The corkscrew is an essential tool for any waiter who works in a restaurant that serves alcohol. That may be why one of the nicknames for the tool is Waiter’s Friend. And, even if a waiter doesn’t work in such an establishment, he or she should know how to operate one in case they decide to change jobs.
The corkscrew takes many forms. Here are just a few of them:
This is a very efficient type called a screwpull. I have one at home myself. However, it’s not practical due to its size and relative complexity. I usually don’t even use it, although it’s an elegant solution to the cork-pulling problem.
This is a classic T-bar design. This is found in home bars and used by Frank Sinatra types who want to impress their chickies. Sadly, it’s not a very good design. It looks wicked though, especially in sterling silver.
This is a variation on the screwpull. A little more compact, it’s still not pocket-worthy.
If you can’t figure out why this screwpull can’t be used…well…
Not a torture device used by Torquemada, it could certainly stand in for one. Fortunately, it’s too big to use tableside, as I’ve never found it to be a particularly good way to remove a cork, despite its seemingly foolproof design. I’ll bet I have one of these in one of my junk drawers somewhere.
There’s even this charming little number:
However, what you want is the pocket corkscrew, commonly called Waiter’s Friend. The also have several looks, but they all operate the same way. They are shaped and sized like a pocket knife. On one end is a lever, on the other a small knife (there are some that don’t have one, but I don’t recommend them). In the middle is a metal screw that folds out. They look like this:
The one drawback that this type of corkscrew has for many waiters (but not me) is the fact that it has a single notch on the lever. There’s a more efficient type, which either has an extra-long lever with two notches or a double-lever or two- stage type. They give you extra leverage that allows you to pull out extra-long corks. In the case of the double notch, you first tug on the cork with the first notch, and then you screw down a little more until you get to the second notch and then you give a final tug. You use the same sort of principle with the other design, but it’s a little easier because the lever itself is hinged. They look like this:
Personally, I have no problem using the older style corkscrew. However, this type does make it easier to remove corks.
Things to look for in a corkscrew.
Make sure the screw itself is long enough. Some are just too short to be effective with long corks and you never know when you’re going to encounter one. Also, a painted or teflon-coated surface works better than bare metal. It’s a lot smoother when you crank down on the cork.
Make sure that the pitch of the corkscrew isn’t too loose or too tight. The pitch refers to the turns of the corkscrew itself. If they are too far apart, you don’t get a good grip on the cork and you could tear it. If there are too close together (and this is rare), you have to turn and turn and turn before it gets deep enough in the cork to let you lever it out. This is just something that you’ll have to experiment with.
Then there is the “gold standard” of corkscrews, the Laguiole (pronounced ya-LOLL). Laguiole refers to a town in southern France where several companies employ craftspeople who handmake a distinctive style of mostly wooden-handled sleekly curved and elegant corkscrews. They are also made in other French towns and are now copied with lesser quality arond the world. Laguiole isn’t a company but a style of corkscrew. More properly, Laguiole refers to pocket knives, and the waiter’s friend is just a sub-category.
They are pricey due to expensive woods, quality metalwork and prestige. A certified Laguiole starts at $50 and goes up from there. You can pay hundreds for really nice ones. Ironically, you won’t see any with double levers. I actually have a cheaper copy of this style that I paid $10 for. It’s obvious that the workmanship isn’t that great. The lever’s hinge pin is already loose, which makes the lever a little wobbly, and the wood insert is crudely done. It looks cool though.
Many new waiters struggle with getting the tip of the corkscrew straight into the cork. If it goes in crooked, you run the risk of tearing the cork. Here’s a very simple hint to make it simple.
If you think about it, if you put the screw straight in, it will automatically finish crooked because of the pitch of the screw. This is the mistake that newbies make. The screw shouldn’t be at 90 degrees to the top of the cork. It shouldn’t look like this at the start:
The screw needs to be inserted at the angle of the pitch. This way the screw will follow the pitch and automatically go in at 90 degrees. there’s a simple way to assure this. Lay the first wind of the screw on the edge of the cork that meets the bottle at about 45° with the tip facing down in the center of the cork. As you start to insert the cork, start to bring the screw toward upright, letting the screw shaft bring itself toward 90° as it follows the pitch of the screw. Once you get a turn or two into the cork, it will look like the above picture. Never start with the shaft straight up and down. It will go in crooked everytime and it’s sure to tear the cork. My method is virtually foolproof if you find the right start angle. It will vary with different corkscrews due to the various pitches so you just have to practice with your own corkscrew. Eventually it will become instinctive. Once you learn this method, it only takes a couple of bottles (if that) to adjust to a different corkscrew. You’ll learn to get a feel for the pitch and the angle that you need to start it at.
As you work with different corkscrews, you’ll eventually develop preferences. Once you find a design that works for you, stay with it. It makes your bottle-opening look smooth and polished. Nothing scares a guest more than a waiter struggling with opening a bottle, especially an expensive one.
Here’s a waiter with really big pockets: