"All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
― Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
Never, is this a truer observation than working a Christmas lunch service in a restaurant. I am lucky enough not to have worked too many Christmas days, through a mixture of both good fortune and choice, a fact for which I am grateful. It is one of the two days in the year that can conjure up the most apprehension in a restaurant. Christmas Day and Mother's Day are almost on a par, but Christmas edges to the top, ever so slightly, as a day when dining together can be an obligation and therefore dysfunction can rule even in the most civilised of dining rooms.
I suppose the trouble can start internally. There is something about working – and usually very hard – on a "state occasion" that is difficult for a restaurant to navigate through. Asking, or even insisting that staff work on Christmas Day is a tough call. No one wants to miss out on having Christmas Day off. This fact is compounded for city restaurants as they are usually incredibly busy leading up to Christmas Day and the onslaught is about to arrive for the country and beachside cousins. And so, as Tolstoy advises, restaurants, that are so like an extended family in their own way, respond the same.
A happy restaurant staff will take working Christmas in its stride. They'll have a glass of sparkling before service, wish each other the compliments of the season and go busily about their tasks of making it a beautiful, festive day for the customers. But in an unhappy one, the wheels can fall off. All horror can then be unleashed.
The little clutch of waiters turn up, crumpled, unshaven and smelling of the bar they exited an hour or so ago, having arrived there for a quick celebratory drink around midnight to cheer themselves up for having to work the following day. Unfortunately one drink leads to another and another until it is all too far gone and the best intentions have gone west.
And the kitchen team has found itself struggling under similar duress, minds fogged by artificial stimulants that blur the basic orders of time and motion, the cornerstones of kitchen discipline.
As noon approaches, and the customers begin to arrive, the stale smell of the waiters cannot be changed, and the realisation that no one put the turkey buffets in the oven has been made – and now main courses can't be sent out until at least three o'clock in the afternoon, meaning an interminable wait for the guests and the dragging out of a day coloured by hangovers and professional failure for the staff.
Whether it be a happy restaurant, or one less so, nothing can guarantee what will happen when the customers begin to arrive. It is usually a service dominated by large tables, usually family groups. Due to the nature of the day the menu is usually a high set price, regardless of the restaurants calibre, and a set or very limited menu. Families can be lovely or volatile. I love watching happy families celebrate.
And in long-standing restaurant traditions, some families go to the same restaurant each year for Christmas. The beaming restaurant owners can watch boys grow into men, fourth generations added, and hear the sad news of the first generations demise during the year. When father's dote on their beautiful daughters and mother's hold their handsome sons' hands, all is good in the world, as they happily clink glasses and tuck into a Christmas dinner that – while its bones are the same as last year and the year before that – it has always had a tweak or two to make it follow the modern restaurant trends and look fresh and new.
But then, it is one of the two days in the year that there is an insistence, against all sound judgement, that families that don't get along very well, should celebrate together. And I have an almost macabre fascination in watching those families through the kitchen door. I have often been left wondering what is it that they are celebrating ... their differences?
There is the complication with Christmas Day bookings that one couple or member of the family has chosen the restaurant, because they like it. Completely forgetting that one brother eats with his hands and the brother in law only eats steak, sausages and chips, not usually on offer in a fancy restaurant on Christmas Day.
There are differences about price point and affordability. There are differences in what beverages guests like to consume. And then there's the spectre of how many beverages have been consumed by some poor bloke before lunch in an effort to summon the Dutch courage to sit across the table from a man that he knows despises him for marrying his daughter and, in his eyes, ruining her life.
It can get ugly, with dirty laundry being aired, often loudly, family feuds on public show, and grudges being formed, so that next year Christmas can be just as feisty as this.
Many people work on Christmas Day, not just hospitality folk. Essential services, the hospitals et al. My favourites are the nursing home staff that give up their Christmas Day to try and jolly along the old, lost and bewildered, often when the patients' own families can't bare the thought of visiting on Christmas Day.
It is a day to celebrate with family and friends or to do a good turn and help celebrate with others less fortunate. Have a good one, and be kind to all those that are working – it is often not through their choice.
Annie Smithers is owner-chef at Du Fermier in Trentham, Victoria.