I blog by day and wait tables in a New York City restaurant by night. I'm excited to bring you Served, dispatches from the front of the house. Enjoy!
If you find waiting tables to be an easy pursuit, I would gauge that you have never worked as a waiter.
As a perfectionist, I admit with regret that I am far from achieving waiter perfection. Like the natural athlete and the musical prodigy, some people are blessed (or cursed?) with an innate knack for the rhythm and nuance of service.
Sometimes, I find myself in the groove: filling wine glasses and clearing tables like nobody’s business, stopping to say hi to a couple that has just walked in, and running a wild boar sausage to diners at the bar. Other times, it’s all I can do stay afloat. I needed to take a food order from table seven five minutes ago, but there are suddenly two new tables in my section which must be greeted and an unruly mass forming at the door. Help!
Aspiring to server proficiency, I’ve pinpointed the following great waiter attributes. I’m sure I’m leaving out many more.
Some of my mom’s best stories originate from her high school, college, and grad school waitressing stints. The first time she got fired, her heavily accented boss—she recounts this tale with a heartfelt impersonation—took her to the office, sat her down, and said to my poor teenage mom: “You must move like a ballerina. But you move more like an elephant.”
I would say I fall somewhere in the middle of the ballerina-elephant spectrum.
The challenge is not just striding elegantly through the dining room like a model down a catwalk. It’s doing so while balancing many heavy plates on which delicate things are delicately and vertically balanced. It’s swerving past an indifferent crowd blocking the way without body checking the guests.
It’s working in a tiny space where a bartender, cook, and dishwasher share hardly a closet-sized area in which to complete many physical tasks. Without killing anyone, or driving anyone to kill you.
Like the three kinds of wild mushrooms in the truffled spaetzle; which purveyor sells us the barely buzzed; which beer pairs best with the duck confit salad (in my humble but assured opinion); and how to pronounce the multisyllabic name of our new, earthy Portuguese red.
You never know what people might ask. Probably something ridiculously obscure. This is when you run downstairs and consult your good friend Google.
But really, even in a small restaurant with a small beverage list and menu, the numbers of details add up fast. A dish is made with fiscalini cheddar one night, and 5 spoke creamery tumbleweed the next. That’s a farmstead grass-fed raw cow's milk from Pennsylvania with a cheddar-like texture and a fruity creaminess.
Because the goal is not just to serve one table impeccably, but to serve something like six tables impeccably. Perhaps these sit tables will sit down within moments of each other. It’s not just that the new guests must all get menus, wine lists, and water in a flash. The whole rest of their time at the restaurant will happen somewhat simultaneously—taking orders, serving food. This is when you’re weirdly glad that people are speed eaters or preposterously slow.
At any given moment, there are probably four or five things to do: refill water, take orders, bring food, clear food, open wine, answer questions, and so on. Then someone at your table spills their wine all over the cheerless, dressed all in white, woman at the table next-door. Now there’s six things to do. And in another five minutes, there will be six more things. At the very least.
But you don’t want to let your guests know that you are a frantic mess. Inside: hysterical. Outside: collected, composed, gracious, and totally on top of everything.
Perhaps this is why so many good waiters are actors? I am an awful actor.
Have Everyone’s Back
Sometimes, the most competent waiters will find themselves deep in the shits. This is when it’s time for their fellow competent waiters to step up and lend a hand. A place where everyone is looking out for each other is a happy place.
Don’t Take It Too Seriously
It’s not as if you’re performing open heart surgery or anything. Have a sense of humor, have a good laugh, and get on with the night.