against the other and graced with a slice of a bourbon-soaked peach, in front of an older woman. She looked up and sneered. "What is this?" she asked, upset, apparently, because she needed to do the cutting herself. To make her happy, I carefully sliced the pork and served it to her on her bare, Italian-imported porcelain plate, while she muttered about the travesty that is dining out in DC. It's one thing to filet a whole fish tableside; it's another to cut up a piece of pork chop and serve it to someone with a spoon, like you would do for a child.

Thank god for Mike, my best friend and often savior. After a moment with the Pork Chop Lady I needed something fresh, something silly, something to shake up my perspective. I noticed Mike across the dining room and, striding up to him, said, "Spin me."

Without a blink, he took me by the hand and spun me. "I'll bet you're a wonderful dancer."

I said, "Oh, no! I'm not at all. I'm notoriously awful."

"There are different types of dancing," Mike said. "I'm not talking about the humping that people do in clubs. I'll be you'd be a wonderful ballroom dancer."


"Sure," he said. "Half of ballroom dancing is simply aesthetics. You make everyone in a room look at you, just by virtue of your grace."

"I wish all men were gay. I'd have so many boyfriends."

Mike paused, and then laughed, and laughed hard. "You should write," he said.

"I do write!"

"Yes," he said, "but for real."


*A clever response and all, but I don't think I actually said that, at five, ever.

**Or a "wine director". Many of the things about the establishment were inspired by the French culinary arts, but we did not use any of the French terms. We were a high-quality, rustic American restaurant, and the dishes' names reflected this philosophy. Ratatouille became a summer vegetable medley, bouillabaisse became a fish stew, and so on.

***Which god knows, I'm probably doing enough of that as it is here, anyway.

****A man who, after meeting me for less than ten minutes but listening to me quickly complain about the lack of variety of wine types in the grocery store (I certainly am less diverse in my complaints about diversity, no?), a month later sent me a package from California, with: two Steele t-shirts (not knowing my size, politely sent both a small and medium), four bottles of wine (varietals not found commonly in the States; for instance the Blaufrankisch, aka the Lemberger, aka Steele's Blue Franc; you should try it), and a handwritten card. I never sent a thank-you card, for which I will be forever guilty. If there is an etiquette hell, I'll be there, getting jabbed with quill-like pitchforks, surrounded by eternally burning thank-you notes, with Judith Martin look-alike devils chanting, "Your mother taught you better than that!"


  1. * If you didn't say it, you probably thought or would have given a few more minutes
    **** You really do need to send that thank you note.