Dear Gabrielle Hamilton
I should have known it was her. A tiny and faded fork-knife-spoon tattoo, tucked away discreetly at the back of her shoulder was perhaps the most affirming of details; it wasn’t one of these blatant drawings of a cow silhouette with its body hacked into labeled cuts branded ironically on the forearm of some new school, would-be top chef contestant. It was almost unnoticeable, like her. Almost.
She sat at the bar quietly, not drinking water (having refused the offering from three separate individuals, myself included) and dining solo.
Fine, don’t be hydrated. Clue #1?
I recognized all the signs. She was too confident in her ordering to be a happenstance diner. It’s my job, after all, to know every dining body chomping away in every one of our 47 seats - who they might be, at what pace they are eating, allergic to, waiting for, what they're drinking (or refusing) - the general going on-ness of the bustling room.
Then, when someone from the industry comes in, I knowingly nod, let the server know inconspicuously conspicuously who they are, perhaps chat the guest up a bit, make them feel all very-important-person, but never when there's hot food down — it’s all about the food, of course. In fact, we'll hammer them with food! Let them depart uncomfortably full, both in their belly and of themselves, for having been styled out by one of the coolest places in LA.
Well, I didn’t get the chance because Gabrielle Hamilton robbed me. However benignly, she did. I ignored the alarm my internal radar sounded at me as I intuited her manner of dining and instead let her be (the shame!), save for the offering water and delivering her sweetbreads with a brief recap of the parsley, shallot and finger lime that so obviously garnished the dish.
She finished her meal quietly, got up from her seat at the bar, casually walked to the kitchen to thank them for her meal, which I had nothing to do with.
Then my jaw dropped as she said a familiar hello and goodnight to Vinny and left as quietly as she had arrived. He confirmed that the one and only person I had been waiting to host had just finished her meal, eaten only what she had decided to order, and paid the bill in full, a dual crime victimizing both hospitality and my ego. The savagery!
She catered Vinny’s wedding and had NEVER once been in to animal—how could she have not said even a quiet hello?! Or inquire about the Chef like they all do! Send the proverbial text message to Vinny about maybe popping in, so he could of course alert me and pre-validate all my would-be suspicions and creepy staring at her tattoo and dining manner, and thus allow me to be the all-knowing General Manager whence she appeared out of the blue?! NOTHING. Ate, paid, politely thanked us, and left. The fucking nerve.
So naturally, I chased her out the door like she was that absent-minded guest who leaves his cell phone or credit card behind, or worse, a thief skipping out on the bill (I told you I had been robbed).
Out the door and across the street I ran, abandoning the four walls that contained all 1200 square feet of my responsibilities, including several humans.
Worse, I shouted at her: WAIT! WAIT! Wait. Never mind the oncoming traffic. Wait. To an iconic New York Chef who's meal I had just let slip through the cracks.
"WAIT! Gabrielle! I knew it was you! I am so sorry! I wanted to talk to you, I—You—I read your book it was so meaningful!"
Standing in the middle of Fairfax I tripped over a few short words while my mind ran away with a pretty vivid fantasy, one that involved inviting her over for lamb ragu (because I am that confident?), over which we would have the brilliant and inspiring conversation and endless bottles of wine, inevitably leading us to become old friends and laugh about how I had chased her down the streets of LA some number of years later.
She hugged me like you would hug an adorable child that's just seen the tooth fairy. When I apologized again about not hosting her properly, she said she had had the exact experience that she wanted, and thanked me for that.
It’s a funny thing, with Chefs and TV Chefs, reality shows and rock star tattoos, yelp reviews and blogs and tweets and all the fucking noise that is constantly at the highest volume; it was a lot to swallow, even for a young GM.
But that night I got it. She didn’t want the soignée note hanging on her ticket, the extra 4 dishes, two desserts, and uninvited wine pairings or banter about the food scene.
She wanted a meal, an honest meal, at an extremely hyped restaurant, to see and to taste for herself. I won’t ever know if the egg on the pig ear she got was centered perfectly because I wasn’t monitoring her meal in that way. And yeah, I was devastated that she didn’t eat the pork belly sandwiches, which I would have no doubt sent her. But she didn’t order them. And that was fair.
We walked back across the street, where she introduced me to another chef who had joined her outside. In my dizzied state I searched my rolodex of restaurant information but failed to recognize who this guy was (sorry, Adam Perry Lang).
He didn’t seem to notice, and they were in more of a hurry than I was, despite the full dining room I had abandoned. They hopped in a car and left me standing on the sidewalk.
I still felt slightly robbed. But I felt happy that I felt that way because I realized service is an act of giving. We in the front of the house are not sweating over a flat top for 10 hours of back-breaking service; we are not meticulously balancing 5 different garnishes on top of a composed plate, and we certainly are not devising recipes to be parlayed into a dish that honors the farmers who nurtured the produce every step to market, becoming the sole catalyst in delivering satisfaction and striking awe to someone’s senses, someone’s memories, as the completed dish journeys from fork to mouth. And none of us are saving lives.
But we are there to carry out a mission. And when it's genuine, and when it's right, holy shit, is it something! Seizing a moment to enliven someone’s meal with conversation, acknowledgment, a listening ear, or a perfectly timed reset and refill - therein lies the harmony, the hospitality, the transport. When the simple act of eating can transcend survival mechanism and become peaceful, inspirational escape, it suspends time and is forever-preserved in the most intimate and primal form, the senses. And that to me, is a greater reward than all of the Michelin stars in the culinary sky.
I had been waiting for Gabrielle Hamilton to come in just so that I could show off, prove that our hype was real, and leave at least a fraction of an impression on her the way she did on me, just through her book!
But that was a selfish aim, not a gesture of hospitality. And while I have guaranteed that thousands of guests, industry or not, have left in a hypnotic overdose of animal fat, butter, wine, and warmth, she did it her way, not mine, and that was pretty much exactly who I'd imagined her to be: unapologetic.
Same as her food probably, which I've never tasted, but hope to one day, at the bar, maybe, sitting by myself.
*every night at animal, before service, I'd listen to this with my staff, full blast, you're welcome: