I blog by day and wait tables by night. I'm excited to bring you Served, dispatches from the front of the house. Enjoy!
I miss cooking. It's not that I don't spend plenty of time futzing in my kitchen at home, roasting veggies and searing salmon. Baking batches of cookies is my procrastination activity of choice. But there is nothing like cooking in a restaurant.
I (mostly) love waiting tables, but sometimes I long for my kitchen days of yore. A cook wouldn't have needed to be patient with the guy who asked me a grand total of 11 times last night why we didn't have a scotch list. We're a wine bar; we don't have a liquor license. I explained this twice, and then switched to dirty looks. They didn't deter the nine subsequent queries.
Both the front and back of the house can be frustrating, demanding, rewarding, infuriating, and amazing places to work. In my humble experience, here's why:
1. Cooks create: They make stuff with their hands. Mayo, capers, and cornichons get turned into remoulade; ducks get boned, cured, and plated with oranges; tart shells get pressed into molds and filled with lemon curd.
Sure, it all comes out the other end eventually. Food is fleeting—it's not as if cooks are building houses. But cooks have tangible, satisfying fruits to show for their labor. I found this deeply rewarding.
Waiters? Not so much. Doing the serving piece in the service industry means there is nothing concrete that comes out of working your ass off. If your guests have a great night, you feel a little proud. But for me, this does not come close to the satisfaction of creating awesome food. So, one point to BOH
2. Cooks are far from the action: So you make that awesome food. Lots of it. During service, plates come together and get sent out into the abyss of the dining room in rapid-fire succession.
But then they're gone, off the pass, into the hands of the runners, and into what might as well be a black hole. Waiters get to ooh and ahh with the guests over the smokiness of the tagliatelle or the fatty, succulent goose breast. Cooking is all about production, not about consumption.
The interaction is not just about the food. In a swanky fine-dining restaurant or in a dive, tending bar or waiting tables is social pursuit. Those working in the front of the house meet the customers, who sometimes come bearing stories, gossip, and kindness. Many are friends and potential friends. One point to FOH.
3. But not all are friends: Like my scotch-deprived diner, not everyone is a pleasure to wait on. Some are grumpy, stingy, or even cruel. Some are so awful as to make you briefly consider suicide. A juicy one point to BOH.
4. The kitchen isn't always a lovefest, either: Sure, tantrum-prone chefs unload their rage on waiters and runners and busboys, but they reserve a special fiery vehemence for their line cooks. The chef, after all, must bear responsibility for every sprig of thyme and ladleful of sauce the cook deposits on his plates. And the waiter can seek refuge elsewhere. The cook has to stand there, a mere few feet away from the fuming chef, and marinate in whatever anger permeates the hot kitchen air.
Kitchens are still often hotbeds of machismo. I've never worked or played anywhere else where it is acceptable to scream in people's faces. Some people thrive off aggression, but I work best with a little more gentleness. This is an easy one point to FOH.
5. The pay part is just unfair: Cooks work just as hard as their front-of-house comrades. More often, they work harder. It's a sweaty, brutal, physically demanding job. Sometimes, it is excruciatingly boring. (How many thousands of gougeres must I pipe full of cheese?)
But at the end of a frantic night, the kind of night where you feel accomplished to have come out alive, it's the waiters who go home with a pockets bulging with cash. The cooks make their same six dollars, or eight dollars, or twelve dollars (if they're lucky), an hour. For waiters, more work means more money. For cooks, more work just means more work.
This is one of the prime injustices of the restaurant industry. This is a huge one point to FOH.
6. Cooking is fun: It is! Folding napkins, refilling water glasses, stocking wine: less fun. That's one point to BOH.
7. The hookup: Throwing a burger on the grill for myself at the end of a grueling night, making it just the way I wanted it, and chowing it down was a great job perk. Likewise, it's nice that waiters where I work get to pour ourselves a generous glass of wine or pop a beer.
This is where front of house/back of house solidarity comes in. When I cooked, we'd make the waiters some ravioli, or better yet, a plate of braised short ribs. They'd bring us big pitchers of beer or pour us glasses of bubbly. Together, we had a feast. One point to each camp.
It's a total draw. I hope to cook in a restaurant kitchen again. I have so much to learn. It's one of the most difficult and most fun things I have ever done.
I love my job waiting tables, too. For now, I'm not going anywhere.
May I pour you a glass of wine?