Archive for February, 2012

Kenny Rogers in Margaritaville

My premier sortie on Chicago’s restaurant industry was through the heavy oak door of a Mexican cantina-cum-eatery located in the eastern recess of Water Tower Place’s sixth floor. The staff, an assemblage of mostly Latin-Americans, is my sentimental favorite to this day. Abel, our burdensomely-cheeked and perpetually-smiling dishwasher, was available to inscribe Spanish translations for items like “fork” and “spoon” onto my green, lined waiter’s notepad. Kathy, our quick-witted, sisterly lead waitress, would collect all of us after the workday like we were a disorganized deck of cards and shuffle us together again over margaritas. And Ann, our boyish, outspoken head bartender, could blend, shake, and pour mixed beverages with an unmatched cyclonic intensity. It was here that I not only met these remarkable people, but assisted my first icon, Kenny Rogers, Nashville’s “Gambler” and Dolly’s duet partner in the 1983 #1 hit, “Islands in the Stream”.

He was seated at a walnut-stained table for four along with three companions, one of whom I believe was Travis Tritt, his concert opener. The room, vacant except for the musicians and their guests, was au centre of the restaurant, yet private. A wall separated it from the maize-hued front room, where hacienda windows stood ajar, exposing an outside shopping area.  As they got comfortable in my assigned zone, I began formulating what has become my defense against starry eyes and stuttered phrases. Their aim for being in the restaurant was the same as mine would be, I reasoned, to fulfill the human function of adding fuel to the tank. I quickly studied this new thought, inhaled, then set out for my first celebrity encounter.

To shorten the tale, it wasn’t long before a platter of cheese enchiladas in ranchero sauce, served with arros y frijoles refritos, was placed in front of my famous guest. While he conversed, laughed, and flirted with his friends, I busied myself with closing sidework, and poked my head in every once in a while to make assessments, refill diet colas, and replenish molecajetes of salsa.

I was there when Mr. Rogers pushed his quarter-eaten entrée away.  Wondering about his satisfaction, I asked if everything were alright.  He nodded in assent.

“Would you like that wrapped up, then?”

“No,” he responded,” I was just nibbling.”

Then, I slid the turquoise Fiesta Dinnerware plate off the table and into the crook of my left arm, followed by the other dishes. While doing this, I realized this was Kenny Roger’s unfinished dinner at the bottom of the heap. Reflecting on the potential existence of a Hall of Fame for the Leftovers of the Rich and Famous or a special food pantry for aspiring country singers, I decided that, assuredly, no, neither existed.

I headed back for the trash receptacle in the kitchen.

The King’s Scotch

“He played ‘Mr. Darcy’ in Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility,” my normally unflappable manager offered.

“I saw the movie so long ago,” I whined.”Can you name anything else that he was in?”

My boss harrumphed, shrugged, and turned away. He and my fellow servers had been buzzing like yellowjackets caught between two clear window panes all evening, hypothesizing as to why the Colin Firth was in Chicago at all. The most rational choice was that he was viewing the latest offering at a neighboring theater to decide whether to sign to appear in their follow-up production, Tom Stoppard’s Rock and Roll. His late-night dinner reservation theorized their assumptions.

Squinting at the back of my boss’s blue suit as he brushed past en route to help a perplexed diner discern the difference between skirt steak and filet, I wondered what was causing my memory lapse. I’d always been the smarmy bloke who could boast of being able to name a film after the mere mention of its co-stars. Sandra Bullock and Bill Pullman? While You Were Sleeping. Meryl Streep and Martin Mull? Death Becomes Her. Stockard Channing and Will Smith? Six Degrees of Separation. Some temporarily misplaced memory bead was surely to blame for my inability to complete a chain of thought.

The performance ended soon, and Mr. Firth walked through a set of double doors into the restaurant with a younger guest in tow. After taking a seat on the left banquette of a red leather booth, the venerable performer, wearing a brown sweater and cream-colored turtleneck, splayed his menu open. I approached, fully cognizant of his identity now, but still clueless as to his body of work.

“Good evening, gentleman. Is there any sort of beverage you’d prefer with your dinner?” I offered.

The thespian kindly requested a Lagavulin 12-year scotch, bludgeoning my one Achilles’ heel insofar as service’s concern. Being a Certified Sommelier, I can rattle the selection of white and red wines off the way a tenured teacher lazily recites a recycled lesson. The scotch list, on the other hand, is an entirely different animal.

I grasped for whatever straw I could to save face.

“We may be ‘sold out’ of the Lagavulin, Mr. Firth. Do you have a backup choice?”

He must have had the same dilemma I had of being unable to complete a chain of thought, because a second later, the Man Who Would Be King—stammered.

Rapidly assessing the situation, a sudden burst of generosity overtook me. If the preferred spirit were unavailable, what would he like? If the preferred spirit were unavailable, what could I offer as a sorry substitute? If the preferred spirit were unavailable, how would Mr. Firth view this experience?

So, I spoke from my gut.

“No worries. I’ll go to the store and get it for you, if it’s not available, “I said.

He quickly declined my offer to grocery shop for him, and received his Lagavulin 12-year in the end, as it was in stock.

My sense of recall remained MIA for the entire evening, though.  In fact, it wasn’t until a lazy evening at home a month later that I realized how I knew him best. Ironically, he is as an ensemble member in Love Actually, my favorite holiday film, which I’ve viewed countless times since its 2003 release.


Iced Tea-ing John Malkovich

I worked at an extremely fashionable Italian eatery in the mid‘90’s that was situated just west of the Ravenswood el tracks at Armitage. Before heading in, I could always count on a sloppy greeting from the chef/owner’s mammoth chocolate Labrador, Bosco, who was always tied to the black iron bench in front of the restaurant. Once inside, the kitchen would already be buzzing: newly delivered loaves of bread warmed in the oven, while curds of mozzarella were shaped into spongy orbs of cheese. Lisa, the daytime bartender and my only Front of House companion, usually sat at one of the wooden stools in front of the bar, stabbing at a plateful of scrambled eggs a olio and intermittently sipping from a mug of the best Italian roast I’ve ever tasted.

“Guess who’s coming to lunch?” Lisa asked in her smoky AM voice one particular morning.

“I dunno,” I answered, knotting my black tie in front of a mirror.

“Check the reservation book,” she said, her right cheek filled with huevos.

I looked. A reservation had been made by John Malkovich, one of Chicago’s most admired actors, who was in the City of Big Shoulders directing Ethan Hawke and Martha Plimpton in a Steppenwolf production. His lunch companion would be a local contemporary, if I recall correctly.

We waited for the guests’ arrival. About thirty minutes after starting the business day, the front door swung open, and Lisa left the confines of the bar to seat the Steppenwolf alum and his companion. Pulling two laminated lunch menus and a thick, papery wine list from a hidden shelf in the host stand, she walked the pair to a table on the dining room fringe, where Mr. Malkovich and his friend eventually focused their attention on what they would like to eat for lunch.

I approached after the appropriate amount of time had passed.

“I’ll have the melanzani alla griglia,” the actor/director stated, peering from behind the menu.

I scribbled the order on my pad of paper and then took his friends order.

“And what you like to drink, gentlemen?” I inquired.

“I’ll just have water,” replied the guest.

“An iced tea would be lovely,” said the thespian, only, in a noteworthy way.

I trod the few paces to the bar to expedite the drink order after backing away from the table with obeisance. Grasping a stainless steel ewer of tea and pouring some into a tall beverage glass, I beckoned Lisa to come to the side of the bar where I stood. She nodded and “bookmarked” the conversation she was having with the chef’s daughter, who was in the salad pantry rocking eggs from hand to hand, gently gathering the viscous yolks in a bowl for tiramisu.

“Lisa,” I whispered, not wanting to be overheard by our guests,” What would you think if I called you ‘lovely’, but said it this way?”

I pronounced the word, but accented the “L” by thrusting the tip of my tongue forward and pressing it against the gap of my two front teeth.

“Why, Dan,” she blushed,” I’d say you being flirty.”

“Then, I have news,” I smiled.” John Malkovich just made a pass at me.”

We laughed as I spiked a lemon wheel on the glass’s edge, acknowledging the preposterous.