Chello Oyster House

A Cast of Characters

My mother had an interesting series of careers. She worked in insurance offices, sold furniture, did factory work, sold Avon, Tupperware, and Colonial Craft, and even spent several years processing returns for L.L. Bean. But when I was a teenager, she had a cool job. She was a bartender.

After spending two months training at Duke Antone’s School of Mixology, my mom started working private parties and weddings under the license of a catering service. She was seeking a full-time gig, but it was winter and times were slow in the business world with the economy in a period of “stagflation”.

Eventually, she landed a part-time job at Chello Oyster House in Guilford. They had no front-facing bar, so she was in the back of the house mixing drinks and pouring wine to order for the waitresses to deliver to their customers.

She began bringing home stories of the characters who worked at Chello’s, many of whom had been there many years. The most prominent was a white-haired, high energy lady named Alice whom they called Ma. Ma had a sharp tongue, a quick laugh, and practically ran everywhere. She also had stories of the restaurant going back 30+ years.

There was also a younger Alice, nearly the opposite of Ma. She was quiet, almost plodding in her manner, very polite, and seemed to make a lot of mistakes. She had only been working there a little less than twenty years. My mother liked the second Alice, and they were more apt to chat about their children than business.

Another character was Diane, who was someone my mother had known well ten or so years before. She was my mother’s age, mid-thirties, and had been a wild woman in her twenties, but she had been working at Chello’s for nearly ten years and had calmed down a bit. She had a fresh mouth with her regular customers, but they seemed to love it.

After my mother had worked there a little while, and once I turned sixteen, I got a job there as a busboy. I caught on with the service paradigm quickly and began working as many hours as I could. I could catch a bus to work from school and get a ride home from my mother. On weekends, we rode to work together. As time wore on, I also filled in at the dishwashing position when they were shorthanded, which usually happened on Sundays in the summer.

Chello’s was my second job ever, and I had to wear a uniform. Black pants, white shirt, and their red vest. I had to speak respectfully, know who everyone’s waitress was, always have a pitcher or water handy, and keep a pocket full of Chello matchbooks to hand out to patrons. And I had to move quickly. Everywhere.

Collecting and sorting dishes was one new skill that I had to master right away. Plates, glasses, silver, and trash all had to be sorted out of a big plastic tub quickly because there was usually someone right behind you needing to sort theirs. And setting tables had to be done quickly, too. A skill that took a little longer to master was carrying four full glasses of water to a table by about the time the patrons all had their chairs pulled in.

There were a lot of rules to learn. When to clear plates, which side to take them from, how to stack plates in your hands and arms (never on the table if the patrons were present) and how to keep that red vest clean while handling dirty dishes all night.

There were more advanced skills, too. Stacking dishes so that those pesky knives wouldn’t slide off. Being charming without being a nuisance, which would increase your chances of getting a direct tip instead of relying on waitresses to share in accordance with the rules. And of course, there was the ninja skill of eating dinner in under five minutes.

I think the unique and dangerous skill at Chello was mastery of the swinging doors from the kitchen. One was for going in, the other for going out, but they both swung both ways and they were very close to the little hall by the restrooms. Just going out of them without swinging a door into a patron was hard enough. Children added another hazard because their heads were lower than the porthole windows.

But the real danger was meeting a waitress coming the other way with a tray full of hot food. And if it was Ma in a full run, you were wrong no matter how you did it. She was fond of carrying too much at once and blasting out through both doors at the same time.

One skill I didn’t master early on was first aid. But thankfully, at least one busboy had learned both the Heimlich and CPR. One afternoon, three ladies collected their father from the nursing home and brought him out for a treat. They ordered baked stuffed shrimp for him and started a conversation about anything and everything. A busboy noticed that the old fellow seemed to change colors and asked if he was all right.

It turned out that pops was choking on his food but couldn’t get the attention of his daughters. After clearing three unchewed shrimp from the man’s throat (he’d forgotten his choppers back at the home), mouth-to-mouth was necessary. The man was alive when the ambulance arrived, which was a miracle. He survived a few days in the hospital, but eventually died of pneumonia.

After that, I joined an EMT class at school and got some skills with first aid. I never had to use it, but I wanted to be able to do something if one of my patrons or a child were choking. I never knew that restaurants were such a dangerous place. But I learned. Knife wounds, broken glass and dishes, slips and burns. First aid was a great skill to have.

It was also a good idea to bring your sense of humor to work with you. Several of the watresses were not only funny, but also could be cutting with their remarks. Ma was a laugh a minute, but don’t get in her way. And you had to watch out for her off-color jokes. For some reason she seemed to enjoy embarrassing the guys in the kitchen.

There was a short, Puerto Rican prep cook that she picked on often. I don’t recall too much about him, I think his name was Jorge, but I remember how he would react to her jibes. He would laugh and play along for a while, then when she got to the punchline, which was usually something embarrassing, he would end by saying “Oh Ah-liss”, his heavily accented version of Alice.

One day he got up the courage to challenge her a little. She had come in and told an off-color joke, probably ethnic in nature, and she was laughing. He said, “Oh Ah-liss, why you give me a hard time?” She immediately quipped, “That’s more than you ever give me.” Everyones mind was already in the gutter, so laughter erupted and I don’t think Jorge ever spoke up again.

One other memory I have of Jorge was watching him open oysters. If you’ve ever tried, you’ll know it is not easy. The edges of their shell are wavy and tightly closed. When it is your job to open them by the dozen, often ten or more dozen on a Friday evening, you get a knack.

Jorge would chip off a section of the lip of the shell, force in a small knife to pry with, then attack the muscle that they use to hold the shell closed. Removing the top shell and detaching the oyster from the bottom shell in a swift motion was a wonder to watch. In under two minutes he’d send the plate full of oysters off to the waiting customer. Clams and mussels went even faster. And I got the feeling that he could cleanly remove your spleen and serve it to you on a plate with the same efficiency.

Although Chello’s was not near the ocean, it maintained a regular flock of seagulls. I think they were attracted by the enormous pile of shells behind the building. The pile had been built up over 30+ years of serving fresh clams and oysters. It was a tourist attraction by its own right.

By the time I worked there they were running the shells through the deep sink prior to dumping them, but they had to build a set of steps and a platform for us to use to reach the top of the pile to dump the dish pan of shells each night.

When we moved back to Old Saybrook it became a long hike to work in Guilford, so I soon traded in my vest at Chello’s for a similar one at the Dock ‘n’ Dine, and then a white jacket at the Copper Beech, but it was about the best place I worked prior to entering the Navy. And if you need a light, I still have a pack or two of the matches.

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