Scott Hollifield: When a quick response does down the drain

As far as restaurant mishaps go, I never accidentally served a $5,760 bottle of wine but I did break an industrial kitchen sink with a load of frozen flounder. This is the mostly true story of how that happened.

I was reminded of the sink incident while reading a story about a restaurant employee in London who got his order mixed up and served patrons a bottle of Chateau le Pin Pomerol (that’s a $5,760 wine) instead of what they ordered, a bottle of Chateau Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande (that is not a $5,760 wine).

According to a story from the Associated Press, the source I turn to for news about fancy wine and big screw-ups, a restaurant spokesperson said “it was a very busy night at the restaurant and a very simple mistake. A member of staff picked up the wrong bottle" of Bordeaux. The restaurant told the employee that "one-off mistakes happen” and added “we love you anyway.”

Still, I thought to myself, I’m glad I’m not that guy. Then I remembered I sort of had been that guy. It was 35 or so years ago and I was working summers and weekends at a seafood restaurant to make money for school, gas and beer and not necessarily in that order.

Looking back now, it was the best job I ever had. It was better than putting up hay (itchy and too many bees), better than roofing (standing on top of a Winn Dixie with a tar bucket on July 4 will inspire some soul searching) and better than newspapering (I don’t have the space to list the reasons).

At that time in my life, nothing could have been sweeter than odd hours, pretty waitresses and one free meal per shift. Actually, at any time in my life nothing could have been sweeter than that.

Fred, a man of great generosity and patience who also possessed a fiery temper when things went crossways, ran the place and I always tried to keep on his good side, hoping that he would not regret his decision to hire me to cook shrimp and wash dishes to fund my educational and recreational activities.

One evening, diners decided they were going to eat all our flounder. I don’t know if this was a collective decision on the part of the diners or it was National Flounder Day, but everyone was eating flounder like it was going out of style. Those with access to a globe or perhaps Google maps can see that a seafood restaurant in Western North Carolina is actually a fairly long way from the sea, so our flounder arrived frozen and had to be thawed.

“We need more flounder!” someone yelled. Being the responsive employee that I was, I went to the freezer and retrieved frozen flounder and – being as this was a flounder emergency – began banging the frozen chunks of fish all around the sink as hard as I could to facilitate the thawing process. It seemed like a good idea.

At some point, Fred had purchased a large industrial kitchen sink. It was not metal, but made out of some kind of space-age composite material. I imagine the person who sold it to Fred said, “No one can break this sink, not even some idiot who beats it as hard as he possibly can with chunks of frozen flounder.” And I bet that man is no longer in the sink business because he was wrong.

Fred sent me home. While I doubt the sink cost $5,760, it was worth a couple of hundred bucks in 1983 money and that was a lot. But, once again proving himself a man of great generosity and patience, Fred let me come back for my next shift and we spoke not of the sink incident.

Maybe that waiter in London who screwed up will someday look back on his restaurant gig as the best job he ever had. At least he’ll have a good story to tell.

Scott Hollifield is editor/GM of The McDowell News in Marion, N.C. and a humor columnist. Contact him at rhollifield@mcdowellnews.com.

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