So You Want To Be A Waiter

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

Daily Archives: May 23, 2009

My favorite kitchen tool

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This is my Shun 10 in. chef’s knife (technically, this is Shun’s stock photo).. I use it to smash garlic, slice meats, cut veggies and just to admire. It’s a sort of “faux Damascus” knife. Damascus is the process of folding two or more different steels many times to get a layered and stronger blade.  There are 16 layers of two different strength steels, but the layers that you actually see are just etched on the blade and not the actual “ends” of the steel. I’ve got a couple of actual Damascus blades in a pocketknife and a bowie knife and they are very cool because they’re made of carbon steel and not stainless steel, and this isn’t quite the same (they have a nice color and texture difference between the layers). A “true” Damascus blade would cost lots more. But this is a lot easier to maintain, and you get some of the advantage of a Damascus and that’s the fact that it’s stronger than a single type of steel (much like pine plywood is stronger than the corresponding thickness of solid pine). Plus, the etching helps with the prevention of sticking when cutting through a thick piece of meat or cheese (much the same way that scallops, or the “hollow ground” on a blade prevent sticking). It creates tiny air pockets that help the blade glide more smoothly.

I’ve got another 10 or so different kitchen knives like santokus, nakiris, yanagis, paring knives, cleavers, etc., but this is the one that I turn to the most. It’s well-balanced and has a nice heft. Every cook should have a nice chef’s knife, a knife that they feel comfortable with. Some people like the Global style, where the handle is actually a continuation of the blade and as such, is metal itself. Personally, I don’t happen to like the feel of the handle, but this is a personal decision that  everyone should make for themselves. The handle can’t be too thick or too thin and the knife itself should feel balanced in the hand.

This knife is more of a European style than the typical Asian knife. It’s a little more narrow than most European knives but it generally follows their shape. More and more Westerners are adopting the santuko, which is the more traditional type of Asian knife. The santuko is flatter on the ground edge, which gives more contact with the cutting board, but it’s not quite as useful when you need to do something like mincing parsley or anything operation that requires a rocking motion.

My various sushi knives are single-ground, whereas this chef’s knife is double-ground (unusual for Japanese knives). This also makes it similar to European knives but one also has to be aware that the angle of the edge is slightly different than the standard European knife. A typical Henckel or similar European blade has a recommended angle of between 12 and 18 degrees depending on your preference, whereas the Shun  is set for 20 degrees. I’ve got a special Shun sharpening steel that is set up to guide this particular angle when steeling.

Due to their single-sided edges (think of one side of the edge being more “l-shaped”  rather than “v-shaped”) the sushi knives are  wickedly sharp, but also a little more fragile. You want to use them for precise cuts and you don’t want to use them on things that have a dense mass.

We’ll talk about knives more in the future, and discuss why steeling a blade isn’t actually sharpening it, and talk about the various types of knives and their uses, so stay tuned for more geek talk about knives.

And I’ll also be talking about other tools that any well-equipped kitchens should have in future installments.

Designing and building the perfect dining experience redux

We’ve been talking about the parallels between architecture and waiting tables.

To build a successful building, the architect and builders have to have a plan. They have to have the requisite training to be able to work raw materials into a finished form.  They have to understand how the aesthetic is used not only to present a pleasing presentation but also how it can be limited by the utility of the building itself. They also have to have a positive relationship with their clients and be able to be an advocate for them. Finally, they have to conform to stated codes and other civic considerations.

Well, waiting tables touches on all of these concepts.

We’ve already discussed the training aspect. A waiter must know the menu and the beverage offering. A waiter must know how to properly input orders and handle things like coupons, discounts, outages (86es), guest complaints and being in the weeds.

This also blends in with having a plan. When serving guests, a good waiter has a plan of attack. They are able to be responsive to the differences in a set of conditions, i.e. dealing with a guest when nothing is going on vs. when the restaurant is being deluged with guests at 7:30 on a Friday night. Or how they will deal with a guest who exhibits signs of frustration or unreasonable expectations.

They also need to know how to use the system of the restaurant, the menu and the skill set of the team to craft the dining experience into the most optimal one possible. They know what the kitchen can and cannot do. They know that it would be impossible to get a well-done 20 oz ribeye out in 5 minutes when it’s quiet but the broiler person might be able to move up a steak that is already at medium for another table when the entire restaurant has been seated.  They know that garlic can’t be excluded from a dish if the guest wants a dish with marinara. This is the rough equivalent of a builder knowing that a certain sized girder just won’t work to support the hoisting mechanism of an elevator even if the architect has mistakenly specified just such a girder. These examples are similar to “knowing your materials”.

They also know when it’s time to guide the guest who orders a Caesar salad with the dressing on the side because you think that the dressing is just too thick for the guest to incorporate in the salad and it’s important to find out whether they’re going to try to do that because they want “light dressing” or whether it’s actually ok because they just like to dip the romaine into the dressing piece by piece like you would dip a carrot stick into some ranch (the latter is just fine and the former will actually likely make the guest use more dressing than if the pantry line cook tosses it in a bowl). They understand that when the guest asks for the clams to be “on the side” for a linguine with white clam sauce, this compromises the dish past the point of usefulness and just won’t look or taste right. They also know that not butterflying a 16 oz filet cooked well-done will guarantee an almost inedible piece of meat and they need to be able to explain that getting the middle of such a thick piece of very lean meat to well done will require the outer inch of the steak to be so dry and tough as to be awful (plus it would probably take 45 minutes just to cook). All of these things relate to the concept of aesthetics and collaboration with the client.

It is within the power of the waiter to use the conceit of building to help them create the perfect dining experience for each and every guest (impossible but a worthy goal). All you as a server have to do is think a little outside the box and become less of a laborer and more of a tradesman/craftsman. However, never forget that a tradesman/craftsman needs laborers, so never forget the basics either.