Restaurants across the land are transformed by the curious tradition of office parties, writes Stephen Jardine.
Spare a thought for anyone who slipped out for a quiet dinner last night, forgetting what day it was. At this time of year, every restaurant in the land is transformed by the curious tradition of the office outing.
Most chefs feel a mixture of relief and despair about the festive season. It delivers packed restaurants in the dark days of winter – but at a price. For a start, the normal menu goes out the window. As a chef, you may specialise in organic vegetables and foraged leaves but if you want to have any chance of cashing in on Christmas party bookings, you have to turn your kitchen into a production line for turkey, giblets and gravy. And don’t even think about trying to creatively reinvent the festive feast. Craig from payroll knows what he likes and that means soggy sprouts just like his mum made and since he booked the table back in June, he gets what he wants.
The other big problem is how it is served. Restaurants hate big parties. They change the atmosphere and disrupt the smooth flow of the kitchen. A steady stream of couples or tables for four from 7pm to 10pm lets the kitchen work at its best. When a chef has 18 orders for turkey, one vegan, one coeliac and someone who thinks they might be allergic to tomato, and every plate is expected on the table hot at the same time, something has to give.
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But the real question is, what on earth are these people even doing there? If the staff wearing forced smiles and fun Christmas jumpers really enjoyed each other’s company, why do they only go out together once a year and need vast amounts of alcohol? Responsibility rests with the party planner. Every workplace has one, the person who takes it upon themselves to organise the office outing, collect deposits and coordinate secret Santa.
Along the way they generate just enough enthusiasm to sweep the rest of us along, regardless of our apathy. Not going to the office party is not an option. Colleagues will just talk about you in your absence. But more than that, it is a key opportunity when it comes to career progression. Crucial to that is always having one less drink than the boss on the night to ensure you are well placed to deliver maximum amounts of schadenfreude when it all kicks off with the team from finance.
READ MORE: How to behave on your office Christmas party
In the midst of all this, spare a thought for the poor waiting staff. Their usual duties at this time of year expand so they also end up also being first aiders, relationship counsellors and nightclub bouncers.
When someone was very ill in the restaurant loos at my office Christmas party a few years ago, the waitress got the individual into a taxi and crafted a “toilets unavailable” sign on the blackboard while still managing to deliver Christmas Pudding to the table with the brandy burning. That deserves a decent tip at any time of year.
At the end of the day, they get the last laugh. Most hospitality businesses have their staff celebrations in January when the Christmas party nights are a dim memory. By then the pubs and restaurants are quiet, the food is what it should be and there are lots of good stories to share about bad behaviour by the rest of us.