Drinking in English

Wherein Olive gets his first job in America, finds that he is linguistically challenged, learns the fine art of mixology, and experiences altered states...

I came to America for the first time when I was 20 years old, and even though I could barely speak English, knew next to nothing about American culture, and had virtually no money, I operated in blissful ignorance making the whole thing a wonderful adventure rather than the nightmare it should have been. I had already made some attempts to learn English. I had studied for a little back in Paris, and I took English as a second language, but neither actually prevented me from not knowing anything – in either language. Despite my earnest efforts to learn this strange new tongue, however, my English when I arrived consisted basically of "barman" and "vodka," words that ironically are the same in French and English, and although they are handy to know in my profession, they make for pretty one-sided conversations. For several weeks, everyone I met assumed I was either an alcoholic or crazy. They were probably right on both counts

I had been around plenty of English-speaking people in France, of course, but there, on my turf, it didn't matter whether or not I could understand them or them me. It was a different matter all together now that I was on American soil. I have discovered that there are many ways to make yourself feel stupid, but none are more effective than being among people who speak a language you don't understand. Even worse is to know just a little of the language, compelling you to try and communicate, only to receive blank stares, and dirty looks (what could I have said to her!?). Also, occasionally I would hear words in a sentence I did understand, but would be completely baffled by what they meant in context ("he nailed that puppy!" Nailed a puppy!? What the...).

Fortunately, my culture shock only affected me in the workplace and in everyday life. I was fine alone in my apartment – as long as the TV wasn't on. I thought everything would be fine when I learned more English but it only made things worse as it seemed to make my accent even heavier. In other words, the more English I spoke, the less people could understand me (James insists this hasn't changed, but what does he know). Lucky for me that at the time sounding French was a good thing, especially in the restaurant and bar business. In fact, you could go a long way with busted English in a French accent in Los Angeles at the time. Anyway, I figured that as soon as I found a job my English would improve (something I'm still hoping for) so I went out and bought my black and whites (black pants and white shirts in restaurant lingo), and a proper little black bowtie, and made a plan to find work. As fate would have it, my first job did precious little to enhance my command of the English language. I was hired at an upscale French restaurant called La Toque (a toque is the tall, white hat a chef wears in the kitchen for cooling. A toke is, well, never mind), where the owner, an American named Ken Frank, spoke perfect French. Because he preferred to speak French with me exclusively, he never knew how bad my English was, and because I could correctly pronounce all the French wines and liqueurs, everyone assumed I was an expert and that I knew what I was doing (further proof that you can't judge a book by its cover, not even a French book). Naturally, I spoke such a good French, they made me the bar manager.

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You might assume that because I grew up in Paris I was used to dining and/or working in fancy restaurants, but the truth was that my job at La Toque was my first experience with fine dining, a fact that was in stark contrast to the information on my résumé. As little as I knew about fine dining, however, I knew even less about fine wines and spirits. At the time, mixed drinks were not widely consumed in France, and foreign spirits were very expensive so the average Frenchman was more likely to drink domestic wines, liqueurs or beer. One of my first customers ordered a martini and I thought, "Aha! A drink I know how to make." But when I brought him a small cordial glass of Martini & Rossi vermouth, which is exactly what you would get in France then if you ordered a martini, he looked less than impressed with my skills. Clearly I had a lot to learn.

I found help through a wise man by the name of Old Mr. Boston, whose book I studied up, down and sideways for several days. Soon I could manage simple cocktails like a martini and a Manhattan, and highballs where the name is essentially the recipe, such as gin & tonic and whiskey-soda. Other, more complicated cocktails became ingrained as I began to make them at the bar, but I was still plagued by the language barrier. I had a book where one could look up any one of a thousand drinks, but how do you look something up if you have no idea how it is spelled? For example, one day a customer came in and I thought he said, "all right let's bang her." I was fairly certain he was ordering a drink so I tried to look it up in my book. At last someone told me he was saying, "Harvey Wallbanger" (remember, it was the 80s), a big difference if you're trying to look it up. Why the H would I ever think to look under H?

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Incidentally, it was also at La Toque that I saw for the first time a man in a well-cut, expensive suit wearing white running shoes in a nice restaurant. I had seen a man running with walking shoes but never the opposite until now. I also became enamored with all the big American cars (imagine if I had moved here in the 1950s). Big, I would soon learn was a word that described many things here in this strange new land. I was also surprised by the patience and understanding of most people at the restaurant, patrons and staff alike, and believe me, I needed all the patience I could get.

For example, the first guy for whom I made a real American martini, after contending with my English and my total lack of bartending skills, took me through the whole process of making a proper (at least for him) martini. He ended up standing on the bar stool, pointing at bottles and hollering directions. "Do it like this, not like that," he yelled. "OK, now take the gin and poor a big one into the shaker. Add a few drops of dry vermouth. Go ahead, more. Come on, man, don't be shy!"

Little did he know that shyness has never remotely been my problem. My problem was that the entire exchange had been in English, which means to me he sounded like someone talking on their cell phone, on speakerphone, under water.

"Yes that's it," he continued. "Now shake that puppy hard and strain it into the glass (shake the puppy?). You might have too much in the shaker. No, don't throw the rest away ('moron' was implied – I'm fluent in body language). This guy was like the LAPD, here to serve and protect; only in this case it was me who was serving and he was trying to protect his stomach.

"OK, keep the rest in the shaker and hold it until I get a big sip of this puppy" (what is it with puppies in this country?). Whether he had the patience of a saint, or he was just desperate for a drink I'll never know, but I learned to make a martini. I guess there has to be a first time for everything, but remember, the first time you do anything becomes the last time for the first time. No more first time for that particular event, and soon after you enter the realm of routine. In some cases though, it's probably fortunate that the first time comes only once. Nevertheless, I do miss some first times.

There is an old Chinese saying (why are all Chinese sayings old? Apparently, they haven't said anything new there in a thousand years) that says, keep smiling – keep walking. In my experience, the more irrelevant and confusing a proverb, the better it is to follow it because usually there is some deep truth buried there. Don't ask me what it is but I did manage to keep smiling and walking, although not necessarily at the same time.

The language barrier, which in my case was more of brick wall, combined with my lack of experience resulted in a few mishaps during my tenure at La Toque. As I said, they made me the bar manager – kind of like putting a deaf man in charge of the stereo system – which also meant keeping track of the inventory for all the wines and spirits. The restaurant operated with what is known as a par system, meaning that for every item there was a minimum amount that should always be on hand. When the quantity dropped below that level, it was time to order more. The number was based on how much the item was used at the bar and what the minimum amounts were for reordering. Being the bright fellow that I am, it didn't take long before I was completely lost and the inventory was completely out of whack. The result, of course, was that we were frequently out of key items. In restaurant parlance, when an item is out of stock, we say it is 86'd. For the first couple of months I was in charge of the bar, the only times we didn't have items 86'd were on Sunday. We were closed on Sundays.

After awhile, I made up my mind that I would never be out of stock on any wine or spirit again. To be sure, I began ordering everything in large quantities. This worked quite well for a while until Ken and Richard (the general manager there at the time) began to notice that the beverage invoices had grown considerably and didn't seem to gibe with the amount of business we were doing. Once they realized we had in some cases several year's worth of inventory on certain items, they decided it was time for remedial inventory boot camp. Why they didn't just get rid of me I'll never know, but I made it through and slowly began to get a handle on the job. It was good timing too because just as I was feeling more comfortable behind the bar, I turned 21 and was now legally able to consume and serve alcohol. No one had bothered to check my age when I began. Maybe they did and I just didn't understand the question.

Despite my bumbling and poor communication skills, everyone at La Toque was very helpful to me and very friendly – maybe a little too friendly as it turned out. One afternoon as we were preparing for the night's business, one of the waiters offered me a cookie that he said I would enjoy a lot. I don't usually eat sweets but I accepted it to be friendly and also because I was starving. It was so tasty that I ate a couple more. These were, how shall I say, very special cookies, filled with herbs of a certain hallucinogenic nature. At the time I had never smoked pot. In fact, I wasn't even a very big drinker (I'm still not a big drinker. I'm only 5'10"). The night suddenly got very interesting.

At La Toque, the staff ate dinner all together at 4:00, allowing us enough time to be ready for service by 5:00. The cookies I ate around 3:30 were starting to go to my head, but because I had never been high before, I thought I was going crazy, not realizing I was simply stoned out of my gourd. My condition did not escape the attention of the staff, nor of Ken and Richard, who apparently had been there before. All but the chef and GM took great delight in watching me wolf down my food while laughing about nothing and staring intently at my plate. Ken and Richard knew the symptoms, of course, but were baffled because they knew I didn't smoke – not even cigarettes. I was a mess and it was fast approaching show time. I made an effort to stop staring at the ceiling with my arms crossed on my chest and to wipe the Cheshire-Cat-grin off my face.

As far as I can remember, the night was a disaster. I couldn't help laughing every time someone asked me anything so I would quickly turn around to try and stifle the giggles. But then I would see myself in the mirror trying not to laugh and I would laugh even harder. I'm sure several of the customers thought I was mad, and I'm sure the rest assumed I was stoned. Meanwhile, back on Earth, the restaurant was filling up and drink orders were pouring in. That's about the time I stopped remembering and the rest of the night was more or less a blur for me. I do remember that I continued for some time to think everything was hilariously funny, including my inability to function under the circumstances. I would have been the perfect audience at a comedy club that night. Instead, I was the entertainer, only I was the only one who thought I was funny.

For awhile, after everyone realized I was stoned (someone finally told Richard I had eaten magic cookies), the staff felt badly for me and tried to help me. Their sympathy waned, however, when the restaurant started to get very busy and everyone had to work twice as hard to make up for my ineptitude. Later that night, after the rush was over, it became time to play "let's fuck with the cause of tonight's chaos," which in this case was me. They sat me down on a stool just inside the dining room doors outside the owner's station. I was very happy but ravenously hungry – some of you may know what I'm talking about – so for fun they fed me all night with whatever they could find – scorching hot peppers, chocolate truffles, chicken, fish and who knows what else. They said I never slowed down, impressing everyone with my capacity and speed. The munchies, as I would learn they were called, are a strange and powerful thing. I never told the boss who gave me the cookies – I said I had found them – but I'm sure that it was the fact that I unwittingly consumed the marijuana and, once again, my French accent, that influenced the clemency of the staff, especially the bosses, and ultimately saved my ass, and more importantly, my job.

Life Lessons on the Terrace

JM: So was that the beginning of your life of debauchery?
Olive: No, but I haven't been able to eat chocolate truffles ever since.

JM: I think it's ironic that your inability to speak English got you into such trouble, and yet it was your French accent that always got you out of it.
O: That and pure, dumb luck. Of course, I did eventually learn to speak English...

JM: You did?
O: ...and I did learn to tend bar. I even learned all about the wines and spirits, which of course, required a lot of research on my part.

JM: Is that what you call it, research? Some people might call it an alcoholic binge.
O: Yes, that's the old term, it's called research now. The only trouble was that after a long night of research I would forget what I had learned and would have to start all over again the next night. But after awhile a few things began to stick, or maybe it was because I started to write everything down.

JM: Or maybe it was because you stopped sobering up.
O: They say an alcoholic is just someone who is afraid of a hangover.

JM: So they don't stop drinking?
O: Exactly. Drinking doesn't give you a hangover. Stopping does.

JM: That's sounds like the NRA folks who say guns don't kill people, people kill people.
O: I wouldn't know. I don't own a gun.

Olivier's Story:

A Life with Recipes,
or A Parisian in America

By Olivier Said
Translated into English by James Mellgren


The Limo Driver
Racket Lesson
Now I have stayed
Live and Drive
Les Anges
Leaving LA
Coyote Ugly
Drinking in English

Olivier Said

The Limo Driver

At some point in my fledgling Los Angeles restaurant career I got tired of it all – yes, it happens, even to the best waiters – and decided to re-invent myself, or rather recycle myself into a new career. I had seen an ad in the LA Times that read, "Hiring PROFESSIONAL limousine drivers. 5 years experience minimum, limousine driver's license and references required."