SUMMARY: Server aka Founding Cast Member of (The Mercer) Kitchen, 4 star Michelin Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s downtown NYC casual dining landmark of culinary theater. Opening The Mercer had more drama and intrigue and hyperbolic fanfare than the opening of a new show at the Met or on Broadway. Anthony Bourdain didn’t work there but his Kitchen Confidential gives some of the flavor. To enter the dining room, you must descend a staircase wrapped in glass, your feet then knees then waist then chest then face slowly becoming visible to all in the dining room. In the open kitchen, the chefs all wore Prada.

Three snapshots:
1. The bussers and runners– 90% Bengali men– walk off en masse in the middle of a completely sold out Saturday night to protest how the tip pool is divied up. They are all back the next day as we all learn something about negotiating skill from these Bengali farmers, doctors and merchants working alongside us.
2. Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman doing whippets on New Year’s eve 1999 with their party of 12, one table over from the Spice Girls. That night, the hostess on ecstasy dances on the bar top while the entire kitchen parades the room banging on pots.
3. One of the Moroccan star waiters sells Magnums as if they were Pellegrino to guests, leather belts to staff, and investors on his idea for a restaurant nearby. He says, “Do business in English, romance in french and swear in Arabic”

One night, a posse of waiters and bartenders head out for a drink after work, walking east on Mercer into Little Italy. A rough looking young guy stops me on the street– “Give me some change, man.” I tell him I don’t have any change. He yells after me but I keep walking. A little while later, we are on couches with drinks in a lounge. I sense something to my right and look over my shoulder– There’s a man lifting a machete. I drop out of my seat and flow into a backward bend as the blade swings inches from my skin. I see O., my colleague and a new friend, drive like a fullback towards the man tacking him towards the ground, powerfully disarming him and dragging him out the door onto the street. It turns out O had served in the Moroccan military and had learned advanced martial arts self defense. The man was the same as the one who’d accosted me on the streets– Rocco, most likely on meth. O. kept him pinned to the ground until the police arrived.

In sports, we’d say that the Mercer had a “deep bench.” The team was loaded with talent from the wait staff to the young chefs who’d come to train and to get a “Jean-Georges” on their resumes. I know of five restaurants founded by former staff. Every waiter but me seemed to be a sommelier in training with the actual sommelier dedicated to three piece suits and an eloquent grandiosity met only by his passion for drinking. I watched bartenders make 10 drinks at a time while holding conversations with customers and staff. The cocktail waitresses changed shape, color and dress with every new manager expressing their preferences through the 100s of models who wanted to work the gig.

I was often selected to wait on the upstart superstars as I had no idea who they were and so I wouldn’t act startstuck– I didn’t watch TV or go to movies or Broadway, I was so immersed immersed in the downtown scene caring more about a local DJ or sax player, a mile from pop culture. That said, I did know who Robert DeNiro was (he stabbed his food with his fork) and Michael Keaton (he seemed to levitate his head when he spoke) and Matt Dillon (much shorter than expected) and Madonna, the Spice Girls, Meryl Streep, Mike Bloomberg, and too many big shots and page 6 glamour to name. One night, working the shared table (a bar high 16 seat table with stools where parties and single diners sat mixed) I waited on an older man dining solo and reading an article about Rupert Murdoch in Newsweek. It turned out to be Rupert Murdoch himself.  The Mercer Kitchen was where I really learned first hand about food preparation and food selection. To this day, the beet salad with goat cheese is perhaps the single best bite of food I have ever had. How could that be? So simple. Giant pots of stock forever simmered and the attention to detail on every dish raised the work to art. As staff at the Mercer, we could get reservations anywhere in the city, often receiving comps in exchange for the favor up ahead (and leaving big tips of course!). The best meal I had in those days was at Babbo Italian near Washington Square Park. I kept a tiny notebook in my pocket to jot down ideas. One running list:  “Server maladies” as yet unpublished. Hovering near tables taking plates before the last bite. Eating slices of Alsatian pizza before clearing the door to the compost bin. Tasting the same winer for the tenth time to whet your whistle before your shift begins…

Eventually, I was the server for the Management team at Bond Street who offered me a job on the spot to go there to bartend. I quit the Mercer, went on a trip to Greece, then started on the service bar upstairs a couple blocks away on Bond making twice the money. For as much money moved through the Mercer, the tip pool was huge and these were the days when the IRS had started to crack down on how much waiters and restaurants claimed. These were the days where, with a decent restaurant gig, you could still hope to work three shifts, pay rent–even downtown– and have enough time, albeit still living lean, to develop as an artist.

But who really worked at the Mercer? It wasn’t me. It was an alter ego, an avatar created to have enough rent to drive The Ransom Corp. My other avatar, agent mT, was busy producing dozens of events in warehouses, on streets and subways and in black box theaters. He was also filling notebooks with magic ink of endless ideas, waking in the morning to go to the Lotus Cafe on Rivington or the 1st Street Cafe at 1st and 1st where Jaleel was sure to write scenes and poetry. Most of the poems in Green Taxis were written at this time as was “e. in 24 parts.”