Friday, December 11, 2015

It’s when I’m sitting at a restaurant during the peak of dinner service when the nostalgia comes back in full force.

Table upon table is filled with happy revelers immersed in good food, booze and conversation. All of the wait staff is busy in their poetic dance of service that seems so perfectly in synch. Orders are taken. Food is delicately placed on tables. And dirty plates are expertly passed off like a baton with no glances and a flick of the wrist. The deafening noise level is a mixture of flatware in good use and jaws chewing with a balance of laughter and stories recounted. There’s music on in the background, but it’s impossible to tell what song or even genre is playing because it exists only as the counterpart of chirping crickets in nature.

It’s at these moments when I miss working in restaurants the most, where I used to be just one person in a chain of employees whose only objective is to make sure you have a kickass night out with some great food.  

I first started working full-time in restaurants after I was laid off from an epicurean magazine. This was at the height of the economic crisis years ago, and was my umpteenth job in an office since graduating from college. Getting laid off was one of the best gifts I could’ve ever been given because it forced me to make a much needed change in my life I was too scared to make on my own. Being in my mid-twenties, I felt burnt out. The minutiae of office life in a fluorescent-lighted world that seemed devoid of reality was also something I wanted a break from, so I excitedly jumped head first into starting work in a completely new environment.

I had worked odd restaurants jobs since I was a kid and felt confident walking in on the first day of my gig. But being a dishwasher when I was twelve years old at my parents’ old restaurant or waiting tables part-time at a café during college could have in no way prepared me for what was to come.

The restaurant I started working at was a well-known spot in the East Village of Manhattan that was recognized for its award-winning food without the uptight service. I was first hired as a runner, which is the person who brings you your food from the kitchen and lets you know what dish it is while you and your friends unknowingly ignore them. Then I worked my way up to host, server, and bartender before eventually becoming a staff captain.

Climbing up the front-of-house (FOH) ladder was a lot of hard work, but something I really loved. Restaurant-goers might think that FOH employees just show up to our shift and only do the work you watch us do with your own eyes, but it takes so much more than that.

We learn in detail beforehand about every dish on the menu including its history, preparation, and cooking technique; which farm, ocean or source that each ingredient came from, along with how it was grown or raised. Then there’s everything to know about allergies to save you from having it be  your last meal ever. The same studying was also required for the drink menu along with every specialty cocktail and its ingredients, and every bottle of wine offered including its region and grape varietal. On top of all this, there are always the daily specials. Learning a restaurant’s menus can sometimes be no simple feat, with the number of ingredients and techniques on some easily running into the hundreds.

And it’s not just the food knowledge that needs to be studied. Because no two restaurants ever run the same way, there’s also the computer system, floor plan, company history and countless other details like the first step to follow in case a health inspector rolls through.

However, all of that is the easiest part of the job. Working in the FOH of a restaurant is pretty much all service work---and with that comes the customers.

For the most part, the majority of diners who eat out at restaurants are normal and treat the staff with respect like a fellow human being. But then there are those certain people who from the moment they interact with the host or sit down at their table, you know they’re going to require a lot more handholding. From snapping their fingers or manically waving their hand to get your attention, to initiating confrontation or openly patronizing you somehow in front of their tablemates, these guests get off on exhibiting any form of power. It’s one thing if these customers have been provoked with bad service or unprofessional behavior, but I am referring to those who do it regardless.

It took me a bit of time to learn how to handle customers like this, but when I did, the solution was so formulaic that it became second nature. It’s at that moment where I would tell myself that this is my job and livelihood, and I’ll be damned if this person thinks they’re getting away with this.

What I gleaned is that most of these customers just want to get a reaction from you before they want an actual solution. The most important thing is to always provide professional service no matter what, but without being overtly nice. Without fail, be firm with your answers and never show that they’re getting to you in any way because they usually respond to that. Accept the situation and play along in their warped game---it can even be a little fun sometimes.

Working in a restaurant is honest work, and that’s something else I’ve always appreciated. In an office, it can be easy to fey busyness while secretly reading blogs or shopping for a new sex toy on your computer. In a restaurant, you’re either working or you’re not---there’s no bullshitting around it and everyone around you knows it. Downtime in any well-managed restaurant doesn’t exist because the side work that needs to get done never ceases. Once during a slow lunch shift, a fellow server of mine and I caught up on each other’s lives as we wiped down all the walls of the restaurant because we wouldn’t be caught dead doing that casually with our arms crossed.

Whether it’s handling four plates and glassware at once, or lugging bottle upon bottle of booze to be restocked, restaurant work is extremely physical. You’re running around on your feet the entire time, and there are nights when the floor is so busy and you’re getting your ass handed to you that it’s impossible to even go take a piss until 5 hours into your shift. I didn’t mind workdays like those, because it would all go by so fast. At the end of it, my fellow colleagues and I would also feel this sense of pride of getting through it with relatively no major problems, knowing that if we could get through that, we could get through anything.

One of the best things about working in a restaurant is the camaraderie and teamwork it involves, because there’s no position in any restaurant that can be done alone. Everyone needs to rely on and work with someone else. Every position is required to bust their ass and give it their all, and if management has done a good job in assembling a likeminded team, then the outcome results in both the customers having an awesome experience and the staff having a great time providing that. And for those times you majorly fuck up, it’s just a known fact that you will get screamed at until you might want to cry, especially if it has something to do with the food. The chef and the kitchen will have no problem reaming you out until they can’t speak or throw shit around anymore, but in the end you’ll learn the valuable lesson to never fuck up in the same way again. In restaurants, that’s how lessons are taught.

It’s not always just all stress and bullshit though. Most customers are great, and they let you know that not everything has to be so serious all the time. There are also always going to be those particular nights where something special that requires celebration is happening, and shots of booze will be furtively had by employees during the shift. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it always adds an extra layer of fun.

With eating and drinking being such a primal thing, any work that’s related to it will bring out the entire range of emotions people are capable of experiencing. From absolute euphoria and praise, to a drunken rage that the customer will most likely not remember the next day, anyone who’s worked in restaurants has seen everything.

And at that moment where I’m sitting at a restaurant, enjoying my meal during the zenith of controlled chaos in a busy dinner service, it makes me miss it all.

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