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Diary of a Restaurant – Ch 18: Christmas Eve

Dec 24, 2020

A Story Written By Kevin Gallagher

At two pm on December 24th, Donna and I dropped off hors d’oeuvres at an office on Bay Street and started our Christmas shopping. The restaurant was closed until New Year’s Eve, giving us all a welcome break after a busy few weeks.

Working in the hospitality industry means working while your friends play. Holidays are extra work because people go out to celebrate and of course, this presents a great sales opportunity for bars and restaurants.  Christmas is the mother lode of holidays, a shining star over the dark abyss of January and you work like mad to keep up. You laugh at invitations from friends for weekend parties in December. Who has time for that? Maintaining social connections with people who don’t work weekends is tough. If the rest of the world observes a ‘dry January’, hospitality staff are more likely to observe a ‘dry December’. You can’t drink because you’re working every evening and you can’t afford a hangover because you’re working the next morning.

Like Mothers’ Day, the Christmas season brings customers to restaurants that might never go out otherwise, and they often require extra encouragement to feel welcome, safe and relaxed. Others ease themselves into their seats as if they were coming home, ordering a cocktail while they peruse the wine list and leaving the menu for later consideration. You know that they will require a different level of service – no less attentive, but with fewer explanations. They are here to enjoy themselves. 

A group of co-workers arrives, some obviously peer pressured “to celebrate the season”. Someone tries to order before the party is complete or the others have had a chance to look at the menu, pointing out that they have only an hour for lunch. At the other end of the table someone else is calculating how much wine to order, saying reassuringly to the server,

 “I’m sure everybody will have a glass and we’ll probably split the bill anyway”

The other end of the table demurs when wine is offered.

Anne was ready with specials that could be delivered quickly for those on tight schedules –  the grilled eggplant sandwich, mac and cheese baked with emmental and smoked chicken and for the Christmas season, her delightful tortière with a salad of bitter greens, pecans and pomegranate. The wine drinkers seem surprised and slightly offended at how fast their lunch appears, while at the other end they dig in without ceremony. A few moments later, I am waved down by one of them, still wiping crumbs from his chin, asking for the bill and pointing at his watch.

“We understood it was to be one bill.” I say, looking at the woman who seems to be ordering more wine.

Aghast, he replies, “But they’re having wine.”

 The server had followed protocol, assigning each order to a numbered place at the table, so I was able to create a separate bill easily enough.

When I present it, others call out,

“Oh, are we getting our bills now?” reaching for purses and wallets.

“Aren’t we going to have another glass of wine? I am,” says she who ordered it first.

The others hum and haw, “Well we should get back to work.”

While I wait for a decision and then process separate bills for the whole party, I see  Donna circulating on the floor, smiling and chatting to guests. It’s a relief, although I know she had been prepping for an off-site all morning and supporting Anne on the line since the beginning of the rush. I’m able to focus on processing the payments and offering holiday greetings while she keeps an eye on the room. 

I put the wine on a separate check. Wine lady is huffy when she pays; there is no tip.  The rest leave their money with their bills and slip quickly away. It can be easy to become inured to the Christmas spirit. 

Donna is irrepressible though, her childlike enthusiasm for Christmas never wavers. She wants to decorate, host parties and feed the hungry. 

She stops by our friend Geoffrey’s table. He is in with his group from Magazine Network whose offices were just down the hall.

“Donna, look around. These people aren’t enjoying themselves. You have to do something!”

“Well, the room is a bit quiet, but how can you tell they’re not enjoying themselves?”

“I can tell. You should buy everybody a glass of champagne. That would help.”

Donna laughs, “I’ll give everybody a glass of bubbly if you get up and sing a Christmas carol.”

Geoffrey stands on his chair, raps on his glass with a knife and announced,

“Chef Donna is going to give everyone a glass of champagne if you join me in singing a carol.”

With that he launches into The Twelve Days of Christmas, while Donna and the bartender pop corks at the bar. By the time he reaches day number eight, half of the room is singing along and toasting with flutes of sparkling wine – not champagne but cava.

The week before Christmas, we host a party for Ted and Ivan at the restaurant. They want to wow their guests and Donna is completely on board. Ted goes all out, skirting the buffet tables with brocade and gold lamé bows and setting the tables with centrepieces of white poinsettias with gold candles. He wants the buffet to be extravagant as well and Donna is all for it. – tortière and quiche, omelets, ham, bacon sausages salads and roast potatoes. There is a chocolate fountain with strawberries , kiwi and melon for dipping and a massive croquembouche,  – a two foot high cone of pastry cream filled profiteroles, held in place with caramel and covered with a spider web of spun caramel. The bar features a Caesar fountain and lots and lots of champagne. 

This was on Saturday afternoon. We had dinner service that night and brunch the next morning.

Sunday night was the staff party.

Donna had decided that we’d been doing our staff party all wrong, “People just end up drinking in little groups as the music just gets louder and louder, until somebody falls down and we put them in a cab.” she says.

“What do you want to do?”

“We should do it at home – a tree, fire in the fireplace, gift exchange and a big Christmas meal. The Sri Lankan guys don’t know Christmas. We should show them our traditions and that there’s more to it than drinking too much and having a two day hangover.”

Of course, I had to agree, and it was a great success, with much hilarity over the gift exchange. Donna outdid herself with turkey, ham, scalloped potatoes, screaming heads ( brussel sprouts baked with prosciutto, cream, Parmesan, garlic and more cream) a couple of kinds of  pie, Christmas cake and cookies. 

The downside is getting people who are having a good time to leave and when we finally ushered what we thought were the last out to cabs at five a.m., we found three more asleep on the bed. So we slept on the couch until the kids woke us in the morning.

I sleepwalk through the last few days before Christmas, thankful that the off-site catering is done. I can tell that Donna is tired but she doesn’t flag. Even though we’re a bit bleary when we start our shopping on Christmas Eve, we are buoyed by a resurgent holiday spirit. Because December is so busy for us, we have traditionally been last minute shoppers. Donna has her list and a plan.

We really only had a few gifts to get anyway; we needed to cover the friends we would be seeing in the next two days plus a few things for our children, of course, so they would remember who we were. Whatever we got them would likely be outshone by gifts from the family and extravagantly decorated packages from Ted and Ivan. We got the shopping done in amazing time and satisfied with ourselves and flushed with Christmas cheer, we stopped into Prego Della Piazza to wish Michael Carlevale a Merry Christmas. He insisted we have a glass of wine with him, then pressed us to have a second,

“We’d love to Michael but we’re entertaining tonight and we have to get ready” said Donna.

I groaned. I had forgotten. 

“When are we going to relax?”

“January,” said Donna, “You’re in the restaurant business.”

But I did relax that evening. It felt wonderful to sit by the fire with a glass of whiskey, just chatting amiably, the evening stretched out before us, finally enjoying Christmas.

Excited by the season and the company, our son, Rory, couldn’t get to sleep and kept getting up to sneak back to the living room. Finally, I told him that I would lie beside him for a little while he went to sleep.

It was almost three a.m. by the kitchen clock when I woke up. The house was in darkness but the kitchen was clean, dishes done and in the living room everything was tidy. I thought Donna must have done it, but I found her in the dark bedroom asleep on the bed, still in her party dress and surrounded by scissors, gifts and wrapping paper. Our friends had cleaned up before they went on their way.

As we cleared off the bed and changed, I said,

“Well, we’re closed tomorrow…”

“Did I tell you that someone called today to ask if we could cater breakfast for them tomorrow.” she said, sleepily.

“And you said?”

“Aaah, No.” 

“Good night – love you.” I say.

“Love you, too.”

“Merry Christmas” I say, but Donna has pulled the duvet up over her shoulder and is fast asleep.

READ THE NEXT CHAPTER: ‘Mildred’s First New Year’s Eve’