I’m sitting, topless, on my bed, amongst disposable nappies, muslin squares and vaguely dry washing, staring at the clock radio, willing my son to gobble up. It’s 5.41pm and my shift starts in nineteen minutes. As soon as he releases my nipple I thrust him at my husband, unburped; shrug on my only pretty bra and a scoop-necked top. With one foot out the door, I smear on lip-gloss and think I maybe should’ve done something with my hair.
What sort of mood will Chef be in? As long as lunch service hasn’t dragged on, he’s managed a sleep in front of the TV and scoffed half a bottle of wine in the dry stores, we’re in for a good night. We’re always up for a Saturday night. There’s one hundred and twenty people booked for dinner. Chef talks us through any new specials and tells us what really has to be sold because it won’t keep over the weekend. I ask what the prize is for selling all the scallops: a kiss, of course.
We can weigh up our guests in minutes, sometimes even seconds. If a table of ten can’t even resolve who is sitting next to whom, leading to elaborate shuffling and squeezing past, sitting down and standing up again – we’ve already tagged you as difficult and you will be baby-stepped through your night.
Hangry couples have already fallen out in the car on the way to the restaurant. They don’t respond to any chit-chat, order drinks before sitting down and wolf down the homemade bread. But between starter and main course there is a miraculous melting. One advances their hand across the table and it is gratefully grasped, smiles are exchanged and by desert, it’s as if nothing ever happened. The lesson? If you’re coming out for dinner, don’t skip lunch.
Back to back big tables are suicide for the kitchen. Effective stage-management is key. By 6.30pm all orders are in for the first sitting. Between 6.45pm and 8.00pm the tables which are only being used once, theoretically, arrive. By 8.15pm all the first sitting tables have to be finished, paid, waved away with smiles, cleared down, tablecloths flipped, hovered around and reset. Come December you’re adding crackers into that mix too.
Now the real theatre begins. The room is throbbing, we’re all Caro Emerald and sass sells. I sell the specials. I use words like unctuous and lovage, whipped and bound, smothered and succulent. I speak slowly, casting out deliciousness and they feel the words land on their lips, roll them around in their mouths and grow hungrier and hungrier. I stop speaking. They exhale and I have them hooked. But every now and then, usually while slipping his arm around my waist, a joker will ask me to go through it all again.
I stand at the pass, asking exactly what’s in two sauces as I’ve got guests who are gluten free and lactose intolerant. My top is sticking to the bottom of my back. I shoogle off my shoes and rub each foot up and down the opposite leg. Chef looks as if he’s about to kick off, then shrugs and offers to make two new dishes from scratch. When I take them out, the smell of wild garlic fills my head with memories of walks in the woods while I was pregnant.
The last of the mains go out at 9.45pm but there are still two hours of cleaning down, re-stocking the wine, ordering and re-setting. Whispers start: will there be staff tea tonight? One of the KPs thinks he saw a lasagne in the walk-in but someone else thinks it’s for a delivery.
The last group stand up and sway, we have their coats on their backs in seconds but they want to see Chef. They want to shake his hand, buy him a drink and make on they know him personally. I summarise what they all ordered and he swaggers over. It’s all bear hugs and kisses until I go into the kitchen and phone the mobile in his pocket, pretending to be his wife, so he is forced to excuse himself, ever so reluctantly.
At last the doors are locked. We are allowed to sit down and it feels so good. Chef brings through pizza after pizza and there’s garlic bread, salad, house wine and cheap beer. We pass around plates and ketchup; someone hunts for vinegar that isn’t balsamic. There’s banter and flirting and texting and giggling and I imagine being part of a fabulous, raucous, glorious family. The kitchen boys and Chef start playing push ha’penny against the bar, gambling away the change in their pockets, then we get our tips and the stakes sky-rocket. ‘Do your talking while you’re walking’ – is his final instruction. I get my winner’s kiss and we all spill out the back door.
The sitting room light is still on. My husband is asleep on the sofa, our son stretched out on his chest, his delicious little mouth a perfect O. I scoop him up and shoo hubby off to bed. Baby stirs in my arms. He’ll wake up soon and I’ll be able to sit, looking out at the moon and the stars and feed him in peace, for as long as I want to.