So You Want To Be A Waiter

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

Daily Archives: May 21, 2009

Designing and building the perfect dining experience

I was watching Charlie Rose interview the famous Italian architect (and builder, as he would insist) Renzo Piano. You know that Pompidou Center in Paris? It’s his. The new Modern Wing of The Art Institute of Chicago? Yep – that’s his as well. And it occurred to me that the waiter is a combination of architect and builder, only the edifice that’s erected is a great dining experience, not an impressive housing of humans, art, commerce or science.

It’s hard to be an architect without the knowledge of structural engineering.  And, it’s hard to build a building without blueprints. As a waiter, it’s your job to supply both.

First of all, you have to have the knowledge of what makes a great dining experience. And, guess what? It isn’t necessarily fine china, a world-renowned chef and a glittering array of wines, opulence and accouterments.

It’s the feeling of satisfaction that the guest has when they take pen to credit card slip to fulfill the social contract that he or she has accepted when he or she has allowed the waiter and the restaurant that he or she works in to provide them with The Meal.

The Meal can be as humble as the perfectly cooked sunny-side up eggs, crisp bacon and an always full cup of hot, steaming coffee combined with a wise-cracking server with a heart of gold that sees you three times a week and asks about your daughter that’s getting ready to graduate. Or it can be dinner at Le Bec Fin in Philadelphia, replete with the invisible but always present service that seems to whisk the detritus of your day away and provides a wallet-busting culinary extravaganza to boot.  As long as it’s presented by great culinary architects, it doesn’t matter. And guess what – you’re one of those people if you’ve chosen to wait on tables. The chef is important in the building process because, without good food, the framework and foundation of the building is suspect. The management is important because, without a good management team, nobody would ever want to live or work in the building that you’re trying to construct.

The waiter is the associate  that has to stand up to Frank Lloyd Wright and say, “You’ve got to make sure that this cantilevered balcony won’t fall into the creek  – shouldn’t you add this strut here?”  The waiter is the subcontractor that makes sure that the taped seams of the drywall are invisible.  The waiter is the humble drywall worker who has to hold that drywall panel up so that it can be taped. The waiter is the codes inspector wrangler. The waiter is the person who notices that the almost invisible marble panel at the top of the lobby has a slight crack and must be replaced. 

Yes, you’re probably tired of hearing this, but we will be discussing all of this in future posts. Believe it or not, there are many parallels between architecture and dining and we will be hitting some of those similarities down the road.

But my goal here is to stop you from thinking of waiting tables as “less than”. It’s a noble profession and it’s time that not only restaurant guests, but you, understand this and take your job seriously, whether you’re Flo the gum-snapping waitress or Angela, the multi-lingual captain at Charlie Trotter’s.

You build the foundation with your spiel, you erect the framework with your constant care of the guest and yes, you actually help design the building through your reading of the guest, the interface with the kitchen and your solving of the problems that pop up to delay the completion of the project.

Not every dining experience is going to be the Guggenheim.

But you can sure try.BTW, here’s some inspiration:


Image and caption from:

Cookbook of the day – Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook


Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook: Strategies, Recipes, and Techniques of Classic Bistro Cooking             
Anthony Bourdain

Publisher: Bloomsbury USA

ISBN-13: 9781582341804


Yes, it’s as good as you expect.

From its butcher paper  thick, absorbent antiqued cover to the best procedure for a plate full of pomme frites, this combination of harangue, pontification, excoriation and tough love will…I repeat…will make you a better cook, if only for the tutorial on stock.

You may never want to pair foie gras with prunes, as he outlines in the foie gras aux pruneaux recipe because, when he writes “I can’t guarantee it as an aphrodisiac, but I would think that a man (or a woman) who knows how to appreciate and cook foie gras would, in the simple act of searing a slice of luxuriously fattened goose liver, be exhibiting in one task both a delicate sensibility and enticing cruel streak”, you might wonder what kind of signal the addition of prunes would send to your would-be partner – “Yes dear, this is your skin in 15 years if you don’t stop sunbathing in Majorica” or, “Ahhhh, my aging bowels are going to feel a lot better in a couple of hours”. Don’t worry about the meta, just exclaim (to yourself) “Convention be damned! I’m adding prunes to foie gras and, you know what? Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”.

Do yourself a favor and buy this in the hardback edition. It’s got a velvety feel when you pick it up and has a nice heft due to the thick bond weight of the paper. The cover has an over-sepia’ed (much like this very much-beloved blog that you are reading) photo of Bourdain that betrays a rather superficial knowledge of the power of Photoshop (although there’s a much defter touch with the occasional color photos within), and Tony isn’t immune to food porn tendencies,  but these are reasons to celebrate this volume. After all, fond is a messy thing.  It’s not perfect, it’s not uniform and it’s got burned bits. All things that help it elevate a good sauce into a great one. 

And make sure to pay particular attention to the 3 1/2 page “General  Principles”. That alone will hold you in good stead throughout the years, even if your biggest ambition is to make the perfect grilled cheese salad. The actual introduction is all culinary drill sergeant and inspirational exhortation, and is the kick up the ass that you’ve needed for a while. “General Principles” will set you straight on what’s basic and essential.

Every chapter has plenty of guidance, wisdom, inside tips and, yes, more hectoring. Face it – you need a “come to Jesus” moment every now and again, right?