This fall I’ll be publishing a second book called “Strong Water: On Food, Wine, and Restaurants.” It’s a collection of essays written over the last ten-plus years, some of which previously appeared in this blog. My first book, “Message in the Bottle: A Guide to Tasting Wine,” was an academic text, intended to help students and consumers learn how to taste wine at the professional level. “Strong Water” is different. It’s lighter fare intended to entertain and amuse the reader with a mélange of personal thoughts on various topics as well as anecdotes about my time in restaurants–especially working the floor as a sommelier. If you’d like to be notified of its upcoming release, make sure you are subscribed to my mailing list, which will also allow you to receive this blog in your inbox.

Here’s one of the first chapters from the book about a restaurant nightmare I had. I have a feeling it may strike a chord in some readers.

Working in the restaurant business for any length of time will inevitably lead to restaurant nightmares. One of the common themes is “being in the weeds.” Overwhelmed to the extent that there is no hope for survival, much less recovery. However, one of my restaurant nightmares morphed into something far more sinister with the addition of all my past trumpet-playing angst. That is to say I played the trumpet from the time I was in fourth grade well into my 30s.

I can’t remember exactly when I had the dream. It may have been when we were living in the Richmond District in San Francisco, which would place it sometime between 1994 and 2002. Regardless, the dream took place behind the bar at Bix restaurant, also in the City, where I bartended from the summer of 1988 to the end of 1990. The scene was a repeat of the very first Labor Day Sunday night I worked solo behind that bar. We had only been open for a couple of months at the time, and the press—all very positive—had started to reach critical mass. Add to that the fact that it was a holiday weekend with a lot of people in the City and we were only staffed for a usual Sunday night. The stage is now set.

The dream took full advantage of what was one of the worst bar shifts I ever experienced. Mind you, at the time I was a fast service bartender who could keep up with just about anything. I could get weeded, but rarely would I ever be overwhelmed. The dream itself started with the other bartender and me having a pre-shift Fernet behind the bar, as per usual. Things started slowly and everything was just ducky. But in no time, we were slammed with a tsunami of people and were soon both completely screwed. In the middle of the dream, a rerun of the actual disastrous Labor Day night from 1988 took place. A couple sitting at the bar ordered a bottle of expensive Champagne from me. I think it was a bottle of Taittinger Comte de Champagne. I quickly opened and served it to them and then put the bottle in my ice at the service end. Afterwards, I raced off trying to put out various fires while the service register printer was out of control spitting out cocktail tickets like a cartoon.

At some point, I went to pour more Champagne for the couple only to find that the bottle was gone. I had a moment of utter panic thinking I had poured off the rest of the wine for an order for sparkling wine by the glass. I stood there stunned like in one of those wildlife movies where a wildebeest is at the watering hole when suddenly a crocodile the size of a Buick rises out of the water and takes it down. At that moment, I looked down at the end of the bar where the other bartender was also about to go under for the last time. Suddenly, he raced up to me and said “aren’t you supposed to go on now? Don’t you have to play?” I looked at him completely mystified.

Instead of answering, he pointed to the backbar which had somehow transformed into huge floor-to-ceiling black curtains. When I found the part in the curtains and opened it, there was a stage with an audience of hundreds all staring at me. Then I looked over to see a woman in a formal black dress seated at a grand piano. She was glaring at me and pointing to her watch. Next to the piano was a stand with music and a chair with my C-trumpet on it. I walked over to the stand much like the aforementioned wildebeest and picked up my trumpet. Suddenly, I saw that there was no mouthpiece in my horn. And the music on the stand was the Tomasi Concerto, a hideously difficult piece I’d tried to play as a grad student but could never pull off. At that point I also realized I hadn’t touched the horn for over six months (in real life it was more like a decade). How could I possibly pull this off? I looked out at the audience and then back at the woman at the piano. The silence was menacing. At this point I woke up in a sweat with my heart pounding.

The restaurant business. You may leave it, but it never completely leaves you.