Good waiting is an art form all its own. Good service in a restaurant can be the making of a meal, a good waiter the difference between an average eating experience and one to remember.
A competent waiter walks a fine line. A whole collection of lines really. A good waiter is professional without being officious, warm without being intimate, personal without being invasive, efficient without ever appearing to be hurried, responsive while staying calm and measured in every circumstance.
That said, one thing I’m ambivalent about is knowing my waiter’s name. It’s common in the US: ‘Hello, I’m Amy and I’ll be your waiter today.’ I’ve noticed the practice creeping in here too. Like my experience a few weeks back at a place close by. As soon as we sat down, this energetic young man bounced up behind me and pressed his hand onto my shoulder: ‘Hey guys, I’m Gary!’ I’m sorry Gary, but I really don’t need to know, and about my shoulder …
While I do get the personal thing, and I certainly don’t want Gary to be invisible — I’ll go out of my way to be responsive and to express gratitude when it’s due — at this particular meal with my beloved or my family or friends, I’m not looking for a buddy. What I need is a waiter — one who’s attentive, responsive and competent. As a guest, I’ll owe him my respect but never my phone number.
Call me grumpy, but the writer Andrew Toddhunter agrees. And he’s American!
What a wonderful book — a reflective and thoughtful memoir (and part social commentary) of 20 years spent as a waitress in American restaurants. In places as far afield as New York, Oregon and California — from luncheonettes, pizza parlours and diners to Italian bistros and fine dining rooms — this is the story of the author’s life, much of it lived, as is typical of those who wait, aspiring to be someone or somewhere else. In time, though, Ginsberg discovers that she cannot live her life as though waiting for the real thing to begin. Suddenly she looks back over her shoulder at 20 years; this is her life, and one she is finally able to embrace and value.
… perhaps the most valuable lesson I’d learned was that the act of waiting itself is an active one. That period of time between the anticipation and the beginning of life’s events is when everything really happens–the time when actual living occurs. I’d spent so much time worrying about the outcome of my life that I’d forgotten how to live it. I’d also come to know that not everything was fraught with a vast and complicated meaning. Sometimes it was only about timing the order just right, recommending a particularly good dessert, or making a friend out of a stranger at my table. I began to see not only the simplicity of these acts but their beauty.
In some ways this book is similar in style to Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, though told from the other side of the servery. It is full of great stories, the most flawed yet endearing characters, and an insider’s perspective on the restaurant industry. Though Ginsberg is finally able to embrace her working role as a meaningful one, she never verges into romantic or idealist language about her profession. Every page is real. I closed the book feeling a renewed sense of respect for waiters, but even more for the wonder of ordinary life and those who live it.
Debra Ginsberg, Waiting: The True Confessions of a Waitress, New York: HarperCollins, 2000.
Honestly, it’s such a tawdry read I’m almost embarrassed to say I read it. But I did and it has some redeeming features.
Hotel Babylon is an atrociously voyeuristic account of a 24-hour period in one of London’s luxury five-star hotels. The storyteller, we are told, is an employee working a double shift on the reception desk. Though it’s more likely an accumulation of experiences over a much longer period of time – condensed in this form for the sake of a good read – it still provides insight into the high end of the hospitality industry. You just have to sort through the embellishments from the facts.
Where the book shines is in the glimpses it provides into the experience of hotel workers, especially those who inhabit the back end of these establishments. At one point, the author sits in the staff cafeteria amongst a group of ‘chambermaids’ on their lunch break. What he observes is telling.
These women all work hard and, for some reason, they seem to take pride in what they are doing. Why they would take pride in putting a chocolate on someone’s pillow or placing a facecloth at the correct forty-five-degree angle from the basin, is anyone’s guess. But apparently they do. I take a bite of my bread, and thank my lucky stars that I don’t have to deal with skid-marked sheets for a living. At least, I have the possibility of moving on and up in my job — to duty manager and possibly to manager. Working in a hotel is all I ever wanted to do from the age of six. I swear it was a childhood dream of mine, to work my way up and maybe have a hotel of my own one day. But these women sitting opposite me can’t even dream. It’s terrible: they are destined to clean up after other people forever. Chambermaids don’t get promoted; they just get fired. Even the head housekeeping job is usually given to some girl on a management traineeship. Chambermaids start cleaning up toothpaste, and they end cleaning up toothpaste. They get their four and a half pounds an hour, their two to three meals a day, and the occasional fiver from some passing American. It makes me depressed just sitting here.
Anonymous and I. Edwards-Jones, Hotel Babylon, New York: Penguin, 2004.