a short story by Jonathan Field
There was Thanksgiving. There was Christmas. There was New Years. And then there was us, the ragged crew of Restaurant Le Chalet, trying to get through the holidays without any customers to serve. It's New York City's Upper East Side in the winter of early 1994. Outside, Second Avenue is crowded with locals, out-of-towners, and rural-looking guys with beards selling Christmas trees. The streets are buzzing with life; holiday lights, bus-stop ads for booze and boots and lingerie, and seemingly endless lines of diners outside blocks of bistros and bars. But inside under the rosy lights of a long, empty restaurant, its 10 employees (all men) glance mournfully at the passing crowds. And scheme.
The owner’s name is Mo Diamond. He’s Israeli. A man with the heart-melting smile of a newborn baby. Or, more accurately, a crook. He opens the restaurant in mid-November. Without a liquor license. Without loyal clientele. He's entered this business after selling imitation Italian shoes in Brazil and Brooklyn. In other words, he has the same appreciation for food as he does for footwear. Absolutely none. But New York's Upper East Side is packed with overpriced pasta houses. What it lacks is one splashy, overpriced Gallic joint. Mo Diamond, on Second Avenue via Damascus via Tel Aviv via Sao Palo via Howard Beach, has come to fill a niche.
Who does he hire to herald French cuisine to the neighborhood? A Sicilian. As Mo sees it, given any failure of his restaurant's "cuisine la France" (as the menu put it), Chef Tony d'Vennuzio could always cook spaghetti. But the proud young chef has worked the best French houses in New York. With everyone expecting a Sicilian to cook pasta, he's developed a chip on his shoulder the size of Staten Island. Handsome Tony swore that any waiter who took a pasta order would find his ears served as cauliflower dumplings.
Knowing the chef, you took his threat seriously. Between signature dishes like “roast singing sparrow stuffed with pâté of black morels and young sea urchin,” “mousse le spider crab and tongue of wild (but well-aged) boar,” or “alligator cordon bleu,” Tony's culinary creations tended to be exotic. For him, a pair of human ears might just provide a trend-setting critical edge. Mo wouldn't have stopped him. The two men were born conspirators, the chef not-so-secretly desperate to get a few great reviews then quit to open his own restaurant, the owner equally not-so-secretly planning to fire his overpriced chef once the place had developed a clientele.
But the holidays did nothing to draw customers and brought only one review. That from a critic for a small radio station. In Jerusalem. "Flamboyant food. Lonely setting." Before long, Tony was openly cursing Mo for opening two weeks before Thanksgiving. In truth, with his huge ambitions, Tony would have agreed to opening a hot dog stand on Mars if it got a crowd. Mo had promised him he'd hire a top-rate publicist. Mo kept the promise but paid the publicist with a bad check. Now the Sicilian was complaining that the Israeli got us blacklisted, whispering that he was ready to chop the gray-haired owner into turkey soup. With just three weeks till Christmas, the staff cigarette breaks were growing from minutes into hours.
During the holidays, nothing kills faster than failure. Especially when it's surrounded by success. Our street frothed with success. Cheerful restaurants serving Chinese, Indian, and of course, your wall-to-wall gorgeous people Italian joints. For every ounce of polish, we tried to simulate in Restaurant Le Chalet, the lack of actual customers murdered Tony. No New Yorker will brave an empty house during the holidays. Celebrating demands a crowd. Which meant no tips for us. Which meant the only crew we kept was famished for work. The restaurant soon became a shelter for the lonely and the lost.
What was I doing there? I'd just come back to New York from Hollywood without one local job reference. My sole possessions were a trunk full of unsold film scripts and a foam mat on my grandmother's living room floor. My last prayer was an uncommitted promise from an agent to read my latest script. In three words, I was desperate. But also intrigued. One way or another, Restaurant Le Chalet was going up in flames. In between counting my breaths waiting for Hollywood to return my phone calls, I plotted out scenarios as to who would finally torch this place, the owner or the chef.
My first week there, Mo and Tony jointly agreed to toss the manager, neither of them sure they commanded the woman's singular loyalty. That same afternoon, a huge Belgian wandered in with a suitcase looking for work. Antoine. Early fifties. Gucci shoes on his feet. Foreign Legion scowl on his face. A booming voice and a pair of eyes that could gaze in two directions simultaneously. He introduces himself as a victim of a recent business betrayal. He's not happy but he's alive. Even more apparent, he's a giant who projects menace. Mo hires him immediately.
I guess the owner figured Antoine would be useful during visits from creditors. Of course, he paid Antoine in cash. Within his first two days, the big man frightened off our food runner and busboy. And then talked Mo out of hiring another. "You don't need the crew…there's no customers to run food to," Antoine said matter-of-factly. He was right but Tony was furious. With Antoine's yelling and Mo's bounced checks, morale here was becoming a four-letter word. Worse, the Belgian was clearly more amused than impressed by Tony's bizarre menu. It was too late into the holidays to hire another manager, but soon the chef was whispering to us all, "the first of the year that big bum is history."
When he's not yelling, Antoine sits in a corner sipping from his own bottle of cognac and listening to elevator music. Sometimes he throws a wink at Mo's 18-year-old stepdaughter, Lillith, a gorgeous, tall carafe of dark kosher wine. But Antoine clearly just scares Lillith. Catching him staring at her one day, she drops her cup of coffee and flees to the bathroom. For a moment, Antoine looks crushed, then shrugs it, sits back in his chair, and closes his eyes. After that, he ignores Lillith, too. In truth, all he wants to do is sleep. After 20 years of managing some of the most demanding houses between Antwerp and San Francisco, Antoine is on an infuriated quest for peace.
Each day he gives us daily reports on his night spent at a nearby flophouse. "I close the shades and everything is black," he'd say in his deep voice. "Heaven." Tony eagerly prepares him old-fashioned lunches of rare roast beef and soft, stinky cheese, food to make the giant drowsy. Antoine devours every morsel. But no matter how much of the chef's food he devours, the manager dismisses the younger man with scorn. Tony's passion only makes Antoine yawn.
The week after he convinces Mo to avoid wasting money on busboys or runners, Antoine convinces Mo to hire an extremely opinionated Parisian waiter. They pay Little Louie a draw. As the manager and the owner see it, the presence of a genuine Frenchman near the kitchen is certain to keep Tony perpetually insecure. This, in turn, leads Tony to hire Cid, a former maitre d' from Spain. Cid talks a lot and tells miles of harmless jokes. In other words, like most restaurant hosts, he's totally useless. Antoine promptly nicknames him "Blah-Blah-Blah." The name takes. Supposedly a born-again Christian, the Castilian proudly declares himself "too humble to care." In truth, Tony has promised that "once things settle," he'll fire Antoine and give Blah-Blah-Blah his job.
Outside, Christmas was heading towards New Year's. Inside, the entire crew boiled in a black-hole of conspiracy. Antoine and Parisian Louie on one side. Mo in the middle. Me, Blah-Blah-Blah, and the kitchen crew supposedly in cahoots with the chef. Since there were no customers to tip us, and Mo's checks usually bounced, Tony paid the staff with loans from his own bank account. For the chef, Restaurant Le Chalet was his laboratory waiting for discovery from The New York Times. But without a publicist, Tony's ambition landed on deaf ears. And the happy holiday crowds rushing past our door made his staff edgy, leading to shaky alliances for the chef at home.
Poor Tony. His sous chef, an old Austrian named Hans, was a complete wash. Give him two minutes and he'd bore you to tears with a five-hour litany about a lifetime of working for anti-Teutonic Jews. But Hans cooked every one of the Israeli owner's dinners. At heart, he probably would have neighed like a drunken horse if it might have increased Mo's appreciation of him. Or convinced him to appoint Hans head chef.
The two middle-aged dishwashers from Mexico shared Hans' sense of loyalty. It didn't exist. They liked Tony. But they hated taking orders from his pastry chef, Cookie, a party-happy 21-year-old Romeo from Sierra Leone. Cookie had invented a dessert he'd named "banana napoleon royale," a short, stubby, phallic-looking thing Tony thought might become a hit among the late-night crowd. As the Mexicans saw it, Cookie and his pastry insulted their sense of beauty. "Cookie is muy feo," they'd moan. "That guy is soooo ugly."
In reality, Cookie was handsome as the sun. But he was also black as night. It depressed them to be stuck in America subservient to an African pot-head with a winning grin. They swore allegiance to Tony but took every opportunity to win Antoine's sympathy. Murder lurks in the theater world. In the hospitality business, hatred stews. The professionals at Restaurant Le Chalet weren't exactly four-star quality, but we sure hated like the best.
Even Mo's stepdaughter Lillith. What a mystery! Officially, she was here to hostess and check coats. Some hostess. The one or two customers we got, she would either sit them far away in the back next to the bathroom (which both annoyed the customer and failed to impress anyone outside peering in to gauge Le Chalet’s popularity) or Lillith would inevitably misplace their coats. Worse, other times, she would lock herself in the bathroom and spend an entire half hour weeping. Mo would respond by going off for a slice of pizza. The rest of us would stand around debating the roots of this raven-eyed young woman's grief. So lovely. So confused. We'd take it all very seriously for about 15 minutes, until Tony would end things, summing it all up to "hormones."
Christmas Eve, we stay open because Tony wants to take advantage of the fact that everyone else on the block has closed by eight o'clock. That's because almost nobody eats out on Christmas Eve. Sure enough, we get no customers. Lillith ends up in the bathroom wailing. Mo leaves for a slice of pizza. The rest of us start to discuss Lillith's crying. Antoine looks at us in disgust. "Of course she's weeping. You idiots are drowning her with your incompetence." Tony's expression says he's not sure whether to deep-fry Antoine in rancid butter or ask the Belgian for some man-to-man advice.
Everyone's noticed Antoine making eyes at Lillith. Everyone's noticed Lillith making eyes at the Tony. Did anything happen between her and the older man? What happens to a chef who fools around with the boss' family? And why does a stepfather disappear for pizza when his stepdaughter is wailing? Lillith has something going on with all these men. She's a firecracker. Get careless with a girl like that and you might get killed. Or worse, she might convince you to marry her.
When I come in Christmas afternoon, Tony orders me to make him a triple espresso, then looks around the empty room and whispers "can you keep a secret?" Dumb question. Nobody keeps secrets here. So I say "of course." Turns out that last night he invited Lillith for a midnight dinner. While he taught her about caviar, she told him about the Christmas when her mother left her first father to move in with Mo, and the Halloween when the woman ran off to Vegas with a poker dealer. It's not exactly a mess of stunning revelations. But in Tony's mind, at least now he can rationalize falling for Lillith the human roller-coaster. She's going to supply him dirty laundry against the boss.
Later when she comes to work, Tony invites her back to the kitchen. "To learn how to turn an omelet." For a few minutes, we watch him and Lillith grate onions and rub shoulders. Two eggs simmering on a red-hot stove. Then Antoine steps in to the kitchen, telling nobody in particular that Mo's accountant had recently admitted to him that the restaurant was created solely as an end-of-the-year tax write-off. Tony's face blanched. Then without a word, knife in hand, the chef walks outside, staring at the crowded restaurants next door and cursing their Christmas lights. Lillith follows and stands next to him, one hand holding Tony's hand, the other hand fondling an egg.
By New Year's Eve, their romance had solidified amid the restaurant's gloom. But for all their public kissing, the holidays had poisoned their blood. Ours too. We were all broke. While the world was drunk with glee for gifts and delight, the crew of Restaurant Le Chalet was inebriated on defeat. Most of us, anyway. Antoine and Mo were too lost to care. And Blah-Blah-Blah's soul seemed composed of saccharin. Immune to life. But for everyone else, Christmas, Chanukah, Thanksgiving…the words made us spit! The celebrating around us just heightened the misery of our lives.
As for Tony, he was ready to axe someone. Including himself. Or the customers. Because finally, with the chef's bank account in overdraft, Mo had somehow booked 15 of the restaurant's 30 tables. That meant over 60 guests coming for Tony's menu of crayfish kosher salted soup, steamed Corsican snails, Romanian lamb's tongue in a Bulgarian whiskey glacé, kangaroo cassoulet, and a palette of other quasi Gallic-curiosities. How a total of three waiters would serve this intricate meal had me on my twelfth cigarette of the hour. Even if we managed all the soup bowls, we still had to serve Tony's psychotically delicate soufflés. Bitter melon!
With 10 minutes to open for the New Year's Eve dinner, Tony's right hand is rubbing a grater against his left wrist. He's mumbling about "the God damn help" he has to work with. Blah-Blah-Blah chuckles and says cheerfully, "You know, Tony, we should not use the Lord's name in vain." The chef looks at the Spanish waiter in disbelief, then proceeds to curse Blah-Blah-Blah's entire maternal lineage. Something odd happens to Blah-Blah-Blah's face. Initially he tries to laugh off the insults, but a second later his lips start to twitch in rage. Blah-Blah-Blah is about to turn into El Cid!
The two men stare at each other, eyes pouring out hatred. Violence floods the air. Lillith rushes to Tony's side. Me and Parisian Louie look at each other in a panic. If the chef spills blood on Cid's white shirt, it means one less waiter to serve the soup. We stand next to the Spaniard, ready to jump and choke a smile back on his face. Antoine throws Louis a wink, enjoying the coming slaughter. Mo uses the opportunity to take off for dinner at the Chinese joint next door. As he walks past Hans he sighs to the Austrian, "Believe me, it's no bargain to be a Jew."
But before Tony and Blah-Blah-Blah got the chance to pursue their wrestling match, our first customers arrived. Two middle-aged fat guys with smelly cigars in their mouths and fat, young women on their arms. The chef headed to the back. "If any of you spills a drop of my soup, you bathe in it when you return to my kitchen," he said with disgust. The cigar Casanovas are followed by a befuddled-looking older couple who look like you could knock them down with a tea bag. Nine o'clock and they're already exhausted. Then another couple, the men with the look of brother-in-laws with nothing to share for conversation, the sisters looking like they share even less. Three tables of good-looking 20-year-olds, all of them much too happy to have ended up here. Someone's using Daddy's credit cards. Then five tables of assorted supposed friends and family. And finally, a bunch of tables of Parisians who look so happy Louie guesses they probably just survived a plane crash.
Our guests seemed to sense evil in the house. Especially the Parisians, their boisterous French camaraderie soon curdling into resounding French despondence. For the next 20 minutes, nobody talked much, as if everyone was wondering the same thing. Have we come for a party…or a poisoning? It was a good question because while Tony waited for us to drop his precious soup, his anger had grown from black to purple. The guy was a stew of gourmet rage. Eight weeks wasted here. His entire life's savings on a tax write-off posing as a restaurant! As Blah-Blah-Blah loaded up with soup bowls, Tony took the moment to carefully ladle hot broth on the waiter's patent leather shoes.
The Spaniard drops all his bowls and grabs his foot, screaming bloody murder. Antoine rushes into the kitchen. "Are you mad, we have real guests out there!" he yells. Tony smiles, then takes a greasy towel and lights it on the stove. Holding it in the air, he lets it burn. All of us stand there, amazed. Our chef has lost his mind. Then Antoine grabs Tony's wrist and just stands there, the two men face to face, neither acknowledging the flames about to turn them both to burning cinders. As the fire creeps down to their fingertips, the older man breaks the silence. "If you think this is bad, try an empty restaurant in February," he says. We wait for Tony to say something. Anything. Instead, he starts to weep.
The crew shifts nervously. Anger we know. Sorrow is a mystery. But for the briefest moment, Antoine's body sags. It's as if the young man's tortured tears echo something inside his own heart. A second later, Antoine silently, efficiently, grabs the burning rag and crushes it in his big hands. He curses in pain, sucks his fingers, then hands the half-charred towel to Tony. "Dry your eyes," he says gently, then motions to the guests outside. "It's New Years. Your snails are waiting to be served," he says. "A little butter, everything will be delicious and very nice."
Maybe Antoine felt sorry for the chef. Or maybe he was just inspired by a house of customers. Maybe the sweet whiff of herbs or perfume ignited the romance sleeping in his bones. Regardless, for the rest of the evening Antoine led the crew with the ease of a prince. Everything bitter in him dissolved, and he transformed into a six-foot-four glowing candle of old-world genuine grace and charm. As the restaurant filled with noise, the customers breathing out "oooos" and "aahhs" over every one of Tony's bizarre but exquisite dishes, something changed at Restaurant Le Chalet.
That night our guests gnawed through a mountain of exotic dishes from sea, earth, and sky. Mo somehow returned from the Chinese Restaurant with a sexy Brazilian singer. By midnight, he and Hans were dancing with three neighborhood widows on the bar. Tony was feeding Lillith raw oysters in the back of the kitchen, and Antoine and Cookie were flirting with the singer, and the rest of us were courting a group of Ukrainian waitresses who wandered in from next door. And the customers left us temporarily rich with tips, and
supposedly two babies were conceived in the heat of the basement on that strange First Night.
All that said, the next day Antoine disappeared, gone completely from his flophouse and was never seen again. Months later Chef Tony deserted our kitchen, breaking poor Lillith's heart. Soon after that, Le Chalet became an outlet for imitation Italian shoes, and the rest of the crew went their own way, while Mo, convincing me I should leave the movies to Shakespeare, briefly tutored me in the art of sizing feet. But despite all that heartache, and I mean every day of it…every damn day…that one night on Second Avenue, in our tacky little hell hole of a restaurant, the holidays exploded. Joy blossomed. Love grew.