One of my earliest gigs in the life was a “back-waiter’ position at Savoia, a French/Italian white tablecloth eatery east of the Strip. It was owned by a man named Georges La Forge, whose other restaurant in town, Pamplemousse, was a local favorite specializing in classic French cooking.
Back-waiter is our life is essentially a busboy who, in addition to clearing tables and resetting tablecloths, also shares tasks such as clearing plates and refilling bread baskets. It also serves as a type of internship for the back waiter to learn the intricacies of fine dining service from veteran servers. While I didn’t think I would ever want to be one of the stuffy, career-waiter types who carried themselves haughtily through the dining room, I was indebted to my buddy and fraternity brother Jim who saved me from another penniless semester by vouching for me for the job.
The food was amazing at the Savoia, yet lost on a 21 year old kid raised on meatloaf smothered with tomato sauce or Kraft macaroni and cheese. I remember a very tender osso bucco dish that, when brought back to the dish pit ½ eaten, would command the attention of the servers as they would grab the bone and rip into the tender beef as I watched thunderstruck that someone would eat discards from someone else’s plate!
Every Friday the chef would step back from one of his screaming matches with the owner (my high school French picking up only nouns and surely none of the swearing) and conduct a class in an aspect of cooking. One week it was sauces: bechamel, veloute, bernaise, et al. The next week it was our famous profiteroles and the care put into baking with pate de choux.
One memorable week it was brandies and cognacs. Grappa, stravecchio, armagnac, cognacs of different price points, quality and rareness. Since my tastes at that time extended no further than cheap keg beer and the occasional shot of supermarket tequila, I had no understanding of the gift I was being given with the tiny samples.
The pinnacle of the tasting was Louis XIII, a cognac produced by Remy Martin that had a hallowed reputation as the best of the best. Presented in a handblown crystal decanter, this elixir was offered up for $125 per 2oz snifter to our guests. The all-knowing career servers slid forward in their seats to welcome this rare treat from the chef. As we sipped the light-brown liquid, the room was silent as if we were Benedictine monks praying for absolution.
After tasting it, I only knew that the liquid going into my mouth, like the others that preceded it, was not to my liking, and would most likely come back up at some point.
Not long after the brandy class we were setting up the dining room for service and I suddenly felt the churn in my stomach and the water gushing into my cheeks. I quickly turned to the bathroom and made it to the sink. Priceless brandies came up and into the porcelain. The chef would be absolutely pissed if he saw me I thought as I looked into the mirror. Enough of this stuff for me.
My favorite part of working at Savoia was the bakery. It’s where I learned about sorbet as a “palate-cleanser”. It’s where I tasted chocolate dacquoise and apple mille-feuille. I especially loved when the very cute pantry assistant would screw up an order of profiteroles with vanilla ice cream and offer them to me. I fantasized that she did it out of some crazy affection for me but alas the slightly crusty baked pastry was the only treat offered.
The Savoia was a brief yet necessary stop for someone who would end up in the biz. Fine-dining is something that I experienced but have never worked in since. It gave me a look into a type of service that is increasingly rare, but still coveted by a small yet discerning group of people.