Served: Hostess with the Mostess

I blog by day and wait tables by night. I'm excited to bring you Served, dispatches from the front of the house. Enjoy!

Before I Was a Waitress, I Was a Hostess

It's a well-known fact that restaurants are constantly in need of hosts. The hosts, for reasons having to do with tradition and sexism, are typically hostesses. Hostesses are rarely hostesses forever. They come and they go.

20080616-servedbug.jpgI remember my interview at what I'll call The Restaurant, an esteemed Manhattan fine-dining French place with grand chandeliers and plush forest-green tapestries on the walls.

The interview was in the office, in the back. It was a different planet than the dining room: fluorescent lights, prodigious piles of papers, many people wheeling about in big chairs in a miniature space.

I remember what I wore &mdash a voluminous black skirt, black pumps that I had purchased for the occasion, my "nice" blazer. I remember this because the general manager spent significantly more time discussing the particulars of my wardrobe than anything else. A summary of his 20-minute lecture: This is a fancy restaurant. You will make the first impression. You should look put together, pretty, conservative, and most of all, never skanky.

My sole previous restaurant experience had been holding the distinguished post of "Gelato Girl" at the now-defunct Wolfgang Puck Express in Hoboken, NJ for a summer. But I was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and I think the GM understood that I wouldn't embarrass him and The Restaurant by showing up to work in, say, microscopic shorts or a towering mohawk.

And So I Was Hired

J, a tiny girl from Albania, oversaw my induction into the world of hostessing. Her accent was thick, her ring huge, her demeanor a dizzying, seesawing affair of light-hearted and serious, giggly and furious. The hostesses were quite a bunch. There was an opera singer who would practice in the coat closet, a girl with a Southern drawl who had just moved to New York to become a model, an anorexic who, rumor had it, was fired for smoking pot before service with a kitchen boy (the cook was not fired). The single host was tall, handsome, Spanish and had just graduated from Hotel School in Europe. We flirted before he explained that he had a fiance in Japan.

It was J who took me under her wing. In time, I'm sure I would have gathered that although family meal was a dismal affair, the bountifully pierced pastry cook was generous with his chocolate souffles and petit fours, and one of the cheese guys liked to share his craft with cheese-loving employees. In time, I would have figured out that it was the unofficial duty of the hostess to double as sports announcer. Between walking hedge fund guys and tourists to their tables and directing guests towards the restrooms, I was expected to deliver updates on football and baseball scores to the guys on the floor and in the kitchen.

J's advice was occasionally invaluable. The Maitre D' might not have been our boss, she informed me, but he yielded tremendous power. It was he who would decide my fate &mdash both whether I got to keep my job, and how joyful or miserable my time at The Restaurant would be.

Meet Mr. Maitre D'

Mr. Maitre D' was a gruff, balding man with a boxer's stance and a perpetual grimace. For reasons incomprehensible to me, Mr. MD was adored by regulars. He did know when to ask about babies and grandchildren and what tables to save lest a regular or VIP make an unexpected appearance. He worked magic with the seating charts, somehow creating space where there was none. He was a suave and commanding conductor of his orchestra, which was The Restaurant itself. He wielded his power with quiet tyranny. Women in minks used to getting their way somehow understood to sit where Mr. MD told them to sit.

If guests were intimidated, I was terrified. I didn't know how quite to behave in Mr. MD's presence, but I knew my behavior was being watched and judged. Mr. MD was to be flanked with a hostess or two at all times, so that he could hold court at the host stand. We were to smile, big, and greet everyone as they came in the door, preferably by name. Mr. MD would scribble their table number on a slip of paper, which us hostesses had printed out and alphabetized before service. We would walk our guests to the table, pull out their chairs, hand off the paper trail to their captain. It was not rocket science, but it wasn't always easy. Mess up one table, J warned me, and I might throw off Mr. MD's master plan and domino the whole night into disaster. Our pre- and post- theater rushes proved to be tactical challenges, bottlenecks of people and coats coming and going.

It took Mr. MD ample time to warm up to me. J pointed out that I had officially won him over when my back was bombarded during one of his nightly rubber-band target practices. It was uphill from there. I grew to genuinely love Mr. MD. His surly exterior guarded fierce loyalty and a wonderfully large and dirty collection of jokes.

I'm All Smiles

If Mr. MD was hard to read, I was pretty sure the GM thought I was doing alright. As his concerns were mostly aesthetic, his evaluation of my progress consisted of looking me up and down. Most nights, I got a nod of approval, and he was on his way. Sometimes, he reminded me to smile. Soon, I got smiling instructions every time our paths crossed. I preempted his attacks with tremendous smiles, which did not deter him from exclaiming, "smile!."

Mr. MD protected "his girls." "If Mr. GM tells me to smile one more time," I said one night in a huff, "I might freak out." The GM never again mentioned my facial expression.

All is (Un)Fair in Love and Restaurants

The Spanish cutie got promoted. I think it had something to do with his gender. It caused quite a stir among the hostesses when we learned that he was making a dollar an hour more than we were to do the same job. The promotion solved that problem.

The GM left and was replaced with another. Mr. New GM was sleeping with one of the hostesses and couldn't be bothered with any of us others &mdash not even to critique our outfits or urge our smiling.

The general distrust and distaste for the management fostered bonding. We traded stories, secrets, drinks.

A pastry cook, a sous chef, and us hostesses were the only women who worked at The Restaurant. A female server, a former Cirque du Soleil performer who rambled ad nauseam about her juice fast, was fired without fanfare. The two girl cooks would visit the hostesses in the office where we would hold pow-wows, chatting about the boys and our lives.

The Restaurant, with time, felt like home. I would hop on the one train after my modern novel class. One moment, Faulkner. The next, rounds of "Hola, chula!" and a frantic and seemingly impossible rush to put together three different sets of menus for three different seatings, and additional versions for the bar and private dining room in scant time. At 5, we would change in a flurry out of our jeans and into skirts, blazers, stockings. We'd wear each others clothes. They all looked the same, anyway.

If fine dining is theater, the hostess is ticket-taker. I said hello, and goodbye, but had little to do with the stuff in-between, the good stuff, all the meaty drama. I had no interest in playing hostess long-term.

When I expressed this to the GM, I was met with confusion. "But you're a great hostess," he said, "we love you."

I wanted to do anything else. All the other roles sounded wonderfully exciting: I could be a runner, a bus girl. I could learn cheese service. If they would have let me, I would have leaped into the kitchen with a beaming smile. But the GM would have none of it. "You're a great hostess," he repeated, as if it were my destiny in life.

Somehow I ended up hostessing at another restaurant, this one in the Village and a vast departure from chandeliers and mink . My manager there told me, as he fired me, "you are not the best hostess in the world." He might have been right.

Life After Hostessing

The restaurant where I wait tables now is a world away from fine dining. It's small, and everyone working is responsible for greeting guests and finding them a place to sit. I do so, of course. But if it's all the same, I much prefer someone else manage the door. I have a bit of post-traumatic hostess disorder.

Just give me some people at a table, and I'll take it from there.

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