More than twenty years in the restaurant business means working thousands of nights, hundreds of weekends and almost every holiday. Pretty much the opposite of everyone else – all the paper-filing, Monday-hating nine-to-fivers. This was both to my detriment and my benefit. What I disliked was that I never got to see my family or friends who had day jobs. What I liked was that the people I worked with became my family, all those refugees from the mainstream who came alive when the street lamps came on.
For seven years I worked at a casual, fine-dining eatery in the western Hudson Valley called Sugar Loaf Inn. It was a carefree, family-run place that thrived on weekends. We lived for those busy shifts: Saturday nights, Sunday brunch, New Year’s Eve and Mother’s Day. Not that we necessarily relished working ’til midnight on Saturday and getting up early Sunday to serve mimosas and eggs Benedict to the masses per se, but those were our bread and butter. We had to make them fun, and we did, because choosing the resto biz means missing out on backyard barbecues, pool parties, and family reunions. Stepping out of the mainstream also meant we couldn’t blame our absences on our job (although we usually did) but to be truthful, it was a life of our choosing. Better to be going against the grain and be happy, then to be sucked dry by the daily grind.
During those years, I came late or sometimes not at all, to my parents’ Thanksgiving table and while they usually saved me a heaping plate of the traditional fare, I would’ve already eaten at the restaurant.
At the end of a long, 12-hour shift, we would pop all the leaves in the large center table, and with a bonanza of food laid out before us, we would get to the task of our own turkey feast. Our chef-owner was always generous with us – in a small restaurant we all carry the weight and he demonstrated his appreciation with a heaving table of delicious food. Someone would start uncorking bottles of the house red, others would pass plates of stuffing and mashed potatoes, and the sous chef would begin carving one of several leftover birds. I relished this chance to sit and enjoy the company – our own island of misfit toys – after an arduous day bending to the emotional demands of the diners. It was hard work catering to our clientele, especially on holidays – families bring their dysfunction to dinner out, as well, and often it would overflow on to us. Once we all sat down together however, we would shake it off with hearty laughter and those bottles of red wine, satisfied that we had truly earned our keep, and our meal.
I still cherish those long ago days we labored and loved, for we grew up in each other’s presence, and celebrated each other’s lives along the way. It was my second family, and every year on Thanksgiving, I am reminded of those happy days when we broke bread together and I am thankful.