Food Matters: To Serve and Respect

by Amanda Rae

LAST WEEK many of us spent time reflecting on the things in life for which we are thankful…and then cheapened any sincerity by posting about it on social media. I get it: You want to flaunt mad pie-crimping skills or show off the epic feast you enjoyed while surrounded by 18 homies at Friendsgiving, but at some point it’s more genuine to step from the screens and focus on being present with people you love. The holidays may be Insta-worthy, like, 24-7, but the most meaningful connections — not to mention lasting memories — are made IRL.

I made a concerted effort to disconnect, beginning on the Tuesday evening before Turkey Day. A couple of gal pals and I signed up to volunteer at Aspen T.R.E.E’s ninth annual Farm to Table Community Meal at the Hotel Jerome. Our mission was to give back to our neighbors, but also it was an opportunity for three friends with constantly clashing schedules to reunite, finally, over a free meal of organic food.

And slop it was not; butternut squash and root vegetable soup sweetened with apple cider; onion-braised greens and red fennel home fries; pasture-raised turkey with fresh herbs; roasted apple compote with honey lavosh and pear-brandy-raisin sauce — 100 percent of ingredients sourced from the Roaring Fork and North Fork valleys. Bravo to Aspen T.R.E.E executive director Eden Vardy and crew for coordinating such a special feast, which has become one of the most-anticipated traditions of the year.

It was fun to get back into the swing of serving, at least for a few hours. I’m always surprised when an outgoing, food-loving friend admits to never having waited tables at some point in life — at least for a stint in high school, a few summers during college, or a winter season or two in Aspen. I did all of the above, and while many of the necessary skills might seem irrelevant outside of the industry, facilitating an enjoyable dining experience requires a certain level of finesse. You’re touching people’s plates and privy to personal conversations and subtle interactions that they don’t think you hear or notice. You can learn a lot about social psychology (ahem, how to handle difficult and/or downright rude humans) by working in a restaurant. At the very least, you’ll never place a fork in the wrong place when helping to set the table at a host’s house.

“The success of Tuesday’s event is yours, and the generous donation of your time made a meaningful difference! Because of you, 1,200 people from our valley came together, despite differences, and shared an entirely locally grown meal that was purchased from (thereby supporting) 13 local farmers…I truly feel honored to live in this community with all of you.”—Aspen T.R.E.E executive director Eden Vardy’s thank you note to Farm to Table Community Meal Volunteers

It’s likely that waiting tables in a restaurant will make you a more considerate diner, too. Until the Community Meal, I’d forgotten what it’s like to rush around a swirl of hungry strangers and eagle-eye tables for empty water pitchers and dirty plates. You’re dodging elbows, fielding questions, and fetching items requested by diners, some not in your section — even doubling back to the kitchen when a neighbor is inspired to desire the same thing. I have renewed appreciation for the patience — and physical activity —required during a shift.

I don’t miss the chaos of a full house, though. At times commotion mixed with confusion in the Jerome ballroom that night. Surely the notion of capping volunteers to ensure smoother service is something that event organizers haven’t considered — why turn down help, right? Of 200 volunteers at the Community Meal, it seemed as if at least half were charged with distributing food. Together we served 1,200 people over three seatings — at about 400 plates per seating, that works out to each volunteer server handling just four plates (plus family style salad, water, and another four plates of dessert each) per seating. Veterans can easily carry three plates simultaneously (trays were unavailable), which means that each of us should have only made a handful of trips to the kitchen.

It didn’t quite work out that way, but that’s how it goes!

Despite all this, I suggest that anyone who hasn’t worked in a restaurant — or even those who haven’t delivered a dish in decades — volunteer next year. It’s an energizing experience as long as you’re able to remind yourself why you’re there. Perhaps you’ll leave with a better understanding of the intensity inside a hectic kitchen and appreciation for how freaking hot it gets in there. In this case, we had about eight chefs and as many volunteer food handlers plus regular Jerome staff handling orders streaming in from J. Bar. You won’t know what it’s like to be “in the weeds” until you find yourself drop-kicked into the jungle.

Though some folks might feel flustered in that environment, I enjoy the excitement. Still, the atmosphere in a restaurant, catering to paying customers, is wildly different from a come-one-come-all supper. There’s no altitude-sick tourist grumbling about a favorite dish that has ghosted from the menu; diners aren’t cajoled into ordering a pricier bottle of wine by an aproned salesperson, nor do they face the shame of sticking to — eye roll — “just ice water for me, thanks.”

At one point during my first shift, a youngish boy seemed to clean his plate before I finished serving the rest of his family. He channeled Oliver Twist: “Can I have more turkey, please?” His mother patted his back and remarked about his adolescent appetite, but I’d noticed that he had received a paltry portion, which is just the luck of the draw regarding assembly line-style serving at these kinds of events. Poor fella. He picked at a pile of arugula — there was plenty of salad left in the big wooden bowl on the table — while the rest of his family began to dig in.

Back in the kitchen, I called out for the chefs to fire a solo turkey, no veg. “It’s for a teenager,” I added. “Turkey dry!” was the reply. “Turkey dry!” Assorted comments were thrown about the room, but I shrugged it off. That’s just what chefs do behind the scenes.

The kid grinned big when I dumped the extra portion of meat — unadulterated by gravy, natch — onto his greens. His mother clucked, as mothers do.

“Thank you so much for being here,” she said, looking me in the eyes for more than a moment. I felt it — she meant it. And that right there made all the crowding and craziness worth it to me.