Amateur night. It's the term used in the restaurant business for New Year's Eve, Valentine's Day, and often Friday and Saturday nights. They're the nights when people come out who don't usually eat out. Waiters, especially snarky jaded waiters, as well as many chefs, hate these nights because they expect people to be cheaper, tip worse and behave badly. But on these nights, when it's basically compulsory for people to celebrate, another kind of amateurism happens.
Almost every experienced chef has a horror story of how one of these evenings have gone horribly wrong, and it's usually because they themselves weren't prepared.
“It's hard to transition into a completely different restaurant for one night,” says Michael Voltaggio, while recounting a disastrous New Year's Eve dinner at his first executive chef gig. Like many young chefs on these special evenings, he came up with an expensive, multi-course, prix fixe dinner, which included potato soup with truffles; and duck egg and foie gras flan. His sous chef curdled the flan, and while attending to that, Voltaggio forgot about his potato soup heating up on the stove. He scorched the soup, with 30 minutes before service. “Right about then, the executive chef of the hotel came by and asked how it was going. It was one of those moments when you're just like, 'That's it, I'm getting fired.'” He managed to pull it out after turning a couple of vats of mashed potatoes into soup, but it taught him a lesson. This year at ink., there will be no special prix fixe menu — couples will order from the regular menu.
Josef Centeno agrees that often, it's the chefs who prove themselves to be amateurs. “Valentine's Day is NOTORIOUS for being let's-gouge-the-diner nights in the industry,” he says. “In this day and age I think people are still very much on a budget and are not going to pay for high ticket items really. In years past I found that most of the time you are left with a lot of extra product that costs a lot of money (lobster, caviar, truffles, Champagne, etc.). So I might offer small quantities of some special items but we mainly just run the same menu and as always try to provide a great experience, especially for what otherwise can be a hellish night if the couple gets into fight.”
Anonymous L.A. chef (___, ___):
This isn't to say that chefs don't have horror stories about customers on these evenings. One chef, who wished to remain anonymous, says that these nights are just primed for things to get crazy. “One night in the late '90s [in another city], for New Year's we had a big blow out. I think it was something like $1,000 a head. So the kitchen is cranking along, in the weeds most of the night mostly because of the sheer volume. It was entirely more then anyone had guessed. So as the clock struck midnight, about 15-20 transvestites that were positioned throughout the dining room, literally took off all their clothes and got up on the tables and started dancing. Half the customers were cool with this and half were totally freaked out! So as this is going on there is literally a crush of people at the front of the hotel trying to get in. With the sheer mass of people (it got scary, people were coming in the kitchen, etc.) the hotel management discovered that someone had sold counterfeit New Year's Eve tickets, so the place was being overrun. Next thing I know we have stopped service with still a lot of people needing their food and the Police Department is coming in the hotel in riot gear to clear the place out. It was nuts.”
And for Valentine's Day? “One year we did as nice of a menu as one could do in a 300 seat restaurant, and just got crushed. Midway through the second seating a disgruntled customer walked into the kitchen wearing a tuxedo, with a lamb chop in his hand. He took one look at me and said 'I ordered this well done,' and threw it at me, then walked out of the kitchen. It hit me in the chest! I wanted to beat the shit out of the guy but the guy who I was working for at the time talked me down. Anyway these 'special' nights definitely bring out a different breed. My advice to rational people is to stay at home, try to cook a nice dinner and have a nice bottle of wine.”
Mary Sue Milliken (Border Grill):
There are some chefs though, who claim to love Valentine's Day. “Look, it's harder to cook for a million two-tops than it is for a regular night's crowd,” says Mary Sue Milliken, co-chef/owner of Border Grill. “It's a stressful night, and the likelihood of shit hitting the fan is so much higher. But I love working on Valentine's Day. The guests are really nice, and it's great to get the chance to cook for people who are so excited to be out for a special night. It's about love, and I love that.”
Voltaggio also takes issue with the whole concept of amateur night. “If it's a school teacher, and this is the one night a year they can go out — who knows how much money they make? It should be just as special for that person, even more special, than someone who can afford to go out all the time. I just think the concept of amateur night is kind of insulting. I'm trying not to have that attitude in my life anymore.”