The dining room door burst open, and Buddy Clay bolted into the kitchen. His eyes practically jumped out of their sockets, and he looked like he had just seen a ghost.
“Malik! Hanford! Get in here. We’re in deep shit!”
Chuck and I turned off the burners, checked the ovens then joined Buddy at the bar where he had our banquet event book laid open.
“Jesus Christ. We’ve screwed up. Mrs. Jones just called to check on the flowers for her rehearsal dinner and we’ve got it on the wrong month. It’s tonight, 30 people, 6:30 pm and here’s the menu. Tell me we can pull this off.”
Chuck leaned over my shoulders as we both tried to read the menu.
“Baked brie? Lamb chops? Butter pecan ice cream? Pink Snapper? Shit Buddy, we don’t have any of this. Green salad, yeah, well we got that one covered.”
“Guys can we make this happen? Make some phone calls, call in your favors. Malik, can you get it done?”
I turned to Buddy, pursed my lips then confidently asked, “I feel like this is a good time to ask for a raise.”
Over the course of my five years as Chef at Augusta Grill, I had many wonderful exchanges and created many fine memories with Ned Clay, Jr. We all knew him as Buddy, the entire city knew him as Buddy. In those days, our town was being put on a trajectory that would turn it into what it is today. Knox White was about to take office and our city and state leaders were wooing businesses from across the country, and the world. Our textile industry had recently moved their manufacturing facilities abroad and Greenville County had a workforce and land. The BMW factory had recently opened, our city and county were on a roll. The folks that wanted to bring a business to Greenville often ended up at the Augusta Grill for dinner because their hosts knew Buddy would take good care of them. These may have been important customers to the city, and to Buddy, they were just guests in his house. Buddy was a practitioner of Southern hospitality, and an effective leader and teacher. His training sessions started every day, on time, and often lasted for 45 minutes. These were not monologues, rather a question-and-answer session to make certain the wait staff understood the details of the evening’s specials, any new wines, a guest with mobility issues, or a certain celebratory cocktail of the season. With a cigarette in one hand and the other constantly being run across his hair, he would parade back and forth while the staff tried to keep up with his descriptions of a certain vineyard in France or the process of catching and shelling blue crabs. Buddy often used minor moments from the previous night to exemplify the proper and improper way of handling a guest’s issue or request. Maybe it was a dropped fork or napkin, directions to the bathroom, or a question on a particular wine. Occasionally it was something more severe such as how they should handle someone that had one too many drinks. Buddy saw everything that happened in the dining room, good or bad, and was on a constant quest for more of the good. Buddy taught us how to handle all of it, with polite hospitality and a smile. He would encourage us to do our best even when things looked like they were going south, and he loved and lived by that saying, “Never let them see you sweat.”
Buddy was also a voracious reader and had a keen understanding of history and Southern literature, and he often sprinkled historical references in his conversation like powdered sugar on our blackberry cobbler.
“Damnit Malik, it looked like Pickett’s charge out there tonight. I don’t know how y’all handled that rush.”
Handle it we did, because we loved Buddy and he gave us a sense of accomplishment and pride in our work. In my second year as chef, I came to Buddy and his partner Bob Hackl with a request to change our menus from a sort of eclectic New American to modern Southern. Buddy lit a cigarette, paced the floor, ran a hand through his hair, shook his head and said “Look here, Malik, I trust you not to screw this up. But you have to do this slowly, more like building the Titanic, not like sinking it.”
I had many nights that I couldn’t wait to tell Amy how clever Buddy’s words were.
Buddy also loved a good prank and one night he famously convinced me that a new customer was actually Martha Stewart. It took half the waitstaff to do so, and once I was on the hook, he reeled me in.
“She must’ve seen you on those Food Network shows, Malik. You gonna go talk to her or what?”
“You’re right Buddy, she saw me on Food Network and she’s going to want to see the kitchen. Hey guys, put on clean aprons, hurry. And someone sweep up. We can’t have Martha Stewart walking on this floor.”
Buddy left me on the hook for what seemed like an eternity before introducing me to this lookalike who confessed this wasn’t the first time she was mistaken for Martha. Late that night Buddy bought me a drink and we shared a good laugh with a warning that it would be a long time before I lived this one down. A week later I plotted my revenge while unpacking a box of frozen quail from Manchester Farms. Inside was a coupon and flyer for a variety of quail swag, one of which was a banner that trumpeted “All You Can Eat Quail”. I saved up the coupons for eight weeks, mailed them in and a week later received my eight foot by three foot banner. The following Saturday, with the help of Paul Parcels, I hung the banner over the front door with a price of “Only $5.99.” A few hours later Buddy came into the kitchen and demanded to know why everyone was calling and asking him what time the quail buffet would start.
“Damnit Malik. I know this is your doing.”
I took him out front and when he saw the banner, he glared over his reading glasses, put his hands on his hips and said, “Martha would not be impressed.”
Some of his staff went on to own or manage their own restaurants and Buddy’s lessons of hospitality served us well. His impact on Greenville’s hospitality business can still be felt and many a contract, marriage, or commitment that would better our city was secured at the end of an Augusta Grill meal. As for that rehearsal dinner we were able to pull it off by calling in favors and finding what we needed, all while Mrs. Jones never saw any of us sweat. Life with Buddy at the Augusta Grill was never dull and most days he would walk into the back door and smile as if he was coming home after a long journey.
“Renee, Paul, Malik, we’re gonna have a wonderful dinner tonight, correct?”
Yes Buddy, we will. Tonight, in your honor, we will have a wonderful dinner and share something special with a friend, just like you taught us.
Rest in peace, Buddy, we’ll take it from here.
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