A Natural by Joshua M. Patton

Steven Fernald walks into the R Bar, a few short blocks from his home in Pittsburgh, PA, just in time for happy hour.   It’s one of the first truly hot days of the fledgling summer, but Steven’s regular dive is cool and dark.  It’s crowded; about 15 people line the bar and sit at the five tables along the wall.  On the stool closest to the door sits a small dog—a Lhasa apso or Pekinese named Louie—and its owner Joe, who Steven greets immediately.

“Hey Joe,” he says, shaking hands with the older gentleman, then tousling the dog’s fur, “and hey Louie.” Rock music from the 1970s plays on the jukebox, only interrupted by some occasional rap from the mid-1990s, and the din of conversation is muted.  Steven makes his way through the rest of the customers, greeting almost all of them.  Mark and Barb, an older couple occupying the same side of one of the booths, Chris and Jess, a couple sitting at the end of the bar, and finally greeting the bartender and ordering a pitcher of Yuengling.

For someone who has spent the better part of a decade in the service industry, for Steven Fernald to find escape in a bar is akin to a police officer winding down from a hard days’ work sitting in his cruiser in a high-crime neighborhood.  If the cute twenty-something bartender were to simply walk out the door, Steven could probably take her place without missing a refill.  Strange though it may seem, this was the place where he drinks to both the good and bad times.  On the day of his wedding in the fall of 2012, Steven—dressed in full groom regalia—took his first drink of the day in the R bar, the regulars cheering his pending nuptials.  Less than 18 months later, it was the place he came to toast the death of that marriage, while his wife moved her possessions out of their home.  It was also the place he came after losing his last job.

Steven had been working at Redbeards, a newly opened bar in downtown Pittsburgh, and was eating a meal in-between double shifts.  More to pass the time than out of unhappiness, he browsed through ads on Craigslist for servers and bartenders as he ate.  Seeing an opportunity that sounded particularly promising, he sent off his résumé and didn’t give it a second thought.  Moving from Craigslist to ESPN.com, Steven was still engrossed in his phone when his manager came upstairs.

“You sent me your résumé,” he said.

Only half-paying attention, Steven said, “Yeah. Months ago, when I applied.”

“No,” the manager replied, his annoyance increasing, “just now.”

It took another second for Steven to realize that he had just applied for his own job.  Particularly offended that Steven was still sending out résumés, the manager fired him on-the -spot.  Even though he lost his job, he can’t help but appreciate the irony.

Still, on this particular summer night in the R Bar, Steven is celebrating the success of his 30th private-party gig.  An idea born from the lavish dinner parties he would throw for friends and family, Steven offers up his services as a one-man catering operation for events held in private residences with typically less than 20 guests.  His business is solely generated by word-of-mouth advertising.  For Steven, exhausting though it may be, it is the pinnacle of what he loves about his job—serving people.

Despite dreams of working in law enforcement, specifically the FBI, Steven became a dishwasher for a local restaurant at the age of 15.  After a brief stint working in Disney World, he was back in PA and working as a waiter at Lonsestar Steakhouse.  It was a lot like the Disney experience—specifically young girls down to party—but Steven found with each subsequent restaurant, that he was very good at his job.  While some are money-motivated and others dream of owning their own place, for Steven it’s the people that make his job so appealing.

Whether it was the lobbyist crowd in a Washington, DC steakhouse or the dark-blue-collar regulars at the Shiloh Bar & Grill in Pittsburgh, the new conversations and experiences are as equally rewarding to him as the cash at the end of the night. Some of his favorite customers in fine-dining establishments are not the typically big-spenders, but the families that saved for months just to afford the meal. For him it’s not about the tip.  “Sometimes, the conversation is worth more,” he says, then after a moment, “but the tips help, too.”  Like Artie Bucco from the Sopranos, Steven sometimes has to actively prevent himself from being too involved with his tables.  For Steven it’s not just a job, it’s an honor to serve, to feed his fellow man.

That’s why the private parties are where Steven is at the height of excellence with respect to his craft.  He is invited into their homes, the most personal of spaces.  He specializes the menu based on their whims, but doesn’t just take orders.  “I am at the point in my career,” he says, “where I am telling them what they are having for dinner.”  His recipes are those he’s absorbed from the various restaurants where he’s worked, but perfected in his own kitchen.  He provides wine or drink pairings for each course and personally prepares everything.  Finally he delivers their meals to them, ensuring that everything is to their liking.  He does not see it as demeaning or degrading to serve these people in their own homes; he sees it as a privilege.

Like everyone who has made food service their careers, Steven would like to have his own restaurant.  Yet, he’s closer to 35 than he is 30, so he’s practical.  There are headaches that come with owning a restaurant—managing staff, liquor licenses, overhead—that would get in the way of those valuable exchanges with the customers.  So instead, he makes his own way, bringing good food and good conversation to one house at a time.