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Galatoire's: Waiters make the restaurant

By By Robert St. John / food columnist
Aug. 7, 2002
Robert St. John is the executive chef/owner of New South Restaurant Group. His weekly food column appears in various newspapers throughout Mississippi and Louisiana. If you have any questions or comments he can be reached at robert@nsrg.com or (601) 264-0672.
Before I opened my first restaurant, I spent seven years as a waiter in other people's restaurants.
I enjoyed waiting tables. The money was good, schedules were flexible and the hours were favorable. Many individuals make restaurant service a career. In this part of the country the ultimate status position for the table-waiting profession is Galatoire's in New Orleans.
Galatoire's is the granddaddy of the old-line French Quarter restaurants. Walking through its doors is like traveling through a culinary time warp.
The menu is circa 1930s and the regulars wouldn't have it any other way. The waiters are as established and ensconced as the grilled pompano and Crabmeat Maison. In the early 1980s, I heard stories of Galatoire's waiters who made $80,000 a year.
But something is amiss in that Bourbon Street bastion of French-Creole cooking. (Cue the over-the-top orchestra music) Gilberto has been fired!
There is a social pecking order among the Galatoire's regular customers, which classifies their status as a customer by which waiter serves their meals (an ingenious internal-marketing ploy, by the way).
Regulars at Galatoire's demand their "usual waiter" to the point that most would rather not eat if they cannot be served by the man of their choice. The king of all Galatoire's waiters was a 23-year service veteran named Gilberto, who was recently accused of sexual harassment and shown the door. "Good heavens!" the regulars exclaimed. "Who will bring us our shrimp Remoulade?"
Only in New Orleans would the story of a waiter being canned generate more letters to the editor in The Times Picayune than any one topic since Sept.11. Media giants such as The New York Times, CNN, National Public Radio and USA Today all have done stories on the sacking of Gilberto.
A Web site, http://www.welovegilberto.com, has been created. Many prominent citizens have written letters. The letters are posted on the Web site. And the blue-hairs cried, "Mercy me, my turtle soup!"
Some of the letters are a sad commentary by a group of supercilious and shallow New Orleanians who have their Fruit-of-the Loom's in a wad and way too much time on their hands (a dangerous combination).
Some regulars complain that they "should have had a say" in Gilberto's firing. Just what every restaurateur needs, an antique dealer or gin-soaked socialite giving restaurant-operations advice.
To most of the Galatoire's letter writers it didn't matter that Gilberto had been brought up on sexual harassment charges for the second time. "My stars, Henrietta, I must have the waiter that knows I like trout amandine!"
A few changes have taken place at this gastronomic mainstay in the last 10 years. All have been controversial moves. All pitted new management against the regulars. The changes seem trivial to outsiders, but if you visit every Friday for lunch like the old-line New Orleanians, your world has been turned upside down.
Management added another dining room on the second floor. "Oh, my!" they cried. Management offered patrons the opportunity to reserve tables "I'm feeling faint!" they sighed. Management began hiring female servers "Quick, the smelling salts!" Galatoire's started accepting credit cards. "Where's my gun?"
At Galatoire's, the waiters used to hand-chop the ice (an OSHA/workers comp-liability nightmare). "Yes, that's our waiter Gilberto. He makes a great Bloody Mary. Don't mind that ice pick sticking out of his hand."
I am a nostalgic person. I love memories of times past, especially food memories. But when it comes to this Galatoire's situation, I come down 100 percent on the side of management. Operating a business in these overly litigious times is a tremendous challenge. In addition to dealing with ever-intrusive governmental regulations, one has to try to squeeze out a profit in an expanding and highly competitive business.
I have eaten in Galatoire's many times and the service was excellent every time. Trust me, if the average tenure of your wait staff rings in at the 20-year mark no matter who your waiter is you will receive excellent service.
The last time there was this much controversy surrounding Galatoire's I was 6 years old. While on a solo visit to the restroom, I noticed that they kept ice in the bottom of the urinal (obviously hand-chopped by a waiter). Easily amazed in those days, I came running out of the bathroom, screaming loud enough to reverberate off of the ceramic floor and mirrored walls, "MOMMA, MOMMA, THERE'S ICE IN THE POTTY!"
The Galatoire's regulars (and my mother) are still trying to recover from that one.
My version of Galatoire's Crabmeat Maison
1 cup Hellmann's Mayonnaise
1 tablespoon creole mustard
1 tablespoon capers, drained
2 teaspoons Crescent City Grill Creole Seasoning
2 teaspoons Crescent City Grill Cayenne &Garlic Sauce
2 teaspoons parsley
1 teaspoon Worcestershire
1 teaspoon lemon juice, freshly squeezed
2 pounds jumbo lump crabmeat
Combine the first eight ingredients and mix thoroughly with a wire whisk. Gently fold crabmeat into dressing making sure not to break up the crabmeat lumps. Serve on a bed of romaine lettuce. Yield: 5

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