Pining For the Industry

Save for a one night stand at Chambar (for a magazine story) and a fundraising dinner at Elixir (for the Chefs Table Society), it’s been over two years since I worked in a restaurant. It seems much longer.

There are times that I am so glad that I changed direction after 2o years (like when I see a real douchey customer treating a server like shit), but most of the time I quietly pine for moments and things that used to make me very happy. Naturally, the thing I miss most is the camaraderie that comes with the territory, but that’s too easy and too schmaltzy to include (lest I tear up). So after a good, long think (five minutes), I came up with ten other reasons why I miss the trade…

The Stella Finale

Loosening the tie, taking off my perennially ill-fitting shoes, lighting a Dunhill, and taking that first sip of Stella Artois (at half price) while sitting down and doing my cashout at the end of my shift was a nightly doze of fabulous. It made for a feeling so rapturous that it could ease whatever psychological trauma the evening had inflicted and make even the lamest of beers taste like sunshine and daisies.

The Double Autograt

These days, at most restaurants above the truck stop class, tables of 8 or more are charged an 15% to 18% automatic gratuity. It most often says as much directly on the menu (usually at the bottom and in fine print), but I would also explain directly to the person paying the tab that the gratuity was included, and just to make sure I was crystal clear I would circle the included gratuity on their bill upon presentation. Despite this – as it isn’t uncommon for some bigwigs to completely ignore whatever it is that their server is telling them – there were times when a $250 autograt came back with an extra $300 in cash in the bill fold. You’d tell yourself that the guy was just a good tipper, of course, but you knew in your heart that they’d just screwed up. But you didn’t care. You’d brag to your linemates and go home giddy as a schoolgirl. If their secretary calls three days later, however, politely asking for the $300 back, the moment can quickly lose its lustre.

The Seniority Schedule

When you write for a living, you pretty much surrender your claim to a coherent schedule. From the moment you wake up to the moment you go to sleep, you’re either working or thinking about working (or, admittedly, staring idly into space). In the restaurant business, it’s much simpler. A prime dinner shift is 5pm to midnight, and if you’ve been at the same joint for a few years and proved your mettle, you often get to write your own schedule. A good, self-serving server will work no doubles, have four consecutive days on and three days off, and always be stationed in the best section with the best tables. They’re also the last ones to start (all the opening duties and mise en place are done), and the first ones to leave (no closing duties). It takes a while to get there, and once you’re there it’s hard to let go.

The Weeds

Believe it or not, I miss being in the shit with five new tables (all of them assholes); a slow bartender; a busser on her first dinner shift; and the B team in the kitchen. I have no idea why. Maybe it’s because I no longer have the “workmares” that used to have me surging out of bed at 4am screaming “I called ‘pick up’ on that lamb forty minutes ago!” Probably not. Maybe it’s some masochistic fetish that grew inside me over the years and has laid dormant like a baby Alien.

A Good Pomodoro

It sounds silly, but I had the good fortune of always working with cooks who could make a perfect spaghetti pomodoro for my staff meal (two chefs in particular: Massimo Capra at Prego in Toronto and Robert Byford at the Beach House). It’s a simple enough thing to make, you’d think, but I’ve never had a good one since.

Little Yellow Envelopes

Being a writer means being poor. That much I have learned. If there’s been any difficulty in adjusting to a new line of work, it’s that you don’t get paid, usually a couple hundred dollars in cash, every day. For writers, checks come when they come: there is no predicting it. Those little yellow envelopes filled with tips from the night before were like paper angels, stuffed with the guts of awesome. Sigh.

Educational Dregs

A lifer cocaine-addict server named Charles once taught me this neat trick. Let’s say a deuce of businessmen order a bottle of ’97 “Martha’s Vineyard” from Napa’s Heitz (about $500 maybe). You break out the decanter and slow transfer the stuff, being theatrically careful so as not to bring over any imaginary sediment. The businessmen are watching, of course, but when you say “Woah, there’s quite a bit of sediment here!” and then stop decanting, they’re ready for you to pour. Being the devious reprobate that you most certainly are, you’ve left about three ounces of perfectly good wine in the bottle, which you whisk away to the server’s station and stash somewhere behind the coffee machine for post-shift sampling and note taking.

Chocolate Fuck Ups

Even the best pastry chefs make mistakes, and the ones that I had the pleasure of working with were no exceptions. For a server with a sweet tooth, all it takes is a watchful eye. A broken crust? The messy edges of a tiramisu pan? A failed souffle? That’s when you pounce. “I really don’t think chef would want me serving that” or “You’re going to throw that out, right?” usually does the trick.

The Paul Chalmers Effect

If this were a “What I Don’t Miss About The Restaurant Business” exercise, customers would be at the top of the list. I always had the lame fortune of working in neighbourhoods that seemed to hatch the most poisonous types of people, from mafiosos and two-bit crooks to balloon-breasted trophy wifes and shit head real estate tycoons. Still, for every twenty dickheads you’d get someone golden, someone who really knew how to dine. I had one guy, a semi-regular named Paul Chalmers, who I had the pleasure of serving both in Vancouver and Toronto. When he walked into the restaurant the servers would fight over him. He and his wife were the best customers you could ever ask for. They appreciated good wine, fine food, and knew how to take their time and enjoy the rhythm of a meal. They also tipped well, but with guys like Chalmers it really didn’t matter. An endangered species?

Annual Social Apocalypse

Nothing is more depraved, more freak-nasty, more debaucherous, and more telling of the darker extremes of your co-workers personalities than the annual staff party. Man, how I miss them! Think vomit, fights, adultery, and all manner of shameful displays of personal immolation. When the 16 year old pastry assistant decides it’s time to take her shirt off, be sure to turn away. You’d think that some sort of “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” sort of rule would apply, but no. If you do anything remotely embarrassing at these affairs, it will churn through the industry grapevine like shit through a goose and you will never live it down.

There are 7 comments

  1. Right on the money, Andrew.

    When I was newly married, my wife came to pick my drunken, wasted self from a Milestone’s staff party, just as the hostess (with the mostest) was getting up on a table to take her shirt off. I am glad she did not see what had happened to precipitate that event, because I would have had to change career paths.

    Sigh.

  2. Almost makes me want to be in the industry…but I know “the things I don’t miss” (coming anytime now…) would swing me so far the other way I probably would only do take out.