Believe it or not, my favorite part of bartending is cutting fruit. I love sitting at the bar with a large serrated-knife, big cutting board and boxes of lemon, limes and oranges. I get to listen to ESPN and drink coffee as I dissect a crate of fruit for the upcoming shift. Probably because it is the last time I’ll get to sit down for the next seven hour, it’s an opportunity to clear my head and relax before the onslaught of customers come into the club.
However, it hasn’t always been my favorite prep-work.
When I first started bartending in Reno, I worked for a guy named Dan Kuykendall. He was a ball-buster. As a former offensive lineman for the University of Arkansas Razorbacks, Dan was the size of a brown bear and had appetites that matched it. He drank and smoke throughout everyone of my shifts and he saw everything. He owned Big Ed’s Alley Inn. It was renown in the 90’s for having a great breakfast menu and the signature drink was the Ramos Gin Fizz. An classic cocktail, the labor-intense Ramos Gin Fizz was made with:
· 1 oz. Gin
· 1 oz. Fresh Lime Juice
· 1 oz. Fresh Lemon Juice
· Tblspn of Sugar
· 1 oz. Cream
· 1 oz. Orange Blossom Water
· An Egg White
· Soda Water
With cracked ice, we would blend up the Ramos Fizz and serve with our world class pork chops and eggs. The hardest part of making the cocktail was separating the egg whites. Dan refused for us to use powdered egg white, so you had to crack the shell and roll the yolk back-n-forth over the blender. For the first six months I worked at Big Ed’s, I never poured a draft beer because I was hunched over in the service bar making Ramos Fizzes. My pants were so smeared with dried eggs, I looked like I worked in German Porn.
Dan was such a stickler for his house drink that he insisted not only the lemon and lime juice was squeezed properly but that all fruit was cut perfectly. I spent hours cutting cases of lemons, limes and oranges for the busy restaurant. If they weren’t cut to his specifications, he would vengefully throw away all of the fruit. Because of this I learned to cut fruit properly and became very territorial over the garnish tray.
In an era that didn’t have hand-washing signs every three feet, I defended the fruit tray with my life. Grubby Reno hands reaching over the bar for an orange wheel were met with a quick slap and a hard look. I was more than willing to give you all of the Maraschino cherries you wanted but you weren’t allowed to take it from the tray. Much like a dog, you had to beg for a treat. Now, admittedly, there are few things as delicious as a green olive stuffed with a bright red pimento. But I would warn anybody within Dan’s vision that they risked gumming their breakfast if he caught them touching his fruit.
The difference between work environments in Nevada and in Utah is that messing up in Utah would never result in getting beaten with a bag of door-knobs. Employers in Nevada are a lot more intense when it comes handing out constructive criticism. Dan threatened me on a daily basis with physical violence. In a perverted form of Stockholm Syndrome, I showed up to work not for the paycheck but to keep my teeth in their original placement. And, according to my co-workers at Big Ed’s, Dan was one of the good ones.
I lasted two years. I left Big Ed’s Alley Inn right before graduation from UNR but to this day, I still remember what Dan expected from me. Fruit needs to be cut in a very specific fashion. Limes and lemons are wedges with good hash marks and the oranges are perfect wheels. Dan beat it into my head that anything he served his guests had to be the best. He didn’t care if it was the meatloaf sandwich or a bottle of MGD, everything that came out of his kitchen and bar were to exceed his customer’s expectations. People had a lot of choices in Reno and we were lucky to be busy.
The lesson wasn’t lost on me. Through his micro-management, I was able to develop some self-confidence and learned how to work a bar properly. I eventually graduated from the Ramos Gin Fizz to pouring draft beer and making cocktails. I learned how to talk with customers and worked the bar. I learned that if I have fresh garnish, clean glasses and good ice, I can sell you a Windex and soda. Funny enough, that actually sounds good and it might stop you from streaking.
I think of Big Ed’s Alley Inn every time I sit down to cut fruit. I don’t miss being in a dangerous part of downtown Reno with a tyrant for a boss but I do miss Dan’s insistence on protecting the garnish. Customers who come to the club think they have free-reign over the fruit tray because they paid the cover. We live in a world that is covered in Nerf and there is hand-sanitizer provided every 15 feet, yet nobody has any problem with gobbling up cherries, olives and limes without washing their hands.
I am fanatical about washing my hands at work. About every 15 minutes, I am in the sink with soap and hot water. While my guests might think it is for their benefit, it is actually for mine. Handling dirty glasses all night long could turn that Bombay and tonic into a Ebola and tonic pretty quick. Unless it’s a bottle beer, I don’t like taking anything home with me from the bar. People helping themselves to the fruit tray probably don’t share my need to keep their hands clean. I’d keep that in mind the next time you order a Grey Goose on the rocks with extra limes.
I’ve calmed down about defending the fruit tray these days. It’s too hard to keep drunks and Mormons out of the cherries and oranges. We’re so busy at the club that I can’t police every grimy paw shoveling olives into their mouth. However, if you left the handling of the fruit to me and my co-workers, you’ll definitely get a better garnish for your cocktail. And maybe avoid having Dan threaten to choke you out in the back of a parking lot.