When a quadrennial world sporting event comes along like the World Cup, it has the power of creating not just elevated enthusiasm and energy in restaurants, but equally vivid memories of passion and allegiance.
In this biz, you had better exorcise all your prejudices early on. People of all races and creeds have historically made up the bulk of the work force that caters to American travelers, lodgers and diners. And, given the changing face of our industry, it's probably better they do. We face such an incredible shortage of qualified service personnel in hospitality that if the anti-immigrant lobby had their way and shipped out all 12 million illegal immigrants tomorrow, quite simply the country would come to a stand still.
But, this isn't one of my political posts. It's about the fond memories I have from the dozens of people I've had the privilege of meeting and working with over 25 years in the service industry. And nothing brings out the innate national pride and passion of our comrades like the World Cup Soccer Tournament.
Some 20 years ago at the Hotel duPont, I can remember our executive sous Hans Peter pacing manically in his long apron and clogs outside the Green Room bar hoping for a score from his German team, or shouting when there was one. Germany won that year. Housekeeping usually had the best network for catching up on scores. Most of them carried person to person radios. The entire structural and professional hierarchy of a hotel can break down during this time, and so it wasn't uncommon to hear a banquet waitress from Jamaica talking smack to a front desk manager from Colombia in the employee cafeteria about whoopin up on them. On no other occasion could you insult the patriotism of the Food and Beverage director and get away with it.
In Cape May, each season can be cataloged by the majority influx of workers for the summer. Brazilians, Bolivians, Polish- in the mid 90s it was ruled by the Irish. The US hosted the Cup in 1994, so there was a good bit of excitement from expats, summer warriors and nationals alike. Cycling into town to wait tables, I could hear raucous soccer chants coming from the Ugly Mug as the Irish had beaten Italy in an afternoon game, spilling onto the Washington Street mall arm-in-arm (to hold themselves up and avoid falling down drunk.) Afternoon games involving The Republic of Ireland always reeked havoc on restaurant attendance and sobriety. It was to be their only win of the tournament, but you wouldn't have known it from the public display of nationalism.
In the kitchens of the US, many a boisterous bet has been made both for and against the US and Mexico teams. Regardless of the ranking of either team, much bravado leads up to the actual bet, followed by a number of cooks and dishwashers getting in on it as it sweetens. Previous years have seen the losers having to "pay up" with everything from having their head shaved, to eating multiple habanero peppers and forking over cases of cold Corona. Wanna see otherwise quiet and respectful dishwashers become animated? Walk through the kitchen during the World Cup and watch the cook from Peru insult the mother of the dishwasher from El Salvador after losing.
Somehow the French, despite their strong teams, don't succumb to the obligatory trash talk. I think it has to do with the fact that even if their team wins a game, the rest of the united nations of restaurant workers find ways to insult the French. That all changed however in 1998 when France both hosted and took the Cup from Brazil in an explosion of national pride I can rarely ever remember seeing before.
So, if you follow this blog, you know all about the man behind the Festival of St. Anthony, Aldo the Magnificent. Four years ago in one of the hottest summers and hottest finals in memory, Italy beat France in a 5-3 shoot out to take the title. World renowned French player Zinedine Zidane could not have been better poised to end his stellar career on top, until the passions of soccer kicked in. Zidane was sent off in extra time after headbutting Marco Materazzi following an insult from the Italian concerning a family member. His sister, if I remember correctly. In 2010, Zidane said that he "would rather die" than apologize to Materazzi for the headbutt in the final, but also admitted that he “could never have lived with himself” had he been allowed to remain on the pitch and help France win the match. Maybe that's what they mean when they say America doesn't really get into soccer as much as the rest of the world. Then again, if there could be a FIFA/UFC Fantasy match up, I'd put the Philadelphia Flyers up against any sports team in the world. Because in Philly, it's not about whether you win or lose, it's how many punches you get in before it's broken up.
With Zidane out of the game, the rest was history. The blocks surrounding the Little Italy section of Wilmington erupted into cheers, honking horns and spontaneous celebrations. No one- and I mean no one- was more elated than Aldo. In a flash of exuberance, Aldo saddled up into the cab of one of the 18 wheel flatbeds used for the festival and loaded two pavilions on the back with a fork lift. Those watching the game indoors, apparently, had spilled onto the streets, taking their party with them, mounting the flatbed. Complete with disc jockey, loaded coolers and streamers and banners, Aldo proceeded to take the party truck up and down the streets of Little Italy, laying on the horn every minute or so to let anyone who wasn't watching the game in on what had just happened. The truck made stops at all the private clubs, restaurants and taverns, picking up and dropping off anyone who wanted to hop on the makeshift victory chariot.
This year, the French are back in the headlines, protesting their coach's suspension of a player by not practicing for their next match, which, by the way they lost today, 1-2. In soccer as in life, choose your battles wisely. Such is the passion of the World Cup. Next World Cup, 2014: Brazil. That should be a boring one, huh?