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Jay Coldren has opened up the floor for discussion. The topic: “Fantasies and Bruises.”
Coldren is the 36-year-old general manager of IndeBleu, still more than two weeks from opening around the corner from the MCI Center. And what sounds like an S/M seminar turns out to be something a lot more tame but no less demanding for the seven headwaiters packed into an office near the Georgetown waterfront.
Coldren, who most recently was in charge of hospitality services at the famed Inn at Little Washington, claims that restaurants have a single mission: to nurture the fantasies of their customers. The more graceful the service, the less likely a customer is to suffer a “bruise.” One bruise is enough to spoil the “orchestrated grand opera,” as he calls it. And once the opera is spoiled, dinner is on a course to disaster.
So what does Coldren consider a bruise? “You sit down for a nice, relaxing dinner, all by yourself, and the waiter comes by. ‘Just you?’ Like you are some kind of loser. Or what about sommeliers? Total bruisers. When was the last time you had currant and bark and eucalyptus?”
Supporting the fantasy requires “overcompensating for the bruises.” Coldren asks for a few of “the expectations that feed the fantasy.” The class ticks them off:
“They expect you to have eaten at every three-star Michelin restaurant.”
“‘We love our jobs. It’s fun and exciting to work in a restaurant….Welcome to the party.’”
“‘I’m the only customer in the restaurant.’”
Coldren’s own fantasy is being fed by this grand experiment in training. IndeBleu, done up in shades of orange and white, and with a rotating table and a “kissing bed,” could not be further in style or intent from the famed Inn at Little Washington, a countrified, special-occasion splurge. Yet Coldren is banking on the idea that the same Michelin-style service will succeed at this trendy restaurant in the trendy Penn Quarter.
Is great service enough to separate IndeBleu from the pack of stylish, hip places? And is greatness even something Coldren can reasonably aspire to, working largely without seasoned waiters? About half his staff are British participants in an apprenticeship program; the other half are youngish Americans with experience at such mass-market restaurants as Maggiano’s. Most haven’t heard of foie gras—a signature item on chef Vikram Garg’s menu—much less tried it.
So Coldren is doing a little overcompensating. Not content simply to train his young charges—all of them hired “for nice, not for knowledge”—he’s pulling a Pygmalion on fast-forward.
Across town, in the “fire room” of the still-under-construction restaurant, Coldren’s assistant, Joe Andreoli, 25, is putting the restaurant’s back waiters through the basics of table setting and clearing. Andreoli wants more than competence and efficiency. He wants “choreography.” He wants a “ballet.” In adherence to the strictures of ultrarefined wave service, every plate at the table is to be set down at the same time, and always from the diner’s left.
Four back waiters approach a table. They deposit their plates. “From the left,” Andreoli admonishes. “Try it again.” This time the plates jostle. Again Andreoli steps in: “You need to communicate with each other. You nod. The plates go down. Then you depart.”
“These plates are just an extension of your body,” Andreoli reminds them. “What you’re providing the guest is a perfect representation of the chef’s priceless works of art.”
But if the innumerable physical details of the trade can be learned by constant, steady repetition, how does one obtain a grasp of the finer points of wine and food—a body of knowledge it takes many waiters years to acquire? (To say nothing of the rationale behind Garg’s brand of French-Indian fusion.) For this, Coldren is asking the staff to rely on intensive study. The method by which a duck’s liver is fattened. The region where Sauternes is produced. The origin of pistachios.
In an effort to lighten the force-feeding of arcane information, Coldren has come up with a handy mnemonic—wines as celebrities. “Who do you want in the room with a French-bean and apple salad?” Answer: Michelle Pfeiffer (a white Burgundy, full of sophistication and reserve). Pamela Anderson is an American chardonnay: young, immature, and lacking finesse.
As opening night approaches, the staff, though eager, appears anxious. Three-inch-thick binders sit open on their laps. Coldren has supplied them with a page of “one-liners,” concise descriptions of the food that are meant to sound natural and conversational. The servers are still struggling with definitions. Garam masala? Rose-petal marmalade? Brioche? And all this just for a single item—the foie-gras sandwich.
Someone tries describing a dish that includes mango.
Coldren interrupts, playing the part of a clueless customer to the hilt: “What’s mango? Is it like an orange?”
Coldren hangs his head in mock mortification. “Ah, no. I’m dumb. I’m an idiot.”
The word to use instead? “Actually.” A clarification, with no insinuation of ignorance. In other words, no bruise.
A week later, Coldren strides through the main dining room, rubbing his hands together in anticipation of the crucial lesson he’s about to lay on his unsuspecting charges. He’s in full Higgins mode. In two days, the restaurant will host an opening-night party. He’s gathered his front and back waiters for a demonstration.
Katie Albright, in a pink sweater and black tights, emerges from the wings. A dance instructor at Salon Bleu, she picks up a face plate and glides across the room toward the table. She leans forward, bends deeply at the waist, and lifting her left leg up behind her, sets the disc down. The staff responds to Katie with nervous, excited laughter.
Coldren summons one of the bartenders. “Walk across the room, turn, and stop.” She does. An ordinary walk. Albright goes next. Slowly, surely, she eases herself across the floor, then pirouettes.
The lesson winds down, but not before Coldren pulls back waiter Al Sanclemente from the crowd. Sanclemente’s previous experience was at a Bertucci’s. He wears cornrows and baggy jeans. If the drills in nonverbal communication seemed odd to him—“Before, I’d be like, ‘Yo! Over here!’”—then this session with the dancer is downright surreal. He slumps forward as he stands waiting.
“Can you fix him?” Coldren asks Albright.
A few minutes later, Sanclemente—his shoulders back, his center of gravity lowered, his head fixed at a point in the distance—pronounces himself “floating.”
Two nights later, Garg introduces the staff to his cooking. A dish arrives—a single portion intended to serve 20 or 30 people. The servers pounce on it like vultures plucking at carrion. It’s the same with each new dish, and the frenzy continues for more than an hour. There is no synchronicity, no choreography. No Michelle Pfeiffer, no Pamela Anderson, at this party. After weeks of study and preparation, it seems a paltry reward.
Opening night comes and goes. The first month passes into the second. The dining room rings out nightly in a chorus of “actually”s. The jostling subsides. The dishes don’t sound so labored coming off the tongue. The staff is learning to feed not just one fantasy, but two. It’s bruising work.
IndeBleu, 707 G St. NW, (202) 333-2538.
Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100, x322.