My father retired at the end of last year and came to the end of 40 years of working in restaurants in London. From his arrival in the UK in 1966 to the end of 2006 he worked as busboy, sommelier, waiter, head waiter and maitre’d in some of the biggest members clubs in the city.
He served royalty; the Prince and Princess of Wales at various times in their marriage and during the aftermath. He tended to the Queen, the King of Spain and The Sultan of Brunei was a regular. He counted a hundred stars of screen and stage as punters, Richard Burton and Yul Brenner being a couple of his favourites. Cubby Broccoli was around a great deal and as kids we reaped the benefits of this particular relationship in the form of days off school to see the press shows of new Bond films. He knew spooks from both sides of the iron curtain, CIA and KGB types regularly getting together for a night of serious slush fund abuse. He still wears a Russian sable hat of dubious provenance.
He’s smuggled star crossed lovers and adulterous husbands out of the back door as equally adulterous wives came in the front. He’s seen silly money spent by idiots who knew the price of everything and the value of nothing and he’s seen people with more money than Croesus enjoy a bowl of soup in the kitchen with the porters and I’m probably doing him a disservice by attempting to tell any of his stories at all. He tells them a hundred times better than I could, despite the fact that I have heard them a hundred times myself. You’ll hear a collective groan from many members of my family when my father pipes up in his thick Spanish accent, “A client came into the restaurant…” It means an interminable story in which my father outfoxes some ignoramus, Dad the hero of the hour who knew that ’49 Cheval Blanc was better than the ’50.
He worked hard and the work was hard on him. He’s diabetic and his knees are shot, the two inextricably linked to working in the restaurant game and despite the fact that, as is often the case with fathers and sons, we have rarely seen eye to eye, I have learnt a great deal from him, not of all it strictly accurate or even true, but gems nevertheless.
From him I know how to make paella, how not to make coffee (he’s awful at it) and the best way to make an omelette. From him I learnt how to make old school classics; Waldorf Salad, Caesar Salad and Salade Nicoise. Also, thanks to him I can muster a mean Steak Tartar and a kick ass Steak Diane. I also learnt that it was perfectly acceptable to put banana in a salad as long as someone at the table is under 15. The taste of sliced banana in vinaigrette is one of the most evocative I know. I learnt a great deal about Spanish and Italian wine, how to play poker dice, backgammon and dominoes, how to make a sherry trifle (he loves English desserts) though he insists on using jelly.
I learnt that money rarely buys class, that the best people never forget where they came from. I learnt never to put your wine glasses in the dishwasher and that some bread, some cheese and few sliced of ham and a glass of wine is best lunch you can have. I learnt that eating a pear can be a magical thing. I learnt that sometimes you can just sit and eat together and say nothing and that sometimes a man should heed his own advice!
He’s a difficult man, like his sons. There are times when I would gladly throw him off Waterloo Bridge. Yet, he has given me a sense of history, a disdain for the showy and the brash and he’s cursed me with a love of good things to eat.
Happy Retirement, Dad. I’m thankful for the lessons, the hard ones best of all.