I often ponder over ‘bests’. My best soup was a lobster bisque at the Albannach in Lochinver; best prawns (with mayonnaise) at a water-front restaurant at Honfleur in Normandy. I have also been doing ‘bests’ in the ‘most-fatuous-dance’ category and until recently the holder was a moustachioed man in Vienna.
He, like my wife and I, was staying at the classy Kaiserin Elisabeth (‘Cissy’) Hotel. Our bedroom was on the fourth floor; it transpired that his was on the fifth. In those days we used the lift, and on several occasions when the lift arrived the doors would open to reveal our man who would immediately start his ‘lift-greeting’ dance. He was trim and be-suited and he would start with a smile. Then he would step out of the lift, nod to Rohan, turn, stand to attention, raise himself up on his toes and sharply and loudly click his heels. Next he would direct her towards the lift with an understated hand gesture. Finally he would re-enter the lift, stand expressionless facing a mirror on the lift wall, and off we would go. All very well and good, but if a woman (not a man) was waiting at the next floor the dance would be repeated again… and again. There was to be no let up. This was a serious business in which our man had worked hard to perfect an intricate routine.
This was some twenty years ago and last week things changed. The Viennese ‘lift greeting’ dance was displaced by a ‘pepper mill’ dance. This was performed by a youngish waiter and again, there was a well established routine. It happened three times, twice for us and once for a couple at the neighbouring table. In his full regalia – white shirt, white napkin, black waistcoat and trousers with their obligatory stains – he approached us bearing pepper. There was a time when the pepper mill sat on the table as part of the cruet, when it was roughly the same size as its sister salt mill and was operated by guests themselves. Nowadays, and for no obvious reason, mills have grown to upwards of two feet (his was) and to require two hands to carry and two to operate.
On its way to the table the mill was cradled almost like a baby and at the same time displayed with a swagger befitting of Black Rod and his mace. Because of its size the waiter, a small man, somehow wound round his charge as he walked sideways. At the table the job was to deliver the pepper without knocking over the wine, or indeed, hitting the customers. The left hand steered, the right hand ground. After a couple of turns, the mill was withdrawn and the question posed, “Will that be enough, Sir?” A reasonable question in the circumstances, as our waiter was so far from the point of actual delivery that he could not see for himself. Without waiting for our reply, he twirled round and was off just as he had come – though now his sideways gait was more marked.
Afterwards, I wondered if any pepper had actually ended up in my soup. When the ritual was repeated for the main course, I looked more closely. I took the mill from him, tried it myself and saw that it was empty. Our waiter was firing blanks! Clearly embarrassed, he apologised and with head hung low, he shuffled back to the kitchen, never to appear again.
The charade had been rumbled, the fatuous nature of the display exposed. It was indeed a worthy ‘best of class’.