Saturday, September 17, 2011

Roll out the Cordiality

There is always a time, sooner or later, when things come full circle.  Last night I had one of those realizations. 

I was at the inauguration dinner for Dr. John Pieper, the new President at the St. Louis College of Pharmacy.  It was an absolutely wonderful event held at the St. Louis Club in Clayton.  My wife was excited about this event, because her parents frequent the club and they are always talking about how good the food and service is.  I should know this too.  I worked there for quite a while in the early and late 80's.  I got my start there.

Not much has changed.  In fact, it had not changed at all.  The impeccable commitment to the culture of fine dining service hasn't wondered of course, and that was what was most satisfying.  Looking around the room during the cocktail hour, I pictured myself handing out the "butler passed" appetisers, mixing the cocktails or working in the kitchen preparing the meal to come.  It wasn't that long ago that I attended Forest Park Community College headed towards a degree in Hospitality Management.  It was a two year program and, if you were smart, you worked in the field while attending.  

I started in the kitchen, in 1981, as a chefs apprentice.  I worked for Wolfgang Bier, one of the countries Golden Toques, the highest degree of accomplishment an Executive Chef can get.  He was an absolute tyrant and, while I learned a ton about classic French cooking.  I also learned some of the mistakes one can make when using fear as a motivator.  Wolfgang was one of the best, old school, Euro pastry master mean guy.  And it was what I needed.

I started at $3.75 and worked full time.  I didn't have a car, I couldn't afford one at the time.  I later purchased a 1965 VW that sat broken more often than reliable.  I lived in South City, on Shaw and Vandiventor.  Right across from what is now the main entrance to the Botanical Gardens.  Back then it was a rough area. I remember hearing gunshots go off a few times in the gangways between the rows of 4 family flats.  We kept an eye on our next door neighbors, a revolving door of drug users and prostitutes.  It was a different time, for sure.  I wouldn't have changed a thing.

I ended up getting a couple raises and the small group of apprentices became quite close.  We knew what we had.  We were training with the best in the world.  It was prior to a lot of the newer cooking styles, fusion, nouvelle cuisine, characterized by lighter, more delicate dishes and an increased emphasis on presentation..  We learned the classic Escoffier way of cooking, heavier, not as innovative, country club fair. 

So last night between sips of high balls, bites of roasted tenderloin, Malbec and flan, I recognized one of the supervisors named Herbie.  Herbie was one that we all looked up to when working there.  Kind of a JJ Johnson look alike.  Tall and funny and very cordial.  He was loved by the general membership there, who were all the wealthiest and high profile in the area.  I asked my server to send him over and he was there in a flash.  I explained who I was and how important the St. Louis Club was to my becoming whom I am.  He remembered me. 

It was a tad uncomfortable, because he treated me like a member, like one of the people who belonged there.  While I was comfortable being there, I couldn't help but relate to the service staff.  He was crisp in his skill of making me feel important.  And I would have preferred something a little different. 

I thanked him for his influence and reached out my hand, a little disappointed from such a high standard of cordiality.  We shook hands and at the end was when it happened.  Yes!  The "Soul brother shake"!-- that three move procedure, beginning with a traditional, palm-to-palm clasp, followed in quick succession by a clasping at the hilt of the thumbs, and finally, by a hooked clasp of only the fingers. Yup, ole Herbie gave it up in ability to read the situation. Letting me know that he was feeling it.  Guys like Herbie are my heros. 

It was a great evening for a great man, Dr. Pieper.  I look to see the St. Louis College of Pharmacy rise up in prestige due to his style and commitment to student and community.  I am thankful that he included me in the dinner.  It was a wonderful night with a bonus from he past, ifyouknowhatimtalkinbout.

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