One spaghetticarbonara to go

2013-09-25 00:00

AS a teenager, I had two choices when it came to pocket money — earn my own or go without.

Unfortunately, the occasional 50 cents for washing the car or bathing the dog was never going to fund my passion for fashion, necessitating the need for a proper part-time job.

It was the early eighties and many of my school mates spent their weekends packing bags at the supermarket, babysitting someone’s offspring or waitressing to earn the mighty buck.

Since bag-packing and babysitting didn’t pay much better than dog- or car- washing, waitressing was the job to aim for. It was a lucrative occupation as one could earn at least R2 per hour in wages and, depending on the restaurant, a princely sum in tips too.

It soon became apparent that serving burgers and milkshakes wasn’t going to shake the tree in terms of decent tips, so a position in an upmarket eatery became my goal.

As luck would have it, within a few weeks I was tottering about bearing crayfish thermidor and Cabinet Sauvignon in one of Pinetown’s finest Italian restaurants.

Okay, Pinetown’s only Italian restaurant.

The establishment was owned and run by a husband-and-wife team. Klaus was German and a chef extraordinaire, and Sophia was Italian and fancied herself as the hostess with the mostest. To say they were an extremely volatile duo would be an understatement.

“We are European!” exclaimed Sophia, as if that was explanation enough.

The kitchen was Klaus’s domain, where he single-handedly prepared every dish on two enormous gas stoves. Like a mad professor, he’d wield his metal cooking tongs and mutter away to himself in German.

When a dish was ready he’d bellow: “Ja! Ja!” and then let rip with a string of expletives if it wasn’t collected immediately.

Sophia would meet and greet the patrons, usher them to a table and gushingly describe the evening’s specials. She only ever wore black, and with her wild black hair and two-inch scarlet nails, was eerily reminiscent of a Pantomime witch.

During my week-long training session, she would lurk behind me and jab me in the ribs with her talons if I did something wrong.

Sophia also had a strong Italian accent, which became even more pronounced the more affluent her guests were perceived to be.

A drama queen of note, if things didn’t go her way, a tantrum was sure to follow. And unbelievably, Klaus still provoked her.

With scant regard for their patrons, he would say something to enrage his wife and a screaming match would ensue.

Fortunately, these were mostly conducted in German and Italian, so few people understood what was going on. And while the pair hurled abuse, and on occasion, even crockery, I would close the kitchen door, turn up the volume on the music system and allow Pavarotti to drown out the din.

One of the restaurant’s signature dishes was a prawn-cocktail starter served inside a large conch shell. This was then placed on a dinner plate where it wobbled and rocked, giving the bearer a serious case of the jitters until safely delivered to the table.

There were a dozen or more of these wretched shells, some trickier to balance than others.

One busy Saturday evening, a large party of diners arrived and Sophia went into her usual dramatic Italian routine. With the exception of one lady, the entire table ordered the prawn-cocktail starter and I shuddered when I realised that some of the more precarious conch shells would be needed.

As I dashed back and forth with wine and bread baskets, trouble was brewing in the kitchen.

Klaus had yelled at Sophia for not promoting the smoked-salmon special, which immediately sent her into orbit.

As their row escalated, I pumped up the volume on the music centre and focused on balancing the shells. I’d successfully delivered all but one of the cocktails and was just congratulating myself when disaster struck.

Crockery had begun to fly in the kitchen as I sidled out, carrying the last prawn cocktail and a plate of spaghetti carbonara.

With Pavarotti in full lament, I shuffled towards the table, the conch shell wobbling perilously.

Just as I deposited it in front of the gentleman with a triumphant flourish, the spaghetti carbonara slithered gracefully from the other plate and plopped into his wife’s handbag, lying open beside her chair. At the same moment, Pavarotti took his bow and the tirade from the kitchen reached a crescendo.

I squealed in horror and the woman must have seen the pure terror in my eyes because the dear lady bent down and calmly zipped up her bag.

“I think I’ll have the smoked salmon after all,” she said, with a little wink, “I hear it’s very good.”

About the writer

BORN in Britain, Heidi Steyn moved to South Africa with her family in the mid-seventies.

She is a freelance columnist and writer, and has lived in Pietermaritzburg for the past 21 years.

Drawn to humour, her motto is: “It’s my life and I’ll laugh if I want to”, and considers it a job well-done if she can raise a laugh or a smile.

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