It’s already Thursday night and there’s no reservation for Friday in the Restaurant Experience appointments book. But suddenly there’s a call to make one. It’s a couple of young architects, great fans of the chef, Marc Ros, and they come two or three times a year, on their wedding anniversary or when they get a well-paid job. The one phoning now is the wife. She does so timorously, as if wanting to apologize for daring to ask if they’d have a table at such short notice.
Montse, the chef’s wife, pretends to be checking the reservations. Thanks to the crisis (and also the breathalyzers), Michelin stars are of no avail in luxury restaurants, especially those outside Barcelona, like hers, and there are always more empty tables than full ones.
“Fri-i-i…day…?” she reconfirms, as if they’re completely full up. She purses her lips and inhales so that she’s unwittingly sounding like some enamored little sparrow. She immediately adds, “Wait a moment, just a moment, please. Let’s see what we can do,” and she snaps her fingers to get the attention of her husband, who’s sitting at the kitchen table talking on the phone with a mysterious air about him.
Only moving her lips, not making a sound, she reproaches him from a distance.
“What are you doing?” Anyway, she knows well enough what he’s up to. He’s phoning rival restaurants to “reserve a table” to see if they’re available or not.
She covers the earpiece and whispers, “Can you stop that fooling around for a moment and give me your attention?”
The staff’s all gone, already. Tonight they didn’t have a single table so they sent them all home at eleven. Before, they were the ones who went home before closing, leaving the waiters attending to the last tables. They’d get into the car, tired, with skin and hair full of grease. And, always, before turning into the road, they’d look back at the yellow lights of the restaurant shining on the flowerpots at the entrance. They’d clasp hands and think, “Look, our restaurant.” And he who in those times was always happy would tune into some right-wing call-in show on the radio, just for laughs, till they got home. They’d shower together and then smoke a joint in bed.
“It’s the Pérezs, for Friday,” she informs him. He’s hung up now.
“What shall we do?”
His wife’s eyes show bottled-up alarm. The most important thing, more than the money they might earn or not earn with one table (they’d need a lot more to cover costs) is that people don’t know that most days, the restaurant is empty or half-empty. On the contrary. It has to look as if everything’s going well, like before, like when they got the second star and they were full every night and had to take on new staff. A younger sommelier (one that was a bit more up-to-date with the new wines coming out), a woman in charge of the cheeses, and the doorman. They did up the toilets and rented a garage in the building opposite for the clients to park their cars.
“Shall we try Saturday…?” He’s mumbling, with the look of desolation and avitaminosis that’s been on him for months.
Before, in their heyday, when everyone was talking about experimental cooking and everyone thought it was fine to pay 170 euros, VAT apart, for a degustation menu, she wouldn’t have had to ask him what to do. As a general rule, if somebody phoned to go there the same day, they said they were full up. Then the word got around that it was hard to get a table at the restaurant and the people loved it even more. But later, when things started to go wrong (and the comedy programs started to make snide jokes about nouvelle cuisine and unfair comments such as you’re still hungry at the end and the prices are astronomical), the reservations dropped. And they changed the system.
They said they were full up, but then they added, “Ah! Just a moment, I’ve got a cancellation…!”
But what are they supposed to say now? If they say, yes, they have a table for Friday, the clients will come and see that the restaurant’s empty. And if they take a chance and say they’re booked out but to come on Saturday – on Saturday they have a free table, at the moment – it might happen that it doesn’t suit the clients and they decide not to come. The chef’s wife put the phone to her ear again. “I’m just thinking…” she says in the tone of somebody fitting together the bits of a jigsaw. “What if I give you a table Saturday lunchtime? Would that be very inconvenient for you?”
She hears the client consulting her husband.
“Yes, yes, that’s fine by us, just fine,” the client answers. “Very well, Saturday lunchtime. No problem at all. It suits us fine.”
The wife goes soggy with relief. “The thing is we’re booked out all week and Saturday is our quietest day. We can look after you better then.”
On Friday night they have the lights on and the staff are at the restaurant as if there were clients inside. At eleven – the hour when they no longer accept people coming for dinner – they send everyone home. If somebody had come (something quite improbable) they’d have said the restaurant was “closed to the public” because they had “some VIPs.” When you say that, people always think the king’s there.
On Saturday, so it doesn’t look so empty, Marc Ros phones his sister and asks her to come for lunch with her husband. On such occasions it’s always on him but he never gives them the gourmet menu, and to drink he gives them glasses of wine from some already-open bottle. He can’t afford to feed them the same as the paying clients eat because they’re keeping the restaurant going (the outlay of rent, staff, suppliers…) with the extension of credit they got for the toilet. There’s no way they can balance the books. It all hangs on one scallop right now.
The architects arrive at one thirty, all dressed up and happy. “We’ve left the car outside,” he says, the keys in his hand.
“Joan’s off today…” the proprietress says. (She can’t tell them she had to dismiss the doorman, who also parked the cars.)
“Ah, well, I’ll park it myself,” the client offers. If you open up the garage…”
“Oh, no! Of course you won’t!” She acts scandalized. (They had to get rid of the garage and for the last month they’ve been fighting with the owner to get back their deposit.) “We’ll get one of our staff members to park it. Things are very quiet today.”
And she takes his keys.
“It’s nice and quiet today,” repeats the sommelier as he accompanies them to their table.
“How lovely to be here again!” she says.
They don’t realize that the last time they came it wasn’t the sommelier who took them to their table. Maybe they will notice that the young sommelier isn’t here and that, now, it’s the old sommelier who’s in charge of the cheese trolley (as they’ve also dismissed the woman who saw to the cheeses).
The phone rings.
“Excuse me a moment, please,” says the sommelier once they’re seated at the table. He very diligently heads for reception. “Restaurant Experience,” he chants.
He nods his head, leaves the phone on the small reception desk, seeks out his boss with his gaze (and the boss is sitting at the kitchen table talking on the phone with a mysterious air about him), gestures slightly at him like a choirmaster, seeking permission to interrupt him. “Mr. Ros,” he mumbles, “they’re wanting a table for tonight.”
He always whispers. No one’s ever heard him speaking out loud. Speaking softly seems as important to him as knowing when a wine has to be decanted. (But he decants them all. The client, nowadays, prefers it.)
The boss looks at him, annoyed. What’s going on? Doesn’t he know what to say if somebody wants a table for tonight? They’ve had a last-minute cancellation. That’s what he’s supposed to say. Why isn’t he saying it?
“It’s just that I think,” – the man makes a big effort – “that from the…racket” – and it’s difficult for him to utter such a colloquial word as “racket” but he’s obliged to say it out of loyalty to his boss – “in the background and the voice of the caller, well I’d say that it’s the Aroma people.”
Aroma only has one star, but rumor has it that they might get their second one this year. The Aroma chef and the Experience chef used to be partners until they fell out. Then the Aroma man opened up his own restaurant in a Barcelona hotel. Now each one of them, in his personal blog, pours scorn on the cooking of the other. And once, when they coincided at a congress, each accused the other of being a copycat. They had to be forced apart because they nearly came to blows on the stage.
“Say we’re booked out all month,” he growls through his teeth.
“But what if it’s not them? Don’t you want to speak?”
“No! And phone them back in a while to book a table for thirteen, in French.”
His wife comes over to them. “We’ve got to park the car. It’s double-parked out front.” She’s on edge.
“Now we’ll do everything. Calm down, will you? Calm down.”
“I’m very calm. It’s just that a car needs parking and if it’s towed away we’ve got a bloody big problem.”
“So I don’t go and greet them? I just go and park the car without saying hello?”
“If I had a license, Marc, I swear the car would already be parked.”
They’ve put the three occupied tables in the no-smoking zone of the dining room. No one will imagine that there’s not a soul in the dining room for smokers.
Marc Ros goes over to the architects’ table. (The others haven’t arrived yet.)
He greets them. “How are things?”
“Hello! We’re really hungry,” the wife says. “We’re so provincial that we didn’t have breakfast today so we won’t be too full when the cheese trolley comes ’round.”
He smiles. They trolley doesn’t have such a good assortment as before. Cheeses go off. And this month they’ve had to ask their workers to wait to be paid. Montse, who does the books, has calculated they can last three months. After that, they’ll have to close, unless they get a third star and that revives them. But the way things are going, they might not be able cope with a third star. They’d have to rehire the young sommelier, the woman in charge of the cheese trolley, and the doorman.
“Will you leave it to me or would you like to look at the menu? Would you let me put together my own special menu for you?”
The architects gaze at him reverently and nod their heads. “But we came with the idea of having squab or poulard to finish up with,” the husband objects.
“And we’re also really dying to have your ‘homage to the cockle with vermouth bouquet’.”
“The cockles aren’t at their best right now,” the chef says as if he’s confiding something. “And the squabs…”
“It would be better if they didn’t ask for any kind of bird. He’s got two squabs and there’s only one woodcock. He should keep them in case somebody – someone influential – comes, or some food critic. The “homage to the cockle” is an old dish. It’d be a lot of work to put it together now. He’ll make them the seasonal menu – the smallest one – which finishes up with lamb. He’ll know how to sell the deal.
The chef’s wife comes back. He notes that she’s piqued.
“Forgive me if I steal him from you, please.” She smiles at the clients before saying, “Marc, please, can you come? There’s a bit of a VIP booking…”
“Wow! Off you go, off you go!” The clients are full of admiration.
His wife takes him by the arm and leads him to reception.
“The people from table three have just arrived and their car needs parking. We’ve got to…”
He’s about to interrupt her but she puts her hand on his back so he won’t say anything. “We’ve got two cars double-parked at the restaurant door, Marc!” And she brandishes the keys.
He looks at her, defeated, and heads for the street. He opens the door of the first car, sits in the driver’s seat, and starts it. He puts on the indicator and turns right. There tend to be parking spaces in the street below. He thinks of the first things the critics said about him. Of the early days when the restaurant was full and the people who took photos of his dishes. And how later, he’d find them on the Internet, the same photos, in the personal blogs of the foodies. They always criticized his desserts but raved about his entrees, his “rethinking Minorcan spiny lobster soup,” and the way he cooked and presented all kinds of birds. He sees a space. That’s lucky.
He parks, being very careful not to scratch the car. He locks it and makes sure he’s done a good job. He goes into the restaurant through the kitchen door, at the back, checks the dishes, walks into the dining room, and greets the people at table three.
“How’s it going?”
“Really hungry,” they respond.
“Will you leave it to me?”
“Yes, but we’d like to have a look at the menu.”
They seem docile but persnickety. They’re the typical ones that make you change a wine glass because it’s not clean. Especially her.
“Psst!” he calls the sommelier. “The wine list for the lady and gentleman, please. They’ll be having the seasonal menu, finishing with lamb.” He turns to them again, “Any allergies? Any dish that’s not to your liking?”
“Everything, everything. We love it all…”
He goes back to the kitchen to get the keys for the second car. His wife’s about to burst into tears.
“Come on, bloody hell, Montse. It’s a bad patch, bloody hell, come on…”
“I can’t take any more of this,” she sighs. I don’t want to be the toilet lady and crisis manager and I especially don’t want us to be so bad-tempered. I give up. I don’t get anything out of it any more. I don’t get anything out of it, I don’t get anything out of it.”
He hasn’t even got it in him to give her a kiss. He heads for the street feeling very ugly and very down-at-heel, looks right and left in case some acquaintance from the town’s going by, and scurries out the main entrance to get into the second car. He puts on the indicator and turns right. He does the whole loop of the streets and comes back to the entrance of the restaurant, but he’s not so lucky this time. He ventures a little further but doesn’t find anything this time either. He does another lap in case someone’s left, but in vain. All the parking spots are taken. The minutes go by and he doesn’t see any.
His wife calls on the mobile. “What’s up?”
“What do you think? I can’t find anywhere to park!” He hangs up.
He sees a space, but it’s in a blue zone. And in this town you have to pay in the blue zones during Saturday lunchtimes. Leaving a client’s car in the blue zone is going to cost him money. And the clients aren’t good tippers. They’re young and embarrassed about it. Twenty euros maximum. But what can he do?
He parks and opens up the glove box. Rummages. Rummages in all the compartments. Under the Teletac motorway card there’s a two-euro coin.
He slams the door somewhat violently. The ticket at the windscreen. He must remember to remove it before getting their car back to them. He goes to the parking meter. Two euros. How much time does he get with two euros?