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The Waitressing Life: The Honor of a Second-Class Profession

A server explains why she loves her occupation—even though people like GQ's Alan Richman might love to hate it

My name is Katie. I went to Dartmouth, and I am a waitress.

I like talking to people and I take pride in what I do. If my customers are nice or my hair looks particularly cute, they might ask me a question about myself. Most often the question is, "So what do you do, other than, you know, waitressing?"

I want my customers to enjoy themselves. But I understand that the moment you step on the floor to ask someone what they would like to drink or whether they have questions about the menu, you become their servant. It's an adopted role and you are, in fact, serving someone and getting paid to do it. Perhaps some of my hipper colleagues feel bad about themselves. It's not as if society hails waiters and waitresses—trust me, I just spent a week at the beach with my white-shoed grandfather and never disclosed the profession that I actually really enjoy.

GQ's Alan Richman recently opened a discussion on declining service standards at popular New York City restaurants, and his article, in the September issue, made me think about how servers' attitudes and levels of professionalism can vary depending on where they are. New York City, where I live and work and where Richman had an unpleasant experience that set off his piece, is of course a metropolis of haves and have-nots—and your waiter is probably a not. However much you love David Chang's pork buns, the people ensuring that they arrive hot probably don't get health care. They probably don't have a contract, their shifts might be cut at any time, they might be sent home early, and the amount of money they make daily might depend on a complex calculation of the number of bottles of wine sold divided by the number of busboys on the floor.

I was lucky. I started waitressing in high school, but after college I moved to New Orleans and worked at the Besh Restaurant group, which for three days sequestered its staff for an "Excellence in Service" seminar taught by Eric Weiss. It started with a group of waiters and waitresses standing around banquet trays covered with spoons, matchbooks, limes, and pens of various varieties. We were told to study what we saw, return to our seats and write down everything we could remember: good memories could make us excellent servers.

Beyond the memory games, the course included pearls like: Don't ask table 51 if they would like "another" cocktail, ask if they would like a "fresh" cocktail—the former may make them feel like a boozehound. Don't assume the beautiful woman with the power broker at 22 is his wife. It could be his secretary—be discreet. Don't ask how "we" are doing this weekend—you will sound like a dope. Guests always have the right-of-way, then the food, then you—fade into the wall, kiddo! Don't walk too fast when seating guests—they might get lost. Try using thoughtful details to remember names, like Cowboy Curtis for the guy in boots and Labradorean Leslie for the lady with the dog sweater. And always, always, always read your guest.

The power broker may want you to sing, dance, and make him look like a big shot in front of his lady. But the boozehound wants you to cut the crap and pour the wine. According to Weiss, an excellent server knows the difference immediately.

"Now and then poor service is a result of a restaurant having an unfortunate day," Richman wrote, adding that this might be the result of snappy chefs and short staffing. I would present a few other possibilities.

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Katie Van Syckle is a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn. She has written for New York Magazine, The New York Daily News, The Times-Picayune, and The Gambit Weekly.

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