So You Want To Be A Waiter

The best book on waiting tables that you have never read – yet

Monthly Archives: April 2009

And they say British humo(u)r is drier than a Grey Goose on the rocks

http://welldonefillet.blogspot.com/

You’ve got to admire Manuel’s snark factor while showing that the Brits also have to deal with a sometimes bizarre dining public. Especially since one doesn’t (unfairly, perhaps) usually associate snark with British humor.

Here’s a pretty good example:

http://welldonefillet.blogspot.com/2007/03/customer-that-broke-this-camels-back.html

Now all we need is an Iranian waiter to blog about the time that he had to take the left hand of an infidel who used it to shovel tabbouli into his mouth and life will be complete.

So, The Well Done Fillet joins the ranks of the lucky linkees. I’ll even overlook the redundant British “l” in fillet and remind myself that they pronounce it fill – it, instead of the oh-so-French fill-lay. As an American, I find anything with the word lay included as much sexier because, at my core, I’m a 13 year old boy.

And speaking of Pho…

For those folks interested in Vietnamese food, you should definitely own this:

Into The Vietnamese Kitchen: Treasured Foodways, Modern Flavors by Andrea Nguyen

Into The Vietnamese Kitchen: Treasured Foodways, Modern Flavors by Andrea Nguyen

This is simply the best book on the subject.

And you should check out her great companion blog, http://vietworldkitchen.typepad.com/

If only certain longhaired Vampirish hat-wearing Top chef contestants from previous seasons who claimed to be experts in Vietnamese cooking had devoured this book and blog – they might have become Top Ch…well, maybe not – porkpie hats only get you so far – look at Elvis Costello.

An appreciation for Pho

This photo courtesy of http://eatvancouver.net

This photo courtesy of http://eatvancouver.net

Someone was dissing the classic Vietnamese noodle dish Pho on a mailing list and I was compelled to come to its defense. Fueling the fire was the fact that Tony Bourdain was waxing eloquent about it as he is wont to do and so, here’s my response to someone’s observation that he found Pho “boring”.

I wasn’t going to comment on this because, well, different strokes for different folks, I suppose. But I was finishing the “Food Porn” episode of No Reservations that I mentioned in the thread about Pulling Mussels (From a Shell). I had only watched the first couple of segments and lo and behold, in one of the last segments, Bourdain was again talking about his passion for Pho. He claims that while there might be dishes as good in the great European kitchens, there’s nothing better. And I’d have to agree with him. The oddly constructed meatballs throw you off? I can see that. Tripe trip you out, and not in a good way? Sure, I sympathize. Tendon gives you suicidal tendencies? It is something you’ve got to get used to, but it can be left out if one isn’t inclined. But boring? Hardly. Maybe if you don’t know what to do with that plate of Thai basil, perilla, cilantro, sprouts and lime. Maybe if you don’t use that incredible nectar that is fish sauce. Maybe if you are afraid of the Sriracha and sambal on the table and you fish out the large bias-cut jalapeños or fresh chili pepper of choice that you inevitably find swimming around, lurking under the brisket. Maybe the natural Western tendency to avoid slurping, which is actually essential to the enjoyment of the dish is
an impediment to enjoying the dish. To me, it’s almost the ultimate comfort food. Every bite, slurp and spoonful is different, especially if you customize the Pho as you go. I never just dump everything in.
The tearing of the leaves is a continual process so that there is always some fresh leaf left for the last bit. A little squirt of Sriracha here, a demitasse spoon of sambal there, a squirt of the lime and a dash of the fish sauce, some fresh sprouts and a little float of the basil, and I have a taste that is unique to that little quadrant of the soup. Confronting the fresh bias-cut pepper at the right point is always important to me as well. You can’t hit it too soon or too late or it overwhelms the rest of the meal. To me, it’s almost like I’m an extension of the chef – I’m continuing to “cook” the dish. It requires constant attention and to me, this automatically means that it can’t be boring. And everyone has a different way of attacking and enjoying it. Some might very well go for the pepper first in order to get an explosion of heat right off the back. Others might be more circumspect in their seasoning and eschew the hot condiments entirely and fish out the jalapeño immediately or ask for it to be left out. It’s an ultimate customizable dish.

The last thing I love about it as a comfort food is that it’s filling but not filling. It’s the zen of food in a way.

12 tips on making your dining experience better

Believe it or not, the waiter isn’t the only person who can make an impact on your service. Of course there’s the kitchen, the backwaiter/busperson, the manager, the host, the bartender, and even your fellow diners.

What many people don’t realize is that they have the ability to create a great dining experience or torpedo the entire affair.

While some would say, “Why should I accept any responsibility for the service – that’s your job”, and this is true to a certain extent, things that a guest say or don’t say, the tone that they set and the expectations game that they play can often determine how the dining experience goes.

So, here are some hints that can really help your server make your lunch/dinner better than average (in no particular order):

1. Be happy that you’re dining out, or at least pretend that you are. Any server can tell you that the guest sets the tone for the time that they are there. If you see your dinner as a burden, the server has an uphill battle to turn your night around. The tone is set in the first few minutes of the meal. If you are obviously relaxed and friendly, it helps the server be so as well. You certainly expect others to be nice to you when you’re out in public and the server appreciates it when you are that way to them as well. It relaxes them and allows them to focus on making your dining the best it can be instead of expending energy on trying to turn your mood around. Be nice, for god’s sake, even if it kills you.

2. Let the server do their job – don’t try to do it for them. They are the dining professionals, not you. They know the rhythm of the kitchen and the dining room – you don’t. They rely on maintain a rhythm and flow in order to stay efficient. Asking what the soup of the day is before you’ve even opened the menu screws with the server’s universe, albeit it in a minor way. They are going to tell you when they do their spiel. Why have them repeat it again for your fellow guests that haven’t even hit the table yet? Please don’t micromanage. There is probably a very good reason why a server does things the way that they do.  Don’t try to reinvent the wheel. 

3. If you have a deadline such as theater tickets or a babysitter at home, please tell your server. Servers aren’t mindreaders. A good server will work with you to get your meal out in a timely fashion. Keep in mind that servers have certain guidelines that they must follow unless instructed otherwise by the guest. For instance,  the usual service standard is to treat each course as a separate entity. Normally, you don’t bring the next course until everyone is finished with the previous course. If you have a straggler during one course, the next course must wait until they’re finished. If you tell your server that you have a time constraint, the good server will ask you if it’s alright to override this service point. Plus, normally, most people want 5 to 10 minutes between courses, so that’s a reasonable standard that most steps of service acknowledge. If you’re in a hurry, the server can ignore that and bring the courses right on top of each other. They can also see if you’re interested in dessert while you’re still eating your main course (this is normally a no-no). If you aren’t, then they can prepare your check and leave it on the table (normally the server doesn’t do this until everything is totally finished).  Conversely, if you there for a relaxed dinner, let them know as well. They can be less “on point” with everything and spread things out a little.  They can be more relaxed with the time standards that they normally have to meet.

4. If you are having a business meeting,  please let the server know how you want your service to proceed. If you are making a critical presentation and don’t want to be disturbed during it, let your server know. They will be able to tailor the flow of courses to accomodate you. And if it’s just a business/social dinner and you want it to go like a normal dinner, let them know that as well.  Servers tend to be a little more cautious when it comes to obvious business dinners. They are reticent to interrupt and might actually give you more time between courses than you’re comfortable with in order to give you the space to “do business”. Just let them know if you have any specific needs. This is a situation that countermands my second suggestion – a little micromanaging can work wonders and can help the server provide you with a successful business dinner.

5. Realize that not all expectations can be met. Yeah yeah, I know “I’m the customer and I’m always right” (even if it isn’t true). but restaurants have limitations in what they can and cannot do. No, you probably can’t get a well done 14 oz filet in 5 minutes. No, you might not be able to walk into a restaurant without a reservation and get sat immediately. No, you can’t have a Caesar salad/hold the eggs (it’s in the dressing) although you might be able get a Caesar salad with blue cheese dressing – the thing is, it’s not a Caesar salad anymore, so you can’t reasonably complain that the Caesar salad wasn’t any good. If you tell the server that you aren’t in any hurry and then complain that your entree is taking too long, you probably don’t have any right to complain (unless it’s been an extremely long time, of course).  And if you tell your server that you’re in a hurry, don’t complain that they were trying to hustle you out the door – they were but by your request. If you order a well-done filet and it’s dry – well, that’s the risk you run when you order a nice piece of meat well-done.

6. The flip side of this is that if something doesn’t meet your expectations, don’t be afraid to mention it. If the steak was ordered medium rare and came out medium well and the server asks you how everything tastes, let them know. Don’t sit and stew about it or eat most of it and then complain that the steak was cooked wrong. Don’t be passive-aggressive, but don’t be aggressive about it either. Don’t take it personally that your steak was cooked wrong and let the server get it fixed for you at the earliest possible convenience. Believe it or not, servers want to make things right for you. But they don’t like someone pointing out a deficiency when it’s obviously too late to take care of it in a satisfactory manner. You’d be surprised how many people will leave two bites of something on a plate and then complain that it wasn’t any good.

7. Don’t try to bring in a coupon that expired two weeks ago and expect it to automatically be honored. Many times it will be honored but don’t try to bully the server into taking it. You take your chances when you do this and if the server can’t do it, pouting for the rest of the meal or stiffing the server on the tip just isn’t what we call cricket. Simply shrug and go on. After all,  such a coupon clearly states an end date. Most of the time the restaurant will try to help you out, but sometimes it’s out of their control.  Perhaps they no longer have the product available. Perhaps it’s corporate policy to be strict on expiration dates and they don’t give their managers any leeway on this.

8. If you have a reservation and you can’t be seated at the precise time, be grown up about it. Don’t stew. Perhaps some fellow diners have taken longer than usual to finish up. Hopefully, the manager will find a way to take care of you in some fashion. But don’t be abusive toward them in an attempt to bully them. Be understanding. Getting your blood pressure up before you even sit down is a sure way to create a tense dining experience.

9.Relax. This is general advice that applies to everything I’ve already written. If you’re relaxed, chances are the server will be relaxed as well. Remember, you’re probably dining out in order to wash away the job or life cooties that have infested your day. I can’t tell you how much easier it makes my job when I greet a table that’s relaxed and accomodating.

10. If you must have separate checks (and I recognize that there are times when you must), tell your server upfront and be specific about who is with who. And if you need separate checks, be prepared to spend some extra time waiting on the checks. The server usually has to wait until the end of the meal to separate the checks because the kitchen needs all orders for a single table on a single dupe (the paper order that they read from). This takes time (some point-of-sales systems are easier than others to do separate checks for).

11. If you are in a larger group, don’t switch seats after the order is taken. Sure, feel free to move around to visit, but keep in mind that the server will have your food run in the order in which it was taken, so be prepared to move back to your original position for your food. This is especially important when you have separate checks and you haven’t told me upfront. Of course, you have followed the preceeding tip so you would never do this, right? See, the problem is, that I might not necessarily know that the person sitting in seat four didn’t move from seat ten and I might put the wrong food on your ticket. If you didn’t tell me before hand, I’m flying somewhat in the dark at a time when I need absolute focus on getting your separate checks correct (and remember, I’ve still got other tables that are needing my attention as well).

12. If you are ready to pay, make sure that your credit card or cash is sticking out of the check presenter. If it isn’t, I’m not going to pick it up and you will have to wait longer to get your check taken care of. Some people will stand it upright on the table and that’s fine.  If you don’t need change, tell your server because it will save time. However, if you don’t tell your server, expect that the server will bring the change back to you. A server should never assume that they are to keep the change unless they are specifically told.

I’m sure that servers can come up with lots more bits of advice, so hopefully, we’ll get some comments on this subject. Perhaps I’ll will come up with more in a future post.

The Insane Waiter

http://allprowaiter.blogspot.com/

This is a great day-by-day account of the wild and wacky world of the front-of-the-house restaurant worker. If you read this blog, and Waiter Rant, you’ll get a good idea of what we servers have to deal with on a daily basis. Servers will recognize these situations and either laugh or weep in sympathy and guests might actually gain some insights into the service experience.

The conservation theory of ideas and skills

Seems like the more I write about waiting tables, the less skillful I become at actually waiting tables. I wonder if my skillset is like the idea that you don’t use up energy and mass, you simply transfer from one state to the other.

My error rate seems to be rising the more I put down on virtual paper. Perhaps there’s some sort of stasis being violated by writing about the fine points of my job. Almost the exact opposite of what should happen when you read a book about a profession – i.e. that you’re actually supposed to get better at it by utilizing the book.

I get a visual of a black hole of a book sucking a skill-set into it.  So, if I end up as a wizened quivvering mass of unemployed jelly, consider that I did it for my fellow servers. (ya gotta admire someone using two mutually exclusive metaphors…or maybe ya don’t).

I wonder if there’s a mathematical equation that I could come up with to correlate the number of words written in a day with the number and magnitude of errors committed in a shift that day. Some sort of threshold that I could determine like, if I write less than 500 words, my job will be unaffected. 501 words and you can expect to forget to ring a side dish. 750 words and you will forget to ring up an entree. You know, stuff like that. Perhaps there could be additional variables such as time between writing the words and the start of a shift. Or weighing the context of the words, i.e. one word written for the book equals 3 words written in this blog and 5 words written about restaurants in a forum.

Shame that math and physics were my Moby Dick.

Buy this book or the lobster dies!

Oh wait – coming from a server, this isn’t so much of a threat as it is a promise.

Still, you should buy this book, especially since mine won’t be available until the point when it is available (if ever). From the blogger who created Waiter Rant:

Waiter Rant: Thanks For the Tip - Confessions of a Cynical Waiter by The Waiter

Getting it out of the way

As a rather rabid avoider of using sexist terms whenever possible, why did I use the word “waiter” in the title of my forthcoming blockbuster, best-selling, mega-cultural landmark book?

Well, it sounded better than “So You Want To Be A Server…”. After all, how many people want to be a big, unwieldy computer device?

When I discuss the job in real life, I usually use the word server. It’s a bit bloodless sounding, but the terms waiter and waitress (especially waitress) can be prejorative sometimes. Personally, I wish that there wasn’t a word called waitress and you would just use the word waiter to refer to a table service person of either sex, but that’s not usually the way the word is used.

So, in the book, you’ll find an explanation of this apparent contradiction at the very beginning but you’ll find the word waiter used most of the time, although you’ll also find me using the word server quite often. I state in the beginning that I’m using the word waiter in a non-gender specific fashion but you’ll also find me using server on occasion because, sometimes it just seems more appropriate.

In fact, Merriam-Webster defines the term waiter in a non-gender fashion, using the word person instead of male. So there.

 

Well, that’s 30 seconds of your life that you’re never going to get back. You’re welcome.

Tipping

Well, might as well break the ice in the most direct way possible.

Tipping is a somewhat controversial topic here in the US. With most of the rest of the world eschewing the concept of the voluntary tip as the bulk of the server’s income, I thought it would be nice to create a dialog debating the pluses and minuses of the tipping system in the US. Of course, there are plenty of debates raging on this subject at various sites on the Internet, but your input could influence how this subject gets treated in my book, so here’s your chance.

So, have at it.

Hello world!

Yes, I’m writing a book. Go figure. Everyone and their sister wants to write a book at some point. Apparently, these days you even need a blog in order to write a book, so here we go. I’ve been in the restaurant biz for over a decade now and I’ve often thought that there needed to be a nuts and bolts guide to being a server – one that wasn’t just a recitation of dry facts or a pro forma overview of waiting tables. I’ve seen some of the books out there and I think that I can add to the rather slender shelf real estate that covers the profession of waiting tables, and do it in a style that can entertain and inform.

What you won’t get in this blog is a day by day account of my adventures in the restaurant world. For that, I highly recommend www.waiterrant.net/.  I might occasionally share the frustrations or breakthroughs in the act of writing this book, but I wouldn’t hold my breath if I were you. I might actually post some proposed verbiage from the book, but again, this might or might not happen.

The book is tentatively titled, “So You Want To Be a Waiter – The Snarky Guide To Success”. As to whether I achieve the goals of the title is yet to be seen. I’m sure that my snark level will be a pale reflection of someone like an Anthony Bourdain, and I’m still working on the general tone that I want to portray.  Since I’m a fairly sarcastic person overall, I’m working to strike a balance between being Oscar Wilde-esque and downright mean. I suspect that I’m going to oscillate between the two extremes.

A housekeeping note, if you will. I reserve the right to delete responses that I deem inappropriate. I’m not worried so much about language or “bad words”, and I’m all in favor of a free-spirited exchange of ideas (if the blog ever gets to achieve that sort of momentum, which I doubt). However, I will be the sole judge of what is appropriate and the posting of comments will assume this right. Generally, if privacy is compromised or slanderous or libelous comments are made, or I just plain decide that a comment has gone over the line of common decency, the comment is liable to disappear.

And now that we’ve gotten this out of the way, may I note that I have 17,000 words in play toward the structure of my book, many of them likely to find the cutting room floor due to the editor’s virtual scissors. Wish me luck.