“Everyone should wait tables at least once in their life,” my friend Dan once told me. He’s my FC Barcelona buddy and a sous chef at one of the restaurants in Portland (Maine).
My sister and I went to a Vietnamese restaurant down the street this afternoon for lunch. Our waitress was a mousey young Vietnamese girl who, my sister told me, had been working there for years. “She’s a country bumpkin, you know? Doesn’t lead with common sense but learns through trial and error.” Let me preface this little anecdote by making a comment or two about our culture: Vietnamese people are a very self-dissecting people. We don’t mean to come off as bitchy in the least, but there exists some stratification in our culture and society, both here and back in the Motherland. So, my sister’s comments aren’t out of the ordinary or particularly cruel.
Anyway, the poor dear had to deal with a massive party of a handful of adults and double the amount of little children, who had just gotten out of gymnastics practice at a venue nearby. They helped themselves in moving the tables around, and the poor girl was—very openly—reprimanded by her manager for allowing them to do so. “You know, if Grandma was alive, she would let her have it. Like, ‘What, are you stupid?’” my sister told me on our drive home.
That got me thinking about the time when I was a waitress at a very posh Italian wine bar in a very affluent neighborhood in London. I was such a shitty waitress. My hands were too small to hold multiple plates on my arms (people say that they’re “adorable”, but that kind of makes me feel a like a T-Rex), and a few times I broke the cork in front of the customer while trying to unscrew some wine bottles (but I’ve never broken a glass!). But the job was repetitive enough where I got better, and because I’m friendly as anything, I did manage to gain some loyal customers. It also helped that I was the only native English speaker on staff, and because I’m a little Asian ray of California sunshine, I was hard to deny (even though, given the clientele, I probably should’ve been a bit more professional than, “How are my babies doin’?”). So, overall, not a natural talent, but my boss would’ve given me a stellar recommendation anyhow.
It took a while to get into the swing of things. There were nights when I came home crying because I pissed off the other staff by not working efficiently enough, and there were nights when I fucked up utterly—not just really badly, but utterly—with one of my tables, experiences for which I still carry around emotional scars. Below you will find some experiences that got me into the habit of drinking 2 espressi before my shift and 2 glasses of wine after it, and/or experiences that I didn’t find worth my £6/hr wage (often without tips because they thought that service was included):
1) The time when, while I was still training, I had a table of three young’ns. One of them asked me if the bresaola on the menu was venison. “No,” I replied.
“Are you sure?”
“I lived in Italy for a year, and I’d be surprised if the entire time I was eating deer meat.”
So, he ordered a carpaccio di manzo. Later, my manager approached me.
“You got their order wrong.”
“No, it was two carpaccio di manzo and one (something I can’t remember).”
“But he wanted the bresaola.”
“That’s not what he told me.”
“You know that bresaola is venison, right?”
NO IT AIN’T!!
2) Again, while I was first starting out, I kept forgetting to set the mise en place as soon as I finished taking their order. One day, the chef/line cook (it was a small establishment) just lost it on me. “PANDA! This is NOT a hard job. You take the order of the people, you set the mise en place, they eat, you take their money!” Mind, this took place at the register, in full view of the customers. Later, I sat in the tiny kitchen space and nearly cried while eating my sandwich for lunch. He came in later. “I’m sorry Panda.” I shit you not, completely disconnected groups of people from all over the world instinctively call me Panda. So bizarre, but I’m not offended. Pandas are my spirit animal.
3) I had some customers in on a quiet afternoon for lunch, and I guess one of them was a music producer. He kept talking about boy bands and their success. “Take One Direction, such-and-such band isn’t going to be able to compete with them, but if you go to Singapore … I mean, they’d be hugely successful over there! Asians LOVE boy bands!” Then his colleagues hushed him, possibly because I was in the immediate vicinity. I heard whispers. “But uh … I love Asians.” I turned around and replied, “Well, on behalf of my entire race, thanks. I appreciate that.”
His friend: “Oh, you heard him talking, did you?” Whole company laughs.
For a £75 bill, I was gifted with “the change” … £2.35.
4) I had two regulars at the physical bar within the wine bar – one was a French/Middle Eastern man, and the other, his friend, was an Iranian businessman. For some reason, he got into the habit of calling me a Viet Cong, as if that was okay. “Do you know what the Viet Cong is?” When I recounted the story to my manager (to express my discomfort), she replied, “‘Do I know what the Viet Cong is? Why yes, I went to school’”. Actually, Boss, my family were refugees of the Vietnam War, so that’s how I know what they were. Apparently the only one who showed any cultural sensitivity in that place was my Assistant Manager, the same friend who later moved to another wine bar and took care of me after my brutal experience with corporate culture (See ‘Office Politics’).
5) My pièce de résistance – the time I fucked up so badly I thought I’d get fired on the spot: We’re a wine bar, people, ok? Not a restaurant. One Saturday we got SLAMMED for lunch, with only one cook and one busser in the kitchen. I had a table of 8, and they all ordered beef tagliata, all cooked differently, and one pasta plate. “Aren’t you gonna write any of this down?” one had asked. “Nope, got it all up here in my noggin!” Welp, I fucking forgot the pasta. And as more large tables poured in, the kitchen was so busy and stressed that they didn’t want to quickly make me my pasta plate… so it ended up taking 30-45 minutes. The table—especially the one lonely dude who ordered the pasta, poor bastard—were FURIOUS. They went to my manager and said, “We would like two still water bottles. And my friend is VERY HUNGRY!” I apologized profusely, but to no avail. And then I got called into my manager’s office for a ‘pep talk’, where I was verbally sliced to ribbons. One couple in that party of 8 were regulars, and a couple weeks later, they came back. They weren’t my table, but I got stuck serving them because one of the other servers was neglecting them (they physically pulled me to their table to serve them). “Well, this is awkward!” I joked. By my luck, they were really kind that evening, but I’ll never forget that other server making me look like an ass for his mistake.
I have plenty more horror stories from that place—who’da thunk that rich people like to shit on people in the service industry?—but I can’t retell them without divulging too much detail. People were entitled, picky, cheap … but I did have some gems among them. On my last shift, I had one regular trek up a hill to the bar to say goodbye to me. A couple weeks later, when I went to pick up one of my forms and last pay check, I ran into another regular who was so excited to see me that she said I’d made her day.
The point of this entry: aside from “Don’t fuck with the people who make your food?” … Uh … something about ‘humble pie’ and building mental toughness through mental/emotional hazing.
From The Big Bang Theory:
Raj: Excuse me. Oh, it’s my assistant Trevor. ‘Go for Koothrappali. Uh-huh…’
Howard: They gave him an assistant? If I want a new pen I have to go to the bank with wire cutters!
Sheldon: (still smiling) Have we at this point met our social obligations?
Leonard: Not yet.
Raj: ‘Okay, just put it on my calendar but start thinking of a reason why I can’t go, alrighty? Koothrappali out!’ God Bless that boy, I don’t know what I’d do without him.
Leonard: You just got him this afternoon!
Raj: Yes, but I’m finding that having a lackey suits me.
Leonard: A lackey?
Raj: Oh, I’m sorry, is that politically incorrect? In India, we just call them untouchables.