Richard was a weird guy.
6 foot, pale and wiry, with wavy dark brown hair combed back from a slightly receding hairline. Completely average looking – run of the mill features that would never get a second glance. But if you did happen to linger on his face, you’d see eyelids at half mast and a slight Mona Lisa smile that told you he was listening to the voices in his head.
Richard wasn’t the head waiter when I started working at Sal Federico’s Italian Restaurant. He was second in command. Now, I worked in a bunch of restaurants during my long and winding road as a wannabe rock star (me on bass, 1985) and Colorado ski bum, and I never came across an actual title for the next-to-head waiter or second-after-the-head waiter…
It was a ceremonial title, because the fact was, Richard didn’t talk much. He wasn’t shy, exactly – he could describe the nightly specials or recommend a wine to his tables, but he wasn’t the type to ever take charge, give directions, or train new staff – it was more like his internal monologue took up most of his attention, no time to focus much on his surroundings.
Which was part of his strangeness, since he was also a lieutenant in the Virginia National Guard. As a lieutenant, he must have had some leadership responsibilities during the one weekend a month that he was out with the Guard for training drills. At the very least, some kind of communication with his fellow Guardsman must have been required, but again, that’s just an assumption.
His one weekend a month on drills meant that Richard missed two big money shifts. Sal Federico’s was one of those old school Italian restaurants that cropped during the late 1950s when dining out first became a thing for Americans.
Pulling up to the valet post on the circular drive behind the giant lighted Sal Federico’s sign, pushing through the huge ornate dark wood doors into an equally huge foyer where you’d be escorted to deep red leather booths and banquettes for an exotic meal of spaghetti and meatballs or Veal Picatta on a Friday or Saturday night must’ve felt like a highroller pulling into The Sands on the Old Vegas Strip.
That clientele hadn’t changed much 40 years later when I worked there. An older crowd of old Richmond money, ascots and furs, scotch with soda and champagne cocktails, lots of big tables celebrating grandkids birthdays and graduations and such.
The lunch crowd was a bit different. Sal’s was located right by two office parks and a big outdoor mall. Doors opened for lunch at 11:30, and on Thursday’s and Friday’s, every one of the 170 seats would be filled by noon, mostly by office workers that had to be in and out in 45 minutes. It was utter mayhem…
Tables got seated so fast, we’d take orders for two or three tables at a time, and then line up at the Micros machines and slam the kitchen with orders, knowing that when we got done, there’d be two or three new tables to deal with…
I was waiting behind Richard as he put lunch orders into the machine when I first heard him muttering….
“G**d**m f***ers gonna bring my gun and shoot every one of you m***erf***ers g**d****it f****ing ice tea…”
Now, this was 1992, I guess. It was before Columbine. A few mailmen had gone postal, but the threat of workplace violence didn’t seem like a real thing. Still I kept an eye on Richard…
The Nature of Greatness
I didn’t fully appreciate it at the time, but Sal Federico’s chef/owner Emilio was a master at his craft. He worked saute and grill, preparing every dish that required a pan – fish, veal, clam and seafood sauces – as well as every cut of meat that hit the iron grate over the charcoal.
Emilio could have 10 or 12 pans going along with 6 or 8 veal chops or New York strips going at the same time, and he nailed it, every single time.
I since learned that greatness isn’t simply a creative process. Of course, a painter, a musician or writer or chef is an inventor – putting together unique combinations of colors or notes, words or ingredients and then framing them in a way that touches complete strangers on an emotional level. But to be great, you have to repeat the process in a mechanical way over and over and over – and still get the same result. (Yes, it’s true for great investors as well.)
If you’ve ever known a person that was truly great at something, even yourself, you know that greatness and ego-maniacal obsession go hand in hand. I don’t want to say a person has to be an obsessive egomaniac to be great at something, but from what I’ve observed, it sure helps.
Because the person knows exactly what the finished product has to be. Just the right word, just the right hue, the right amount of salt, the perfect amount of cowbell…
This was Emilio.
If you’ve ever been to an old school Italian restaurant, you know those menus are like a history book of Italian cuisine. Every pasta and sauce combination under the sun, 10 different veal dishes, 12 grilled meats, several varieties of fish, 9 different desserts…And Emilio knew exactly what each dish was supposed to look and taste like on an archetypal level, and each and every dish had to pass his inspection before it left the window in the kitchen to be served.
God forbid an antipasto didn’t have enough tomatoes or the scoop of gelato was a little lopsided or a soup sat in the window too long…
Emilio had a fire in his considerable belly and any infraction would incur a fireball of profanity that would melt the guilty just as surely as if it had been spewed from a dragon…like the time I accidentally ordered 2 sauteed salmons with lemon and capers when the guests had wanted them grilled.
I knew I had messed up when Emilio was plating the salmon. I also knew it would go much better for me if I could just pass the wrong dish off on the customers. It didn’t work. I apologized to the customers, removed the offending items from the table and headed back to the kitchen to take my medicine.
Emilio didn’t disappoint…
“What the f**k, you stupid m****rf*****r, how you not say grilled, f***ing cost me $30 in salmon you stupid, you’re gonna f***ing pay for this you idiot…”
Then at the end of the night, Emilio sat down and we had a glass of wine like nothing ever happened. Abusive rants aside, he was a pretty good guy…
But Emilio really had it in for Richard.
Because while the rest of the staff would grovel “I know, I’m sorry, I’ll pay for it” and stare at our shoes to avoid making eye contact, Richard would stand at attention, half mast eyes directed at Emilio with that Mona Lisa smirk on his face and patiently wait till Emilio was done, never uttering a word.
One Saturday night, it got really bad. Emilio had bought a bunch of veal chops for that night’s special, 2 inch thick, porterhouse cut, beautiful pieces of meat. For his first table of the night, Richard sends in an order for 2 of the veal chops, cooked Pittsburgh rare – charred on the outside, rare on the inside.
Emilio yells for Richard and the second the kitchen door swings open it starts – “you stupid m***erf***er what the f**k Pittsburgh rare ruining these chops g**d****it you’ll pay for this meat you stupid idiot…”
And there’s Richard, half-mast eyes, silent smirk – completely oblivious. He might as well have been waiting for a bus or standing in line at the grocery store…
20 minutes later, Emilio bellows “Tell Richard to get the f**k in here Pittsburgh rare that stupid f***ing idiot…” and it happens all over again.
My section of tables was right next to Richard’s that night. And I was lucky enough to finally overhear him telling a new table “…and we’ve got a beautiful veal chop tonight that Emilio recommends Pittsburgh rare…”
Richard never did show up at Sal Federico’s with a gun and shoot everybody. But he damn sure took a few years off Emilio’s life from the stress over those Pittsburgh rare veal chops…
Note to Investors
As investors, we try to come up with the perfect recipe for selecting the companies we invest in. Rising dividends, expanding market share, positive cash flow, whatever it may be.
And there are plenty of examples of great investors we can learn from and copy. Warren Buffett is a common example, and for very good reason. He follows a simple recipe and he knows exactly what the final dish will look like.
But the challenge for investors is the number of variables that can affect your investment that really have very little to do with the quality of the companies you invest in.
In other words, you can pick the most beautiful veal chop out there and there’s nothing you can do if some Richard decides your chop would look good cooked Pittsburgh rare.
Yep, many of the investments we’ve made over the last months are looking charred right now. And I’m sure we’re feeling pretty raw on the inside. It’s a good time to keep emotions in check, don’t panic and understand that this too shall pass.
On Monday, I told you that investor sentiment is so negative right now, that it’s likely a good time to be putting money to work in quality stocks (market charred on the outside but juicy inside, maybe?). I have more to say on this topic, specifically about how inflation will almost certainly continue to head lower, and I’ll share that with you on Friday.
So, that’s it for me today, take care, and I’ll talk to you Friday…
Chief Investment Strategist
Pro Trader Today