One Side To Every Story

Anyone who thinks being a waiter is an easy job has obviously never waited tables. One thing that makes restaurant work so uniquely challenging is dealing with infinite permutations of human stupidity on a nightly basis and having to adjust your behavior accordingly. There are no algorithms to crack the code of people’s ridiculousness, you just have to roll with whatever comes your way. It’s part of the job to maintain your composure and stay neutral under extreme duress. Speaking up for yourself or calling someone out for being an ass will come at the expense of your tip and may even cost you your job.

My mettle was tested on a recent night by my last table, who arrived just before closing. It’s frequently busy late where I work so it’s not uncommon, even on slower weekday nights, for a new table to be seated after 11pm. Seeing them sit down broke my spirit—the demoralizing feeling you get when you think you’ve climbed to the top of the mountain and you realize the peak is actually miles away—but I was determined to show them a good time. I took a deep breath, aligned my chakras, grabbed four menus and forced a smile over my face.

There were two couples in their mid-to-late forties seated at my new table. Without reciprocating my greeting, they informed me they were expecting a couple of martinis they had ordered from the bar while they were waiting. I assured them I would inquire as to the whereabouts of their cocktails and quickly recited the specials. Of course they ignored most everything I said, convinced that more exciting information could be gleaned from inside theirate-customer backlit nothingness of their cellphone screens. I made a few recommendations after delivering their drinks and informed them that the kitchen would be closing shortly. The men seemed a little drunk but the situation was nowhere near amber alert.

Before the first course arrived they called me over to change one of their main courses. You want the shrimp instead of the lamb? No problem. I told the kitchen to cancel lamb, ordered the shrimp and asked the manager for a void. The appetizers arrived. When I checked back to make sure everything was alright, the first course was fine but they’d decided on second thought they really didn’t want the shrimp after all. I could feel my chakras pulling apart. I trudged back to the kitchen muttering obscenities under my breath. Thankfully, the shrimp hadn’t been cooked yet so it wasn’t a problem. The moment the squishy, opalescent crustaceans hit the grill, it’s a different story. The chef looked at me, as he often does, like I was out of my mind. I begged him, as I always do, not to shoot the messenger.

I went back to the manger to ask for another void. “Are these people serious? Didn’t they just change this to shrimp?” she asked, entering her passcode into the POS terminal. She already knew the answer to both questions, so I remained silent. My mantra: I can only speak for myself.

When I returned to the table to clear the appetizer plates, they insisted on canceling the rest of their main courses because they’re already full. “I’m sorry,” I interrupted, “the rest of your food is on the way,” I didn’t need to check with the chef, my manager or anyone. Canceling food in a restaurant is not something you do whimsically based on how full you get. It doesn’t work that way. “I can’t cancel anything else. I’ve tried to do everything I can to this point. The food is coming.” I had transformed into an angry parent who’d reached his wit’s end. They were petulant little children needing discipline.

About five minutes later one of the women got up from the table and cornered me in the wait station. I thought she was going to ask me for directions to the restroom. She seemed a bit shaken.

“I’m really sorry. I don’t mean to be rude but the guys we’re with are really drunk and we need to get out of here right now,” she said with the impermanent desperation of an entitled white person.

“Well… I’m sorry to hear that.” I tried my best to sound sympathetic but stayed on message. “Unfortunately, your main courses are about to be served so if you want I can wrap them up for you?”

“That’s ok. We’ll pay for it. I’m really sorry. They’re just sooo drunk, we really need to go right now.”

chef-exasperatedSo, I returned to the kitchen to ask the chef to wrap everything to go. He’s annoyed but less annoyed than if I’d canceled the order outright and the food went to waste. “These people are out of control,” he said, giving me the stink eye. I don’t say anything. I’m already showing symptoms of PTSD. “No problem, dude. We’ll wrap it.” His voice sounded relieved all of a sudden. These moments have a way of reminding chefs how fortunate they are not to have to deal directly with the people who eat their food.

I returned to the table with the check in my hand and present it with a restrained smile.

“We are wrapping the rest of the food for you and it should be arriving shortly.” Everyone looks back like I’m speaking a foreign language. As I began to remove the clean share plates and flatware from the table, I realized that the woman who pulled me aside has not said anything to her company about her exit plan. So to everyone else, it looks like I went rogue and decided to evict them.

I shoot her a piercing glare. “She asked me to wrap your food and told me you needed to go.” Everyone at the table turns toward her.

“No, I didn’t,” she stared at me intently like someone who wants you to know they’re upset you blew their cover. If she was going to throw me under the bus like that, I was determined to take the bus down with me. My feet feel heavy in my worn-out black waiter shoes and I can’t move, still with rage.

“We didn’t just have a conversation, just now, where you asked me to wrap the food and told me you needed to leave right away?”

“No, I never said that.” She looked around nervously like a fidgety witness under cross-examination. I was the defendant’s lawyer, arguing a losing case.

“There are two ways this can go,” one of the drunk men interjected, “1) You can cancel the food or 2) You can serve it to us at the table.”

“I think there are more than two ways this can go, my friend,“ I said, beginning to lose my cool.

Rather than outline the different outcomes I envisioned, I gently replaced their table settings and did what any other self-respecting server would do in this situation—I ran crying to my manager. We removed the food from the to-go containers, re-plated it with the chef’s help and brought it to the table. They barely finished anything and then, without irony, asked us to wrap what was left. The two men at the table split the bill—both tips were well below average, one tipped under ten percent. I struggled to find an argument for why I deserved to be tipped poorly. There wasn’t one. There usually isn’t. Adding insult to injury, they stayed for another round of drinks at the bar.

This situation highlights the dilemma that most people who work in restaurants face almost every night. You have no leverage when conflict arises. There is only one side to every story. The most apocalyptic reviews on Yelp always feature stories written by omniscient first person narrators. They might as well all be titled: “It happened because I say it happened.” At the end of the day, waiters keep their mouths shut because they know they’ll always end up on the losing side of the argument.

For those of us who make a living serving people, effacing yourself for the edification of others takes its toll over time because, like battered spouses, our sacrifices are so rarely appreciated. There is nothing to protect you from the abuses of guests who revel in exploiting the server-master relationship. Part of surviving life in the restaurant business is learning to accept the muzzle you wear everyday. No matter how badly people treat you, you can never stoop to their level, not if you value your job. When they go low, we go high. Because the customer may not always be right, but the customer will always have the last word.

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The World’s 20 Best Restaurants – 2050

1. DA’ SOLO – Ancona, Italy
solo-dinerItalian Chef Giuseppe Ciabolongo’s remote one-seat restaurant, nestled away in the hills of the Marché, has the distinction of being this year’s top restaurant. Reservations must be made ten years in advance since Da’ Solo only serves a single diner per night—a solitary feast which often lasts over fifteen hours. Eager gastrophiles must be patient since the restaurant is only open four days a year, on the Summer and Winter Solstice and the Vernal and Autumnal Equinox.

2. TWIG & BERRIES – London, England
twigs-and-berriesNative Londoner Mildred Cooms serves a menu of exclusively animal genitalia and reproductive organs at her trendy London gastropub. The uterine design of the dining room soothes guests with a womb-like comfort as they dig into Chef Cooms’ signature Spit-Roasted Duck Testicles with Cod Sperm Béarnaise.

fodimageThe Farm-to-Table movement gets turned upside down at this rustic eatery in the middle of a soybean field in rural North Dakota. Former New York Chef Arlen Meecham tests his culinary skill by importing genetically-modified hothouse produce and factory-raised meats presenting them in a beautiful pastoral setting designed to trick locavores into thinking they’re eating organically.

4. BISTRO DERRIÈRE – Marseille, France
suppositoriesGuests at Jean-Pierre Lispenard’s neo-French bistro eschew forks and knives enjoying a multi-course tasting menu delivered rectally. Lispenard relies heavily on molecular gastronomy to distill complex flavors into suppositories which are administered to his guests by a staff of registered nurses. The talented sommeliers can also pair wines with retro-fitted bidets beneath the banquettes that bathe your undercarriage with a focused selection of biodynamic wines.

5. SPENDERÖRGAN – Frankfürt, Germany
brainsAs a young medical student German Chef Johannes Guttmann began preparing meals of human offal for classmates by smuggling organs from dissected cadavers from the university morgue. His obsession gradually took the shape of this exciting new pop-up restaurant in Frankfürt where visitors receive a medical examination upon arrival before each one agrees to contribute a vital organ to the evening’s meal.

6. KAISEKI SEBUN – Hokkaido, Japan
japanese-kid-chefChef Kumiko Nakarata started cooking professionally at six months old when, as an infant prodigy, she was invited to stage at Le Bernardin in New York City. Having just turned seven (Sebun is the Japanese character that represents her age), Ms. Nakarata is the youngest chef to appear on this list by over twenty years. Her restaurant—set along the Pacific Ocean in Hokkaido, Japan—is a destination for seafood lovers all over the world and tourists who come to see the youngest three-Michelin starred chef in history. Sebun changes its name to a new number every year to commemorate Kumiko’s birthday.

7. LEFTŒUVERS – Oslo, Norway
landfills-a-history-of-waste-disposalMeals begin at “Freegan” Chef Lars Jørgensen’s Scandinavian eatery in Oslo with each table foraging their own ingredients from a nearby landfill. Aside from turning food waste into haute cuisine, the restaurant was designed to be entirely self-sustaining, running all of its electricity on biofuels and kitchen grease. Trash from your meal is discarded directly into the landfill every night to be scavenged by tomorrow’s hungry gastronomes.

8. INADEMEN – Amsterdam, Netherlands
vaporizerDutch for “inhale,” diners need only breathe to enjoy each course of their prix fixe at this über-modern space designed by the husband and wife team of astro-physicists turned chefs, Sven and Hälle Nillstrom. At the communal table, your food is delivered in the form of flavored vapors you inhale through e-cigarettes. After toking your main course, you’ll be invited to the Nillstrom’s psychedelic hash bar next door for “dessert.”

9. CORO – São Paolo, Brazil
A team of 75 classically-trained Brazilian chefs prepare your meal in a kitchen the size of a soccer field. Unlike most professional kitchens, the chefs don’t work together. Each individually prepares one of your 75 different courses then the chefs—also classically-trained musicians—gather to invite you into the kitchen for a choral concert of epic proportions.

10. MUDPIE – Mexico City, Mexico
mudChef Luisa Romero Ballatín-Cortez extols the health virtues of cooking with mud in her new restaurant on the outskirts of Mexico City. Chef Ballatín-Cortez spares no expense importing the finest mud from all over the world as far as the Himalayas and encorporates it into her unique Jaliscan-style cuisine. Diners come from near and far to experience such delicacies as Sri Lankan Mud-braised Wild Boar Enchiladas and her famous Oaxacan Red Mud Mole.

11. EMBRYŌ – Bangkok, Thailand
balutAnimal fetuses and underdeveloped life forms are the specialty here at this subterranean restaurant in the seedy Soi Cowboy district of Bangkok. Four-hundred pound Chef Alex “Big Baby” Sriphatkorn built his own hatchery adjacent to the restaurant in order to harvest unborn animals he can cook immediately in his natural wood-fired ovens. Although “Big Baby” has become an international celebrity—most notably for his food-themed viral rap videos—look out for PETA activists who frequently protest outside the restaurant.

12. 171℃ – Bogotá, Colombia
Instead of preparing the food sous vide, Chef Simón Mascherano prepares his guests sous vide by mummifying them in plastic wrap and submerging them into temperature-controlled water baths. His technique ensures that none of his precious flavors can escape through the diner’s pores during the meal. He literally seals in your juices. After a highly published drowning case, Chef Mascherano moved his restaurant from Medellín to Bogotá where the higher altitudes allow his water baths to boil more gently at the perfect temperature of 171 degrees Celsius.

13. X/Y – San Francisco, USA
sex-chromosomesHave you ever stopped to consider the sex of the plant, animal or marine life you are eating? Most diners don’t, but Chef Angela Marx takes the matter very seriously at this San Fransisco eatery. She allows her guests to choose the gender of their steaks, chops, lobsters and even certain plant life. Try the “Girl’s Nite Out” ten-course tasting to experience Chef Marx’s menu of all female life forms. Sommelier Margueritte Thiebault takes special care to make sure the all-female winemakers wine pairings are seamlessly tailored to the menu’s feminine food.

14. FOCI – Various Undisclosed Locations
vrheadsetCreated in 2048 in conjunction with Google Ventures, FOCI began as a Kickstarter project of Chef Kosmo3, a computer hacker with no formal culinary training. His futuristic kitchen brings the virtual reality experience to fine dining where diners consume a luxurious multi-media tasting menu without actually eating anything. Real-time biofeedback that reaches the kitchen’s “servers” through your Bluetooth-enabled cutlery allows the virtual chef to feed you images of what the body craves without the need for opinionated waitstaff.

15. CHEF:BÔT – Osaka, Japan
Adventurous diners can experience chef-less dining in Osaka, Japan where human cooks are replaced by 3D printers that prepare your meal tableside. Choose from a digital menu of iconic dishes made famous throughout the history of modern cooking. The restaurant’s patented Transparent Kitchen™ can create exact replicas of virtually any haute cuisine. It gives a new meaning to the concept of open kitchens.

avocado-toastAfter a forty year hiatus from cooking, legendary Napa Valley Chef and pioneering locavore Alphonse Treadwell revives the comfort food that made him famous in the Oughts. His humble kitchen specializes in his once trendy but now retro dishes that have fallen out of favor like Avocado Toast, Pork Buns, Korean Fried Chicken and Cacio e Pepe.

17. LILY AND SAND – Dubai, UAE
dubai-flotillaIt took over fifteen years to construct this giant 300,000 square foot flotilla in Dubai that seats over 5,000 guests at once making it the largest free-standing restaurant in the world. Guests must take a helicopter and three different ferries before arriving in the luxurious dining hall designed by architect I.M. Pei’s goddaughter. English Chef phenom Ian Chatterton’s Persian menu focuses on aquatic life and includes the most expensive dish in the world—a spit-roasted dolphin encrusted in 24-Karat Gold, yours for only $40,000.

18. DINE X – Outer Space
xrocketBilled as the first intergalactic culinary experience, Space X and Elon Musk have joined forces with the Culinary Institute of America to launch fine dining out of the Earth’s atmosphere. Patrons are rocket blasted into orbit for three hours where they can enjoy an intimate meal in a custom-made Space X dining capsule. Lay back in your Kevlar suit while you enjoy delicate space-raised meats barbecued over sizzling hot moon rocks and freeze dried desserts, both specialties of former NASA-engineer-turned-Astro-Chef Zoltan Janucyzk’s aeronautical kitchen.

19. GUSTIBUS – Philadelphia, USA
hospital-mealsVisitors must check into the Dining Pavilion adjacent to the University of Pennsylvania Hospital at their scheduled reservation time. After receiving an epidural, a highly-skilled medical staff inserts small arthroscopic cameras into the guest’s digestive tract so he can joyfully witness his meal being digested in real time. The cafeteria-inspired menu was developed by a team of nutritionists at U. Penn—featuring such Heartland delicacies as Grass-Fed Salisbury Steak and Lancaster County Mushy Peas. Each diner is issued a secure portal to live-stream the camera feed from inside their stomach via Snapchat.

20. FORECLOSURE – Cayman Islands
foreclosure-for-sale-signRestaurant patrons must sign over the deeds to their homes to be invited to dine at this palace of modern cuisine in the Cayman Islands. Offshore accounting allows visitors to exploit tax shelters to offset their loss in personal wealth. In the spirit of the meal, the dining room is filled with repossessed furniture purchased by the restaurant from IRS auctions.

*Note: This list is fictional and purely for satirical purposes. Any similarities with real life restaurants, restauranteurs or chefs are purely coincidental.

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The Mysterious Case of the Late Night Handover

Late night diners are always more susceptible to being abandoned by their servers. Not the inevitable complacency you find when it’s closing time—no, the kind where you’re halfway through your appetizers and the waiter approaches to inform you that he is leaving. We’ve all been there. Sometimes, though not always, you’re treated to an awkward goodbye like a Tinder date that never really tindered. Occasionally, there is an uncomfortable exchange where you’re introduced to the incoming server like meeting your new foster parent. This is Phil, he’ll be taking care of you the rest of the night. You’ll do your best to hide the separation anxiety. The first guy was very helpful with the menu and made great recommendations. You wonder if he’s going to share in whatever tip you leave. Moments later, Phil comes over to the table without introducing himself and tries to bully you into clearing your unfinished plates. You immediately miss the original waiter even more. You start to romanticize the relationship you had like missing an ex-girlfriend who dumped you freshmen year.

Most restaurants that keep late hours stagger their employees’ schedules to combat apathy. In theory, the people who came in late should be the most fresh and well-rested to keep the energy level high for the last tables. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out that way. In practice, servers and bartenders who know they’re closing the following day use it as license to stay out late and party the night before. So the closing staff may be more rested but it may only mean they’ve had more time to nurse their hangovers. The late staff—as custodians of the tip pool—should be concerned with generating as much money in tips from the last few tables as possible, but its priority is usually closing up shop. The late waiters know their share of the tip pool will be the same no matter what time they leave so it’s not uncommon to find them cutting corners to get out sooner.

In order to facilitate the transition between opening and closing waiters, restaurants with staggered schedules often allow tables to be “transferred” at the end of the night. Management usually prefers this process to be transparent and will require the staff to inform the guest before they leave. The server isn’t fishing for a gratuity when he warns you of his impending departure; tips are likely pooled among the staff. He just doesn’t want you to feel abandoned. Perhaps, more importantly, though, he doesn’t want to risk getting in trouble when you complain that your server disappeared. No matter what, when he approaches the table to end the relationship, it almost always feels like a bad breakup. It’s not you, it’s me.

So how do these staggered schedules work? Let’s say there are four waiters on the roster. With a staggered schedule, two of them will arrive an hour or two early to set up the restaurant and two will arrive shortly before the restaurant opens. The same will be true for support staff like busboys and food runners. Some are expected to come in early to polish silverware and fold extra napkins, others come late and sweep the dining room floors. At the end of the night when things quiet down, the early staff will be dismissed first. Those who started their shifts later will take over the last tables and stay until the last guest leaves.

Staggering shifts can be problematic for service. The server who takes over may not always have the same sense of ownership he has with his own tables. Earlier conversations that the new server hasn’t been privy to—material information about food allergies or time constraints for example—can be lost in the shift change and lead to hiccups in service. Continuity is an essential component of great service and political coups midway through your meal can send even the greatest experience off the rails.

As much as it sucks to leave guests hanging in limbo, staggered schedules are a necessary evil. In great restaurants, you’ll barely notice when your table has been transferred—when everyone is so deeply invested in your care, the seams are invisible. They make it look easy, but it isn’t. Restaurant work is physically and emotionally exhausting. Atrophy is a daily struggle and, at the end of the day, keeping the staff fresh is just as important as the freshness of the food.

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