Slowly a drunken head cranes up towards me, “What? I can’t even hear you?” My gentle baritone is not best suited for the assignment. I try to locate my breathing, unclench my fists, and prepare for another go. “Look at me!! Look … at … me. Do you see the mask I am wearing? With a plastic face shield over it? The rubber gloves on my hands? I can’t see shit. Completely disorientated. I’m sweating, no one can hear me over the music/mask/shield combo and it’s 95 degrees outside in the middle of October! Now, do you want another strawberry mojito?!” Working at a restaurant in the time of COVID.
I still load up in one massive food-shopping designed to last me for two weeks. Echos of Waldbaum’s visits when I was a kid with Grandma and Grandpa, the cart overflowing by the time it reached the checkout. Shopping in bulk was the agreed upon COVID strategy in the early days. I never moved on. Sure, I’ve explored microwave and frozen options like never before. In case you missed my sizzling “Breaking news: Just ate my first-ever Hot Pocket” tweet that was moments later followed by “Breaking news: I just ate my second-ever Hot Pocket” tweet, well, those happened. But mostly I cook. I cook a lot. And the deeper we go into the pandemic, the more I become my own Italian restaurant.
There is considerably less traffic in Los Angeles these days. If you are searching for any COVID positives, that’s what I have to offer. Besides getting there and back again, nothing is easier in hospitality. I don’t doubt this is a common refrain in many industries. What I can tell you a little bit about is the world of food and wine. My mask is on before I walk onto the patio. Coworkers greet me with a silent jerk of the head or the occasional elbow bump in passing. There are no more hugs, conferences, or discernible smiles. Into the new world, we go. I take my temperature with the digital thermometer. I run cool. Cold hands warm heart as my … fuck it, it’s not important. A mask plus a face shield is required when interacting with guests. Our shields are attached to baseball caps, it’s akin to pulling down a helmet. The face shield catches the light in all sorts of ways at night impairing one’s vision. Even during the day, the effect can be rather obscuring. Single-use plastic gloves must be worn when removing any items from the table and then discarded. Tables must be sanitized in between guests. Pens, check presenters, trays, salt and pepper shakers must be sanitized in between each use. Gone are pitchers and carafes; if you order a glass of water you get a pint of water. If you ask for more water you get a new pint glass full of water. The result is a tidal wave of carrying and clearing and carrying and washing and sanitizing and separating and hauling some more. Water has become our adversary. These steps haven’t replaced former duties, they’ve been added. The current outdoor dining expansion has us close to our initial capacity but the alfresco area is further away. A longer walk to shuttle drinks from the bar, food from the kitchen, dishes, and glassware back to the dishwasher. Outdoor dining is the only dining these days, and this September and October in Los Angeles have been in the 90s and even triple-digit temperatures, with smoke-filled skies. The work is intensely laborious and business is booming. Half the competition has closed. Don’t forget to wash and sanitize your hands.
Back at Trattoria Giacalone, my search for the perfect Lambrusco continues. Cleto Chiarli Lambrusco di Castelvetro Vigneto Cialdini 2016 brings an electric deep-ruby color and perfect velvet texture to the party. A nose of roses and dark cherry give way to cranberry, cherry, anise, and eucalyptus flavors. Medium-plus dry, medium-plus acid, medium tannins with pronounced bubbles. I love the feel in my mouth but the bone dry medicinal bent extends my hunt. I mean, I still enjoy the bottle. I’m not a monster. Tonight I am cooking pasta puttanesca. Or maybe it’s yellow squash and plum tomato sauce? The other night it was pasta alla norma. My rotating pasta primavera tends to be a mix of whatever vegetables I have available. Broccoli rabe and escarole frequent my table. Different toppings adorn my homemade pizza. Antipasto and playoff sports have been a popular choice during NBA and MLB playoffs. Stuffed pepper, egg and potato hero, eggplant parmigiana, and sausage and peppers round out the list of standards. I’m always slicing garlic. Harlow’s nose tickles the air accompanied by little piggy grunts. I’ve tried to cozy up to Spotify while I work. Music skims off the kitchen tile. The rich red puttanesca sauce smiles back at me. In the solitude of quarantine, the water boils, and wine swirls.
The clientele is mixed. The number of generous big tippers have increased. Tip of the cap. Some diners will trip all over themselves to express their gratitude. It’s not as many as you would think. The majority of guests seem deaf to the hurdles that are placed before staff. Entitled, impatient, and demanding remain popular diner attitudes. Ownership and management are not ignorant. I work for good people trying their best to navigate these crazy times and keep their business afloat in the face of reduced capacity, the new COVID rules, manager pay cuts, and furloughed staff. They are sweating, hauling, sanitizing, negotiating right along with us. Cries for excellence have been replaced by a compassionate “We’re all doing our best.” Being back amongst people, having a purpose, are welcome feelings after months of isolated quarantine. I’d be lying if I said I never wondered about safety. Although my gear has me better protected than the guests who are socializing. Not that I blame them, nor am I trying to steer people away from outdoor dining. I’m grateful to have an income when so many others, especially those in the restaurant industry, do not. Socializing at work has been scaled down to a minimum. It’s too much effort, too hard to hear, there’s too much work and we’re all too tired from shouting. When employees do connect, you hear complaints of back soreness, exhaustion, fatigue, anger and chafing. “Every shift feels like a double.” You also hear stories of how COVID is effecting everyone outside of work and concerns about an uncertain future. More people mutter to themselves than ever before. I am most guilty. But a powerful camaraderie exists among staff. Sympathy, support, and respect doled out generously. There’s rarely time for a meal break but ownership sees to it no one is sent home empty-handed. And during close, in the quiet of an empty restaurant being put to sleep, “Help yourself to a drink if you want one” can always be heard. I tilt up the plastic shield and draw down my mask. Sip and repeat. Tonight it’s in search of refreshment that I turn to Sileni Sauvignon from New Zealand. Mmmmmm, notes of citrus, spice, and white peach. Medium-plus dry, medium acid, crisp enjoyment.