Wednesday, February 11, 2015

ST VALENTINE’S night in any restaurant is different to every other night of the year. An air of expectation hangs around as couples try to make each other feel special, while the very notion of romance weighs heavily on their shoulders.

It’s the night when people who wouldn’t normally darken the door of a posh restaurant come to pay for over-priced food.

I worked in a very fancy and expensive restaurant for years when I was younger. It was situated in an up-and-coming part of Dublin that’s now tragically hip and bohemian. Our restaurant was a place where musicians, artists, actors and film producers would casually drop in for dinner.

But it was owned by an American couple, who were madder than a box of snakes. Ray, the husband, was the head chef. He was also an ex-marine from New York, who never tired of telling people that he cooked on ships and submarines before landing in Ireland. He was a tough mother who swore and threatened his way through life, especially in the kitchen.

His wife, Tina, who looked after the front of house, was a failed actress who was offensively nosey, especially when it came to our famous customers.

It was the menu that attracted our clients, featuring, as it did, dishes from New York, France, Asia and anywhere else the chef could find a recipe that would suit the place.

That all changed on 14 February, though. Gone were all the fancy ingredient. They were replaced by plain, simple food that would offend no palate. The reason for this was to optimise the amount of money to be made and minimise the amount of work put into it.

There would be two starters, soup or garlic bread; two mains, steak or chicken, and two deserts, a selection of ice-cream (home made) or apple tart (also home made).

Our usual customers would laugh at such a fare, but put the right price on this inoffensive St Valentine’s Day fare and you trick the ordinary Joe into thinking they’re getting something special.

And so it was that, two by two, like animals entering the ark, the couples came to our restaurant. They were mostly young people in their early 20s. Some of the men, while anxious to impress, were anxious, too, about getting out of there and back into the warm confines of their local. The women looked very pleased indeed, especially when they were handed a glass of ‘champagne’ while they were perusing the pared-back bill of fare.

We, the waiting staff, would give them about five minutes to settle in and then we’d swoop, gathering as many orders as quickly as we could.

“Steak? Certainly, sir. And how would you like that cooked? ‘Very well done’, you say? And for you, madam? What would you like to eat tonight? Chicken? Of course you would,” I said.

“Check on table three, chef!” I said, slapping the order down on the gantry before speeding out of the kitchen and back into the dining room.

Ray, in the meantime, grabbed the order and immediately saw that it was for a very well-done steak. If there’s one thing he hated more than a vegetarian, it was a pleb who wanted a striploin steak burnt.

The couple on table three were having a right time for themselves, scoffing wine, touching hands and generally getting all loved up. When it was time for their main courses, I duly delivered the two dishes.

About 15 seconds later, the man called me back.

“Excuse me,” he said, sounding unsure of himself. “I asked for a very-well-done steak. This is rare, look. There’s blood running out of it.”

And sure enough, there it was. A well-done steak served rare.

“Oh my, will you look at that! It’s almost blue. There must have been a mix-up – I’ll just bring it back,” I replied, knowing full well that I was about to unleash the hounds of hell.

I walked back into the kitchen with the offending piece of meat. Ray immediately spotted me and knew that table three had committed the cardinal sin of sending a dish back.

“What the f**k is wrong with it? That’s a beautiful piece of meat,” he yelled, spit flying from his mouth as he jabbed the steak with his thumb. “That f**king fool doesn’t know what good food is. What the hell is he coming into my restaurant for? He’s a goddamn fool, a freaking Paddy whose mother raised him on spuds. Well-f***king-done steak. The freaking imbecile!”

I was surprised that the customers didn’t hear him roaring and yelling, but somewhat the fug of romance must have deafened them.

Minutes later, I walked back to table three with the main course in my hands. On the plate was the steak, charred and blackened and shrivelled up like an old boot.

“Ah, that looks perfect. Thanks a million,” the customer said, smiling and totally unaware of the fury he had unleashed just yards from where he sat.

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