Waitering, Part One

Photograph from iStockphoto.com

Yoga led me to waitering.

Let me explain. It was the second semester of my senior year of college (Emory, in Atlanta) and I had almost enough credits to graduate. In fact, the only credit I needed to graduate was a P.E. credit. Which was one credit. So I signed up for yoga and once a week for one hour I had to do yoga and that was it. My parents, not surprisingly, weren’t too happy.

“You need to get a job,” they said.

“Ummm, I have a job,” I replied. “It’s called yoga.”

But they didn’t buy it and soon I didn’t buy it either. So I applied for a job at a restaurant that, for the purposes of this article, we’ll call Milton’s.

With zero waitering experience they hired me as a host. I would start immediately.

Hosting at Milton’s was easy during the week, maddening on the weekend, especially Sunday when people came in droves for Sunday brunch.

My job would be to placate people and give them estimated wait times which, to be honest, I often made up.

“Oh, it’ll be about 45 minutes,” I’d say, looking at the list like some kind of scholar, a former Mathlete brought on for my superb estimation skills.

After 45 minutes, if a table hadn’t opened up, I’d say, “It’ll be just a few more minutes,” and then I’d walk around the restaurant, pretending to search for a table, but really just stretching my legs. Inevitably a table would open up and inevitably the people would be seated—but not because of any great planning on my part.

Soon, I grew restless in the job. I wanted to be a waiter—not because I’d make more money (which I would) but because I wanted to be like Flo at Mel’s Diner in Alice and tell customers to “Kiss my grits.”

Sure enough, a few weeks into my hosting stint, I overheard a manager talking to another manager about how a waiter quit and how they needed a fast replacement.

“I can do it,” I said. “I can learn really fast.”

The first manager gave the second manager a look and the second manager shrugged.

“Go find Jade,” the first manager said. “Tell her that you’re going to trail her today.”

Jade was the most seasoned waitress in the restaurant. Trailing her would be like an amateur politican trailing Bill Clinton.

I tracked her down and told her the news.

“Just stay out of my way,” she said. “And takes notes. I’m not going to repeat myself.”

“Yes ma’am,” I joked.

Jade was not amused.

After trailing Jade around for six hours, I learned a few things. I was always fascinated at what, precisely, servers wrote down when you ordered. Was there a secret code? A universal shorthand that only servers knew about?

“Just write whatever the hell you want,” Jade explained, “as long as you know what to put into the computer.”

Any romantic notion of friendly banter between waiters and kitchen staff was quickly dispelled when I learned the computer system: the only communication between the front of the house and the back of the house was via computer. You entered a table’s order into the computer, the kitchen produced it, you took it from the expo station (after adding last minute garnishes) and served it to the table.

“It’s your job to pace the meal,” said Jade. “So you don’t enter an appetizer, an entrée, and a dessert all at the same time. First you enter the appetizer, you wait for it to come out, and then you enter the entrée. Otherwise it’ll all come up at once.”

This immediately concerned me: I’d have to keep track of where all of my tables (five or six tables in a section) were in their meals in order to pace the meals correctly. That’d be hard.

“Now,” said Jade, leading me into the kitchen. “Table 12 just ordered the Portobello mushroom soup.” She lifted a giant soup bowl and placed it on a plate.

“Waiters do soup,” she continued, ladling two giant ladlefuls into the bowl.

“Once in the bowl, you add the garnishes.” She reached for a sprinkling of Parmesan and then a giant bottle of Sherry.

“Just a drop of Sherry,” she said, drizzling Sherry over the top. “Sometimes we do this tableside, but I’m in a rush.”

She passed me the bowl and then did the same thing again. We carried it over to the table and she quickly explained, on the way, the numbering system so you knew where to put the food.

“Position one is the one closest to the door,” she said, ”and then it moves clockwise around the rest of the table. So position two is at 3 o’clock, position three is at 6 o’clock and position four is at 9 o’clock. Put that soup at position four.”

My head was spinning but since there were only two people at the table, I placed the soup at the only position remaining.

“Don’t plop the soup down,” Jade chastised, as we walked away.

“Come on,” she continued. “Now we have to enter their entrées into the computer. Here, you do it.”

After several attempts on my part, Jade grew frustrated. “Move,” she snapped. She pushed me aside and let out a grunt.

At the end of the day, the managers sat down with Jade and me and asked her how I did.

“Bad,” she said. “He’s not ready.”

My heart sank. Despite my early missteps, I was getting better as the day went along. Soon, I was manning my own tables, taking orders, garnishing soup, printing out checks.

“How do you think you did?” asked Manager One (a tall lanky man who walked with his hands flattened against his sides in a stiff, terrifying way).

“I think I did fine,” I said. “And I can definitely learn. I’ll be better tomorrow.”

The managers consulted and then turned to me.

“OK,” they said. “Come in tomorrow, and we’ll put you on.”

I smiled a big smile and Jade sighed.

“Iron your shirt,” Manager Two said. “This is a nice restaurant we’re running here.”

I didn’t own an iron, but I went out and bought one. That night I ironed my shirt over and over again and prepared for my first real day as a waiter.

Read Part Two