Philip is forty-seven and has been a waiter in fine restaurants for twenty years. Handsome with dark brown eyes and curly black hair kept short, he is innately graceful and surprisingly strong for one so slender. Born in Connecticut, the middle child between two sisters, Philip’s father was second-generation Italian and twenty years older than Philip’s mother who hailed from Lyon, France and raised her children to speak French at home, English in the outside world.
At seventeen Philip got a job in the kitchen of an excellent restaurant in Manhattan, and three restaurants later, at the age of twenty-seven, having risen steadily through the ranks, he was offered the job of head chef at a restaurant of exceeding fame. The attainment of his lifelong goal caused a riot in his psyche and he abruptly left the kitchen for the tables.
“Help me, Philip,” says Miles Levinson, a hefty fellow of sixty-three with thinning gray hair and a deep gravelly voice who dines with his guests at Le Scélérat in Berkeley, California three evenings a week and will only have Philip as his waiter. “I’m torn between the escalope of salmon with Gigondas and the filets mignons of veal with lemon.”
“The salmon was caught this morning,” says Philip, who prefers not to make choices for his customers. “The veal is as tender as veal can be. Whether you would enjoy one more than the other I cannot say.”
“How politic of you, Philip,” says Amy Cavanaugh, a sharply pretty redhead who dines with Miles most Thursday evenings. “But if you had to choose one or the other, which would it be?”
“The salmon,” says Philip, gazing at her and thinking This is my job. I play the part of a waiter who seems fond of the people he serves, when in fact I neither like nor dislike most of them.
“Aha!” says Miles, grinning at Philip. “I was leaning toward the salmon.”
Philip nods and returns his gaze to Amy.
“The veal for me.” She smiles archly. “If you will assure me the mignons are fabulous.”
“I assure you,” says Philip, taking their menus. “Your usual Caesar salads?”
“Yes, and a bottle of the Pavillon Blanc du Château Margaux,” says Miles, choosing the most expensive white wine in the extensive wine list. “Divinely dry for the divine fish and calf.”
“Oh and a bowl of olives,” says Amy, bouncing her eyebrows. “Some of those naughty Nyons.”
“Coming soon to a table near you,” says Philip, bowing graciously as they laugh at his tired old quip.
When Philip was thirty-four, seven years into his career as a waiter, he moved from New York to Los Angeles where he soon became the star waiter at a restaurant with no name hidden in a windowless warehouse in North Hollywood, the clientele movie people and the very wealthy.
Tips were pooled at this elegant nameless restaurant, but the clientele got around this by secreting cash and checks in envelopes and slipping those envelopes to Philip at opportune times during their meals. In this way Philip made more money most weeks at the nameless restaurant than he made in a month as a waiter in New York.
After three years in Los Angeles, recently divorced and weary of the drab winters and hot summers and never-clean air, he moved to San Francisco, and two years later moved across the bay to Berkeley where he has worked at Le Scélérat for nine years.
“Philip,” says Miles, slurring his words after downing three large bourbons at the bar before being seated, “this my friend Marie.”
Philip nods to the comely brunette, her steel-rimmed glasses comically large on her exquisite face. “Welcome to Le Scélérat.”
“Miles says you’re the finest waiter he’s ever known,” says Marie, perusing her menu rather than looking at Philip.
“How kind of you,” says Philip, nodding to Miles.
“Allan was raving about the loin of lamb à la bonne femme when he finally seated us,” says Miles, waving to someone he thinks he knows. “Horrid long wait tonight.”
“Saturday nights are often problematic,” says Philip, repeating what he’s said to Miles a hundred times before. “I apologize.”
“Shall we just skip the menu and get the bonne femme?” asks Miles, fumbling with his reading glasses.
“If you wish,” says Philip, turning to Marie to see what she thinks of Miles’s impulse.
“Fine,” she says, sounding hurt, and Philip intuits she was hoping for more of a show from him before settling into dining.
“Miles always has the Caesar salad,” says Philip, thinking Don’t be hurt, Marie. There’s still wine and appetizers to discuss.
“Fine,” she says again, glaring at Miles. “Whatever his royal highness wants.”
“For the wine…” says Miles, leafing through the large wine list. “Oh shit. You’re out of the Chateau Lafite Rothschild Pauillac? How did that happen?”
“So sorry,” says Philip, mildly. “The case went quickly. And though the Pauillac would have been ideal with the lamb, may I suggest the Louis Jadot Gevrey-Chambertin? I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.”
“I am disappointed,” says Miles, glowering at Philip. “Terribly. You’re absolutely certain you don’t have a bottle of the Pauillac stashed away somewhere for your special guests?”
“We have no guests more special than you,” says Philip, smiling warmly. “Except the queen of England, and she has yet to make an appearance.”
“Not funny,” says Miles, snarling. “I wanted the Rothschild Chafite Lateau.”
“My apologies,” says Philip, bowing. “How may we appease you?”
“I want to talk to Sandra,” says Miles, intoning the name of the famous owner/chef of Le Scélérat. “I’ve been coming here three nights a week seventeen years, since long before you were here and I resent being treated this way.”
“She will not come to the dining room,” says Philip, accustomed to Miles throwing the occasional tantrum, copious hard liquor the usual cause. “If you will accompany me, I will ask her to step out of the kitchen to speak to you.”
“Oh never mind,” says Miles, waving him away. “Just bring the fucking lamb and the crappy Chambertin. And bring us some kind of prawn something for appetizer. I’ll call Sandra tomorrow.”
“As you wish,” says Philip, nodding graciously and departing.
Married twice, Philip’s first marriage lasted two years and ended when he gave up his cooking career to become a waiter—his wife unwilling to forgive him for abandoning the dream she helped him attain. His second marriage lasted three years and ended a year after he and his actress wife arrived in Los Angeles from New York and she was cast in a successful sit-com and thereafter left Philip for a television producer.
Before heading home after a long Saturday night at Le Scélérat, and only because Sandra asks her staff to do so, Philip reports Miles’s displeasure to Sandra.
“Thank you, Philip,” she says, small and stout in her late sixties, her short gray hair colored to resemble dirty blonde. “He probably won’t call, but I appreciate knowing.”
Now they exchange looks of mutual admiration and Sandra adds, “He’s such an ass, but so very rich. You’re a saint to put up with him.”
“He doesn’t bother me,” says Philip, truthfully. “At his worst he is the faintest echo of my father.”
Philip rents a small cottage in the Berkeley hills behind the house of a longtime patron of Le Scélérat, and spends his free time taking long walks, playing the piano, gardening, browsing in bookstores, going to farmers’ markets, and refining recipes for a cookbook he’s been assembling for a decade, working title: Delicious Meals for the Somewhat Ambitious Cook.
He has two old friends living elsewhere with whom he corresponds by mail, and five good friends in his life now: Marcel in San Francisco, also a waiter, Marcel’s wife Andrea, a sous-chef, Fred, a landscape architect, Fred’s wife Joan, a professor of European History at Mills College, and Lisa, a massage therapist.
For the last two years, Philip and Lisa have been sleeping with each other two nights a week, neither wanting to ruin their friendship by embarking on a full-time relationship.
And every three weeks, Philip hosts a dinner for his five friends at which he unveils the latest iterations of his culinary creations.
“I want you to have this,” says Miles, offering Philip a pale blue envelope. “I feel terrible about how I treated you on Saturday night. Marie and I were scuffling and I drank too much at the bar, and… please. Take it.”
“Not necessary,” says Philip, shaking his head. “You were upset. I understand.”
“Please,” says Miles, urgently. “It’s the least I can do.”
“Thank you,” says Philip, taking the envelope and turning to Miles’s companion, a voluptuous blonde falling out of a diminutive dress resembling a gossamer undergarment.
“Ah,” says Miles, grinning gigantically, “this is Beverly. Beverly, the aforementioned Philip.”
“He says you’re the best, Phil,” says Beverly with a thick southern drawl, her lips voluptuous, too. “You go by Phil or Philip?”
“Whichever you prefer,” says Philip, enjoying Beverly’s near nudity, a rarity at Le Scélérat. “Your first time here?”
“First time in the good seats,” she says, smiling lasciviously at Miles.
“Tell us about the sole à la meunière,” says Miles, relieved to have everything right again with Philip.
“Sole à la meunière is one of Sandra’s signature dishes,” says Philip, wishing Sandra didn’t use quite so much butter in the sauce. “And as you know, Miles, she only makes this dish when the sole is extremely fresh. She is serving it tonight with shitake mushrooms, Japanese eggplant, zucchini, and butter-boiled baby potatoes. Delicious and going fast.”
“Ooo yummy,” says Beverly, doing a little shimmy of excitement. “Lets get a couple of those, Milesy. Okay?”
“Yes,” says Miles, leafing through the wine menu. “Oh goody! You’ve got the Chateau d’Yquem 2015 Sauternes. Excellent. A chilly bottle of that, please.”
“Two Caesar salads?” says Philip, speaking to Beverly’s breasts.
“Ooo yummy,” she says again, and Philip is tickled by her lack of pretense.
“And we’ll want the perfect appetizer to accompany Sandra’s masterwork,” says Miles, handing his menu to Philip. “Surprise us. Will you?”
“As you wish,” says Philip, knowing perfectly well what Miles wants—broiled scallops swimming in white wine and butter.
Lolling in his bed with Lisa, neither of them working today, Philip suggests they have coffee on the terrazzo before wandering down to Solano Avenue for lunch, Chinese or Mexican.
“Mexican, por favor,” says Lisa, thirty-nine, a lanky brunette who was born in Brazil and came to California when she was ten.
“You know,” says Philip, sighing contentedly, “I think I’d like to move with you to a small town where we’d live in an old farmhouse and have a big vegetable garden and a dog and cats and you’d have your studio next to the house and I’d work a few nights a week at the best restaurant in town, even if that restaurant is only a steak house.”
“I’m getting there,” says Lisa, her hand on his heart. “Slowly but surely.”
Now she gets out of bed and pulls back the curtain on the sunny day.
“Nothing left to prove,” he says, admiring her naked at the window.
“Nothing fancy anyway,” she says, giving him a dreamy look. “Just love.”