I worked in a beautiful restaurant in Maui in my late twenties. It was one of the most expensive restaurants on the island but we were full every night because the chef was a genius. I’m not at all sure how I got a job there in the first place, the restaurant itself was way out of my league at the time, but the chef was also from Montana and he decided to take a chance on me.
He always created special menus for holidays and on Valentine’s Day one year he did a very extravagant menu that featured, among other things, a dish he called Lover’s Lobster for Two. It was the most expensive dish on the menu that night and it included 2 glasses of champagne and 2 fresh lobster tails which were surely nestled together to form a heart, expertly designed to delight wives and girlfriends.
Valentines’ day is one of the busiest nights in any restaurant and that night was no exception. I had a table of newlyweds who, after waiting patiently for their table long past their reservation time, sat in my section, holding hands and gazing lovingly at each other. They ordered the lover’s lobster for two. I brought them their champagne. The kitchen was crazy busy that night. I watched these two wait almost an hour and a half for their meal. I’d check with them every so often to see how they were doing and apologize for the kitchen, they were perfectly happy just to sit and nurse their glasses of champagne and wait for this mythical lobster to arrive. They were careful not to finish either glass; they just took tiny little sips ensuring that when the lobster arrived that they would finally be able to enjoy the fantastic food pairing of champagne and lobster.
Because of the chaos of the evening the kitchen ran out of fresh lobster before their order was even started. The chef pulled frozen lobster tails from the freezer and I realized that this lovely patient couple would not get the lobster they deserved, but this substandard replacement. My heart sank but I knew there really wasn’t anything I could do.
When their plate showed up in the window, two small lobster tails sliding around in a broken butter sauce, I had no option but to take it out to them, head slouched in shame. They didn’t deserve second place, they didn’t deserve to have lobster that had been in the restaurant freezer for months instead of the lobster that had been flown in fresh that morning. They received the plate with delight and savored every single bite, raving about how delicious it was. They still had a little champagne left in each glass to enjoy the lovely pairing of frozen lobster tail and warm champagne.
I was embarrassed, but I certainly couldn’t tell them that their meal wasn’t exactly what they expected. I had to allow them to believe that they were enjoying perfectly fresh lobster. I don’t know how long they saved for that meal, it was clear to me that they didn’t indulge in expensive restaurants often. Not because of the way they spoke or acted, but because I saw the reverence that they attached to the evening. Every detail was special for them; they didn’t take any of it for granted. I brought them a chocolate soufflé for desert on the house, I told them it was to thank them for their patience in waiting so long for their meal. I couldn’t tell them it was because they didn’t have the experience I thought they deserved to have. They were pleasantly surprised by the soufflé, once again, savoring and enjoying each and every bite.
I’ve been keeping notes on scraps of paper my entire life, preparing for the book I am finally writing and this story has always stood out as being significant to me. I’ve wondered just what was so memorable about that night and that couple. It wasn’t just about the fact that they unwittingly settled for second best, because they had no idea that the lobster they received wasn’t the best possible quality.
It was really about the grace I saw in these two people. All around them diners were tapping their watches and making demands- it was a busy night, the kitchen was slow. If anyone in the restaurant had a reason to complain that night it was this couple. But they didn’t complain. In fact, they did exactly the opposite. I can only imagine that they had been looking forward to having an incredible experience that night. At any point during the evening they could have chosen to view their experience differently, they could have seen the situation as upsetting or disappointing. Instead, they held hands and sipped their champagne and chose to have the night that they dreamed of having. I don’t know if it would have mattered if I brought them a plate of ham sandwiches, they probably would have been pleased. They were predisposed to have a good time no matter what. Even as a twenty-something waitress I saw the beauty and the power in their behavior.
I know now that I can also choose in each moment how I perceive what is happening. Frozen lobster can be magnificent or it can be tragic. The choice is entirely up to me.
The choice is also, entirely up to you. How are you viewing your world today?