J. T. Hilltop
I left my job as line cook at Windows On The World to become a working chef in a 40 seat restaurant in SoHo. I believed my career was on track now that I was the number one man atThe Smoking Moon Café, a quaint littlerestaurant in a very hip part of the city where happy customers sent back drinks or even the occasional joint to me in my kitchen domain.. A limited menu restaurant with a focus on specials, like eight entrees a night. My staff was one dishwasher, one waitress, one bartender, and me. But we all had the right attitude and abilities to make it a fully functional team.
Our clientele were mostly young hip professionals with an edgy style. It was an ultra cool place to work, the owner treated us like family, even when he wasn’t there when our shift was over he allowed us to lock up and have a few drinks at the bar before heading out. Whenever its really busy I bitch wishing for down time, and whenever there’s too much down time I bitch wishing for customers. Typical of foodservice workers. But on July 4th, 1986 I experienced the most excruciating downtime in existence followed by a near impossible power service. The city was alive with celebration, the streets packed with people in anticipation of the annual fireworks display. This year we celebrated the centennial of The Statue Of Liberty so the fireworks were on the West side that year. Being near the West Side ourselves lunch was crazy busy, I had to come in early to assist the lunch chef but by dinner just about everyone was out jockeying for a good spot to view the works. By seven o’clock we had had one single customer who only ordered a burger. The area was like a ghost town with everybody and their brother on West Side Highway. It was so slow Moss, the waitress, Eddie the dishwasher an I sat at the bar chatting with Stolie, our favorite bartender.
I mentioned that a customer who had requested a very hot meal had given me a bottle of Mt. Gay rum. I made some my patented dragon juice, assorted hot peppers stepped in sherry vinegar to an order of lamb couscous which I topped off with some harisa. When I came out to chat with him his face was covered in sweat but he loved the meal. He asked me if I like rum. Of course, who doesn’t so the next day he bought me a bottle of Mount Gay, his favorite, to say thanks. Before I knew it Stolie, Moss, and I were in a rum drink competition making each other rum drinks. Eddie didn’t compete but happily accepted the privilege of judging. My concoction was a combo of 151, Meyers, and Bacardi with a drop of every juice I could find then a splash of coke. Delicious and deadly. By 10:15 the four of us were toasted and still not a soul to serve, not even anyone passing by. Closing up in 45 minutes. We were laughing loudly when the door opened and a couple walked in. Shit! Now I am really buzzing and have to cook some dinners. As I half walked half stumbled back to the kitchen I hear Moss say, “Holy fuck!”
From the kitchen door I could hear the decibel level increase rapidly. It was like the floodgates opened allowing customers to come charging through the door. The fireworks were over and we were right smack dab in the middle of the path of hordes of happy hungry people leaving the highway extravaganza in search of a place to eat. Within ten minutes every table was full with a line of hungry revelers out the door. Half hour to closing time, but now closing time no longer existed.
Most restaurant people stay in the field working because we thrive on the pressure. All four of us were thriving our asses off. Moss handled the tables expertly, Stolie made the customers drinks and helped Moss by bussing. I really would need a new ass, thriving or otherwise if I didn’t cook it off I was certain to sweat it off. Eddie was promoted to assistant sous chef and he did a fantastic job. For the next two hours the four of us worked together half drunk on pressure, half drunk on rum. For me the best part of the crazy scene was after the last two tables had been seated, while things were semi calm, Moss came back to the range with her cocktail tray holding one large drink. “The happy customer on table seven wants to send a drink back for the chef so Stolie made you a JT Rum Special.”
I was literally drenched in sweat, rivulets of saline trailing from my temples. I was breathing hard because I had been cooking non stop even slapped myself hard and shook my head many times to try instant sober up, and Moss was standing there, also exhausted, but still smiling handing me a drink. “Are you fucking kidding me? A drink now?” Moss tilted her head, lifted her eyebrows, smiled at me shaking her head yes. All I could do was smile back, “That sounds about right.” I accepted the drink with a laugh, giving half to my newly promoted assistant. We didn’t have our usual close up drink that night, all of us wiped out, but we talked about our fourth of July experience for months after. Those were the days….PEACE