By: James F. O’Neil
Many seasonal jobs and temporary positions rely upon college students to apply, especially fast-food establishments. I have never worked at a fast-food restaurant with fast-food menus. My restaurant experience, however, took place at the O’Hare Inn in Des Plaines, Illinois. The Henrici’s Restaurant there had a large dining room with an outstanding menu, and large activity halls for weddings and parties.
As a college student, I needed part-time work to help with usual expenses and summer activities (including gas for the car to go to the beach or to visit with friends in the area).
I began my new job as a bus boy in the large celebration dining room and halls, doing the usual chores, helping servers with distribution of dinner plates of food, clearing tables, then handing out desserts. After the last wedding song or dance, or after the last speech–when guests left–the real work began: removing the detritus of celebratory gatherings. Knives, forks, plates, table cloths, glasses, flowers and flower vases, ash trays, empty bottles and cups and saucers–uneaten cake, half-empty glasses of wine, partially-filled wine bottles, and on and on: the aftermath of partying was cleared away.
Occasionally, were the festivities long lasting, the servers ate together, usually in three-quarter time, whatever happened to be on the menu. Good food I soon learned.
I enjoyed the work, but not the rush, not the stress. Working during the summer did give me a change of pace from studies, however, an opportunity to mingle with workers and even customers, and a time to try to determine what my schooling and life-as-cliché “were really all about.” What I enjoyed mostly was working with the women servers and hostesses. I had not had much contact with females in my away-at-college jobs, since I was attending an all-male school.
I had become good at my work, made friends, and learned my sense of duty–so much so that I was recommended (by the women, as a matter of fact) to the assistant manager to “move up.” This was the “big time,” the “show,” the place of the black-vest-and-tuxedo-jacket-uniform of only males in the dining room. I was a classy bus boy–with “other duties as assigned.” I would train to be a “flamer,” then a wine steward. No females were allowed to perform like this in the dining room (as I remember).
The flamer had to cook at table side those various Henrici’s specialties like shish kebab, filet mignon (Chateaubriand), frog legs; and cherries jubilee or bananas Foster. It was show; for the chefs cooked, then sent me out to heat and serve, with the twists of the wrists, or the holding of forks-and-spoons-as-one, to baste in butter, or seasoned juices, to cut and serve the meat, with red-to-pink centers of pepper-encrusted aged beef tenderloins. I did the show, then did the serving, with the twists of my wrists. (I recall dropping a frog leg only once–hopped right out of the hot butter onto the carpet…)
I opened wine bottles, mostly without crumbling a cork; I twisted open bottles of champagne without the cinematic geysers that spoil effervescence. I was careful, having learned to make not even a “Pop.”
So there I was, wearing my best, with corkscrew and flamer cart and all the needed preparations, ready to ignite brandy or cognac or whatever other liqueurs I used, trying carefully not to ignite myself or a customer. (That “Whoosh!” sound surprised me time after time, the instant ignition, sound-with-yellow-flame-and-heat, capable of singeing hairs on a customer’s neck or arm… I…did…singe…)
I finished my tenure at Henrici’s and returned to graduate from college.
Once, soon after we were married, I took my new bride to Henrici’s at the O’Hare Inn, to eat a fancy meal with wine and Chateaubriand for two. And a flamed dessert. I simply had to take her there to show off–to show her what I used to do before we met. The dining room looked smaller, though, than it did when I was bustling around from table to table.
Perhaps it was always thus, though I was too occupied to recognize that the restaurant was a great place to go and be seen–and to have excellent food. With the ambiance of upscale dining and with upper-shelf alcohol served, the Inn became an oasis in a growing community, an oasis for those who did not need to travel to Downtown Chicago for dining pleasure.
Oh, I have never had frog legs (though they are supposed to taste like chicken).
© James F. O’Neil 2013