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.


2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by tomsaaristo on April 23, 2012 at 7:18 pm

    Beautifully written


  2. Posted by Joseph Brunory on April 23, 2012 at 10:22 pm

    The thread of impermanence and the anonymity of this service career work very well together. Good judgement and well done, Dan.


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