“Pick up the cash and put out the rubbish.”
This was the instruction I was given, many years ago, on how to run a restaurant. The advice about the cash was obvious but the advice about the rubbish seemed odd. Wouldn’t you get one of the lesser ranks to do that?
He explained that the staff, in their travels to the bins, could include a bottle of something nice for retrieval, unobserved in the back lane after work.
As the lockdown eases, restaurants are tentatively opening. Many are gone, never to return.
At the dawn of this new age there are those who, collecting the wisdom of the past, become the blazing comets of the glorious future.
I shall open a restaurant.
Social distancing means that even if you go there with a friend, they will be at the next table and your conversation will be shouted across the room.
It will be simpler to go alone.
This is not unprecedented. In American truckstop diners, in French and Italian cafes your only companion is the waiter, wiping a glass and agreeing with all your points of view.
I shall take this to the next level with a dégustation menu. The rules are you don’t get to choose the menu, the restaurant does, and secondly, as each dish arrives, it is presented, explained and withheld, making it seem interesting and prompting salivation in anticipation.
The art is not to overplay the withholding. Like the cooking, it should be “just so”.
My dégustation menu will re-imagine the arc of not just your day but of your entire life.
I shall arrive with your breakfast dish, a glass of warm milk that will transport you back to the first drops that suckled you. It will be accompanied by a purée de l’abricot.
The purée is just baby food but all menus include something with a confusing French name. You will nod knowingly, realising that it’s just apricot paste that sounds posh.
Think of it as a cleansing sorbet; preparation for a life-affirming future.
The next course is a tiny box of corn flakes. I shall wait attentively as you remember when you were three and going to kindergarten for the first time, fumblingly opening your first packet and taking control of your own life.
I shall smile fondly and patiently at your reminiscences, then step forward to fill your bowl with “top of the milk”.
You will be delighted with the creamy, fatty outpouring of un-homogenised milk, unexperienced in 50 years, and welcome the film that coats your teeth.
In a leap forward to your primary school years, you will be given a Creamy Soda to reactivate the taste buds and scour the teeth.
The next course will be butter, Vegemite and a pair of Vitawheat biscuits. This dish commemorates the hormonal flux of your puberty. Spreading the butter first, then the Vegemite and sandwiching it with the second biscuit, you then squeeze them together causing tiny worms to break out from the surface of the upper biscuit.
Remember your first blackhead?
The next dish invokes leaving home and fending for yourself for the first time. I shall present you with a fork, a can opener and a tin of baked beans (room temperature).
I shall perform the ring-pull on an accompanying can of warm beer. I understand that you could do this yourself but a restaurant is not just about food, it’s also about service.
We have now arrived at the late lunch of your day and your life.
As your waiter, I have been attentive enough to intuit your preferred main course half an hour ago. That was when I phoned the appropriate takeaway order to the restaurant down the road.
I have become your dinner companion. I now know whether it’s a burger or a bánh mì.
Like a birthday cake with candles burning, your main course arrives with ceremony. The deliverer, clad in leathers and removing his helmet, joins me at the table for the presentation.
We smile and congratulate you on your choice. I present the complementary “house red” sourced from a boxed varietal at the back of the kitchen.
Just when you thought it couldn’t get any better, we pull back the table cloth to reveal a stove on which you can prepare your next course, a mac ‘n’ cheese in memory of the later years when all you ate was the children’s leftovers.
Perhaps it bothers you that you are doing all the work here but it is a time-honoured principal of every Korean restaurant. Welcome to the future.
I am reticent to share my ultimate dish. Sometimes an idea has such explosive genius that its creator is forgotten as it sweeps the world.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the chocolate digestive biscuit with cumquat marmalade. I will prepare and present this myself because proportions are crucially important.
Just describing this meal has sated me. Consuming it would leave you drained.
I’ll call you a cab.
Every dinner finishes with the bill. As regards my own expenses, I have designed a dégustation that does not require me going to the fruit and veg market at 2 o’clock in the morning. This can all be sourced at the supermarket at 3 o’clock in the afternoon.
I will pass on some of those savings to you.
As a valued customer, you can simply leave with, “Put it on my tab”.
I enquired of my restaurateur mentor, he of the cash and rubbish, as to whether I could start a tab with him many years ago.
“Give me five hundred bucks and I’ll tell you when you’ve spent it all,” he replied.
Red Symons is a musician of the 1970s, TV vaudevillian of the 80s and 90s, radio voice of the new millennium and a sprinkled condiment in the theatre and print.