Thursday, December 29: “I need soy sauce!” “They didn’t bring the boudin?!” “I need 10 butter blend!” “Comin’ atcha!” “I need pork chops!” “Where’s the new guy?” “You have more of these plates?” “Hot food, comin’ down!” Jack Leonardi has relented. I’m standing in an apron and a doo-rag at the cold side of the line in a loud, dark, funky joint with a bar in front, a dining room in back and a messy, busy hallway/kitchen between them that puts out 500 covers on a weekend evening. It’s reopening night at Jacques-Imo’s.
Dave Wright runs the show on the line. He worked here three years, Katrina hit, he “took a road trip out West”, now he’s back, receiving, scheduling, hiring and firing, bookkeeping, prepping, cooking, whatever. “Dave, where’s the bank for the bar?” “Dave, can we move this station?” “Dave, there’s no parsley.” “Dave, there’re no green onion.” Dave trains Edward Au to plate the shrimp and alligator sausage cheesecake. “Take it slow. Don’t go too fast. Make sure they’re even.” How new is Edward? “Brand.”
Jack is up front with the wait staff running through the menu. “The boudin comes from Best Stop, exit 99 near Lafayette. They sell thousands of pounds a day. . . If anybody asks, we don’t have alligator sausage in the cheesecake tonight. Otherwise, they don’t need to know. . .We’re not getting our rabbits from Prick Hollow. They’re in Mississippi. They lost half their farm.” It’s 4:30 PM. The first customers walk in. The staff throws up a cheer. “Stay away from the yellowfin,” says Jack. “Sell redfish, sell steak, sell chicken. Sell the easy stuff, ok?” The wait staff gets up. More customers arrive. Jack greets them all with a “heeeeyyy!”
“I trained Crabby Jack’s prep girls to be sandwich makers, I trained the sandwich makers to be cooks, and the cooks came over here,” says Jack. “They’re all working doubles.” He’s short-staffed and juggling. Two cooks are no-shows. The fry guy’s saying, “Tell ‘em it’s 30 minutes for fried.” The wait staff is trailing three new people. The hostess is telling the telephone that she can’t seat 20 at a table for 15. “Fry, you ok?” Jack is asking. Fry replies, “Gotta wait on the grease.” “Orrrderrr in!” shouts Jack’s wife Amelia. She slaps down a dupe. She stepped off her plane this afternoon. She hasn’t waited tables in eons. The guy who remained unintroduced last time I met Jack Leonardi is sticking his finger in a bowl of vinaigrette, saying, “I don’t know anything about your dressing, but it’s not supposed to be thick like this, is it?” He does have a name. He doesn’t work here. “How we doin’, Diron?” Jack asks. The guy on fry throws a thing in the oil. It sizzles. Finally. “We’re ready.”
At 7 PM, the bar is full, the dining room is full, though everybody says “it’s usually fuller.” The kitchen is plating carpetbagger steak, mahi pistachio, stuffed shrimp in magnolia sauce. They have no use for me. “Hey, Fatty!” some dude is screaming at the bartender, “can you not close the kitchen until you order me some food later tonight?” Fatty nods. A glass shatters. Fatty’s trainee misorders my meal. The regular on one side of me eats two plates of braised rabbit. The regular on the other side of me says, “The food is not haute, but you get what you pay for. And part of what you pay for is the attitude, the irreverence.”
“It’s like a party, only there’s no beer,” says Dave, “and no music.” The I-Pod’s run out of batteries. No matter. Paul Bell, the guy previously unintroduced, has a drum strapped to his chest, and his brass band is on the sidewalk, kicking up "Bei Mir Bist Du Schön” and fixing to march through the house.