Ruminations and recipes from a small kitchen in a big city.

31.7.08

Carlton bistro, circa 1980.

The chef, Cimino, was a sullen middle-aged Italian, greying and on the portly side. Shout? He hardly spoke. He had a temper, though. He threw things, just not at people. He would scowl and hurl pots across the kitchen into the sink, smashing plates and glasses along its trajectory. Crash. What got him going most of all was customers sending back perfectly cooked steaks, complaining that they were too rare, too overdone or too medium. Yes: ‘too medium’, a diner complained once, to me. I was the waiter. It was my first waiting job. I took the ‘too medium’ steak back to Cimino, reporting the customer’s exact words. He said nothing, paused and then threw it across the room, into the bin; plate, trimmings and all. Then he cooked another one: less medium. Here’s your steak, sir. It’s less medium than the last one. Whatever that means. Hope you enjoy it. Your next Crown lager’s on us.

*

J. was not so polite. He was the head waiter, a classic Zapata-moustached Italian migrant in his early forties. J. was a chain-smoker. He always had a cigarette going behind the espresso machine. He told me once how he walked off the boat from Italy at Station Pier one sunny day in 1962 and went straight to the nearest shop to buy a packet of cigarettes. Rot-marn! Rot-marn! he had said urgently to the blank-faced shopkeeper. In vain. He had to point to the cigarettes on the shelf: Rothmans. The accent remained. As a waiter, J. had the fawning act down pat, but could turn savage in an instant. Late one night, a diner left some small change on the table as a tip. J. picked up the coin and followed the diner outside, chased him up dark Cardigan Street and pressed the coin into the unnerved diner’s hand. ‘This coin, sir. You might need it one day. For parking meter, or to telephone to your mother. Please! Take it!’ The falsetto sarcasm and wheedling tone would be laced with a kind of threatening undertone that suggested J. might pull out a knife and stab the diner should he ever repeat the insulting slight.

*

There were regulars. They had their favourites. There was Mr & Mrs Nottage Hill Cabernet Sauvignon – in the days before Nottage Hill was a discounted aisle-ender. Mr Nottage Hill wore a white rollneck sweater under a leather jacket and Mrs Nottage Hill wore a miniskirt and boots. Another regular couple’s drink of choice was their weekly bottle of Black Tower. It was imported from Germany in those days. The fake corks in its imitation pottery bottles were notoriously difficult to extract and one night, the bottle shot out from my hand as I flexed the corkscrew and it hit the floor, shooting liebfraumilch all over the red carpet. Probably the best place for it. I fetched another bottle, ashen-faced.

*

Everyone smoked. Waiters had to keep up with the ashtrays. A large table at the end of a big night was always a mess. Over port and cigars, people would butt their stubs into plates, half-empty glasses or in the pot plants. Of course, we sold cigarettes. The waiters took coins out of the till, dispensed Benson & Hedges, Stuyvesants or Alpine from the machine in the front bar, placed the cigarette packet on a paper doiley on a small plate with a matchbook, delivered it to the table and wrote double the charge on the bill. These days the diner’s fix is water. Waiters spend half their time filling up endless bottles. Today’s restaurant diners drink more water than marathon runners. It’s a mystery I haven’t been able to unravel.

*

Head waiter J. had that kind of weary fatalism often found in southern Europeans. Late in the afternoon, when the lunch shift had long finished but before the dinner rush, we would sit at one of the tables and eat crusty bread and sip red wine. J. would shrug about everything and drag on his cigarette and then dip his crust into his red wine and eat it like that. His girlfriend came in occasionally to meet him after work. She was a large, sad-eyed, black-haired Italian girl. They suited each other.

7 comments:

jo said...

My hope, of course, is that this is your long kept secret novel.

lesley said...

Oh God, I remember Black Tower all too well. We used to go to a small restaurant called The Prison in High Street Preston. (Hope I've got my memories right here) and used to take a bottle of Black Tower each time...shocking stuff, but it was the late 70's and we didn't know any better.

Dr. Alice said...

I love your reminiscences. My hope is someday to come to Australia and eat at some of these places which you have described so lovingly. (The ones still in existence, of course.)

kitchen hand said...

Perhaps bits of it, Jo.

Black Tower was everywhere, Lesley. It was the thinking person's Ben Ean.

I'll take you on a tour, Dr. A.

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