Served: No Sick Days in the Restaurant Biz

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I was coughing, sneezing, sweating. I was a hot mess. My first thought: Who can work for me?

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!

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It’s two years ago. My restaurant has only been open a few weeks, and I’m scheduled to work the opening shift. This means I will come in early and prepare the dining room for service: set the tables, fold napkins, slice bread, and the last, pretty touch—place a candle on each table and along the bar.

Hours ago, I woke up feeling queasy and headachy. But I’m needed at work and make a point to put my flagging health out of my mind. At the restaurant, I barely manage to wipe down two tables before I must book it to the bathroom. And puke.

“OK,” I think, “I got it out of my system. I’m fine now.”

The owner and the fromager are in the dining room, talking shop. “How are you feeling?” B., the former, inquires. I am pretty yellowish.

“Not great,” I admit, “but I think I’ll be OK.” For a minute, I resume table wiping. Then I’m back in the bathroom. This is not good. The walls are not so robust; poor B. and T. must listen to my miserable barfing.

“Sweetie,” T. says, “Go home!”

“But what will you do?” I know I am in no shape to wait tables, but I feel awful about leaving the restaurant in a bind.

“We’ll work it out,” T. insists. But through the bathroom walls (I’m still throwing up) I can hear their panicked plotting. We are a tiny, brand new place, and there is no one to cover for me. They start calling friends, acquaintances, former coworkers.

“But do you know anyone who can wait tables tonight?” they ask, just in case, as I wobble pathetically home. I don’t.

Don’t Be a Pussy

Every cook knows you better be on your deathbed before you even consider calling in sick. (Might you be able to pop off your deathbed for a few hours during dinner rush?). It’s part of the culture of the kitchen. Everyone is needed, no matter what. Slice off your thumb at noon? Can you be back by three, stitched up and ready for the long night ahead?

What happens if the thumb decapitation occurs during busy service? That’s why God made bandages. Now is no time for hospitable visits. Be a man! Fire two trout, one short rib! And please, don't get any blood on the plate.

Where I used to hostess, the hot new sous chef had a dimply skinned red arm. “What’s his story?” I asked a coworker.

“His arm got in the way of hot oil. He refused to take care of the burn. Normal cook behavior.” The dude always rolled up his chef jacket, proudly flaunting his grotesque appendage. “He thinks it will help him get laid,” the enlightened coworker explained.

Would an enormous burn help him get laid? I will never know. But it did lend him a sort of crazy, macho credibility in the kitchen.

Front of the House

Nobody wants their waitress to be spouting blood or coughing into their food or in their face. Still, where I work, it is now our responsibility to get our shift covered if we can’t wait tables—whether it’s because of the flu or because you just can’t miss Aunt So and So’s birthday dinner.

This weekend, like everyone I live with, I came down with some kind of nasty sick. I was coughing, sneezing, sweating. I was a hot mess. My first thought: Who can work for me?

I called up my three options and left raspy, pleading messages. “Please can you work tonight? I feel like death.” It was Saturday. They absolutely needed a server. I put my phone by my bed and crossed my fingers.

A text from D.: “Sorry! I’m already working. Feel better.”

That left two. In the hours I alternated sleeping, basking in despondency, and worrying about what would happen if nobody could cover my shift.

Lucky me, A. came through. I got to spend the night curled up in bed, trying to recover.

“I owe you one. Or seven,” I texted A., relieved.

“No. I’m getting paid,” was his response.

Fair enough. I was forfeiting several hundred bucks. But instead, perhaps I could wake up the next morning better able to breathe and function. Sometimes, one has to put their health first. After all, a pale, dizzy, hacking waitress is never a good look.