It has been a long time coming, but I have finally weeded out some focused spare time in which to type out a recollection of some of my initial experiences in my latest, longest occupation here in Vancouver. As a wise, Irish (oxymoron?) brewing company, among others, has been known to state, 'good things come to those who wait'. Whether anyone does actually await these calamitous compositions and quite whether any of this could ever be labelled 'good' are distractions that will not delay your trusted writer at the present time. So; to business.
Flushed from my recent good fortune and heady experiences during the Olympics, I spent roughly one week after successfully completing my contract in the leisure of otium. I had worked hard and although I had surely been rewarded amply for my labours, nonetheless I wanted to take some time to recharge my batteries and to think at length about what I should set my sights upon trying next. With approximately four months remaining in Vancouver before I intended to resume my foot-loose wandering, I reasoned that it might make the most sense to aim for a job that would see me through to that auspicious date, when I would pack up my bags once more, cast my weathered eyes over this beatific city one last time and turn my foot-step to the east. Buoyed as I was by the unlooked for, though much-appreciated, riches derived from the Olympics, I settled down to ask myself some important questions. After nearly four months in this vast expanse of a country, what exactly had I achieved to date, did this tally with what I had originally set out to experience and with all of this in mind, what would I most like to focus my efforts upon with the time that I had left? In a rare moment of self-reflective honesty, I recognized that I had thus-far failed in what had been my key aim upon alighting in this country; namely, I desire to experience teaching on some sort of level. I have spent enough time contemplating that passion described some three entries back and I have been honoured by an abundance of compliments suggesting that I put this passion to a didactic direction as to highlight in my mind, even before I had packed my bags for Canada, the unique attraction and exciting possibilities offered by such a calling.
Upon first arriving here in Vancouver, I did indeed spend some time earnestly researching the likelihood of such a noble profession for the duration of my time in the city: surely there would be an institution - many institutions even - that would be highly appreciative of my services. Ah, innocent, naive folly! Of course I would be desirable to such centres of study, with my ridiculously short period of availability, absolute lack of formal teaching qualifications and utter absence of practical experience. Of course a public sector every bit as stretched as the one I had left behind, battling the same global recession and similarly brutal cost-cutting measures would even be able to contemplate such an unattractive proposition! It did not take me long to become completely disenchanted with the whole situation and turn my gaze aside, directed towards new avenues of potential. Now, a successful Olympics behind me, in which I had taken responsibility for a small team of colleagues and guided us through a taxing contract largely unscathed, I felt once more the glorious fire of self-belief burning brightly inside me, unquenchable for a time. Thus it was that I decided to try again to capture an experience that had been positioned towards the top of my list those four months previously. This time, I would use my previous experiences to shape my efforts; empiricism would form my crutch. I decided to set myself up as a private tutor, specializing in those subjects I know and love best: whilst the chances of teaching Latin at all, let alone extensively, were lamentably slim, the possibilities offered by my solid grasp of English literature and language (helped in part by my knowledge of the workings of Latin and Spanish), stood me in good stead in a city where a great many inhabitants, including those of school-age, speak English as a non-native language, to fluctuating levels of fluency.
I knew that my chances of establishing myself as a dependable tutor, to the extent that I could survive on this salary alone, were next to non-existent, so I sat down once more to scope out a possible second occupation, compatible with the first. I needed a job that offered regular hours, yet would also leave aside sociable periods of time in which I could free myself up for potential tutorial consultations. I knew that I wanted a job that would not require much additional training or research beyond the guidance offered in the work-place itself and that I particularly enjoy roles that allow interaction with the public and fellow staff. Musing to myself, I realized that of all the obvious positions open to a traveller resident in Vancouver for only a limited period, I had not previously considered the restaurant industry. It does not take an especially concerted effort to notice that upon a dining experience outside one's own kitchen, the potential for meeting exotic accents, for enjoying a conversation concerning travel is unusually high. I had also been informed by fellow travellers of the financial incentive within the industry; of the ability to make a handsome income off the monstrous tipping culture that is especially dominant in North America. Reclining at my kitchen table one sunny morning in the Dunbar house, I reasoned that such an occupation would leave me the necessary time for working with a limited number of students in a tutorial capacity and, hopefully, also offer a sturdy income all of its own. Such revelations, coupled with my slight (and I emphasize slight) stubborn streak upon realizing that my mind is made up on a subject, saw me researching local restaurants online that very same afternoon.
So it was that the very next day ('quick's the word, sharp's the action') saw me strolling into 'db Bistro Moderne' on West Broadway, my favourite street in the Kitsilano neighbourhood, updated CV and audacity in hand. The attractive girl at the hostess stand welcomed me warmly and informed me that the general manager was actually conducting interviews for positions at the restaurant contemporaneously: would I be willing to sit at the bar to await a free moment between interviews? The bar-man, a quietly confident young scholar called Stefan, who has since become a close friend, offered me a smile and a glass of water, both of which served to settle my nerves to some extent. We made idle small-talk and in no time at all, the manager himself had appeared at the end of the bar, an eye-brow raised in questioning reservation. Chris was from that first moment a smooth-talking, debonair gentleman, stylishly attired and confidently direct. Our conversation must have seemed rather surreal: 'So, David, what previous experience do you have working in this industry?' 'None'. 'Sorry, none at all?' 'None at all'. My obvious short-comings as a restauranteur I counter-balanced with my unabashed enthusiam and knowledge of the restaurant and Daniel Boulud brand at large; it is his name hidden in the abbreviated title of the restaurant. Indeed, my very frank and honest admissions in themselves served to mark me out as a trustworthy soul, I would hope. Coupled with this was my CV, boasting a substantial academic base alongside my fancy-free journeying. Chris was - wholly understandably - puzzled. Perhaps in this bright-eyed, occasionally eloquent, often audacious young chap, Chris was able to see an echo of his own rather unconventional path into the industry, from acclaimed food critic to - at present - general manager of a couple of highly successful eateries, the only two of the famous Daniel Boulud group currently existing on the west coast. In any case, two days later I found myself in the market for a simple, black dress-shirt (required apparel for the job) and an observation shift the following evening, when I would garner my first experience of the industry outside the dining chair.
My initial observation shift and the preliminary shifts as an actual employee of the restaurant were incredibly exciting. The pace was intense, the action packed, my fellow colleagues direct and brisk. I could tell from the very start that this was a job far removed from my accustomed comfort zone: a job such as this would offer stress, possibly even confrontation, alongside an exhilarating pace and the opportunity to evolve more concentrated, open relationships with motivated, occasionally egotistic work-colleagues. I focused my mind (and my pluck), swallowed my pride and went to work as a server's assistant (or 'sa' for short). Due to my non-existent experience, Chris had, rather reasonably, started me off one step down from a regular 'waiter'. I could have seen this as a slight; I am far from your typical gastronomic serf. That said, I lacked any experience, any knowledge of the system: I needed to learn everything and this position certainly offered me the most assured method for this. During my very first shift, I became acquainted with Jeff, a fellow 'sa' who had been at 'db' for some months prior to my arrival. Jeff has become a fantastic friend; he is a diligent, assured worker and a conscientious role-model: from him I received excellent training and the reassurance that I was far from alone in my situation - Jeff is himself still a student of English literature, as are a number of other colleagues at 'db': we are an intelligent bunch!
Looking back over my time at the restaurant these past four months (yes, I am rather behind still in my narration of events here...), I have learnt much about both myself and about others. In the early days, there are a handful of experiences that stand out with particular clarity in my mind and they are not all positive. Of course, there were highs, like those nights when service seemed to progress smoothly, confidently, unerringly towards a satisfactory end, to be followed by social drinks at a nearby pub and jovial reminiscences of the night's prior events. There were, however, some quite resounding lows alongside these happy days. Such setbacks are absolutely necessary in the formation of a character: I would suggest that every undertaking should include some disappointment, otherwise, how can one enjoy those successes when they unfold? Nonetheless, there are some quite ludicrous egos in the restaurant industry and they very nearly got the better of me on a couple of occasions in those early days. Occasionally, it would be a server, bloated by pomposity, who disappointed me by means of a cutting remark or a demeaning action. Very rarely, a customer, or an entire table, would strike me as supercilious, raising my ire through their bombastic assumption and ignorance. The most breath-taking conceit, however, was reserved for the very kitchen that produced the wonderful food upon which 'db' prides itself and at the centre of this heady grandiloquence, as is always the case in any professional kitchen, was the head-chef himself.
A short, stocky Frenchman from the Alsace region, our head-chef was the absolute caricature of a stereotypical little Parisian: cocky, aggressive, with appalling manners, discounting those occasions when an attractive lady was present, in which case a gaudy, utterly frightening transformation overcame that rodent of a character, dressed up to appear a romantic, rapacious Romeo. We clashed from almost my very first day on the job. As an 'sa', one of my tasks at the restaurant was to cut and serve bread to guests, once they had made their main food order (we refrain from placing bread on the table before this time so as not to cut through a diner's appetite, thereby potentially decreasing the likelihood of them ordering many dishes, especially appetizers, from the menu). During my first week at 'db', I found myself cutting bread for a table one evening in the middle of service, the restaurant filled to near-capacity. The chef, who had been observing my progress at the bread station, next to the pass at the entrance to the kitchen from the front-of-house dining area, stalked over. 'What iz zis?' he demanded, holding up a piece of the bread that I had just sliced. His tone belay a simmering anger, which was not long in appearing. Without waiting for an answer, the chef began to scream - I do not exaggerate here - at me that I was cutting the bread too big (at too great an angle) and was thereby disrespecting his pastry staff, who bake the bread in-house each day. He cursed, at the top of his lungs and repeatedly, spittle smacking against my cheek. The whole episode lasted close to a minute and transpired against a backdrop of deadly silence, from the rest of the kitchen to the dining-room itself, where startled guests heard the entire debacle.
It is one thing to reprimand a new, "green" recruit, to guide them in the correct protocol beholden to their position and, perhaps, if the day has been long and hard, relentless and draining, to do so with a touch of curtness or even disgruntled impatience. It is, however, quite another to vent such an overly aggressive spleen in such a disrespectful, wholly unprofessional manner, a point that I made to Chris when - bless - he sought to placate me some minutes later. Regrettably, this is not the first, nor do I imagine it will be the last, time that I have been on the receiving end of such inappropriate behaviour from a fellow human-being. On the other hand, I am perhaps reaching a stage in life within which such small-minded bullying will become even less frequent (it is hardly a daily occurence, defining this unsavoury occasion all the more); certainly, it affects me less now than in my earlier youth, but I was still left feeling wounded and embarrassed. For someone in the position of head-chef, one of power, prestige and with the reasonable expectation of exemplary leadership, such a noxious abuse of one's status and profession struck me especially low: how could an establishment with the renown afforded to 'db' tolerate such a villain? There is little doubt that this miserable cook is highly skilled within his field, but at what cost to employ such a character? I must confess that it left a bitter taste to contemplate this person's success in the face of such an odious nature, conjuring all manner of challenges to my firm ethical and moral beliefs.
This episode was the worst in a series of interesting twists and turns liberally peppered throughout my initial weeks at 'db'. There were moments when I came very close to throwing in the towel, but in hindsight, these challenges served me well, perhaps better even, than if each day had run smoothly without comment. To paraphrase a view expressed by the great man, Martin Luther King Jr, one that has resonated in my mind with particular force these past weeks, it is not how one acts in easy times that defines a character, but how one acts in times of difficulty. I could have quit my post at 'db'; I could have, in some sense, allowed this punitive critic to "win" (yes, truthfully I hold to such diction in this situation), but I am the stronger for closing my mind to such an avenue of escape back to my preferred comfort zone. In the face of preposterous action, I refused to be cowed. Reading this, you might be convinced that I sit now upon my high horse of morality: perhaps - the view is splendid from here, certainly - yet the fact remains that I refused to speak to the chef again after this conflagration: if one has nothing nice to say, then it is best to say nothing at all.
Best wishes to all!