Thursday, October 13, 2011

An interview with LAINEY LOVE who, as a Ruth's Chris waitress since 1988, has seen it all. And she's Ruth's biggest fan.

I hired waitress Lainey Love in the late 80s and it’s been love ever since — between Lainey and Ruth’s Chris and between Ruth’s Chris customers and Lainey.  Few get more call parties — customers who insist they be served by Lainey.  Married to R&B artist CP Love who has opened for BB King and Fats Domino, Lainey is an avid participant in the New Orleans music scene.  After Katrina she worked for a while in Tampa FL and then returned to New Orleans with the opening of the downtown Ruth’s Chris.  She is known as one of the beloved Broads from Broad St. (with Robin Arena and Connie Sylvain). In 2006 she won the third annual The Ruth U. Fertel Award, “Do What You Love and Love What You Do” — there’s that Love again, see what I mean?!

Q: Lainey, thanks for taking time out from serving table 81 to share some stories about Ruth’s Chris and New Orleans.  Tells us about your early years at Ruth’s Chris.  But first, where’d you serve before you came to Broad St.?
A: Before I became a “Broad from Broad Street,” I was an original “Georgie Girl” from Georgie Porgie’s in (what was then) the new Hyatt Regency New Orleans. It was the place to be for nights out on the town and Saints games. Blaring disco music, popping Dom Perignon, and dancing with celebrity guests, sports heroes and their entourages. I took a To Go order for The Jackson 5 because they were too young to enter. Michael must have been 9 or 10 years old.

When business there took a hit from The Gas Crisis with long gas lines I went to Genghis Khan. What a change!  Disco craziness to classical music played by members of the New Orleans Symphony. The owner was the 1st violinist and invited many entertainers to come to the restaurant after hours to perform. Famous Conductors, Opera Singers, and Musicians from Al Hirt to Yo Yo Ma. Now, I enter Ruth’s Chris Steak House. With my restaurant background, I know to come in and apply “dressed to work”.  Interviewed by you, Randy, we both must’ve known what was to be. You hired me, March 24, 1988. Maybe it was my answer to the question on the application, “Are you nuts?” And I answered, “Yes, indeed.” Right away, I knew I was home. I was now a member of this awesome restaurant family I would soon learn to know I could never leave.

Guests have often asked me what it’s like to work for Ruth Fertel. My answer has always been the same. I never felt I worked “for” Miz Ruth. I worked “with” her. She was a Mom, a sister, a friend and a co-worker. And was always a phone call away in troubled times. She trusted us with everything! Early mornings when we were opening the restaurant, I’d go to her house behind the restaurant to pick up “the bank” — what the register started with for the day. “Mornin’ Miz Ruth”, “Mornin’ Lainey,” She’d hand me $986.50 in a bank envelope. “Fix me a pot of coffee?” “Sure, Miz Ruth”. “And stir it, please?” Well the pots kept comin’ and stayed in her kitchen. One mornin’ Velma is throwing a fit, “Where’s all the damn coffee pots?” Miz Ruth looks at me, laughs holding her finger to her lips and slips me the key to her house. “They’re all on the kitchen counter.”

At the end of long busy nights, the staff hung out and had our famous “Parkin’ Lot Parties” and drank beer. Many nights, Miz Ruth would come outside sometimes 1:00 in the morning dressed in her robe. “Sorry, did we wake you?” “No, I’ve been waiting for ya’ll, busy night, huh? Here’s $40, who’s goin’ on the beer run?”        

Q: Lot of great servers on Broad Street.  Can you tell us about Shirley Barlett and some of the other “old broads”? And then of course there was my mother’s right hand, her housekeeper Earner Sylvain.
A: This is another book, Randy! Wow, Shirley had to be one of the funniest people I’ve ever worked with. She would totally wreck me with her jokes. Dirrrteeee! She told one to Miz Ruth and her dinner guests one night. It was dirty and she chose the V.P. of Ruth’s Chris to be the butt of the joke. Well, Miz Ruth went into hysterics and nearly slid out of her chair, cryin’-laughin’. Shirley would verbally offer a “Pierre Martini” to the guests. When asked what it was, she’d say, “It’s a Martini that’s so dry, when you go to the bathroom, you pee air.” I’ve certainly archived her jokes but will never have the nerve to tell some of them to the guests. Especially the Chicken  Joke!  Shirley decided to only work one day a week. Ruth’s Chris waitresses don’t retire, we fade away. She wanted to work on an easy night like Wednesday. Wellllll…everyone in town was coming in the restaurant requesting Shirley. She wasn’t too happy to be that busy, then she finds out why. There were billboards put up all over town that read, SHIRLEY ONLY WORKS ON WEDNESDAYS! That was it. Plain and simple.  But that’s all it needed to say because the whole city knew who “SHIRLEY” was. She was mumbling “Damn, Randy!” under her breath all night. Well it turned out to be Mr. Ralph the V.P. who did it. Shirley’s response was,” I’m gonna get my own billboards and they’re gonna read, RALPH WORKS……..ON MY NERVES!” [Randy’s NOTE: I was marketing director at the time, and I'd like to take credit for that marketing campaign. Maybe Ralph okayed it. They kept me on short leash. In their book, my Harvard PhD in English was proof that I was an idiot and could sling neither hash nor advertising copy.]

Earner Sylvain my friend!  The Lady with the Spoon always stirring. Miz Earner knew everybody’s bid’ness. You could trust her as a confidant but if you did a funny she’d tell everybody and mess with you so bad. She always hung out in the restaurant kitchen even though she worked next door for Miz Ruth. She was Louisiana Creole from Edgard/Vacherie and could cook some of the best food you’ve ever tasted. The laugh…always went into the pot. I’ll never forget her laugh. [NOTE: read about Earner Sylvain in my Kenyon Review piece Eshu on the Bayou and see her impersonated in a video of that name by actress Charlotte Lang from Native Tongues: The Food Edition.

Q: Lot of shenanigans too.  Any you’d care to relate?  Were you witness to the locally famous fistfight between Councilman Joe Giarusso with Mayor Sidney Barthelemy’s right hand, Hank Braden?
A: Shenanigans doesn’t come close to describing what went on at 711. There were a couple of fistfights in the dining room. Joe and Hank made their way into Ruth’s Chris history with that one!
Another afternoon, the waitstaff was standing around the bar talking. An Irish Coffee was ordered and Lou couldn’t get our new whip cream aerosol can to work. I changed the bullet, shook it real good and sprayed some on my finger and licked it off. Lou says, “Gimme that! Ya wanna see how it’s really done?” She takes the can and goes into this Wild Old Broad Erotica Thing with the whipped cream. She puts the nozzle into her mouth and hits the button and whip cream comes flying out of her nose! 3 servers hit the floor laughing. I had to be carried into the kitchen.

One time, Lil Betty, (known to us as the Fading Waitress) was coming through the dining room with a large stack of menus trying to hold something else in her hand.” Here, Betty, let me help you.” “Underneath, underneath,” she says. I said, “ On Your Knees! What did you say? On Your Knees!” That was many years ago and last week my General Manager, Pete walked past me and said, “On Your Knees!”

Q: You used to date Fats Domino’s son Antoine.  Got any good stories about hanging out at Fats’ house on Caffin Avenue in the Lower 9th Ward?
A: One very late night (maybe 3 in the morning) Antoine and I came tip toeing into the house. (My first time there.) He said, “Go and get us something to drink.” The house was pretty dark and he pointed to a light coming from the kitchen. I slowly walked through this big house, quiet and dark, toward the light. I get there and notice it’s coming from the open refrigerator. Right then, someone comes upright from looking on the bottom shelf, sees me and says,”Ahhh, I thought you were a ghost!”  Good call. I’m very light-complected, blue eyes and blonde hair down to my waist wearing a white silk suit. Lainey, meet Fats Domino!

Q: Customers are very particular at Ruth’s Chris.  They know what table they want, exactly how they want their steak and all the fixings.  Tell us about Sunday nights on Broad Street.
A: Oh!!! Sunday nights everyone knew everyone. It was a table-hopping club. The middle dining room was locked down. All the regulars had there own tables and servers. One night, I estimated 5 tables, 81-85 were a combined wealth of a billion dollars. I had the hottest station 81,82, and 71. All tables of 6. I called it The Station from Hell. Guests would love to make up special salads we’d name after them.

One time Earner made garlic mashed potatoes for a long time guest. Everyone in the dining room had to have some. They’re now on the menu. One regular guest who reminded me of Howard Hughes (germaphobic) would always order his Root Beer unopened unless I was his waitress.

Q: I'm sure you’ve served the who’s who of New Orleans and quite a few famous Americans.  Who are some of your favorites? 
A: At Georgie Porgie’s, The cast from Taxi.  I loved Danny DeVito!  Superstars, Liza Minnelli and Elizabeth Taylor, The Harlem Globetrotters, The Jackson Five, and George Stanford Brown who took me to breakfast. At Genghis Khan, I loved meeting Ginger Rogers, Yo Yo Ma, and Beverly Sills. At Ruth’s Chris, The Princess of Morocco, Rue McClanahan, Alice Faye and her husband Phil Harris. He was so funny, he sang the song he did in the movie, The Jungle Book. On his way out the door, holding my arm, with the whole restaurant loving him, he sings out in his “Baloo the Bear” voice, “Take Me Home, Daddy!”

Q: I don’t know anyone more devoted to my mother.  Can you tell us about Ruth and what she means to you?
A: Your mother changed my life. She offered me the opportunity to work in one of the finest restaurants in the world. Years back, as a waitress aged, she would lose her place in the better restaurants. Not at Ruth’s Chris! Ruth knew that these older women would be dependable and were pros at southern hospitality. We still make our guests eat all their vegetables.

One day, after Miz Ruth had told everyone she was ill, she came in with 4 other people to have dinner. I watched her from across the room. Thoughts ran through my head of all the wonderful things she had done for so many. Me included. I wanted her to know how I felt about her and how thankful I was to be part of her awesome restaurant family. I walked up to the table, knelt down beside her and she reached for my hand. I said, “I just wanted to tell you that I love you.” She said , “I love you too, Lainey” That’s the last time I saw your Mom.

Q: Lainey, I think table 81 is ready for dessert . . .
Go see what they want for me, Randy. I’m goin’ home. Love you. Goodnight.

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