All tip and no iceberg. That's a restaurant from the customers' point of view. The view from the pass is quite different. Demanding customers, unhinged staff and nocturnal hours make it an industry where the unusual is anything but. We approached chefs, waiters and restaurant owners to share their best stories without having to put their name to them. What results is a snapshot of the restaurant industry as we never see it, and, be warned, much of it is not pretty.
A couple had a fight at the table. The man asked the waiter to get him some aluminium foil, but he didn't say what it was for. The waiter dutifully headed off to the kitchen and brought back some foil and handed it to the guy. He wrapped up the whole baby barramundi for two and went home with it, leaving his possibly ex-partner to pay and explain.
We had a chef standing on the oven top, polishing the canopy with methylated spirits. It dripped into his pants and then onto the pilot light. His pants caught on fire, but we couldn't get him to "stop, drop and roll" or take his pants off because he was freeballing.
There was a price point difference on the wine list – this bottle was written as $79.00 but it should have been $790.00. The customer was really arrogant and kept insisting that he should get it for the printed price. I offered him a glass of champagne, an extra course, anything to keep him happy, but he was an arrogant beast. He ended up saying to me, "Mate, I'm going to call your boss on Monday to have you fired," and I replied, "Mate, I'll speak to you on Monday then." He's the only person I've ever thrown out. When he got up and left, everybody in the restaurant clapped.
An apprentice lost his watch during the morning doing mise-en-place for his section. A customer found it in their caesar salad.
When we opened, we lost 30 of the famed Alessi salt and pepper shakers in the first month. I pulled the staff aside and said that for every one we lose from now on, the cost to replace it will be taken out of their tips. I don't think we lost another one.
The kitchen hand cut his whole little finger off and no one really wanted to find it.
I give full fat milk to customers in their coffee even if they order skinny.
I was always the first one in on a Monday morning, when I cleaned the stovetops. This Monday my boss messaged me to say she'd taken the big grill plate off to soak, and could I put it back. It weighed around, I dunno, 40 kilos. So I heaved it to the spot but then it slipped and somehow freakishly it popped straight into place, with my finger still under there. And it was too heavy for me to lift out again one handed. So I look at the clock and it was 7.30am. The first person didn't get in for half an hour. And of course at this moment I realised that my phone was in the pocket of my jacket hung up 10 metres away. The landline was another 10 metres in the other direction. So what could I do? I reached for knives, anything I could use like a lever. Nothing. So I pulled the bin over, sat down and waited. Longest half hour of my life.
We had a regular guest who was a vegan. We went to a lot of effort to make him interesting vegan food but one day the waitress came back with his order and it had a half-dozen oysters on it. I told her she'd made a mistake but she insisted it was correct. She went back to double check and he said yes, he could eat oysters as they don't have eyes. That was the last time I cooked him vegan food.
We once had a lady cry when we served her whole calamari. She'd thought that they swam in the ocean in rings. She said days later that we had scarred her psychologically for life; apparently she'd been seeing tentacles in her sleep.
A young gun apprentice started who was full of himself. The pastry chef wanted to teach him a lesson and got him chopping flour for the muffins. He was chopping and chopping to make it soft and I told him to make sure he didn't overchop it or it would change colour. So when he took a toilet break another chef added turmeric powder so when he started chopping it again it got more and more yellow. He was a broken man.
Back in the 2000s I was working at an iconic Sydney restaurant frequented by very wealthy, influential businesspeople. On one particular night, a high-profile businessman had organised a surprise birthday dinner for his wife, booking a table for about 20 of their nearest and dearest. He even organised a cake with her name etched on the icing. Unfortunately, on this night we were hosting two or three separate birthday bookings, and we accidentally brought out the wrong cake. It had a name on the icing too, but by sheer coincidence, it was the name of the husband's long-term mistress, who the whole party – including the wife – had been turning a blind eye to for years. Very awkward indeed.
As an apprentice working at a hotel in London I was part of the team that prepared the food for the royal wedding of Lady Diana and Prince Charles, a grand buffet served on the Queen's finest silver. My role was simple: slice various ornate stuffed pheasant ballotines, game pate and terrine en croute and present them on the silver platters. They were delicate, so I decided to transfer them to the silver platters, cut them carefully and fan them out. They looked spectacular; everyone commented and congratulated me. I was chuffed and bragged for days. The next week we got a letter from Buckingham Palace which we thought was a thank you but in fact was a serious complaint that someone had vandalised the Queen's silver. Apparently the vandal left a particular mark, and there was lots of gossip around the hotel what was the mark and what did it mean? It turned out the mark was perfect rectangular incisions – very thin perfect lines. It was then I realised that I was the culprit as I had cut the terrine directly onto the silver. It was no mysterious act of vandalism just a rookie error by one of the apprentices that ruined the Queen's silver. When the royal household found out there was great relief that there wasn't a disgruntled employee in the stable and I was given a royal pardon of sort.
One dozen (eye-less) oysters. Photo: Rebecca Hallas
A rather large young bloke turned up at the gastropub to celebrate his birthday, just before noon on a workday. I gave him a pint of his favourite beer on the house, then he quickly downed two pints of cider. He proceeded to eat a dozen oysters and a steak. Halfway through his steak he went to the bathroom, and coming back out he said the ominous words to me, "I think you'd better get someone to clean that up." He'd vomited all over the floor and basin, just left it all and went back to eating his steak. No apology at all. I had to clean it up myself. He then went home and wrote on our Facebook page that the oysters had been off and that the level of hospitality had really dropped off.
A customer tried to hide in the toilets when we were closing up. He seemed like a really nice guy, too – he said he just always wanted to know what it was like to be in a restaurant after it shut. He joined us for staff drinks.
We had a chef called Tom … he has big ears so we called him Russel. He would regularly come in to the kitchen wearing other people's clothes from the change room. Quite often with no socks and wearing two right-footed Birkenstocks.
When we opened our new wine bar we had a pretty wild few months of being used as a hospo [hospitality staff] haunt. One night a table of two disappeared upstairs. We couldn't find them anywhere until someone tried to run food up the back stairs and ran into them having an intimate moment. They thought it was an empty staircase but it was actually our internal stairs from the kitchen.
There was a customer – a male customer, naturally – who ordered a rib-eye steak medium rare every time he came in. He came in about once a week, so he was definitely a regular, but he always ordered the steak and he always complained that it was rare rather than medium rare and sent it back. It became a bit of a ritual and it nearly drove the chef nuts. So one week the customer finally said it was exactly medium-rare, first time, and all the kitchen staff were really happy about it. The funny thing is, we never saw him again.
A table had brought in a cake to the restaurant but right before it was to be sent out the chef knocked it off the bench and destroyed it. The restaurant owner was a crafty woman, so she plated the mangled cake and came out of the kitchen singing Happy Birthday as loud as she could. Her head waiter then did as she'd ordered him and deliberately crashed into her. The cake went up and so did the owner, right in front of the table the cake was meant for. The table sprang up and rushed to help the owner of the place rather than worry about the cake. She apologised a thousand times, tears in her eyes, but all they wanted was to make sure the lady was OK … Got away clean!
We hired an apprentice – a bit of a wild kid, used to love a party but definitely had some real potential. In his first three days in what was one of the toughest kitchens I've ever seen we got a call from the Sydney city police department asking if we had an employee by the name of "John Doe". Apparently he'd gone out for breakfast with his mates after a night on the town and did a runner – but he left his bag behind, with his TAFE book inside, proudly emblazoned with name and place of work. We put the fear of god in him and said the cops were coming to arrest him and if he wanted to sleep in his own bed tonight he best get down there, pay the man and retrieve his property. He ran down, fully clothed in uniform and was back before service. From that day onwards he was referred to exclusively as "criminal".
We were hiring a kitchen hand and two very well-dressed Nepalese men came into the restaurant off the street together. We mentioned that we only really had hours for one person. They both did a trial and seemed equally good so we chose one guy and apologised to the other. Then the following week they both turned up. We said there was only job for one and the guys just smiled and nodded and got on with it. Then the next day, same thing, and the one after that … After two weeks another job opened up and they happily joined the team … It was a funny way to start out but now, eight years on, kitchen hand No. 2, who was never really hired to begin with, is one of my key chef de partie and 2016 employee of the year in my current group.
Had a squillionaire come in for lunch in a nice restaurant. He was equipped with a security team and he began communicating to the waitstaff by text messaging his security team and they would relay the request … "Ask them to clear my plate please …"