Food and beverage veteran Delia Smith is the sort of server you want on your side of the table. She's quick-witted, highly knowledgeable, and can strong-arm any vagrant intruders ready to interrupt your evening (more on that later). Loyal regulars gladly follow her between restaurants — her resume reads like a who's who of Charleston's culinary heavy hitters. Eater spoke with Smith about the changing climate of customers, whiny busboys, and the hedonistic 80s in the Lowcountry.
How would you classify the food and beverage world here when you started out?
In Charleston? It wasn't as big. There were basically three restaurants in town. Harbour House, Henry's, and Perdita's. That was it. Then by the time I was in high school at Bishop England, Marianne opened up, and that changed everything. There were a lot of tiny places up and down King Street, like Alain [Saley]'s place Le Midi, he opened in the wake of Marianne. But, Marianne changed everything because Serge Claire and his wife Christine stayed open until 1:30 a.m., serving food. It was along the lines of the development of the city that Joe Riley did, with bringing the Spoleto Festival, and things started to change. All of a sudden the city got more sophisticated from 1975 on.
There was a place called Garden & Gun ...
There was a place called Garden & Gun — which is what the magazine took its name from. Oh, I used to go in there. I went in all the time. We snuck in. It was different because the drinking age at the time was 18 for beer and wine. If you were anywhere near 16, you could get in. Everybody knew everybody else in town at the time. If you did something really stupid, the cop would give you a ride home — if you were from the right kind of family. That's how it was. You could drive with open containers, as long as there was one less container as there were people in the car. That's the way the law was. I remember being in college, and my freshman year, seeing people with pony beer cans on the dashboards of their cars and not even bothering to hide it. Just sitting in traffic and having a little sip, finishing it, and they kept going.
... beer cans on the dashboards of their cars ...
What's the first restaurant you worked in?
When I got out of college, I worked at The Trawler in Mount Pleasant, and then took off to work in Nantucket at the Yacht Club. I worked there and at 21 Federal and picked up catering jobs at the White Elephant — which is an inn — and I made a shit ton of money. It was ridiculous. From the people I met there, I moved up to Killington [Vermont] to work winters. And it was so bloody cold. It's desolate up there. I worked up there for about a month at a bar called The Wobbly Barn and made loads of money. It was mostly because it was a ski resort, and it was just flooded with cocaine. When I'd leave, I'd sell lift tickets in the morning, go home to take a nap, go to the Barn around 8:00 p.m. or 9:00 p.m., have some dinner with the late bartender, and then boom! — it was money, hand over fist.
I'd always swoop around the floor at the end of the night — the same thing I did when I worked at Carolina's — and pick up another $100 or $200 in rolled up bills people had used to snort cocaine. I would take them to the dishwasher and ask him to unroll them and wash them so we could split the money. The dishwasher was always like, "Sure, man"
... it was money, hand over fist ...
This was about 1986. It was too cold, and I came back to Charleston. That's when I worked at the [Marina] Variety Store and ran into someone I grew up with at Ashley Hall and we got an apartment. I saw an ad for Garibaldi's and, boom, I got hired there. I worked there for a few years. And when that happened, Carolina's opened. They did zero business for the first seven or eight weeks, and all of a sudden, it exploded. I had to wait a year to get hired there. No one was leaving because they were making ridiculous money. I mean ridiculous.
... no one would ever leave, and we'd be making bacon and eggs for them ...
More money than you should be making waiting tables?
No, we worked our asses off. You got there at 4:00 p.m., closers came in at 6:00 p.m. Regular dining stopped at 10:45 p.m. or 11:00 p.m., then the late night menu went on, and they stayed open until 1:30 a.m. You'd be there till 3:00 a.m. or 4:00 a.m., because right at 1:29 a.m, here would come the Eurotrash, and they would just park it and not leave — you know, the Spoleto artsy-fartsy crowd and pretentious people. The really funny thing about that is that Spoleto brought in a different clientele, and they were fine for the most part, but there was a subset that was the pain in the ass crowd. Franz [Meier] always wanted to put in an espresso machine, and we were adamant against it, because no one would ever leave, and we'd be making bacon and eggs for them in the morning.
After Carolina's, I was on the opening crew of Magnolias. That did not end well. That's a long story. The manager, Tom Parsell's nephew, made some bad decisions, and some good people lost their jobs, like myself. When Tom was made aware of what was actually happening, he fired his nephew and tried to get us all to come back. But by that time, I saw the writing on the wall and talked to Louis Osteen over at Charleston Grill, which was Louis's Charleston Grill. I worked for Louis for five or six years. That's the first time I had company provided benefits. The hotel was changing ownership from Omni to an Orient Express, and I knew Louis was going to be fired. So, that's the first time I worked for Dick Elliott. He opened a restaurant called Elliott's on the Square, which is where the ground floor of the Francis Marion is. He gets asked by the mayor to "Put something here, put something there," and he's amiable to doing that kind of thing.
Dick Elliott believes in this community.
Dick Elliott believes in this community. He's probably been my favorite boss of all time. I have a lot of respect for him. I've liked all of my employers, but I have a great deal of resect for Dick Elliott. I worked there for about a year, and nobody would come in because it was north of Calhoun — even though it was only 20 yards north. People would say "You don't go up there. You're not safe." Which is stupid, they'd walk to the liquor store that used to be on the corner, but, whatever.
We have the best food, and no one knows about it.
After I left Elliott's, I went back to Carolina's and worked there for several years for Nancy Snowden and Rose Durden — my dear, dear friend, the chef there. Then I left there. That place was just falling part at the end. I went to work for what ended up being Andy Savage. He was the last man holding the straw at Union Hall with Jacques Larson. I worked there for a year and a half, basically the life of the restaurant, which was awful, because that was a great little place. Jacques and I used to say, "We have the best food, and no one knows about it." It was ridiculous. It was the same thing as Elliott's On the Square — Frank McMahon was the chef there! He went from there to Hank's. The food was on time, the service was on time, the location shouldn't have been a problem, but it was.
We closed Union Hall ...
We closed Union Hall, and Andy Savage was very generous to all of us. We all got a nice check while we looked for jobs. I called up David Marconi at the Maverick Group — I knew him from Magnolia's — and he deposited me into High Cotton. I worked there for nine years, and then my last year, my dear friend Lisa Jungermann-Cody died on February 13, and I just couldn't work there anymore. She worked there with me.
Another friend, who worked at Peninsula, told me they had a spot, and I told them I was interested. That worked out really well for me.
There's my resume. You can also see it on my arm here from plates [She rolls up her sleeve and shows me the burn scars from hot plates].
From when you started, how has dining changed from the perspective of the server?
It's changed dramatically, because there's not a lot of professional servers in this town anymore — which makes it harder to train people. This is why I'm really glad to be back at Peninsula Grill, because I'm working with adults again. They take their job seriously. It's a vocation. It was a big problem we had at High Cotton. It was very frustrating to deal with, and the management will tell you that you get young people who come in — they're either students or fresh out of school — and they say, "That's stupid. I don't want to do that. Why should I do it that way? I want to do it this way." That's not how it's done. Expectations don't get met by guests, because there's a refusal to listen, because they don't understand why things are done a certain way. It's because they're not interested. They don't see it as a craft. They just see it as a paycheck. Depending on how you get paid, whether you get paid by check or whether you get your tips nightly, they never seem to have enough money. They're always whining about wanting to work, but once they're there, they don't want to be there.
When I started in this business, you would have the occasional waiter, who was the
... I yelled at a busboy ... and he went and called his mother from the bathroom ...
house one, and there was the drunk, the drug addict, and the sluts: male and female. You had those personality types, but they showed up and did their jobs. Now you have kids who are stuck on Adderall all the time, or they've got anxiety disorders. I yelled at a busboy a couple years ago, and he went and called his mother from the bathroom. She called the manager and chewed him out because I was mean to her son. David Marconi came up to me laughing and asked what happened, so I told him. He goes, "Well, fuck that guy." I said, "Right? And when his mother calls you again, which I bet she will, you tell her I said it's her fault that he's a pussy." And we laughed, and that was the end of that.
If it's that important to you to feel like you're Craig Claiborne, then knock yourself out.
With the new "foodie" class of travelers to Charleston, do you think more is expected of servers?
No, not necessarily more is expected of servers, but these type of patrons feel that they are experts in everything — which is fine. You just have to figure out how to handle them.
Everybody has a foodie blog, or they're taking pictures. I roll with it. If it's that important to you to feel like you're Craig Claiborne, then knock yourself out. I'm there to make sure you have a good time and want to come back. That's always been my M.O. People want to enjoy themselves so they can come back.
A place like Peninsula Grill, I shoot for trying to get a regular clientele that comes back for two visits a month. When I was at High Cotton, the menu and wine list were less expensive, so I shot for three visits a month from regular clientele. Professional waiters do that. A true professional doesn't try to strong-arm someone into buying a bottle of wine that's $50 outside of their comfort zone. You'll have servers bragging about selling a $300 bottle of wine, but I'd say, "Well, yeah, but let's see if they ever come back again." Amortize that tip you got off that $300 bottle of wine over the course of a year, and it's pennies on the day. It might be less than a penny. I've got somebody who comes in the restaurant twice a month, twelve months a year — amortize that and I'm making more money than you are, because you failed to plan.
And I'm kind of notorious for being impatient with people like that. I get angry when people piss the guests off or make them feel uncomfortable, because that's not why you're there. When I worked for Franz Meir at Carolina's, there was a guy that wanted to leave, wanted to leave all the time, so Franz Meier said, [In a German accent] "You listen to me, I tell you this, I tell you this one time, one time only. All of you fucking people listen to me, you're lazy Americans." All the time. "Thanks, Frank!" Just to piss him off. He said, "I tell you this, I open the door, and it's my invitation, and I invite these people to come into my place. If you want to work here, you have accepted my invitation to extend the invitation. If you don't want to do invitations, you get the fuck out of my restaurant." And he's right. You're there because you've invited people to cross the threshold. I've always remembered that. And that's why I've been able to make a very good living waiting tables and be up to date with the IRS.
If you don't want to do invitations, you get the fuck out of my restaurant.
What's the strangest experience you've had?
I've had millions of them. This one happened at High Cotton. I traditionally worked in the smaller dining room, and there was a private function this evening. I was in the main dining room, and I came around the corner to pick up drinks from the service bar and the bartender has a horrified expression on her face. She's yelling, "Sir, Sir." And this guy shoots out from underneath the access door. I had to jump out the way. I turn around and look and there's this vagrant headed into the private party. I don't know where he came from. He didn't come from the front door — he must have came from the side or back door.
... he was going to punch me, so I slammed him into the door ... Right then, here comes David Marconi ...
The table in the dining room is set up in a big square, and there's this really large Italian-American man sitting at the head of the table, and this guy has made a beeline for him. By the time I catch up, the bartender is tapping the guy on the shoulder, and he's saying to the guest, "Godfather, Godfather, I'm a Vietnam veteran. Please help me godfather." The bartender's like, "Sir, it's time to go. We need you to go now." I grab him by the forearm and say, "It's time to go chief," and I drag him out of there. One of the guys finally shows up and takes the other arm. We take him down the front stairs. He realized what was going on and looked like he was going to punch me, so I slammed him into the door and threw him into the street. Right then, here comes David Marconi, the Director of Operations for Maverick Southern Kitchens. And he's like, "Jesus Christ, Delia, on your last week, really?" We laughed.
Do you have a favorite memory?
I've had lots of good things happen to me. One that sticks out, was when I was working at Carolina's. There was a young lady going to prom, and she'd gone to the bathroom, and I don't know how she did it, but her necklace popped and went right down the drain. She and her friend come out — they're like 16 or 17 — and they are panicked. It was a strand of pearls. Grandma's pearls were down the drain. They were all "Whatwedo.Whatwedo.Whatwedo?" I go into the bathroom, and yep, there they are. I unscrewed the cache, washed them up and gave them back to her. I've never seen anyone more relieved in my life. About two weeks later, the young lady's mother came in and had a small gift for me. Push pins in the shape of tools — a thank you for rescuing her daughters evening. It was very sweet.