Serious Eats

Waitering, Part Two

20070403waitery.jpg
Photograph from iStockphoto.com

Note: This is the second of two parts. Read Part One here.

“There’s an Emory professor here,” said Annette, my friend who took over my job as host. “I’m putting him in your section.”

I was in the weeds. That was a term I learned quickly—“Let us know if you’re in the weeds,” Jade said—and it meant in over your head, overwhelmed by work, completely lost in your job.

“OK,” I said, brusquely, preparing to make another giant vat of coffee for all the servers to use. It was Sunday brunch, and the place was a madhouse.

The Emory professor sat with his little daughter at a table in the corner. I quickly went over to him, welcomed him to Milton’s, and asked him what he wanted to drink.

“I hear you go to Emory,” he said.

“I do.”

“Good school, isn’t it?”

I didn’t have time to talk so I said yes and asked again for his drink order. I brought him coffee, brought his daughter orange juice, and dove into the kitchen to put hot muffins into a basket.

“Are you in the weeds?” Jade asked, lording over me with a raised eyebrow.

“No,” I said. “I’m doing fine.”

The professor ordered an omelet; his daughter ordered oatmeal and a side of bacon.

I put it into the computer, brought it out when it was ready, and took another table’s order.

After about 20 minutes, the professor waved me over.

“Excuse me,” he said, “my daughter wants just one more piece of bacon.”

I looked at him with desperation.

“I don’t think we can do that,” I said. “I get bacon by putting it into the computer. I can order another side of bacon...“

“She just wants one more piece of bacon,” he said. “Can’t you do that?”

“No,” I said. “I’m sorry. I don’t know how to do that.”

The professor shook his head. "Forget it,” said.

Later, after I dropped the check, I returned to find that he was gone, having paid with exact cash.

And leaving me no tip.

No Lazy Sundays Here
For Sunday brunch, you were to arrive at 7 a.m. and then, when it was over at 4 p.m.—when you were exhausted, demoralized, and debilitated—you had to roll silverware. Two crates.

You sat at a table and laid a square cloth napkin so the corner faced you. You placed two forks, a knife, and a spoon clustered in the center, and then you rolled the napkin around it. And then you placed the finished roll into a crate.

At first it was calming, but after a few weeks of silverware rolling, you couldn’t imagine a task more excruciating. All you wanted to do, after Sunday brunch, was go home and pass out. But there you were rolling silverware.

Jade was always the first to finish.

“I’m out of here,” she’d say, done with her two crates when my first one was only a quarter full.

She shot out of the door and put Sunday brunch immediately behind her.

Working for the Man
The owner of Milton’s was an evil Walt Disney figure named Tom Milton. He would come in, now and again, and walk around in his red sweater with his thinning silver hair and shiny silver mustache and say things to the staff to show that he was boss.

Once I was entering an order into the computer and there was a fork by my foot. I didn’t see the fork by my foot but I saw Tom Milton standing a few feet away watching me.

When I was done entering the order, I turned to look at him. I smiled and said hi. He didn’t smile back.

“Son,” he said. “Milton’s vision goes all the way to the floor.”

He pointed to the fork. I saw the fork and bent down to get it. When I stood up, he was gone.

More frustrating were the managers. In addition to the two who ran the restaurant, there was another who was tall and blond and looked like the beloved son of a wealthy East Coast family. His job was to sit at a booth all day and drink wine. I’m not kidding.

The restaurant was known, I suppose, for its wine selection, and his job was to interact with wine distributors. He would sit at a booth, a distributor would come in with a case of wine, and they’d sit and sample and laugh and sample some more.

And the way he pranced around the restaurant, you would suppose he was God’s gift to fine dining. His gaze would travel right past the waiters and kitchen staff and only acknowledge other managers or customers or Tom Milton, whom he’d pat on the shoulder as if they were best friends.

Of all the people there, I resented him most. I’m not a political person, but he aroused feelings of revolution in me. I wanted to stand on a chair and expose him as a fraud, a charlatan, a blight on the human race.

And yet, as much as I resented him, I didn’t hate him as much as I hated the chef. The chef, as far as I was concerned, was the essence of evil.

If You Can't Stand the Heat
After Kitchen Confidential and Heat and Top Chef and all the books and TV shows that reveal how chefs operate and the high-testosterone environment in which they work, you won’t be shocked to learn that the head chef at Milton’s was a loathsome, fiery creature.

If the restaurant was set up in a certain way, I may not have felt his wrath. But because the servers had to put the final touches on a dish, to serve the soup, he was frequently there to humiliate you and put you in your place.

And so it was that while garnishing a portobello soup, he stared at me in shock and said, “That’s way too much Sherry. You fuckin’ ruined it.”

He grabbed the bowl from my hand and threw it in the sink.

“Do it right,” he said, giving me another empty bowl.

I did it again, and he watched as I drizzled a small drop of Sherry in.

“Now that’s not enough,” he snapped. “Are you mocking me?”

No. I was pissing my pants and wanting to get out of there. So I drizzled a little more in and quickly fled the kitchen.

I was too sensitive for this shit. I’m a writer, damn it, not a punching bag.

The next week, on a Tuesday morning, I called in sick.

And, I’m ashamed to say, the next day I called in sick again. And then I made up a story about a family emergency.

And never went in again.

As I relive all this, writing this story, I’m realizing how dehumanizing the whole experience was. Restaurant culture mirrors real-life culture, and if you have any delusions about how the world works, about absolute power corrupting absolutely, go work at a restaurant. Your romantic bubble vision of the world will burst.

Of course there are exceptions. Of course there are restaurants that treat their staff better, that try to create a family environment, that make servers and managers feel equal.

But for the most part, it’s a brutal business. And one that left me never wanting to go back.

Yoga may have led me to waitering, but waitering led me back to yoga. Sitting there in a lotus position, the loud, scary world of the restaurant business flew away.

In my head I repeated a mantra. There was Tom Milton pointing to a fork and there was me, on an endless loop, sassing back: “Kiss my grits. Kiss my grits. Kiss my grits.”

Inner-peace at last.

About the author: Adam Roberts is The Amateur Gourmet. His book, The Amateur Gourmet, will be published by Bantam/Dell in summer 2007.

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