Mike Lata will never forget his third Christmas service at Anson
As Charlestonians prepare to make merry over the weekend, many local F&Bers are digging in, cooking, prepping, and praying for a low stress holiday service. But even the best laid plans can go South ... or just strange, which is why we asked some locals to share their Christmas restaurant work stories.
For Mike Lata, owners and chef of FIG and The Ordinary, his third year cooking over Christmas at Anson is one he'll never forget.
"We were open for Christmas which was a nightmare. I’m sure anyone that has to work CHristmas understands how difficult it is telling college age staff that they can’t go home and see their parents. That said, at Anson we’d do 600 covers from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. There was a smaller version of our menu but there was also Christmas dinner turkeys and maybe I did like a roast beef or a ham or something. Half the line was set up to be scooping sides with a sliced meat you chose. We would 40 20-pound turkeys.
Well, back then Anson was pretty busy and the week leading up to Christmas and week after are the two busiest weeks of the year. We didn’t have another crew to come prep that extra stuff.
By year three we had really dialed in how to prepare for that week. We created these beautiful lists and executed them, butchered the tukerys and at like 9 or 10 on Christmas Eve my sous chef and I looked at each other in the walk-in and gave each other a huge high five cuz we'd done it all right.
The next morning, I'm fired up because we’re prepared. My sous chef gets to the restaurant before I do at 6:30 and I’m on the way out the door — I lived on Folly — and he's like, "Do you want the good news or the bad news?" I'm like, "I want the bad news." And he says, "We got robbed in the walk-in, but the good news is they didn't get everything."
So I said keep me posted. Then, before I got there, he calls again and says good news or bad news. I said, "Good." He says, "There is none. They got everything." They robbed the entire walk-in cooler. Here we are f hours away from 650 covers and we have nothing.
So, I alerted the owners and managers. Glenn Roberts worked for the company then. We had restaurants in Savannah and Columbia and they got all those guys out of bed and said you’ve got to drive whatever you have to Charleston right now. We kept getting reports as they were driving up with their car full of stuff and as they were giving me lists, I'm writing a menu.
I called Magnolias and Charleston Grill. I was like, "Ill take any food. I'll take five pounds of lump crab meat, and grouper filet until we had a menu and what we thought was enough food. And we pulled it off. The guests had no idea.
I just went into this total get it done mode. I was grinding and grinding and eventually we opened for service, it was sloppy but OK, the food was OK, but this a 10-hour service and when it was all over and last ticket went out, I went outside to have a beer and tears came out of my eyes for like 10 minutes. I was so stressed out. And I've never worked another Christmas since and neither has anyone who has worked at my restaurants."
Chef Sarah Adams, the woman behind Bad Bitches, can attest to Lata's holiday generosity. Thanks to working for him at FIG, she didn't have to be on during Christmas, but she recalls another time when she did and how her family came to the rescue.
"When I worked at restaurants in my early 20s, I was in places that were open on Christmas. I always volunteered to work holidays because my family lived here in Charleston. If I worked in the morning, we would have Christmas when I got off, or if I worked at night I was still able to have a great morning with the fam. One year I was working as a short order breakfast cook at Peninsula Grill and it was my first Christmas with my nephew. I was super bummed I had to go to work, but then my family surprised me and all came in to eat."
Sarah Adams' family surprised her during her Christmas day Peninsula Grill shift one year
For Chef Jeffrey Stoneberger of 2Nixons, however, Christmas always brings up memories of a harrowing holiday dinner service.
"So I'm working on Christmas Eve at Fat Duck in Britain which, at the time, was one of the top five restaurants in the world. This is the kind of place where you wait a really long time to go eat, the kind of place where most people eat like maybe once every 10 years or some kind of anniversary type deal.
I'm a pretty green cook at this point, super nervous because this is the first world class place that I've worked in. I was given a simple task to vacuum seal these BFG cakes from our head pastry chef and these cakes take about five days to prepare. I was trying to get multiple things done and I wound up letting the vacuum seal go all the way down on the cakes and I basically single-handedly ruined service for not only one day but for two days and I looked at the chef and I explained to him the situation and he began to scream at me in a Scottish version of English that is pretty hard to understand even if your Scottish, and I just felt like crawling in a corner and burying my head in the sheet rock so no one could ever see me again. I felt so terrible.
As a kind of make up, I decided to help with pastry production as well as work service that night so I wound up working 22 hours straight. I was so exhausted when I left my body just couldn't take it anymore and I burst into tears from the walk from my house to the restaurant. I'll never forget working that Christmas. I knew at that moment that I never wanted anyone to feel like that on Christmas. Christmas has always been a huge thing for me and I am bound to determine no matter what we do in the future that we will never work on Christmas or Christmas Eve."
Others see working on Christmas a different way. For Lindsay Collins, the creator of EffinBRadio, her time at Per Se was something more akin to holiday magic.
Lindsay Collins' Christmas work experiences weren't bad, per se
Most people spend an inordinate amount of time and money pinning things furiously to their mood boards and combing Instagram feeds in an attempt to align themselves with what they "should be __________ing RIGHT now". This practice ramps up considerably during the holidays. While the rest of the world is quibbling over whether or not eggnog is in this year the restaurant workers can rest assured that they won't have to bother because the restaurant does it for them and one restaurant in particular has all the right moves — Per Se.
I love working the holidays. (I once had a New Year's Eve off and it was miserable.) And New York is easily one of my favorite places on earth to be during the most wonderful time of the year. One winter afternoon in particular stands out in my mind. The memory is so wildly vivid I can almost smell the rich buttery scent of Parker house rolls coming out of the oven as I step off the elevator and into the back hallway that leads to the bread kitchen in the back of Per Se. I'm clocking in and stepping quickly down a hallway past the temperature controlled chocolate room where Chef Elwyn is finishing chocolate tuiles. I wave and smile through the glass without stopping and as I round the corner past the commis kitchen the smell of veal stock, red wine, bone marrow, and thyme reducing almost knocks me over. It's intoxicating and I can suddenly feel my fingers again. I'm warming up!
I pass the PDR kitchen on my left. Sweet and savory are now mingling together and I can detect gingerbread and gruyere (or perhaps that's cardamom and seared foie with poached pear) swirling through the air. The PM team is getting ready to come on line and I greet them before sticking my head into the West Room (it's considered bad form to enter the restaurant without "shaking in" to let everyone know you're there and to pay respect to those who have been there working since before you woke up) where tables are lining the perimeter of the luxurious private dining room that is dressed to the nines in subtle holiday perfection.
The florist team is obsessively and hurriedly manicuring the evergreen arrangements and another kitchen server is stacking up the last load of cook books onto the tables. In the center of the room surrounded by towers of cookbooks standing tall like giant toy soldiers sits an ink pin and a crystal drinking glass with sparkling water bubbling away in anticipation. Seconds later Chef Keller appears through one of the dramatically mammoth doors that open without a sound. We shake hands and after a quick chat he looks around with an industrious approving nod, "I guess I should get started," he says, taking his place at the table and signing the cookbooks that we will give away as gifts to staff and friends of the restaurant.
Sitting there adorning beautiful books with his elegant signature in stunning crisp chef whites he could almost pass as Santa. Now I've got jingle bells for eyes as I excuse myself and finally pass through the main dining room kitchen where I am welcomed to service by Nick Fitch the expediter and immediately given a task.
"Can you get eyes on table?" I scurry off through the breezeway and I spot the lady returning to her seat. "Back on 4" I shout and take a lap through the dining room to familiarize myself with the state of the restaurant. And even though I was there when they brought it in the 25-foot Christmas tree that sparkles and shines brilliantly in the window of the salon, it is almost more stunning than the the view of Central Park.
Almost four stories below the city that never sleeps is deafeningly silent and the sky is that frosty winter grey. The cars and people below are tiny and bustling and it almost feels like I've got all of NYC in my own personal snow globe. (Let the 5 alarm "Joy to the World" commence.) I hear ice slide into a shaker with a crack and I look over to see a smartly dressed bartender stirring a Manhattan and streaming every last drop of the deep amber liquid into a coupe before delicately placing the brandied cherry to finish. It feels like a dream. It's the holiday that couldn't possibly exist. It's a place where everyone got it right without Pinterest or blogs. Everything has a purpose and it comes from an authentic place of tradition and festivity and if that means "working" on Christmas than sign me up for a double.