When Life Hands You A Pandemic,
Stuff It With Blue Cheese
Written by Rebecca Johnson
As a seasonal employee, working in tourist hotspots, my restaurant jobs were a little different last year. Here’s a sample menu:
Sometimes called aperitifs, these prepare the digestive tract for the coming meal
In February of 2020, I was working at a luxury ski hotel in Jackson Hole that was amping up for Spring Break.
I was in charge of the Ice Luge. During our Anti-Valentine’s Day party, dozens of skiers lined up to place their mouths at the bottom edge of a broken heart-shaped ice slab while I administered shots of Jameson from above.
As virus details amped up throughout the week, people became more skeptical. When the luge reappeared the following Saturday, most people just asked to take the Jamo from a shot glass.
Small bites meant to stimulate one’s appetite
In April, my summer job reached out to tell me they had secured a PPP loan. They wanted me to commit for the season, without knowing what that would be, so they could finalize paperwork. While quarantining at my winter location, my summer gig on Nantucket, 2500 miles away started paying me.
One month later, after moving and quarantining, my employer announced plans for take-out. The hitch: we only had four employees with kitchen experience. Therefore, bartenders and servers all became prep-cooks. PPP meant we had to do pretty much anything the employer asked of us.
We picked leaves from herb stems and shelled thirty-pound boxes of English peas. We broke down artichokes with dull knives because no cook trusted us with their personal tools. I learned that hours of cutting, soaking, and scraping, yielded only eighteen hearts and a pint of puree. I swore by the blisters on my hand, I would never recommend an artichoke dish.
I was perplexed by recipe directions until a Jamaican prep cook took pity on me. She reached for a stack of reusable plastic containers I’d only seen used for storage and drinking cups, then explained that the pint container was two cups and the half pint container was one cup.
Previously, I associated Spring with words like new and verdant, but my COVID Spring was dull: dull tasks, dull knives, and dull kitchen skills.
Usually the healthiest part of the meal, often served before the main course
We opened our doors in mid-June, not for customers but furniture as the town of Nantucket was exclusively permitting outdoor dining only. This island thirty miles off the coast of Cape Cod has one hospital with no Intensive Care Unit and only a few ventilators, so the community was being extra cautious about following CDC guidelines.
My co-workers and I carried twenty-two tables and fifty-ish chairs from our level dining room floor to the brick sidewalk and courtyard. My preference was to place the table so that it was least wobbly. Then a co-worker would re-adjust the tables to be square with some random outdoor landmark. Next the manager would complain the tables were wobbly and task us with using wobble-wedges to fix the situation.
During early summer, everyone who came in out to dine with us showed appreciation for simply being open. It was easy to spot which people were on their first night out after months of quarantine. They asked questions that had nothing to do with food or drink. They wanted to hear new stories. Usually, their dining partner would blush and place a hand on the interlocutor’s leg and as I walked away I could hear them remind the other that I couldn't answer all their ‘new normal’ questions.
We took all the weird precautions suggested by health officials who still didn’t know what practices worked. We had clean and dirty pens jars. One day a ‘sanitized’ pen jar appeared, which led to confusion as to which pen selection was better, clean or sanitized?
We also learned which face-coverings worked well, poorly, or not-at-all. We learned to project through the mask and how to be expressive with our eyes. We learned that spieling a special through a mask was annoying for everyone. We also learned that carrying in all those tables and chairs at the end of the night was better after sneaking in a few drinks throughout the shift.
But mostly, we wondered how long we would remain open.
The most substantial part of a meal,
dishes can be complex or, when too large, tedious
By the end of July, the furniture that once took thirty minutes to move, now only took twelve. We had mastered the four-chair carry, but still, the toughest fifteen minutes of work were the first ones when we carried all the furniture. Anyone arriving a mere five minutes late, became the target of everyone’s resentment.
Also, the pens. Apparently, they were not meant to be sanitized regularly, because they were exploding at record numbers. We all had ink stains somewhere.
We’d joke with our guests about the weather. During misty evenings, we’d comment about our newly installed and completely functional sprinkler system for cooling purposes. We’d also joke about our ventilation system – gale-force winds – being part of COVID-19 protocol.
Guests became less thankful and more expectant. We had intended to make dining out seem just as great as it always had been and maybe that was the problem. As people became accustomed to seeing masks, guests seemed to forget the extra effort required to put on the show. Now that all my guests were outside the building and separated by at least six feet of space, I walked two to four times the distance to get between my tables and the bar or kitchen. With co-workers spread out on all four sides of the restaurant, no one casually passed my tables and removed dirty dishes or noticed something was amiss. Guests complained about their waterfront table smelling too fishy or the sun being too intense at sunset.
My most vivid memory from this summer was a guest asking for blue-cheese stuffed olives. Anyone who works in a restaurant knows this is one of the worst requests. Unless the bar actually stocks these, no server wants to have to hand make them. I may be nice enough to stuff blue cheese into an olive one night when I’m not busy, but the next server might not have time. Then the guest will inevitably complain, “They did it for me last time.” When I said we didn’t have blue cheese-stuffed olives, the patron asked if we have olives and blue cheese, clearly wanting me to say I’d stuff some olives for him.
I could see my section, the one farthest from the restaurant, filling up. I wanted to say, Dude, if this weren’t a pandemic and I hadn’t already carried the table your sitting at; the chairs you’re sitting on; and the table cloths, plants, and candles making the table nice for you during August heat while wearing a mask, than maybe I would have time to stuff those olives for you. But now, I just can’t. Not to mention that after you leave and the couple after you leaves, I will move all of this stuff back inside, in the dark on uneven paving stones, while still masked. As I handed him a ramekin of blue cheese and olives I pretended like everything was fine. He could stuff them himself. With this minor request, he had identified the limits of my hospitality.
By the end of the 2020 summer season, the weather was colder and the furniture had lost nearly all of the felt pads on the bottom of its legs. There was only one jar for pens, because surface spread seemed unlikely enough to warrant the extra effort. Thankfully, I was no longer tripping on that one loose paving stone or the poorly placed dip in the sidewalk that spilled many a martini.
Our earliest seating, 5:30 p.m., was now the most popular one because people who truly were concerned about dining outdoors wanted to eat while it was still warm. People ate faster, for their own comfort and because food should be eaten while it’s warm.
Guests awkwardly tried to move heavy heaters closer to their table, even though the units were clearly placed to throw warmth equally at multiple parties. I would inform guests that we couldn’t move the heaters, which often meant the guests would move their tables. So much for social distancing.
DESSERT & AFTER DINNER DRINKS
The conclusion of a meal
Photo: Taryn Dilworth
I am now back at the ski resort and working at the same bar as I was when these disruptions began. Since the bar never reopened for the summer, the first days of preparation were spent throwing out expired beer and deep-cleaning our keg system.
Some things are making a reappearance from when this menu of 2020 began. We now have bins for sanitized and unsanitized pens, again. The COVID-19 cases are spiking, again, which means my co-workers and I are, again, constantly wondering how long we’ll be able to remain open.
As part of a hotel group, our preparation is far more extensive than my small business summer employer. Employees and guests have their temperature taken upon entering the building. My co-workers and I have access to regular, free testing. Also, the HR department has certified contact tracers that have already forced twelve of my co-workers to quarantine.
Unfortunately, this sometimes makes me feel like a participant in a pandemic rendition of the Hunger Games. Will I be next?
Over the summer when people could dine outdoors and the case numbers remained low, I felt relatively safe working in (or outside of) a restaurant. However, being indoors with strangers makes the safety of my job seem questionable. When I’m behind the bar, we have plexiglass adding an extra layer of protection. When I’m serving food in the open restaurant, I’ve noticed myself chatting less with guests, because it doesn’t seem as safe.
The icing on the cake for this 2020 Menu is that the vaccine distribution has started, however it’s unclear as to how long it will take for this to substantially change things. One thing that hasn’t changed? The request for blue cheese-stuffed olives. As I arrived for my dinner shift during peak apres ski hours, I noticed a line of drink ticket stubs three feet long as my co-workers struggled to keep up. Mixed amongst a mess of cherries, lime wedges, cinnamon sticks and candied ginger garnishes was a three-pound plastic bag of blue cheese crumbles.
I’m hoping for a new seasonal menu soon. But in the meantime, would you like some blue-cheese stuffed olives?