Archive for April, 2012

The Impermanence of a Cup of Coffee

Few events stimulate me more than enjoying a cup of Italian Roast in the morning. Timed to grind automatically at 7:00am, then drip slowly into my stainless steel Cuisinart coffee ewer, its sweetly smoky nose is reminiscent of my mother’s loving nudges on those wintry days when I would have preferred to sleep, rather than dress for elementary school. I acquiescently stir, slip out of my vanilla sheets, and tread the familiar pathway to the kitchen, to take pleasure in a couple of cups before the day officially begins.

Its effect stays with me like a good friend as the morning matures, too. It eggs me on through a workout that is perfectly timed to a few loads of laundry going through a wash cycle, or a household chore. It is also a guiding hand that makes bill-payment and financial matters tolerable, even pleasant.

Like the conclusion of any visit, however, there is a point when its effect furtively opens a door and slips away, leaving me unarmed, yet not vulnerable. True, the morning’s momentum has slowed, my shoulders have drooped noticeably, and I am left alone to find new inspiration. But when the day has begun as productively  as it should, the rest that hovers ahead asks to be made into something exceptional as well.

I met a gentlemen while conducting initial interviews for American Maitre D’ who enjoyed a career arc not unlike that of a cup of coffee. On the dawn of his arrival in ’69, he was employed, albeit briefly, as a family butler, until the unfortunate passing of its patriarch. Next, squinting to focus on a new opportunity, my subject sought another realm where his expertise would be useful and returned to the service industry. Finally, thirty-seven years later, as the zeal that pushed diners to door of the twenty-seven year old bistro where he was employed began to lull, he found himself unsafe from its inevitable closing, but saw the restaurant to its completion with a sense of purpose and integrity. Neither the restaurant nor his name will be used in this article. Yet, his story denotes such a rich time in Chicago’s history that it was difficult to not share it.

My subject’s inaugural work was at the famous Cammelia House at The Drake Hotel, where everyone there took pride in his work and no class divisions were drawn. It was at a time when new silverware and dishware were broken out for the most stately of guests, Queen Elizabeth II among them, and when the Oliphant Room staged a popular live show every night. It was also during an era when the hotel management was under private ownership. Last, it was a time of change. As the standard of dining in a tuxedo or ballgown began to relax, the Cammelia House’s name changed to Avenue One, a slightly less formal version of its predecessor, where male guests were permitted to wear a suit and tie, rather than a tuxedo.

My subject sought a new venture when Avenue One secured its doors for the summer, as it was wont to do. Walking a block east, he found occupation at the Whitehall Club, a private dining room partially housed on the Whitehall Hotel’s first floor. It was a “Member’s Only” club with a huge menu and extremely good food, in addition to having reputedly been either the first or second club in Chicago to serve alcohol upon Prohibition’s 1932 repeal. After three days, his employer offered him a permanent position as a waiter, which he eventually accepted and executed until the club opened to the public three-and-a-half years later, a move that dismayed original members, and, ultimately, the service staff.

With business beginning to sour, he left, setting his sharpened sight northward, to La Cheminee on Division. Although the scale of dining was below that to which he had grown accustomed, my subject had friends there and quickly secured a job serving its clientele. The initially upsetting move grew to a rewarding opportunity. Upon hearing that the assistant maitre d’ was about to leave, my subject applied and eventually won the position, resulting in a series of evenings when he multi-tasked, acting as host on certain nights and a waiter on others. Midway through his tenure at La Chiminae, he was promoted to La Chiminae maitre d’ and remained there for another three-and-a-half years.

With the buzz of a long serving career reaching its peak, my productive subject’s eyes began to rove even further north, to a fine dining establishment in Lincoln Park that was owned and managed by its renowned chef. As enticed by its atmospheric walnut-toned walls, cafe lamps, dim lighting, and tuxedoed servers as its diners, he became house maitre d’ in 1982 and remained for twenty-five years.

Navigating his new environs took a few weeks, admittedly. There were new systems to learn, and something as simple as locating where the coffee was stored factored into his fine-tuning. Before long, though, he was on his own, hosting the upper middle- and upper classes who frequented the romantic spot, supping on well-researched and authentically produced items like peppery braised rabbit over risotto, seared scallops with chanterelles sur gnocchi, and desserts presented on a three-tier pastry cart. Guests included Placido Domingo, Robert Redford, Jacqueline Bissett, and CSO director Daniel Barenboim, who liked to smoke cigars after dinner and was given a special table in an adjoining hotel lobby where we enjoyed his dining experience to its fullest.

On June 30, 2007, the 27-year old institution served its last meal and my subject’s “work family” of twenty-five years disbanded. In their hands were cigars distributed by a sentimental patron… and memories, of course. The momentum of a long career having ended, each was on his own again, resolutely moving forward to do something or another, and make a change for the better.

A One-Handed Fistbump

The overcast skies and cool weather in Washington, D.C., on April 31, 2011, could barely restrain the indulgence of a few holes of golf. He deserved it, after all. He had categorically endorsed an unwavering plan of action with an assembly of principle players at an 8:20 AM meeting on the 29th. Next, he had boarded a private plane and flown to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where he honored those struggling with the devastation of the tornado four days before. Finally, he had enthusiastically returned to D.C., kissed his wife and two girls upon re-entering the mansion foyer, shared a light family supper, and then attended a more formal dinner with a board of associates. So much activity in such a short time necessitated a conscious coffee break. That and he needed to divert his mind from thinking of the elite team of Navy Seals who would be ascending the grey, concrete walls of Osama Bin Laden’s substantial fortress in Abbotabad the next day, a position of which only he, his generals, and the choice squad of fighters were aware.  Thus, President Barack Hussein Obama II inhaled, swiveled his driver to the right, and followed through, teeing off.

I was able to observe such a polished performance at the turn of the year. Theo Epstein, the Boston Red Sox’ former general manager and currently the new President of Baseball Operations for the Chicago Cubs, was being interviewed by a local radio station during lunch hour at the bustling downtown steakhouse where I work. WGN talk show host Brian Noonan, who sat to his right, was quick to introduce his guest before inquiring about the move from Beantown to the City of Big Shoulders. Two minutes later, the readily-answered topic was doffed like a pair of old jeans to approach other, more germane subjects. Meanwhile, I was running around the sunken-in dining room, lifting the empty plates of happy diners, many of whom were wearing Chicago Cubs jerseys and t-shirts, then carrying these to the white-washed dish room in the rear of the restaurant. After three rounds of plate-clearing, I rested against the wood-paneled back wall, listening to my female co-workers swoon over the handsome new face in Chicago sports.

A third of the way into the program, Mr. Epstein was asked an arresting question by Mr. Noonan’s co-host, Dave Kaplan, who sat to the left. It had to do with the new president’s desire to “change the culture of the locker room.” Now, not being a sports fan, this idea perplexed me, so I turned away from the other, lustier conversations and listened. There was talk of pride, conduct, fan relations, and “togetherness”, a branch of familial esteem. Then, these comments turned an unexpected corner and became focused on how losing that culture within one unit can lead to lack of accountability and to rot, eventually. A name was finally tossed out as an example. It was a significant moment that I took in, before returning to the task at hand.

The following morning, I learned that the man who served as the paradigm for this loss of culture within the Chicago Cubs was traded to another team. My breath temporarily stopped as I realized I had witnessed a bravura performance by Mr. Epstein the day before. For, when Mr. Kaplan had asked his creditable question and Mr. Epstein had seamlessly vowed to resolve the troublesome issue, the player was at his Wrigley Field  locker, clearing it out for his replacement.