Bad waiters

THE head waiter's beard bristles as he takes our order in a slightly sinister manner. ''Would it be possible,'' I ask politely, ''to turn the heating up a little?'' One of our party has just arrived from Los Angeles and is feeling the cold.

''No,'' he barks. ''It's at maximum power.'' Not for the first time I wonder how on earth people get into jobs for which they are manifestly not suited. An experienced head waiter would deal with the problem more gracefully. He would beam his co-operation, say ''certainly, sir'', twiddle with the control and allow our imaginations to do the rest.

Such subtlety is beyond our friend. Nor can he let matters rest. By now he has the look of a villainous walrus. His small powerful body is hunched in an attitude of pure hatred. ''Too many people,'' he says with a bluntness that could be described as offensive, ''sit on top of their coal fires.''

This is a bit unfair. They don’t have too many coal fires in Los Angeles. They have the sun. But there is the distinct implication that heat is a soft option in the spartan north and those who don’t like the dining room chilly can lump it.

Later in the evening, however, the head waiter warms to our party as it tackles a festive quiz. He takes to interrupting with the answers if he knows them, and correcting our mistakes.

I mentally add him to my collection of incredibly incompetent waiters. Apart from their incompetence, they usually are supremely unaware of their ignorance. Nor are they to be found only in Scotland. You can come upon them in most parts of the world.

My most recent encounter with the species was in a famous fish restaurant in the west of Ireland. On the menu were moules mariniere and I inquired, with a caution born of experience, whether the sauce contained cream.

”Of course, sir,” the waiter replied smugly. ”Moules a la mariniere are made in a cream sauce, as is commonly known.”

”No they’re not,” I replied.

”Oh yes they are,” said he. ”Our chef comes from France and he knows.”

”I can assure you that you’re mistaken,” I persisted. ”They are made in a white wine broth, which is reduced after cooking.”

”Oh no they’re not,” said he.

Our conversation was becoming counter-productive. The rest of the party was becoming embarrassed and of course turned on me rather than the waiter. ”Does it matter?” they asked crossly. ”Why don’t you just order the sole?”

Defeated, I subsided. The old maxim, that the customer is always right, had clearly not penetrated to this restaurant. When I got back to Glasgow I made straight for Larousse Gastronomique, and this is what, to my ineffable satisfaction, I found:

”Trim, scrape and wash some mussels. Peel and chop one large shallot for each two-and-a-quarter pounds of mussels. Put the chopped shallots in a buttered pan with three tablespoons chopped parsley, a small sprig of thyme, half a bay leaf, 7 fl. oz. of dry white wine, one tablespoon wine vinegar and three tablespoons butter (cut into small pieces).

”Add the mussels, cover the pan, and cook over a high heat, shaking the pan several times, until all the mussels have opened (those that do not open should be discarded). Remove the pan from the heat and place the mussels in a large serving dish. Remove the thyme and bay leaf from the saucepan and add three tablespoons butter to the cooking liquid. Whisk the sauce until it thickens and pour it over the mussels. Sprinkle with chopped parsley.”

I have also seen recipes which advise you simply to reduce the broth before pouring it over the mussels. If you do go on to add cream, which you are of course perfectly free to do, together with a light bechamel sauce, then the dish is no longer moules a la mariniere: it is moules a la creme.

Alternatively you can let the mussels cool, place each in a half shell with snail butter, sprinkle with breadcrumbs, and brown in a hot oven until the butter bubbles. This gives you one of most delicious specialities of the Ubiquitous Chip in Glasgow, moules farcies.

But let us return to our walrus-like head waiter, who this evening is doubling as the barman. We have grown friendly. He serves me a malt and we discuss various whiskies. The Macallan is his favourite.

”A very interesting chap runs that,” say I. ”Allan Shiach, the son of an Elgin solicitor, leads a fascinating double life as the chairman of the Macallan Glenlivet and a successful Hollywood screenwriter.” I know this from Jack Webster’s profile of Shiach published in The Herald in 1991.

”No, no,” he says with a sharpness which I now realise is dogmatism rather than discourtesy. ”You’re thinking of the chap that runs Glenfiddich.”

By now I am an older and wiser man. ”Is that so?” I say, sighing. ”Give me the same again, pal, and, by the way, have one yourself.”

We part the best of friends.