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Diary of a Restaurant – Ch. 36: Casino Night, Eh (Part 2)

Jul 26, 2021

A Story Written By Kevin Gallagher

The chef who was directing the kitchen, spying Donna, called out, “Aha, madam, you are here for the police dinner, yes?”

“Yes I am,” she said, grateful for the confirmation that the event was real. “Do you know where everyone is for the set-up?”

He shrugged, unconcerned. “They come. They come.”

“We’re going to need the oven too.” Donna continued. “How long will you be needing it?”

“We use all night, but make room for you.” he said, as if that should be obvious to her. “And we help.”

The boxes of beef arrived and while Donna and Heather were busy tying it to get it ready for searing and roasting, the soup and vegetables were delivered. One of the cooks took the buckets of soup and dumped them into a huge pot,  began to stir it gently over a low heat, while another laid out the vegetables on shallow pans to prepare them for roasting. All the while the furious activity in the kitchen showed no sign of abating. 

The wait staff arrived. A crew of stout women who, after briefly consulting Donna on the menu, went to work setting up the room. It was clearly familiar territory for them. They rolled out the tables, set them with chairs, laughing and calling out instructions to one another in heavy Eastern European accents.  In short order, they had set the tables with linen, cutlery and glassware.

The bartenders appeared, pushing an enormous trolley loaded down with beer, wine and liquor and began to set up the bar. They were three sleek and handsome young Italians who winked and whistled at the waitresses when they passed the bar.

The women responded, tut-tutting with tight smiles, “Never you mind, Guido, just make sure I get my drinks sharp-like tonight.” 

When the beef was tied and trayed, Donna still had plenty of time before service, so she looked around for some way to help the busy cooks. Seeing dirty pots and dishes piling up, she asked the chef if they could help out by washing some dishes. She couldn’t see a dishwasher but assumed there must be one.

“No, no, Rasta man come. You eat!” he said, with a sweeping wave to the platters laid out on the counter. 

But they were too nervous to eat, and were drawn to one tandoor oven where one of the bakers, an elderly Sikh man, was making naan. Working methodically, with an economy of motion that spoke of long practice, he took balls of dough, flattened them and stuck them to the inside wall of the tandoor, before sitting on an ornate red and gold chair beside the oven to wait for the naan to bake. He set no timer, but sat calmly waiting. He would stand abruptly, and pull the loaves out of  the oven with a long hook and place them on a foil covered tray. Smiling shyly at the attention from these two fair and blue-eyed women, he passed a naan each to Donna and Heather who watched mesmerized as he resumed his work. The naan was ethereal –  soft and airy inside with a toasted, chewy exterior.

Donna had to try her hand at placing the dough. As familiar as she was with hot ovens, she couldn’t believe the searing heat it produced.

“How can you do it all the time?” she asked.

The old man laughed. “Since I was thirteen, I do. I do my whole life. Now I old, seventy-four and I must sit,” and laughed as he pointed to the gilt chair.

The dishwashers did arrive – four young black men, their dreads stuffed under tams in the Jamaican colours, one with a boom box balanced on his shoulder. They greeted the kitchen staff like old friends, shaking hands all round and briefly joined the servers huddle, laying their arms across the women’s shoulders and making little comments that left them laughing. Getting down to work, they rolled up a garage door at the back, revealing a lean-to equipped with a dishwasher and sinks. 

After dressing themselves in garbage bags in which they had made holes for their arms and head, they set about organizing the dish room, emptying garbage and washing dishes all to a reggae beat.

The dining room had begun to fill, gradually at first, then a great throng seemed to arrive almost at once. Ice cubes clattered into glasses at the bar; guests congregated in little circles laughing and chatting. Donna made sure she was ready to go. The salad was ready to be dressed and the soup was hot, and there was space in the oven.

Just as she was preparing to put the beef in the oven to roast, someone called out to her from behind,”Hey, I need that oven!”

Turning, she saw a well dressed man who looked to be Middle Eastern. He was dressed in a sports jacket, crisp trousers and a pair of elegant hand made boots. Having an eye for nice shoes, Donna noticed them immediately. Beside him was a boy, clearly his son dressed identically, down to the gold neck chain and over his shoulder the fully dressed carcass of a goat, wrapped in plastic.

“I’ll just roast it and go; be outta your hair.”

“You’re going to have to wait till I’ve done this tenderloin” said Donna, “The Chief of Police is hungry and he’s got a gun.”

He laid the goat on a side table and he sat down to wait.

 The bowls of Caesar salad had been filled and carried to the dining area. After ladling the soup into bowls, and garnishing them, Heather carefully wiped the rims, only to see the soup splash up as a server stacked the bowls on a rolling cart.

“Wait!” she called, and began re-wiping the rims, while the server looked on blankly before pushing the cart forward, setting the soup sloshing again. Heather took solace in another steaming naan.

The chef watched closely as Donna plated the first portion of tenderloin, with the flan, roasted root vegetables, mushroom jus and onion marmalade. In no time, his crew were turning out meticulous copies and the servers were traying them up to carry to the dining room. Heather averted her eyes, rather than watch the jiggling trays pass. 

While the mains were being plated, the desserts arrived. Black Forest, and carrot cakes, cheesecakes, and lemon meringue pies were rolled in from a delivery van that had arrived at the delivery door.   Watching their arrival as she supervised the plating, Donna wondered about how such a variety of desserts could be passed out to seated guests, but the servers, well-practiced,  had the situation under control. Waving her aside, they deftly sliced, plated and ferried the cakes and pies to a table they had set up by the bar.

Dinner service was finished, puddings and sweets were being carried out to the Indian wedding and the goat was roasting in the oven, when it occurred to Donna that she had not seen the Police Chief or any of the organizers. It seemed odd; as the feature chef, she would normally be introduced or given some sort of recognition. 

Looking out into the dining room, she realized that the time for such formalities had passed, people were crowding around the bar, laughing and cheering while they huddled around the poker and blackjack tables.

“It was like Las Vegas,” she said, “Complete with the mob.”

As she was turning back to the kitchen, the Chief caught up to her. He was dressed in full dress uniform, complete with sidearm.

“Donna! I was just coming to thank you! That was a tremendous meal! Thanks so much. Everything go alright? Get all the help you needed in the kitchen?”

“All good.” said Donna

Looking around the room, he added,  “It’s going to be a great night for us!”

“That’s great,” she said, “Do you mind me asking, what exactly do you raise funds for?” 

“Well, we like to have funds available to help those in the community who are in dire need. Going through Social Services can be so slow for them, lots of red tape. We want to help them out. Like a few weeks ago, a man beat up his wife and wrecked the bathroom, broke tiles and mirrors and all that. We were able to get somebody in to redo it all, real quick.”

It didn’t sound any less sketchy to Donna.

As she gathered up her clean pans, Donna could hear a couple of servers chatting and laughing with the dishwashers, and eating cake. The Indian chef and the Middle Eastern man were engaged in a friendly argument on the best way to serve goat. And as they were getting into the car, the loud thump of Indian dance music,  and the buzz of the gamblers underlined by faintly lilting reggae emanating from the hall, Heather looked at Donna and said,”Working with you Donna is often strange, but it’s never dull.”

“Well, this one was surreal.” said Donna with a laugh.