I have a radical idea. It’s edgy. Cutting edge, perhaps. Or you could say I’ve fallen off the edge.
Being in the restaurant business means every one I know wants to tell me their latest eating-out stories. They want my ear, they want to run something by me. They whisper me close and want to find out the dirt I might know about so and so. “So,” they start by leaning in and looking furtively around, “What was it like working for X?!”
But mostly, people want to tell me about how much the service sucked at their latest eating-out experience. Customers pull me aside, friends and strangers alike, and tell me about a faux pas they witnessed, or experienced.
Because I wear a double-breasted button up white coat for most of the hours during a given day or week, I am now The Expert On All Aspects Of The Restaurant Industry. I’m supposed to offer advice, help, insight, compassion, dishing fuel and maybe I’m even supposed to solve the state of the service industry in North America restaurants.
But what I’ve come to is something I’ve felt and known for some time now: being a waiter is one of the hardest positions in a restaurant. It’s neck-in-neck with washing dishes. Before my fellow whites clad brethren walk away and label me a traitor, pick up and deftly pocket stones a la Shirley Jackson-style, let me clarify.
A waiter is the liaison between kitchen and diner. She/ he must intuit the tone of a kitchen, its cooks and what moods Chef is in. He/ she answers to a myriad of managers (hopefully, although I’ve worked in some restaurants that have no one in charge on the floor), needs to be on the good side of who’s hosting (oftentimes this can be an alliance worth more money than either one would care to admit or have anyone know) hungry and impatient diners, and on top of it all, waiters must have multi-tasking skills far outweighing those of a juggling, elephant- training, acrobat.
At the end of their shift, if they’re not shifty, waitstaff “tip out” bussers, bartenders, hosts, and (sometimes) dishwashers. And still, to this day, some diners don’t have enough math skills to figure out percentages translating into the only language which waiters speak fluently: money.
A few years ago, well-spoken NY Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni went under-ground and became a waiter just to see how hard it was. “… I traded places and swapped perspectives, a critic joining the criticized, to get a taste of what servers go through and what we put them through, of how they see and survive us.”
“How they survive us.”
An apt line. Which brings me to my radical idea.
Many say that the only way to end America’s wars in the Middle East would be to have a mandatory draft. If everyone could feel how war presses down on us all, then maybe we would be a little less clueless and apathetic.
My radical idea is this: I say we should have a mandatory service industry draft. I am the first to admit what a terrible waiter I make. I worked for over a decade behind a counter, tried on being a waiter once or twice, and now, although my position is called Chef, I cater to the needs of people I may never meet face to face. I am their servant, so to speak.
I’m in the pleasure business. In the business of pleasuring people.
And when you’ve catered to stranger’s needs, not because it was fun, but because it was paying your way in the world, your compassion gear shifts and fires on a denser oil, through a different, more varied, set of pistons. Your ability to assess the whole situation, not merely your own, changes. When you wait on people all day who treat you like a servant, like you’re stupid for the mere fact of creating their double-decaf-single-shot-soy-mocha latte with extra foam or bagging your croissant or pointing you in the direction of the clear, waterproof band-aids, you tend to become a different customer when it’s you looking for the newest gadget at Sur La Table or bagging onions at the farmers’ market or ordering your sweater over the phone.
In the United States we don’t treat front of house staff like professionals. We assume they’re writers and musicians and actors or students saving money for the other thing they’d rather be doing. Diners and restaurant management staff treat them like this, so it would make sense that most waiters do not treat themselves like professionals. If the circle turned in a different direction, imagine what kind of service you’d have!
My inner cook folds her arms angrily and pouts. “Why are you standing up for them? Look how much money they make!” Yes, you’d think a person who takes home 15-30%, working in a business that makes, overall, at the end of all that’s said and done, about 3-5%, selling a product made by persons earning one third to one tenth (yes, this is not an exaggeration) what said staff will take home in a year, might want to work a little harder, for you, the diner, and me, the kitchen manager and food creator, but…
maybe we will all remain complacent, lazy and apathetic until our name is called in the:
Mandatory Service Industry Draft.