So You Want To Be A Waiter

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As we face the waning days of summer, it’s time to remember that  cuisine is seasonal, regardless of how homogenized North American chain restaurants try to make it.

As we start the slow transition into cooler weather, you should start to adjust your view of your menu. Even the most ordinary restaurant menu can be adapted to the various seasons through your knowledge of the various dishes. Hopefully, during the summer, you’ve been quick to recommended some of the lighter fare and pair it with lighter wines, if applicable to your restaurant.

Now’s the time to consider dishes with more substance, especially as we approach the end of October and the beginning of November. Heartier sauces, more substantial cuts of meat, bigger, chewier wines.

It’s important for you to recognize this in order to guide your guests but your guests will start instinctively choosing more autumnal food and drink. If you’re ahead of the curve, you’ll flow right along with it.

I always say, “The fewer surprises, the better…”

Change of seasons

We are now on the cusp of a new season. This has implications on several levels for waiters.

The main one is the effect of seasons on the guest. This drives everything from eating habits to dining patterns to mood.

Eating habits change. This drives culinary offerings in restaurants that have seasonal menus as well as altering the ordering patters of the guest. The restaurant might have a consistent menu mix but even those restaurants find diners choosing different items and some of this is location dependent. If a location is in a place that has an oppressive summer weather, the guest naturally chooses lighter fare like fruit based dishes, fish instead of steak, lighter wines. As the weather starts to cool down, they start choosing heartier fare, which culminates in lots of rich, comfort food by mid-winter. Wines gradually move from things like crisp sauvignon blancs and pinot noirs to big, oaky chardonnays and chewy dense cabernets and rustic, spicy and bold zinfandels.

The change of seasons also changes dining patterns. Each change of season is accompanied by big holidays or events that change the frequency of dining. Whether it’s parents dealing with sending kids back to school around the time of the big blowout farewell to summer, Labor Day, or Thanksgiving signalling the true beginning of fall, or Memorial Day triggering the desire to cook out or hit the lake, the change of seasons is the kick in the butt to the complacency that the day to day drudgery of waiting tables engenders. The change of seasons also falls in line with the start of various pro sports seasons and this can impact reservations both positively and negatively, especially for those cities lucky enough to have sports franchises. 

So what’s a waiter to do?

Now’s the time to acknowledge that change is coming. Some of you have already noticed it. This isn’t the time to let your guard down or rely on the status quo. If you are counting on a certain level of income and the guests stop coming for a week or two while they get their kids in school, you’ll be for a big shock.

Now is also the time to use your menu knowledge to your advantage. If you can get in sync with the guest’s internal rhythms, you can show yourself almost on an unconscious level that you are creating the perfect dining experience for the guest. You’ll find your suggestions flowing instead of fighting the impression that you are just trying to sell the guest something. You are trying to sell the guest something – the perfect culinary experience. You start using your wine and alcohol knowledge to the advantage of both you and the guest. For instance, when someone asks you for a beer suggestion in the middle of a humid summer, instead of randomly picking a beer or your own personal favorite, you steer the guest toward a summertime perennial, wheat beer instead of a Guinness. Of you discuss the advantages of choosing that violet-scented viognier that you have never been able to sell in the past. It’s all about matching food and drink to the climate.

See the change of seasons as an opportunity and a challenge. By staying in tune with the seasons, you force yourself to stay current on your menu and alcohol knowledge. You fine-tune your knowledge of the flow of your restaurant. Most restaurants are fairly predictable in terms of ebb and flow. It might not be totally congruent year day to year day, but patterns emerge over time. It’s almost like the restaurant has a unique biorhythm. This is one argument for staying with one restaurant instead of bouncing around, trying to find the new hot restaurant. The longer you stay with a restaurant, the more you can deal with the natural ups and downs of a particular place.

The seasons are your friend, but only if you embrace them.

Life lessons for waiters

With much of the US suffering from abnormally cold temperatures (other parts of the globe like the UK also feeling the effects of a pretty brutal winter), waiters can use life itself as a prompt for tailoring their approach to presenting their product.

The cold reminded me of the seasonal nature of food and beverage, specifically recommendations on wine, but it can be expanded to the menu as well.

Now is not the time to be drinking Pinot Grigio and light California Pinot Noirs. Now is the time to be drinking more robust wines like full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignons, Zinfandels, Shirazes, big Chardonnays (as much as you can call them “big”, of course). We should be using our positions of trust to advise guests to drink more seasonally. Obviously if someone is stuck on Pinot Grigio, it’s not wise to directly challenge them. But if we have a more full-bodied white in our back pocket that won’t freak them out (even something like a lighter, less oaked Chardonnay), we should make gentle suggestions like, “Have you tried Brand X? I think it has the drinkability of Pinot Grigio but has a little more body to stand up to this cold weather”. 

Of course, you reverse this in summer. Instead of a big, tannic Cabernet, you might suggest a Petite Sirah that has the dark rich color of a Cabernet but is actually lighter in body and not nearly as chewy and heavy.

This means that the more the waiter knows about the specific bottles on the wine list, the more successful they’ll be. Even heavier wines often have vintners who produce lighter or heavier versions of a varietal than the bulk of their competitors. The more you know about this, the more flexibility you’ll have in advising the patron in an appropriate wine choice and the more authority you’ll project.

The same can be said for food. It’s not a coincidence that restaurants that employ a seasonal strategy don’t offer osso bucco in the middle of summer. For those waiters who work with static menus, it’s important to find narrow focus in relation to the seasons in the menu. Corporate chefs who are constrained by a fixed menu try to cover all of their bases in terms of seasonality and the guest isn’t always savvy enough to choose season appropriate items so the experienced waiter will assist them in choosing a season appropriate meal by using such phrases as “You should try our hardy beef and vegetable soup. It really cuts through the cold”. Or, “I had the fruit sald the other day and it really was a relief from this hot weather we’ve been having”. Patrons are creatures of habit and sometimes eat what they eat regardless of season. There’s nothing wrong with that, but readers of this blog know that, to me, the main part of selling and serving is to add value, not simply at the expense of a guest’s pocketbook, but to enhance the dining experience.

If you help guide the guest without being pedantic or preachy, you move from simply being an order-taker to an active participant in the guest experience.

This is just one example how real life often offers guidance to waiters, if they only tune their anntenas a little more closely to the signals that real life is sending out.


As the weather changes, people’s tastes change. More and more restaurants, even large corporate chains, are making seasonal changes to their menus; some having strictly seasonal menus and others offering limited seasonal menus in addition to their fixed menu.

As a server, you should be adhering to this as well with your wine selections. Instead of just working varietals, the great waiter will know which wines are generally lighter or heavier within those specific categories. Some cabernets are lighter and softer than others,  for instance. Some chardonnays are heavy and oaky and some are lighter and more “refreshing”. Not only should you do your best to pair wine with a specific food, you should also consider the season. Now’s the time to recommend fuller bodied wines and fall makes its presence known.

What? You didn’t recommend lighter bodied wines during summer? Well, you should have. When you pay attention to the smaller details, you perform a greater service for your guests. While I’m not saying that you should mock someone for drinking pinot grigio in the dead of the winter, you can guide your guest to season-appropriate choices.

This is where all of your wine homework comes in handy. As you learn more about wine, you’ll be able to identify vintner’s general styles and then hone in on specific bottles on your list that typify light, medium and full body characteristics. Flavor profiles are important but so are body characteristics. For instance, you wouldn’t want to pair up a light California pinot noir with osso bucco in the middle of winter, although you might pair that same pinot noir with salmon, even as you’re knocking the snow off of your boots. Or, you might actually be able to get away with pairing a big Chambertain (for the unintiated, a generally big-boned pinot noir from Burgundy) with the osso bucco, showing that you can’t always make sweeping generalizations. The more specific knowledge that you have about the wines on your list, the better.

 Even if you have a fairly limited wine list, try to learn your wines from light to heavy in each category. The advantage you have is that you don’t have a lot of wines to learn,  and they probably don’t change all that often. And you’ll set yourself apart from your peers. Unless they read this blog too…


Image of osso bucco courtesy of the blog, “Eating in Dallas” and can be found here: