Thursday, April 26, 2012

My Server Manifesto

Tonight was one of those nights in the restaurant industry where I pray to Jesus that I won't have to be waiting tables much longer, that my indentured servitude to the service industry might soon be coming to a close. I'm 31 years old and I have a master's degree. FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, LET IT END.

Let me explain where I'm coming from and clear up some possible misconceptions you might have about what I do (specifically what I do 3 nights a week to pay back my student loans; I also teach college freshman how to write at a private, expensive college, but wouldn't you know, that doesn't pay the bills).

First of all, servers get NO respect, except from other servers. And I'm not just talking about the customers, like the man tonight who tried to "correct" me and convince me that arugula was a kind of cheese. The back-of-house, the cooks? They think we're morons, too. Lazy, stupid assholes who have it easy -- we just have to sell the food they are making. I know, line cooks and sous chefs make paltry salaries. When you're eating at Tom Collichio's restaurant, it's some no-name dude back in the kitchen sweating to make your food. And he makes about minimum wage to do that, despite what you're paying for that filet mignon. It's not fair.

Here's something else that's not fair -- servers make less than minimum wage, based on the assumption that tips will make up the difference. People who have never worked in the industry have some vague notion of this, but I don't think they know the actual math: $2.65 an hour, folks. Minimum wage in the state of Massachusetts is $8.00. I make, per hour, about a third of that. Yup.

And what I do isn't as easy as the cooks who disrespect servers think. Because I'm not just writing down orders. I'm good at what I do. And there are servers who aren't good at what they do. I encounter them all the time. If you don't know what the soup of the day is? FAIL. Hi, I work in a restaurant where we print our entire menu daily. And while not every dish changes every day, it's common that 30% of the menu will have changed. Or, for example, we still have salmon, but instead of coming with a celery root puree, quinoa, and a shaved fennel salad, today it's served with pearl pasta, foraged mushrooms, on top of a citrus-infused glasage. Oh, you don't know what a glasage is? Guess what, I didn't either, but I had to learn and memorize it so I could explain it to you when you ask about it.

As servers, we hear all the time how great the food is and we regularly relay that information back to the kitchen. But how often does the kitchen hear how good we are? Well, never. It's not like patrons wander back after eating to tell the kitchen how well we described their food. How they were going to just order the burger, but then heard how the Maine lobster pasta is a hand-cut pappardelle and changed their minds. They prefer to think of us all as idiots, or as this internet commenter (and presumably BOH, or back-of-house) wrote, "the fucking idiot waiters [who] are making double their weekly intake while they get to giggle through service, snack, and have their free staff drinks while the cooks are cleaning up the kitchen."

#1 -- I don't get a shift drink. I occasionally am offered dregs of wine that won't be serve-able the next day. Whoopee. 

#2 -- Giggle through service and snack? Where the F do you work? I am usually working my ass off and am in the equivalent of a mute fugue state during service, except when tableside, when I'm charming the shit out of people by answering all their questions and making sure they have everything they need. P.S. I not only have to know everything about the food, but also be familiar with and able to describe about fifty bottles of wine and more than a dozen signature cocktails that feature things like chamomile bitters and Skinos ( which, if you're wondering, is a savory Greek liquor).

Here's what to you need to keep in mind the next time you're considering tipping less than 20%: I have PTSD from this job. I have server nightmares almost every night. It's stressful work. And it's largely thankless. And that's why, even when the service I receive when dining out isn't top-notch, I still tip 20%. Because this industry can be wretched. And there is nothing worse than leaving work on the verge of tears and knowing that no one knew how hard you worked, or how your table almost didn't get their appetizers because the kitchen lost the ticket but you noticed in time to correct it before too much time had passed. (Yes, that happened to me tonight). 

Yeah, the customers can be annoying and treat you like dick. But what hurts more is when the kitchen folks, the ones who are supposed to be on your team, fail to recognize the challenges of we do, of how much the difference between an adequate server an excellent server can make in terms of a dining experience. They must recognize it when they eat out, but somehow, once in the vortex of the kitchen, it sometimes feels like us against them. 

I'm lucky -- I've enjoyed a largely positive experience working in a well-run restaurant for over two and a half years. But after nights like tonight, it seems like a wash. I really wish that part of culinary school was compulsory training as a server. Just one night on the floor, I think, would make all the difference. You try and keep a straight face when someone asks if they can get/only be charged for half a cup of coffee and then have their half cup perpetually refilled to the half way mark. JUST TRY.          

1 comment:

SFB said...

"Mute fugue state" is lovely. You should write a poem and try to get your agent to get it into the next food issue of The New Yorker. Or into Lucky Peach (which doesn't yet publish poetry, I don't think). Or someplace.

Johnson and Wales, a culinary school, is near my home town. Their restaurant, Audrey's, has not only some terrific food, but some of the best service I've ever had: because the servers are all culinary students who will be graded on their work!