Indebted to the restaurant folks who unite us

Published 8:47 am Wednesday, May 3, 2017

by John Railey

Restaurants and bars from here to the sea give so many of us, even misfit former waiters like me, a place to belong. We need that now more than ever in our divided land.

John Railey waiting tables at the Seafare at Nags Head in the early 1980s. He’s still learning from his restaurant and bar friends. — Submitted | John Railey

I thought about that the other night while watching Anthony Bourdain on Jimmy Fallon’s late-night show on NBC. Bourdain hosts a Sunday night show on CNN in which he travels the world, eating, drinking and finding common ground. He told Fallon that he started out as a dishwasher at 17. At first, he said, he thought of restaurant work as “a profession for losers and misfits and people not suited for anything else, which pretty much described me as the time.”

In his show, Bourdain depicts the wild, creative restaurant culture, building on work as old as George Orwell’s “Down and Out in Paris and London,” in which Orwell (now seeing a resurgence for his prophetic novel “1984”) vividly captures behind-the-scenes restaurant life, albeit darkly.

Patrick Radden Keefe wrote in a February New Yorker profile that, on that first dishwashing job for Bourdain, at a flounder-and-fried clam restaurant in Provincetown, Bourdain witnessed a bride sneak away from her wedding party “for an impromptu assignation with the chef.”

Bourdain wrote in his book Kitchen Confidential: “I knew then, dear reader, for the first time: I wanted to be a chef.”

He made it to that spot and beyond.

To work in a restaurant is to know many stories and how to tell them well. To work in a nighttime restaurant or bar is to sleep late and come alive when your customers are ending their day shifts, to welcome them to your workplace and somehow make them think you are just as happy as they are, even though your shift is just starting. The best bartenders and wait staff pull off a magic act of sorts, making their customers feel that all are in the party together. At my favorite restaurants and bars, my buddies who work there are nice enough to listen to me rave on about my old days in their trade and the friends I made there.

In the early 1980s, I was at the Seafare Reasurant in Nags Head, working my way up from dishwasher to busboy to waiter. Many of us celebrate the restaurants at which we worked in our youth. But, I swear, the Seafare was special, an oasis of pink stone that graced the sand. With my sister Mimi hostessing there and other buddies working there as well, it was a special time under the late, great Cap’n Mike Hayman, the savvy and mercurial owner/operator.

He told me I was a “space cadet” at waiting tables.

He was right. My daughter, who waits tables now, is better at it than I ever was.

But, for whatever reason, Hayman kept me on. And damn I came to love the boys and men and girls and women on his crews. There were teenage cooks cranking rock ‘n’ roll loud enough to be heard over their fryers. There was a steak cook older than us who was rumored to keep a pistol in his freezer to use on us waiters if we got out of hand. Reigning over the chaos was Steve “Zero” Brown, the cool-as-Vichyssoise chef.

Then there were the waiters, like John “Buck” Neal, a headwaiter and commercial fisherman who looked like Burt Reynolds but never let that swell his head. We, the staff in general, were white and black and gay and straight. We were frustrated writers and college students and teachers and just people chasing dreams or having given up on dreams. We worked together and we partied together. They taught this country boy to think in new ways.

As Buck was dying of cancer in the late 1990s, we attended a fundraiser for him on a winter night at the old George’s restaurant in Nags Head. Buck held fragile court among his buddies, including fishermen who cut short their trips, in from the sea to pay him tribute.

By then, Cap’n Hayman, my gutsy hero, was already gone, having lost his restaurant, which then burned down. Shortly after Hayman’s untimely death, I wrote a tribute to his triumphs and struggles for the coastal tabloid of the Virginian-Pilot newspaper. It was the least I could do.

Hayman let me work with, and learn from, some of the best people in the world. And so are restaurant and bar people in general. Tell their stories and tip them well. It’s the least we can do for these folks who bring us together, if only for a while, in our divided country.

JOHN RAILEY, who grew up in Courtland, is the editorial page editor of the Winston-Salem Journal, which first published this column.