So You Want To Be A Waiter

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

Tag Archives: thinking outside the box

Object lessons and the value of arcana

You know how I’m always throwing weird stuff your way? Information that you may never need as a waiter?

Well, you never know when that little bit of weird info might be useful sometime.

But, sometimes it doesn’t even help if you’re not nimble on your feet and you just can’t add 2 plus 2 and come up with 4 after multiplying by 2 and dividing by two. That’s what happened to me tonight and it should be an object lesson to everyone to try and stay mentally quick and try to always think outside the box and put information that you have gleaned in your career to good use, even if you have to do a few mental gymnastics.

No, it’s not nearly as earth shattering as I’ve made it out to be. But it’s a good teaching tool.

The host of the 10 top I was was waiting on had ordered several bottles of wine when he got to the Cabernets. He started to mention Meritages and excluded a certain one as a Meritage, even though he didn’t know the bottle and it was in our “Cabernet and Blends” section, which only calls a Meritage a Meritage when it’s labeled a Meritage.

Perhaps I should digress at this point for those of you who haven’t delved really deeply into wines yet. 

Meritage (pronounced MER – i- tijz, not mer-i – TAJZ, as some people pronounce it) is basically a marketing term for a California Bordeaux blend. As in Bordeaux, it can actually be a blend of varying percentages of the following big five Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Malbec (there are a couple of other minor blending grapes that can be used as well). There are certain percentage guidelines that have to be met and, most importantly, to call your wine a Meritage, you must pay a licensing fee to The Meritage Alliance to use the term, as it’s a proprietary term bound by certain quality guidelines (and of course, the payment of the fee).

Hence, there are plenty of wines that are actually Meritage-esque blends but don’t call themeselves Meritage because they either don’t want to comply with the strict guidelines or they don’t want to pay the fee.

So, when he started talking about Meritage, I wasn’t sure whether he was trying to avoid it or get it; he had already ordered 4 different wines at that point and this was right after they sat down, so I hadn’t really had a chance to read him yet. At this point, he pointed to one of the wines on the list and said, “I guess this isn’t a Meritage here”.

Well, I didn’t know the wine, but, of course I knew that it might very well be a Meritage-style wine for all I knew. And, I know a bit about wines but I couldn’t give him a definitive answer because I just didn’t know for sure about this particular one (I knew that we had 3 Meritage-designated wines in the category, but I also knew that we had a couple of wines that would be comparable to a Meritage). He pointed again to it and said, “Well, see, it can’t be a Meritage”.

Once again, knowing lots about wine, I shrugged again and said, “Well sir, I just don’t know for sure since there are some wines that are the same as a Meritage blend but can’t call themselves Meritage…blah, blah, blah”.

Once again, he pointed to it and said, “But I really can’t be one, can it”? He then said, “I’ll get it” before I could respond.

As I’m walking to the register, it finally dawned on me as I looked down for the VIN number so I could punch it in.

He wasn’t pointing at the Vintner name, he was pointing at the SINGLE VINEYARD NAME.

Ahhhh, so THAT’S the point that he was making. He must have thought I was a real blockhead.  And I was.

Don’t get me wrong – believe it or not, there are some single vineyard Meritages. But they are few and far between because that single vineyard has to be planted with some of the Meritage varietals. Technically, if I had followed his train of thought, I could have shown myself to be the big expert that I’m not, but that would have meant that I would have had to be able to follow his chain of logic.

I didn’t even make the connection that my guest made, although he was a little confused about the regs. When I brought the wine to the table for presentation, I said, “I get what you were saying”. He said, “Yes, 85% of the wine has to be Cabernet because of the single vineyard designation”, although when I just checked, it seems that it’s actually 95%.  And then there’s the complication that there are different ways to designate single vineyards. The concept of a Meritage and a single vineyard designation would seem to be at odds as a Meritage can’t have more than 90% of a single varietal. Since there is the rare wine that is both “Meritage-approved” and single vineyard, there is obviously some wiggle room. So, had he been correct about the percentage needed to be labels with a single vineyard name, a Meritage could have conceivably been made because the percentage wouldn’t have exceeded 90%.

But I’m sort of getting away from my main points.

First (and in no particular order of importance) – there is always someone who knows more about wine than you do. And, if that person seems to be your customer, take your cues from them. Don’t try to one-up them with your knowledge.

Second – prepare with as much wine knowledge as you can muster, but you must be prepared to connect the dots, even when the connection is hard to make. It’s not always obvious. I certainly found this out myself.

Third – when you are the lucky recipient of an object lesson, take it to heart and learn from it.

Fourth – wine regulations and labeling aren’t always cut and dried. Sometimes there are mazes to negotiate. but the more knowledge you have, the better. For instance, the novice usually thinks of Bordeaux as Cabernet Sauvignon or Cab blends. However, “right bank” Bordeaux wines emphasize Merlot to a great extent, to the point where the famed Petrus, generally the most expensive Bordeaux  available, is almost 100% Merlot and has no Cabernet Sauvignon at all. If you only get the “wine talking points” from an occasional wine training session, you probably wouldn’t know this and you can embarrass yourself in front of a wine geek guest if you’re not careful. This is why it’s so important to assemble as many facts about food and wine as you can – you want to be able to educate the guest if necessary, but you also want to avoid embarrassment whenever possible. Here’s the rub though – it’s helpful to actually be able to think beyond the linear. sometimes you have to get from A to C by going to D and then backtracking to B before you finally get to C. I failed at that sort of thinking. Hopefully, my failure will help you think outside the box.

Here’s an example of a single vineyard wine.

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.