General Articles

Down in Mabel’s Room

From her basement lair in the Chateau Laurier, Mabel Egan rules over room service with a mighty memory, an eagle eye

THELMA LeCOCQ August 1 1948
General Articles

Down in Mabel’s Room

From her basement lair in the Chateau Laurier, Mabel Egan rules over room service with a mighty memory, an eagle eye

THELMA LeCOCQ August 1 1948

Down in Mabel’s Room

From her basement lair in the Chateau Laurier, Mabel Egan rules over room service with a mighty memory, an eagle eye


AROUND the Chateau Laurier in Ottawa, Mabel Egan is known as “the woman who knows a million men but never sees any of them.” This description of herself is one that pleases Mrs. Egan. As head of room service in the Chateau for 25 years, she has made a career of remembering names and voices, of tagging them with bacon crisp or medium, steaks rare or welldone.

One hotel guest who had not been to the Chateau for a year called room service, gave his name. “Yes, sir,” purred Mrs. Egan, “your usual breakfast, right away.” The breakfast arrived exactly like the one he had ordered—one year before. The guest ate it with a baffled and preoccupied air.

Businessmen, diplomats, members of parliament—all who visit Ottawa with any regularity— know Mabel Egan. Most of them don’t know her name. None of them have ever seen her. They know her as a voice that trumpets into the telephone with an almost belligerent opening of “Prie-vitt Ser-viss.” With those two words she manages to convey that she’s ready as a paratrooper but is having no nonsense. Then, having put the guest in his place, Mabel Egan softens. If it’s someone she knows who asks “How are you this morning?” her voice smooths dovtfn like creamed butter, “Yes, sir, I’m wonderful. Right away.” The phone down, she bawls “Robert,” writes down the order she knows by heart, hands the slip to a waiter on the trot and is ready to pick up the phone again.

Mabel Egan operates from the basement of the Chateau, her desk and phones situated in a glass cage past which every waiter and every tray must go on the way up to the rooms. In her youth she was a spirited Irish beauty with dark hair and flashing hazel eyes. At 60 she still has plenty of the old spirit, keeps her hair black and glossy and tightly waved, her color high with rouge and lipstick, her fingers tipped with bright nail polish. At one time she weighed 125 pounds; what she weighs today nobody has had the temerity to ask, but it is probable that she carries an extra 100 pounds as a tribute to the good food at the Chateau. It is rumored that she comes to work in a taxi because she doesn’t fit well into crowded

streetcars. And she says of herself, “I’ve made myself a dumpling and can’t knock it off.’’

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Down in Mabel's Room

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Being overweight seems to be no burden to Mabel Egan. For six days a week she comes to work at 7 a.m., stays on Lite job, having lunch at her desk, until 2.30 iti the afternoon. Then she goes home, does her housework, cooks meals for her son and her invalid husband, is hack again at the Chateau at f> and on the job till 9 p.m. or later, if the rush hour continues. On a busy tlay, 500 food orders and about 100 orders for drinks will come through her desk. During the rush hour she has no more than put her phone down from one order before if rings again.

Her routine is always the same. If it’s a guest she knows and the meal is breakfast she sends him “the usual’’ and it’s said there’s many a man longing to switch to a kipper, who keeps on eating.bacon and eggs because Mabel Egan remembers he once had them.

Only if a guest is new to the Chateau and insists upon it does private service send up a menu. “We give better service by calling the order off,” says Mrs. Egan. With her it is more than calling off, she sells the meal. “Let me see what I have for you,” her tone of voice is enough to start anyone drooling. “Would you have veal cutlet with spaghetti? Yes, 1 think it would be nice for a change.” Having sold that she shout s “Frank,” writes rapidly on the order pad. Although Frank comes on the run she has it written by the time he gets there, hands if to him with further instructions. “Just a very lit t It? spaghet ti, don’t make it too much of anything. One order of everything a tut divide.” Thatone, she explains, is for ¡t couple of steady guests who always eat lightly at noon.

One Herring, No Tools

Once a waiter has filled an order he wheels it up to Mabel Eagan’s cubbyhole and she can tell at a glance if the linen, service plates and cutlery are complete, if rolls and butter, ice water, salt and pepper are there. Her idea of a horrible experience was once seeing a herring on a plate and nothing to eat it with. She can also tell by the appearance of t he food itself if it’s up to the best Chateau standards. When it has her approval she takes the bill, checks it over, writes the full amount in red pencil to make certain there’s no tampering by the waiter. At breakfast she also sees it that there’s a morning paper on the trav.

Mrs. Egan has served royalty, the peerage, notables of many nationalities. Most of them she never saw, remembers naturally by what they had to eat. “The King of Siam just had the regular breakfast.” Financier Sir James Dunn was more fussy. He wanted soup and vegetables and Mrs. Egan had to inspect the soup to make certain any stray pieces of meat had been tossed out. Tfany meat got in he’d call down and say ‘1 don’t want any of that dirt.’

Occasionally foreign guests need special food prepared. Recently there have been Indian diplomats at the Chateau who come down to the kitchens “to show us how to cosy their meat with oil.” Sometimes they settle for Canadian food which they like in odd combinations such as an omelet on top of a club sandwich. Then there are the babies. “Faith, we look after them too,” says Mrs. Egan. “We have to sterilize their bottles, make their formula.”

From her years of experience Mrs. Egan observes that people eat more than they used to, spend more money on food. For the most part their tastes are plain and she encounters very few cranks. “Minister Chevrier (Hon. Lionel Chevrier, Minister of Transport) has orange juice, cereal, toast and coffee for breakfast,” she cites him as an average. A few have hearty breakfasts such as juice, cereal, finnan haddie, toast, jam and coffee. “Some like bacon crisp, others think if it’s crisp it’s left off somebody’s table. They think I should never make an error, they’re ready to take the dress ; off me.”

Taking them as a lot, she finds the guests very agreeable. The war has made a big difference in their attitude. “Since the war people are hardened, rationing made them willing to take anything. The war did away with an awful lot of nonsense. We don’t use the sugar and butter we did and there’s not nearly the waste there used to be.” She thinks of the customers as a lot of children and it pleases her to find them well-bred and well brought up.

“They’re very humble when they ask for another piece of butter— I must say they’re very good.” She adds, too, that “They’re very congenial, they haven’t complained about the prices.”

I Nor are they given to petty pilfering I any more.

Basically, though, she credits the good behavior of the guests to the fact that “Most of them come from wonI derful homes. Nowhere else do you deal with the class of guests you get here. We get the best.”

Partridge for R. B.

Mrs. Egan occasionally gets curious about some notable, goes up into the lobby to have a look at him. It is said that quite frequently she is able, from knowing a man’s voice, to pick him out in the flesh. Once, however, after she had listened for months to a radio commentator whose rich voice and lush prose had convinced her he I was tall, dark and handsome, the man I was pointed out to her and she was ¡ badly shaken. A very few guests have had reason to come to the lower regions of the hotel. Among these was Barbara Ann Scott, whom she remembers as “a sweet little thing, hardly higher than the wicket.” coming with her mother and bearing a partridge to be prepared for the late R. B. Bennett.

Mabel Egan was offered the job at the Chateau a quarter of a century ago not because she knew about food or hotel service, but because she could handle staff. At the Canadian Rank Note Company where she was then supervisor of the Printing Division, she was forewoman over 125 girls. “I was j invited to come and take a look at I it and I could see at once that I could j do it all right.” The Chateau had 350 rooms then, now has 1,000, but “prii vate service” has kept up with its I expanding tasks.

Today she has 40 waiters, four tray boys, two elevator men and two women who take turns with her on the phones. With the waiters she’s tough and proud of it. “Their one idea is to get past me as quickly as they can,” she says, “but they have to be pretty fast to do that.” Although she’s 60, her hazel eyes and big shapely ears are as keen ! as those of a bird watcher.

“Can she write and can she talk and can she catch you going by,” marvels one of the waiters.

Mabel Egan laughs. “I beat the life j out of them, hammer the life out of j them.” She also remembers to ask, "How’s your cold today?” And all of them call her “Ma.” Her respon; sibility for them in room service extends not only to seeing that the food is taken up promptly and in good order, but to make certain there are no complaints about their behavior once they reach the upper stories. They have orders not to drink with the guests. “They know Pm death on drunks.” They are instructed, too, that if a guest appears to be in a state of coma they are to leave immediately. These strict regulations have produced good results and Mabel Egan is proud that there has never been a complaint about them tampering.

She knows all the waiters’ little tricks, all their special talents. Whatever they may do, they’re never slow.

It takes from five to ten minutes for each order,” she says. “They go like flies. You see them running with big loads and they never miss a step. It’s the tips they’re after.” Another wav of going after tips is to add a little extra of something. “During rationing they used to put butter on the bottom of the dish as well as on the top, but we fixed that and served the pats from the checker’s table.”

East, West, Ottawa’s Best

So far as Mabel Egan is concerned there’s no place in the world but Ottawa, where she was born. One of her rare holidays was to Atlantic City and of that occasion she says, “If there’d been a bus to Ottawa I’d have jumped on it.” As a girl, Mabel Murphy was a tomboy and according to herself a lazy scholar—“all studies seemed too easy.” She went to Kent and Wellington Schools but nobody insisted that she apply herself.

At 14 she went to work and has been working now for 45 years. She figures her time off wouldn’t total more than six months, including sick leave, holidays and the six weeks she had off when her son was born. As a CNR employee, she has a railway pass that would take her from coast to coast in Canada but she’s never used it not of her own free will. During the Royal Visit in June 1939, she was sent to take charge of room service for the occasion at the Hotel Vancouver. The King and Queen were there for lunch, required no trays, but Mabel Egan was kept there for a month to reorganize the room service.

Of her, the management says Mabel Egan is, so far as they know, the liest in the room service field and the only woman to hold that sort of job in a large hotel. Usually it is managed by two men. But, in spite of her success and the pleasant working conditions which include what she regards as “a good salary” and all she can eat, Mabel Egan wouldn’t wish her life on anyone. She looks back with something like horror on the five years of war when she had a sick husband at home and her boy overseas. She describes all her life as a lonesome one. Says she doesn’t get. around muchhasn’t been to a movie since the talkies came in.

On the subject of married women working she says, “It’s the craziest thing a woman ever did. Everybody loses all respect for you. They just think you’re out for money. You don’t get anything out of it, you just get to be like a piece of cardboard at home. The woman who looks the happiest is the one who’s at home with the children.”

Mabel Egan looks fierce and her eyes flash when she makes that pronouncement, but it’s not in her to feel sorry for herself for long. As a railway employee, she will retire on pension in another five years but she’s never thought about it, makes no plans for what she will do with her unaccustomed leisure. Chances are she’ll be like the milkman’s horse; no matter where she’s going she’ll automatically turn in when she comes to the Chateau Laurier. ir