My L’Escargot Roots - Part Two of Two
Posted on Sunday, April 29th, 2012
The boss hated turning people away who hadn’t booked – “chance”, as he used to call them, and most weekends we would end up feeding a dozen or so of these hungry strays in the cramped area in front of the bar, giving me more than my fair share of additional labour but adding enormously to the excitement of the evening. It would be like a scene from an Italian wedding: all sorts of people, thrown together around one big table, talking animatedly to people they had never expected to meet, never mind spend the evening with. These were definitely my favourite nights and I would go home feeling both physically exhausted and spiritually invigorated by the impromptu nature of the occasion and the buzz it generated.
John liked to encourage people to show off and was always thinking up new schemes for making the punters spend more cash. He was a bit of a slave to money, if I tell the truth, to the point where his lust for the stuff seemed to irritate Gloria, who, from the looks of things, might have been brought up around older money in her native Tuscany. John would organize ‘Lobster Nights’ at quiet times of the year, taking the trouble personally to invite all of his best regulars. He sure knew how to throw a party and, even though they would be expected to spend quite a lot of their own money, the customers seemed always to delight in his company and hospitality.
John would ostentatiously ply everybody with “champagne” when they arrived, before going on to serve the biggest lobsters they had ever set eyes on. I am sure that it was only the staff knew that it was Asti Spumante Secco in the glasses and that the lobsters were ‘crippled’ lobsters, bought at a knock-down price from the market, that were not complete with their own two claws - nor all of their own legs, for that matter. Prior to boiling them, John would ostentatiously parade the lobsters around the room on a silver platter, like champion shellfish at the seafood Olympics, just high enough above potentially prying eyes to hide their collective disability. Then he would disappear into the kitchen to perform his clever sleight of hand, distributing the pieces of red carcass on to lettuce-piled plates accompanied by a flotilla of gravy boats bearing mayonnnaise.
This calculating, sneaky side of John was what I identified with the least. But it wasn’t as if he was poisoning his customers or anything terrible like that - he just had a cheeky way of always making sure he came out on top, while encouraging customers to believe that they were actually getting an exceptional deal themselves. It was a kind of caring cynicism, and I am certain that John gave the customers sufficient value for money by bringing laughter, fun and sophistication into their otherwise predictable and mundane, suburban evenings. I rarely saw John happier than on these mad and rather lucrative Lobster Nights, surrounded by his faithful, regular clientele - and if John was happy, we were all happy.
I remained working for John, on the weekends and during summer holidays throughout my last two years of school, by which time he had opened a smaller, seafood restaurant across the road from the hugely successful L’Escargot. It was called La Crevette (The Shrimp) and this became my next little home, with its wall-hanging fisherman’s nets, plastic lobsters and wobbly tables. It was cosy as hell, with only nine, we’ll-spaced, dark wood tables, and I can’t say I ever had all that much to do. I suspect that I was really only employed because I was cheap and John wanted to help out my family. I got a huge buzz from the busy Saturday nights and by the time I left school for Manchester University, I was already looking forward to finding similar, part-time work up in the North. I did not realise it then, but I was about to embark on a year of poverty, academic stagnation and relative loneliness, barred from any restaurant work by the strict rules of the Manchester Law Faculty. My favourite hobby was to be no more.
One night, while I was away, I heard that John had suffered a massive heart attack and had fallen into a coma. He was fifty-two years old. A few days later, before I even had time to take the train down to London, he was dead, never having regained consciousness. Gloria eventually left London and moved to Italy; the party was finally over at L’Escargot. When I think about it now, I really could have done with talking to John when I had my first business crisis a few years later. To tell the truth, I still miss him now.