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
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.
Is the manager drunk? High? An idiot? Is the chef a jerk? Is the kitchen in the weeds? Is your server hung-over? Did family meal make her or him sick? Did someone just show up with a gigantic stroller and ask your server to park it? Did your server forget to fire your food? Is the screwy waiter losing it over how much silverware your server didn't polish? Did she or he break up with an abusive boyfriend and make out with the screwy waiter? Is your table in fact full of the world's most entitled and unpleasant old people? Excellent servers will survive this missile fire. According to Weiss, sequence of service should include the following: within two minutes of sitting down, guests should be greeted with water. Drinks should arrive in five minutes—if you didn't order a fancy cocktail. If your liquor has been infused, cut the bar chef some slack. Appetizers should arrive in 10 minutes, and the next course in another 10. Dishes should be brought to the guest who ordered them and not auctioned off—this isn't Sotheby's. Dirty plates and silverware should be replaced, napkins refolded, and steak knives set. When servers are not busy, they should stand up straight and reside quietly in their sections.
At more casual spots where these orthodox white-tablecloth standards don't apply, the staff simply needs to be kind, genuine, and attentive. Many of the hipper restaurants seem to pick and choose which standards they adopt. I recently trailed a server at a popular Brooklyn restaurant, where I was told not to leave the cork on the table during wine service because "this is Williamsburg."
It is not that waiters are "too cool to care," as Richman suggests, but rather that there is a disconnect between price, buzz, and professional service. A veteran manager at a Michelin-starred Brooklyn establishment told me that he thinks we are missing the point. "At a trendy restaurant I am happy if I get what I order," he said, adding that the waitstaff at these places are usually hired for their beauty, not their frontal lobes.
Diners dying for a trend fix but put off by tattooed types might try disarming their enemies by being kind, patient, and un-entitled. There is an ego-swallowing required of great waiters and waitresses, akin to any service job. This task is not particularly comfortable for bright young things from the provinces desperate to believe they have a place in an enormous city. Chefs, by the time they earn their whites, are considered artists. But lifelong servers are always second-class. They are told to use the bathroom in the kitchen, obey managers, stay off their cell phones, enter through the side door, and be quiet, attentive, and busy at all times.
Strangely, despite the potential for lowered self-esteem, rude customers, and insane managers, I take pleasure in the job. I like eating delicious food and I enjoy assisting other people in this pursuit. Unlike offices, which force me to sit down and keep to myself, service is an ongoing chapter from Harriet the Spy. I have season tickets to first dates, breakups, and wedding engagements and I have become great friends with TV writers, professional body builders, and heirs to steakhouse fortunes .
And, if on nerve-frying shifts, your bartender friend funnels you pizza slices and to-go cups of Prosecco—is it really that bad a day?
Image: Tim Wimborne/Reuters