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Diary of a Restaurant – Ch. 17: December Parties

Dec 18, 2020

A Story Written By Kevin Gallagher

Until this year, a Christmas season without gatherings of friends or co-workers at a holiday party was unthinkable. Some spontaneous, other painstakingly planned for months, they brought friends and co-workers together to celebrate. In our first December, Mildred Pierce was not open for dinner service, so we pitched as many parties as we could. We had set up the space initially to accommodate medium sized parties –  groups that were too large for a house party and too small for a large venue.  

The best parties have some structure, otherwise guests can end up congregating in little knots, drinking too much, dancing on the tables and breaking furniture. It seems a distant memory in this pandemic year, to think that not so long ago holiday parties usually included a great deal of drinking, smoking and bad behaviour. Drinking responsibly was still in the future.

Donna was brilliant at coming up with suggestions for activities to keep people amused – piñatas, Amazing Race simulations and Karaoke. Karaoke didn’t actually discourage consumption of alcohol but it tended to focus the group on something other than the bottom of a glass. We were, after all, not trying to discourage consumption, and if someone massacred a popular ballad, it provided a great laugh all round. 

If an issue arises with a guest in regular service, it rarely affects the other diners. At a party, it can affect the whole group and change the tenor of the evening. So there is an extra level of pressure to make sure everything runs smoothly. 

It was always more reassuring to cater parties for clients we had worked with before and with whom we had developed a rapport. Stephanie and Peter were a couple we had catered for many times so we had a good idea of what they expected. Their parties were always a perfect mix of careful planning and spontaneity, often involving a playful quiz, like guessing the origins of a small series of pinot noirs. Serious wine lovers, they saw it as an opportunity to educate and get their guests to pay attention to what they were drinking. But they had fun; if a chair collapsed when someone sat on Santa’s knee, and no one was hurt, it brought peals of laughter.

We also occasionally allowed clients we knew well to stretch the rules and party a little later than legal closing time. One in particular convinced us to arrange the banquettes in a semicircle in front of the east facing window to allow his guests to sip Calvados as they watched sunrise on the winter solstice.

We had booked two weddings that December. Being closed between Christmas and New Year’s, it seemed like a good opportunity to generate some extra business, forgetting how tired we all might be. The first, a small one for sixty people on the twenty-ninth, was to be at the restaurant; the other for two hundred and seventy people was being held at the St. Lawrence Town Hall the next day.

It was not a first wedding for Marla, the bride at the smaller event, and she just wanted it to be a great party – a formal dinner with rack of lamb followed by a klezmer band and dancing.  She had invited about a hundred people but expected about sixty.

“Some of my aunts are older, spending the winter in Florida and Arizona. They’re not going to come back to Toronto in January.”

But they did.  As the responses came in, it was obvious that the menu and service would have to change. Donna and Anne pivoted it to  substantial cocktail menu with small plates. We pulled all the tables and all but  few of the banquettes out of the room, leaving some seating for the old and weary. As the room filled up we were apprehensive about passing through this crowd with trays of food on small plates and wine glasses. The group was amazingly polite and accommodating, easily moving aside to let servers pass, placing dirty plates and glasses neatly out of the way – while they danced horas, laughing as the klezmer music wailed and spiraled out over them. The evening slipped away effortlessly, a caterer’s dream.

At the end of the evening when the bridal couple announced that in their excitement they hadn’t had a chance to eat  anything, Donna said, “We’re serving beef filet for another wedding tomorrow, and we have some extra pieces. Let me cook you up a couple.”

When she opened the packages, she found they were much smaller than they should have been. The steaks had been delivered that afternoon and quickly put away, without examining the invoice, which listed five hundred three ounce steaks instead of the three hundred five ounce steaks.

Donna called the butcher, Whitehouse Meats and Kelly, most accommodatingly was at the restaurant first thing in the morning with the product we needed. We were apprehensive though, afraid that it might turn into the other kind of caterer’s dream.

And it did. The bride was Ukrainian, but did not want the traditional menu her mother was pushing; she wanted nouvelle cuisine. Both saw Anne, being Ukrainian, as an ally.  The young bride won out, but mother wasn’t happy.

And as the reception got underway, there were a myriad of hiccups – place cards in Cyrillic that none of us could read to distribute; changing the program to move the meal up, then back, and surprise vegetarians. For them, I jogged down to Pasquale Brothers for fettuccine and Anne made a quick pasta primavera in time to go out with the rest of the mains. 

Donna was plating mains. Looking up, she saw soup bowls on top of the pass.

“A table didn’t get soup.” 

“Nope, everybody got soup.” said Michael, head waiter tonight.

“I counted out the bowls, and there are eight left.”

“I’m sure everybody got soup.” he said.

“Shall I dump the rest of the soup then?” said Gordon.

“Not yet. Check again Michael.” she said.

I delivered the pasta dishes personally. The vegetarians were grateful. All around them people were enjoying their meals. When I got back to the kitchen, however, the mother of the bride was standing in the doorway. 

Short and heavy set, she gently swung her handbag by the strap like a mace. I thought she might be planning to hit someone with it.

“People did not get soup. The beans are not cooked and the meat is blood inside. It is a disaster!”

Michael appeared briefly at the door, then retreated to the dining room.

Anne and I stood, speechless. As tired and exasperated as she was, Donna responded coolly, hand on hip, “The soup will be out in a couple of minutes. I’m sorry that it was missed.”

Gordon had the pot back on the stove, and was whisking the soup as he  heated it.

“The beans and tenderloin are just as they were for the tasting. You should go back and enjoy your guests’ company . We can sort this out tomorrow.”

As she left, Anne was tapping her tongs on the table and shaking her head.

“Meat on a stick. She wanted meat on a stick. We should have done it for her.”

So you win some and you lose some but these days  we just think it would just be great to have the buzz of a party around you.