So You Want To Be A Waiter

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

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Interesting takes on the verbal tip from Waiternotes

From our friend at, a pair of missives on verbal tips and how they are possibly becoming a new way to avoid the responsibility of a proper tip during economic hard times. It’s not a new phenomenon as servers have become wearily used to guests using phrases like “Thank you for your great/excellent/perfect service” as a substitute for part or most of the tip. I’m sorry, but if you enthuse to your waiter that you just got great service, a 15% tip isn’t appropriate – that’s the appropriate tip for just average, do just what is necessary to get your food – hell, at least bump it up to 17% if you want to do the bare minimum to back up your words. It’s an outrage for this phrase to accompany anything less than 15%, especially if it’s on the pre-tax total. His point is that he’s seeing it used by people that you wouldn’t expect it to be coming from and he posits that it’s becoming a coded apology that times are tight and “I’m can’t tip as much as I used to” as much as it was always a way to assuage guilt by guests who knew that they weren’t going to be tipping very well. He presents his theory pretty well between the two posts.

His most recent posts as of today (6.8.09) are on the subject (there are two so far). I hope some guests read this, but I suspect that the ones that read his sort of blog aren’t the type of people to display this rather sad-sack behavior.


Update from my last “New Link Posted” – a cautionary tale


Sad news in that apparently there was more than “a little fallout” over our newest blogger’s funny commentary on her co-workers.

From “Girl in the Weeds”:

“For the last three years, I have worked at a job that I love.  Quite unexpectedly, I was hired to work at one of the best restaurants in Kansas City without much serving experience.  I convinced a skeptical manager that my background as a concierge and my passion for service and high-end hospitality would fit right in with what he was looking for in a team member.  They took a chance on me and over the next three years, I built a good following of regulars, routinely did well on secret shopper reports, and was asked to be a trainer.  But the two best things about my job were bonding with the guests that I served and the amazing friends that I made.

Okay (insert needle scratching a record sound here) that’s enough of that hazy “Dreamweaver” moment.  I was fired on Wednesday for writing my weekly column.  ”In The Weeds” has been a fun, sarcastic and anonymous look at my experiences in the restaurant industry.  It will continue to be fun and sarcastic.  It will no longer be anonymous.  I will continue to post on on Tuesdays so please visit often for real stories from my years at The Capital Grille.   

Teaser for Tuesday: A look inside the little shoe box that serves as both manager office and execution chamber”.

Sad news indeed. I hope that everyone will continue to visit Shannon’s CJ’s blog in support. I’m sure that some interesting dirty laundry is forthcoming.

Thanks to bitterwaitress for alerting me to this, as I wasn’t planning to check back in until Tuesday, her normal day to update her blog.

And this should serve as warning to those who choose to blog about their workplaces, whether in the restaurant biz or not. I’m not saying that it’s right for such a chilling effect to be possible, but folks should realize the risks that they take in being too specific when they talk about workplace happenings. I think that this sort of thing still hasn’t been sorted out in the courts and we’re likely to see some interesting legal actions unfold in the coming years. I think, at the very least, one should think long and hard about telling fellow workers that they are even blogging, especially if they are writing about personalities or issues in their workplace and especially if they work in “Right To Work” and “”At Will Employment” states. I don’t think that those workers are offered very much legal protection when it comes to being fired on the grounds that they have blogged about their work.

It took only a few posts over a month-and-a-half for this situation to develop.

And now you know why I haven’t offered much in the way of personal information.

But, in case you were wondering where I get off on offering all sorts of information about waiting tables, let’s just say that I’ve been either waiting tables or managing restaurants (4 years in the late 90s) for the past 15 years and my first job as a waiter was in 1974 for a year and and a half and another job in 1980 – 1982 in another restaurant.

Article in Slate about cookbooks by Sarah Dickerson

I don’t know how long Slate keeps their articles up before throwing them in the archives, but anyone who actually reads my little cookbook blurbs should read this article while it’s still up.

“Some cookbook authors are decidedly domestic, writing about common ingredients with an eye to easing weeknight pressures of the kitchen. Others are professional: They attempt to translate commercial restaurant artistry to the lay masses. Then there are those writers who aim to bring another culture to life through recipes and observations. These authors are the cooking world’s equivalent of Alan Lomax, who ventured to the farmsteads and hollers of rural America, microphone in hand, collecting a nation’s folksongs before interstates and television blurred our regional cultures into a homogenous mass. Whether writing about a childhood home, an ancestral haunt, or a land discovered in full-grown adulthood, these ethno-culinarians try to convey, along with recipes, a sense of how history and geography affect the shifting habits of what we eat every day. They interview grandmothers and street cart vendors to understand the technique and gestalt of vernacular food (and to give the readers a wood-fired whiff of authenticity—a knotty but essential concept). They provide guidance in buying unfamiliar ingredients, be it Greek  mastic or Vietnamese culantro”.

Paula Wolfert is specifically mentioned (remember my praise of her in one of last week’s Cookbook of the Day segments)?

Najmieh Batmanglij is also mentioned. I discussed her book, Good Foods of Persia last week as well. Her book, which I don’t have, The New Food Of Life, is highlighted by Ms. Dickerson.

And praises are heaped on my favorite Vietnamese author/blogster Andrea Nguyen. The very book that I mentioned in the first weeks of this blog is reviewed:

“With Into the Vietnamese Kitchen, Nguyen, who immigrated to the United States as a child, unearths Vietnamese traditions and describes how they changed in the immigrant community here among the supermarkets and food processors of the States. She spends ample time demystifying the Viet pantry with practical advice—”Premium fish sauce is reddish brown and clear. Avoid dark inky liquids that are overly salty and flat tasting”—but not without true sentimental moments:

‘One of my most vivid memories is of our cook, Old Sister Thien, squatting and fanning the small charcoal brazier on which she grilled corn on the cob. As the corn cooked to a charred chewy sweetness, she brushed on a scallion oil made with home-rendered lard. The aroma and taste were heavenly’.

So, three out of the six authors (and one of the books) mentioned by Ms. Dickerson on Slate were also spotlighted on my own humble blog. Not bad for a blog that’s only been doing this for a month, even though she chose a different Thai author than I did. But, no worries, I still have another 4 Thai books to review in the future and I’m intrigued about the one that she mentioned, Cracking the Coconut. Great title.

Just a reminder, you can find my reviews of the three authors that I mentioned here:

You can see all of my Cookbook of the Day posts by inserting that phrase into the search engine. However, I didn’t do a full review of the Nguyen book as it was done before I started this series. It was really as much a touting of her website as it was a recommendation of her wonderful book, the link of which website you’ll find in my blogroll. I really should go back and make it a true Cookbook of the Day report.

Trust pt.2

In part 1 of Trust, we examined the importance of establishing trust between the waiter and the guest.

In this part, we talk about the importance of trust between the waiter and fellow staff.

In order for a restaurant to run efficiently and provide the level of service that the guest has come to expect, it must rely on the best efforts of the team. This is a two-way street of cooperation between the point person of the restaurant, the waiter, and the rest of the organization.

First, the restaurant relies on the best efforts of the waiter. It must trust that the waiter is going to show up to work on time in the proper uniform and the proper frame of mind. The waiter must be prepared in terms of knowing the food and beverage that he or she is going to be offering. He or she needs to have a crisp and professional appearance. This means that aprons are starched and stain-free, shirts are pressed and clean, shoes are either polished or, in the case of tennis shoes, new-looking, and the waiter must have all of the tools that are required for the work (at least 3 pens, crumber, wine tool, lighter, bank, etc.) The waiter must have left any personal problems at home and must be ready to focus all attention on the guest. The waiter must be prepared to do all necessary sidework in order to get the restaurant up and running for the shift, as well as continuing the running sidework that is required while the shift is in progress. The waiter must be ready to work with the kitchen in order to ensure the proper delivery of the food, and this includes being able to order properly, interface with the kitchen in a friendly and cooperative manner and assist the kitchen anyway that is required.

In return, the waiter must be able to trust the staff to support him or her with their best efforts. Fellow waiters and backwaiters must do their sidework and be similarly prepared to hit all marks. The kitchen has to have done their prep work in order for dishes to come out expeditiously and correctly and to reduce the possibility of having to 86 an item. The management team needs to communicate clearly any changes in policy, be available to assist the waiter in solving any customer issues and they need to be able to do it without throwing the waiter under the bus.

When either the waiter or the staff abuses this trust, it erodes the cohesiveness of the operation and endangers the ability to provide the highest level of service.

If everyone takes this trust seriously, problems are reduced. There will always be snafus – that’s just the nature of the business. The idea is to reduce the number of problems to a bare minimum and the easiest way to accomplish this is to be able to trust that your fellow employees have got your back, as you have theirs.

Cookbook of the day – The Peter Reinhart Canon

978158008422215800880231580082688Before I post the pictures and info, a preamble.

Yes, there are a total of 6 (SIX, count’em, SIX) books in today’s post.

When I started highlighing cookbooks in my collection, the intention was to do something with cuisine around the first of every month, including a cookbook. Well, since about the middle of last month, it’s been almost daily that I’ve highlighted a cookbook. I’m not guaranteeing that I can keep up the pace, but it’s apparent that cookbooks are going to be featured regularly, if not almost daily here. So, I thought to myself, “Why not do something a little more than usual on the first of every month”?






I’m going to forgo the usual titling and let you rely on Google to find the ISBN numbers, etc.

Who is Peter Reinhart?

He is probably the most important writer on the subject of bread and associated products on the scene. A former Brother in the Christ the Savior Church, he now writes,  teaches, and lectures around the country on the subject of baking bread.

His first book, Brother Juniper’s Bread Book showed that he was profoundly and spiritually philosophical about baking bread. The book became famous for his take on an old Scottish harvest bread called Struan.With no less than four additional grains added to flour, this bread became almost a celebrity itself in the baking world. I bought the book around ’94 or so and no less a food writer than M.F.K. Fisher wrote the Foreword. I happen to prefer my edition, which has this cover:


I think that the first picture at the top is for the paperback. The hardback isn’t that much more expensive and it’s a much nicer package. Spring for the hardcover.

In that book, you could see the kernels (pun intended) of future explorations.

Of the three “bread books” at the top, the first you should get is The Bread Baker’s Apprentice. It outlines his most recent impact on American baking, the slow rise method. He discussed this in Brother Juniper’s Bread Book, but took it further when he discovered a sort of “super” baguette type of bread in France called pain à l’ancienne that he discovered a Parisian baker named Gosselin making in hisBoulangerie.He discovered that the secret to this amazing bit of French bread masterpiece was a technique similar to his slow rise method, except that it relied on further retardation of the rise by refrigerating the dough overnight. This enables an extended enzyme release which improves the flavor of the dough and helps support the proper crumb texture, which is the development of large holes in the crumb. To me, this is the centerpiece of this book, as struan was for the first book. But this reference book is much more than just that one technique. There’s a whole workshop on the science of bread baking and the production of various forms of bread, with the addition of what he calls “formulas” (in lieu of recipes). The various dough shaping techniques are shown with clear and detailed photographs. This is a must-have volume for anyone who enjoys baking bread. In fact, it has this seal:


The second book, Crust and Crumb is less essential in that it covers a lot of the same territory as The Bread Baker’s Apprentice. It was actually the first book where he explored the retarded fermentation and the Apprentice book is its elaboration (written a couple of years later. If you were to choose between the two books, I’d choose the latter. But Crust and Crumb is still worthy on its own. I have both.

In 2003, he went on a search to find the best pizza, which was a long-standing passion of his. The book American Pie continues his philosophical and scientific approach to baking, and he outlines a most interesting journey in his search for the perfect crust, a goal which he finds is really an impossibility. He also finds that the overnight, refrigerated fermentation is beneficial for certain pizza crusts, and he also outlines the various styles of pizza found in America and Italy.

His Whole Grain Breads tackles the art of baking whole grain breads, the denseness, different  hydration requirements and dough manipulation of those grains and flours requiring a different skill set. This is definitely a book for those who eschew highly processed flours.

Fi9nally, Sacramental Magic in a Small-Town Café is the book that immediately followed the Brother Juniper book. It is mostly stories and ruminations on the art of baking and cooking, the value of food in our lives and is scattered with varied recipes. Depending on how you look at it, it’s either the most optional or the most essential of his books, as it’s a “Tao of cooking” sort of book.

He has a new book coming out, and you can follow his blog here:

New link posted – Steakhouse Blues

I highly recommend this blog from “old school steakhouse general manager–80 hours a week putting out fires [sometimes literally], correcting grammar, opening wine, directing traffic, trying not to kill everyone, and happily receiving the financial tributes of our adoring guests one benjamin at a time

It’s not often that a post on a blog almost brings me to tears. But this is one of them. I demand that everyone go to this blog and read the entire post. It’s too long to reproduce here, and even the extract that I’m posting is longer than I prefer, because usually you can get the gist of a post in the first paragraph or two. However, to get to the essense of the post, I had to include the following:

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

I claim to be an average man of less than average ability. I have not the shadow of a doubt that any man or woman can achieve what I have, if he or she would make the same effort and cultivate the same hope and faith“–Mahatma Gandhi

“Where’s Mr. O’Leary been?”

The question from one of our longest-tenured servers catches me unawares. Mr. O’Leary is one of our most prized guests and one of the richest men in our generally very prosperous city. He is a legend throughout the local dining community–out to dinner six or seven nights a week, choosing from a small group of favored restaurants and literally showering them with his largess.

Every time I see Mr. O’Leary I think of the scene in “My Blue Heaven”, an otherwise exceedingly ordinary comedy about a gangster stuck in middle America as part of the Witness Protection Program. Steve Martin plays the mobster, who attempts to tip his FBI caseworker [Rick Moranis] upon first meeting him–When Rick Moranis‘ character questions the action, the gangster responds matter-of-factly by saying, “Ay…I tip evvverrrrybodddy!”

Mr. O’Leary tips everybody as well. To use another gangster movie allusion, this one from “Goodfellas“, when Mr. O’Leary is in the house, the bartender gets $20 just for keeping the ice cubes cold.

Once the server mentioned Mr. O’Leary’s absence, it occurred to me that indeed we probably hadn’t seen him for nearly six weeks–immediately I was both concerned and embarrassed. Concerned because while in good health, he is an older guy, and I was afraid something might have happened. Embarrassed because over the last few months my attention has been diverted by other things and my observational powers have suffered as a result–I hadn’t noticed his absence at all.

You simply must read this entry. In fact, this blog is a definite keeper. The posts are detailed, well-written and full of humanity; the first being a common trait of GMs, the second a sometimes quality that you find because GMs do a lot of their interaction on the phone and in person plus, they generally don’t have time to do a blog in the first place, and the latter, a quite rare quality in a GM . Therefore, it’s being enthusiastically added to my blogroll.
Let’s all welcome Steadkhouse Blues with a rousing Hurrah!

Some terms that a new waiter needs to know pt.2

Walk-in – That big cold room where they keep the perishable food. It’s only called a walk-in if you can walk into it. Otherwise, it’s a reach-in or a refrigerator. Alternately, it’s a table that hasn’t made a reservation and has, wait for it…walked in and wanted a table. Get it?

Tray Jack – a folding/collapasable thingy that can act as a stand for a large food tray. Looks slightly like a TV tray table, except that it usually has a pair of straps that holds it together when unfolded.

Stiff – something that a server dreads above almost anything, even working Sunday lunch. Strictly speaking, it’s a zero tip. However, in common parlance, it’s any really bad tip (like 5%). Some servers even use it for a substandard tip like 13%, but I maintain that this is diluting the supreme power and terror of the word.

Spiel/Scripting – the recitation of the specials. Sometimes you’ll hear “scripting the specials”.

Sections – the grouping of tables into discrete blocks and assigned to a specific server or servers. This is the server’s “real estate”.

Closing section – usually the section that checks out the other servers and usually has little sidework other than doing the walk-through with the closing manager. Usually reserved for the stronger servers. Usually leaves last, but can actually leave before someone else who might have a camper.

Camper – a table that sits…and sits…and sits…and sits…and…well, you get the idea.

Walk-through – the final inspection of the restaurant at the closing of the shift. Usually done with the closing manager and the closing server.

Run/ride/follow/– the transfer of a table’s food from the kitchen to the table. A ride or a follow is the helping of another server, servers or food runners in the running of the food.

POS – the computer system that handles all of the business of the dining room and kitchen. Stands for “point-of-sale”. Alternately, stands for “piece of shit”. This meaning can also apply to the POS system, but can also refer to anything from the Assistant Manager to a greedy server to the salt shaker whose rubber stopper just won’t stay put.

Pantry – the part of the line where you get salads, desserts, appetizers, etc. It does not refer to the room where the dry goods are stored. That is called:

Dry storage/lager – Yep, that’s where you get the food that doesn’t have to be stored under refrigeration.

Dishland – affectionate term for the dishwasher area.

Dishwasher – the most important person in the restaurant.

Order fire – in systems where you pre-order your food, this is where you’re ordering the food and firing it at the same time because they don’t have an intermediate course. Chefs don’t particularly like this because it makes it look like you’re trying to jump the queue. So, whenever possible, if you can wait until close to the time that you know that any lengthy items that have to be started early are finished, try to hold off on order firing.

Mise en Place – a line cook’s prep setup for service. This includes anything that has to be cut, chopped, pureed, blended, seared, soaked, or spooned into a hot pan or dish. Everything is arranged so that it falls to hand and the line cook doesn’t have to think about where everything is. This is sacrosanct territory and should never…let me repeat this…never ever be messed with. The server has no reason to ever touch, remove, play with, or even covet in his or her mind anything in the mise (pronounced meez). If you need something that the line cook has, always ask politely if you can have some and let them give it to you.

 French service – the serving of family style side dishes by the waiter onto the plates of the guests rather than letting them do it themselves. Usually done with a serving spoon and a fork or two serving spoons, chopsticks-style. Actually involves a lot more detail, but this is what is usually meant.

Ranch dressing the object of scorn by waiters around the Northern Hemisphere. A white, viscous substance used to mask the fresh flavors of a salad, or used as a dipping sauce for things as diverse as raw cauliflower to various fried substances. Also used as a yang counterpoint to buffalo wings’ yin.

Pre-shift – the pre-service meeting where information is disseminated to the service staff. Sometimes used to “inspect the troops”.

Family meal – the free (usually) meal prepared by the kitchen for the staff. Sometimes it’s a creative use of leftovers or excess inventory. Sometimes it’s a  failed science experiment utilizing ingredients approaching toxic waste category. And sometimes it’s just a thing of simple beauty.

Bacon – a miracle material that makes just about everything taste better. Alternately, the money that you bring home.

Grease – an additional tip on top of an auto-grat or mandatory service charge.

Double-bump – a usually unintentional full gratuity added on top of an auto-grat or mandatory service charge.

In the rough – the state of being that occurs right before getting “in the weeds”.  The point where the server is at the tipping point. It’s the point where the ship can either been righted or can sink like a stone.  First publicly coined by the blogster bitterwaitress. the term comes from golf, where a golfer has missed the fairway and landed in the tall grass that abuts the short cut grass of the fairway.

Adding new link – Waiternotes

A very well-written and considered blog that combines tales from restaurants with practical information about the profession of waiting tables.

Plus, it has a slick, modern look that works well.

Look for it under “Water Stuff”.

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.

Link of the day – The Waiter’s Digest


This is one of the oldest waiting tables sites on the internet. Helmut Schonwalder is a transplanted German who waits tables in California. It’s a shame that he probably had to drop the two umlauts in his name – perhaps he could borrow one from Queensryche, who has an unnecessary (and incorrect one, for that matter) over the Y.  And he could just get the other from Blue Öyster Cult since they really don’t need that one, unless they really want you to call their band Blue Erister Cult.

Frankly, I could do without the MIDI background stuff (if you’re going to give me Money! Money! Money!, give me ABBA, not some cheesy MIDI file). And the site has always bit a bit of maze. About 4 years ago, he started to transition into more of a commerce site and he has lots of offerings that you can purchase.

The great part of the site is his “Waiter’s Digest”, a series of pages with the same goal as this very blog – a primer on getting and mastering the waiter’s job.

He’s also got a CDROM on napkin folding, where he has hundreds of folds. He still got a few dozen that you can look at for free.

Schonwalder is old school as well as old world. He takes his profession seriously and he has a wealth of knowledge that you’ll find useful. I remember reading many of his tales of waiting tables over the years (he was the granddaddy of all waiter rant-type sites, albeit with a sophistication that you sometimes find lacking in similar sites). Due to the circuitous nature of his web empire, it’s rather hard for me to see if any of those tales are still visible for free. He has compiled a CDROM of his tales, but, you might still be able to access some of them. Some of them are quite choice, especially some of the ones from “the old country”.

The best tip I got from his tales? If you have a white shirt and the cuff is stained, use a piece of white chalk to cover it up for the day. Of course, in these days of whiteboards and computer monitors, it ain’t easy to find chalk. It wasn’t an explicit tip, but one that was just part of a story. You’ll find lots of little gems buried in his tales. If you have to buy his CDROM to get them, so be it.

While the graphics are very dated, the visual style waaaay too florid, garish and in need of a serious update, and the navigation needs simplifying, you should check out Helmut’s site if you haven’t already. There was a time where it was one of the few waiter reference sites on the ‘net and, for that alone, it should be celebrated.

Oh yeah, there’s a nice series of posts on the history of dining.

This is the main portal: