Having witnessed customer behaviors ranging from the dismissive and arrogant to the tender and heartbreaking, The Waiter reveals the secrets behind getting good service and provides invaluable guidelines regarding tipping, cell phone etiquette, handling unruly children, getting reservations on the busiest night of the year and — probably most important of all — how to ensure that you enjoy a saliva-free entrée. An excerpt.
Chapter one: Amici’s
A big difference between waiters and cooks is the hours they work. Waiters usually work an eight- or nine-hour shift and go home. The kitchen guys, however, are often the first to show up and the last to go home. Fourteen-hour days are common. When a restaurant closes its doors for the night, you’ll probably find half its servers getting blasted at a nearby bar. But you’ll find the kitchen guys sharing a taxi or waiting at a bus stop for a public transportation ride home. Because most fine-dining establishments are located in neighborhoods where residential rents are high, kitchen personnel seldom can afford to live close to their place of employment. That means they often have a very long commute to and from work. One of Amici’s prep cooks buses it from Queens every day. Depending on traffic, that can be a three-hour round-trip six days a week — on top of working a fourteen-hour shift. The waiters at Amici’s (at least the ones without DUIs) have cars and shorter commutes. They have free time. This disparity in leisure hours often leads to resentment between the front and back of the house. At the end of the night the exhausted kitchen guys just want to go home to enjoy what little free time they have left.
Because they’re often exhausted, I’m learning it’s in my best interest not to make the cooks work any harder than they have to. That means not running into the kitchen and begging the grill man to cook me a new steak because a customer wanted a medium-rare filet mignon and I mistakenly ordered it well done. It’s also good not to inflame the resentments constantly simmering between the front and back of the house by acting like an arrogant prick. While kitchen guys usually work at a single location for years, waiters tend to be a more nomadic lot. Cooks see the waiters come and go, so, in their minds, they’re the stable nucleus at the core of the restaurant. Waiters consider themselves the public face of the restaurant — hustling to generate the revenue that pays everyone’s salaries, including the cooks’. Many waiters view themselves as elite frontline troops while dismissing the cooks as mere logistical support. Couple this attitude with the fact that waiters usually make more money, work fewer hours, and perform less physically intensive labor, and you’ll understand why the kitchen occasionally wants to run a mouthy server through the industrial-strength dishwasher.
The kitchen guys will manifest their displeasure by screwing up servers’ orders, subjecting them to a stream of verbal abuse, or threatening impromptu sexual-reassignment surgery with a meat cleaver. I’ve met several waiters who have at least one knifethrowing-chef story in their repertoire. The servers at Amici’s aren’t saints either. Always shifting blame for their screw-ups onto the kitchen, they act like the cooks are dirty hoi polloi unfit to tie the servers’ shoes. They respond to the kitchen staff’s taunting with juicy comebacks laden with lovely adjectives like wetback, sand n-----, and Eurotrash.
When peaceful coexistence develops between the front and back of the house, it’s because there’s a good executive chef or general manager at the helm. By making everyone realize that they’re in a symbiotic relationship, that cook and waiter in the long term need each other, good management can be like Jimmy Carter at Camp David, brokering a cease-fire between historical enemies.
Unfortunately, Sammy, the manager at Amici’s, is a good example of how not to run a restaurant. A short fat Syrian man with the demeanor of a smug cherub, Sammy’s a verbally abusive, power-mad sexual deviant — traits not uncommon in restaurant managers. Underpaid and aggravated that the waitstaff takes home more money than he does, Sammy extorts the servers into paying him bribes. Want to work on the lucrative Friday and Saturday shifts? Switch a shift? Take a vacation? Sammy’s response is to hold out his hand and say, “Pay me.” In addition to abusing his authority, Sammy, a married man with children, revels in making salacious comments to the female staff and spends most of his free time trying to get into their pants. He does little to encourage cooperation between the front and back of the house. In fact, I think he does his best to keep everyone fighting and off balance. “Divide and conquer” is Sammy’s motto. All in all, he’s a despicable little man.
Amici’s head chef, Fluvio, hates Sammy’s guts. Forty years old with long black hair tied into an aging hippie ponytail, Fluvio wears thick eyeglasses that are always smudged with grease, and his ample stomach seems incongruous on top of strong legs conditioned from years spent working on his feet. In addition to his native Italian, he’s fluent in Spanish and speaks a good bit of Arabic and French. He runs a professional kitchen, but he’s intimidated by Caesar, the manipulative and tyrannical owner who treats everyone who works for him like livestock. Caesar, an Italian raised in South America, acts like his restaurant’s a nineteenth-century plantation on the Argentinean pampas. Expecting the kitchen staff to address him as “patrón,” he has a penchant for calling the busboys “peasants” and the hostesses “whores.”
Here’s a typical example of Caesar’s nonsense. Not liking his grease-splattered cooks using the patrons’ bathrooms and offending the customers’ delicate sensibilities, Caesar insists that everyone use the tiny windowless bathroom next to the deep fryer in the kitchen. That miserable bathroom’s so small it would give Harry Houdini panic attacks. Technically, the waiters are supposed to use this bathroom, but none of us ever do. Half the cooks don’t either. I’m not surprised. Rizzo, Amici’s headwaiter, lovingly refers to the kitchen’s hot, cramped, porn-decorated bathroom as the “phone booth of sodomy.” After eyeballing that miserable toilet, I’m beginning to understand why the kitchen crew is so obsessed with my sexual orientation.
Leaving Benny and his sexually conflicted comrades behind, I enter the trattoria’s main dining room. It’s only five o’clock on Saturday night, and the place is already filling up with customers. Influxes of bull-market nouveau riche transformed this formerly picturesque suburb into a gigantic outdoor shopping mall. Oozing with corporate-branded hipness, the town’s countless rows of boutiques, restaurants, and art galleries ruthlessly compete with one another for the well-shod discretionary incomes of the yuppies prowling its streets. Situated in the heart of the town’s retail district, Amici’s sucks yuppies off the sidewalk like a black hole consuming dust from a dying star. Amici’s has the three things any restaurant needs to survive — location, location, location.
“So you ready to rock and roll, newbie?” Rizzo, the headwaiter, asks me.
“Ready as I’ll ever be, I guess.”
“You’re gonna be busting your ass tonight. We’re down two waiters.”
“You mean there are only four of us taking care of two hundred people?”
“Toomey and Giselle quit.” Rizzo says. “They got sick of Sammy’s sh--.”
“Four waiters have quit since I started.”
“This place is a meat grinder, kid,” Rizzo grunts. “You’re the meat. Get used to it.”
“Do you think I’ll make it?”
“Gee,” I say. “Don’t hold back. Speak your mind.”
“It’s nothing personal,” Rizzo replies. “In the ’Nam I never bothered to learn the new guys’ names. Why get close? They were gonna get killed anyway.”
Rizzo stares at me. Gray-haired and rangy, with a build topping out at six feet two, the thirty years he’s spent toiling in the restaurant business are carved into the lines of his weathered face. If every restaurant has to have a stereotypical grizzled veteran, Rizzo is it. Like a bacterium living in acid or a tube worm eking out an existence next to heat vents several thousand leagues under the sea, Rizzo is the kind of waiter who thrives in hostile environments that would crush most servers. With calm black eyes peering out from behind a pair of rose-colored wire-rim spectacles, he looks like a cross between John Lennon and Leon, the hit man from Luc Besson’s movie The Professional.
“You gave Sammy money to work tonight, didn’t you?” he asks me.
“Yeah. Fifty bucks.”
“That was dumb. Now he’s gonna hit you up all the time.”
“Don’t you ever give him money?”
Rizzo peers at me over the top of his glasses. “Screw that,” he says. “Don’t forget. I used to own a restaurant. I know every illegal thing Sammy and Caesar ever pulled in this joint.”
“So you know where all the bodies are buried.”
“Indeed I do, son,” Rizzo says. “And unless they want the IRS raiding the joint, they’ll leave me the f--- alone.”
Suddenly, there’s a clatter of noise by the front entrance. A crowd of hungry-looking people surging through the front door is overwhelming the skinny girl at the hostess stand.
“Oh man,” Rizzo groans. “Here comes the pain.”
Before long the restaurant is rocking. It doesn’t help that the anorexic crackhead hostess seats me two eight tops, three deuces, and a twenty-person wedding-rehearsal dinner inside half an hour. (In waiterspeak, a deuce or two top denotes a table of two. A four top is four people, a six top is six customers, and so on.) I get the two tops squared away quickly. Rizzo taught me to always take care of deuces first. His logic is that couples at a table are probably married and sick of talking to each other, making them hypersensitive to any kind of waiting.
Of course, I get slowed down by an eight top of little kids suffering from every food allergy known to man. I am beginning to think yuppie parents lie to their offspring, telling them they’re suffering from food allergies when they’re actually not, hoping to con their hypercompetitive children into eating whatever trendy diet promises to help them grow into big, strong, overly self-esteemed junk bond traders.
“I want French fries!” one little brat yells in psychologically healthy protest.
“We have French fries, young man,” I reply, trying to keep the smile from falling off my face.
“Dylan can’t have French fries,” his mother says. “He wants zucchini fries instead.”
“We don’t have zucchini fries, madam,” I reply.
The soccer mom’s surgically altered perky nose scrunches up. She looks at me like I’ve crawled out from under a rock.
“The waiter I had last time got them for us,” she says.
I want to find “waiter I had last time” and snap his neck. This lady’s eating into my precious time. I can feel the wedding party’s eyes crawling up and down my back. They’ve been nibbling on bread and water for twenty minutes. I feel bad for them. If it was my rehearsal dinner, I’d be pissed, too. I’ve got to get over there.
“I’ll ask the chef what we can do,” I say.
“You do that,” the woman snaps.
I run to the kitchen to ask Fluvio if he can make some zucchini fries.
“Get the f--- out of here!” he screams.
I return to the table. “I’m sorry, madam. The chef regrets that he cannot make zucchini fries.”
“I want to speak to the manager,” the woman barks.
The last person I want to deal with is Sammy. He’ll probably want $5 just to talk to this lady. To humor the woman, I disappear in the back to make it seem like I’m looking for the manager.
After a minute I return to the kiddie table with the bad news.
“This is outrageous,” the mother sputters.
“Waiter!” I hear a voice cry out from the wedding party. “Can we have some service over here?”
“Right away, sir!” I yelp.
I disengage from the zucchini-obsessed mommy and give some attention to the twenty top. They hand me two bottles of expensive champagne. That means I’ve got to scrounge up twenty champagne glasses and some ice buckets pronto. I race over to the coffee station where we store them.
“Minnie,” I say to the cute Iranian girl who brews all the cappuccinos and espressos. “Do you have twenty champagne glasses?”
“Not clean ones.”
“Can you help me, please?” I plead. “I’m in the weeds.”
Being “in the weeds” (otherwise known as being “in the s---”) is waiter lingo for what happens when the demands put on a server exceed his or her ability to fulfill them. This can happen when a waiter’s new, incompetent, or placed in an impossible situation. For me it’s all three.
“I’ll help you,” Minnie says, smiling.
“Hey, Ahmed,” I call out to one of the busboys, “could you get me two ice buckets for table six?”
“F--- you sharmout,” Ahmed snarls, using the Arabic equivalent of maricon. I guess a waiter’s sexual orientation is the subject of speculative interest among the bus people as well as the kitchen staff. -----
I grab a bucket, fill it with ice and water, and drop a champagne bottle inside. Minnie runs ahead of me to put the champagne glasses on the table.
The rehearsal party’s table is set up like a long rectangle with nine people on each side. The bride and groom are seated cutely next to each other at the far end of the table. As I approach, Ahmed sneaks up behind me and slams into my back. The ice bucket I’m holding slips out of my hands and crashes onto the table. The champagne bottle shoots out of the bucket like a torpedo firing out of a submarine. It smashes down the length of the table — targeting the bride-to-be’s bosom.
“Oh s---!” I cry out.
The slick bottle bounces off the bride’s boobs, hits the floor, and skitters off into oblivion. Everyone’s dripping with ice water. The bride’s expression transmutes from shock into pure rage.
“You idiot!” she screams.
Saying “I’m sorry” seems pointless, so I don’t. I turn around.
Ahmed’s laughing smugly. “F--- you!” he mouths. “F--- you!”
Sammy comes running over. Speaking rapid-fire Arabic, he orders Ahmed and the other busboys to reset the table. Before I can go looking for the champagne bottle, he grabs me by the elbow.
“You’re a moron,” Sammy hisses. “You better smooth things over with that table.”
“I’m a new waiter, and I’ve got forty customers,” I plead. “I need some help.”
Sammy looks at me coldly. “Sink or swim, mother------.”
I stare at Sammy in shock. I’ve worked for some real jerks in my time, but they’ve all been the smiling-on-the-outside/scumbag-on-the-inside types. Sammy’s a bastard up front.
“Fine,” I say, yanking my arm out of his grasp. “I’ll handle it.”
A few seconds later, as I’m scurrying on my hands and knees looking for the errant bottle of bubbly, the owner decides to make an appearance.
“What the hell’s happening here?” Caesar huffs.
At first glance, you can tell Caesar was once a handsome and powerfully built man. While the remnants of his youthful vigor occasionally peek out from inside his black eyes, you can tell the ravages of time and alcohol are pulling down the scaffolding of his once good looks. Vain for almost seventy years of age, Caesar decided to combat his thinning hair by shaving his head completely bare. A fastidious dresser to boot, today he’s sporting a white silk shirt, a red silk tie, gray slacks, tasseled Italian shoes, and a double-breasted blue blazer. If he added a monocle to his ensemble, he’d look like a dissipated version of Colonel Klink.
“I’m looking for a champagne bottle I dropped on the floor,” I reply. “It rolled under the tables somewhere.”
“Smooth move,” Caesar says. “Real good.”
“Could you help me look for it?” I ask innocently. “I’m really pressed for time.”
The owner’s eyes retract into his skull. “You think I’m going to help you?” he hisses. “That’s your job, peasant.”
Behind me I hear a diner gasp. Suddenly I’m aware that I’m on my hands and knees before a man who thinks nothing of insulting the people who work for him right in front of his customers.
“Forget it, Caesar,” I say. “I’ll find it.”
“Stupido,” the owner says, walking away. I continue to search for the bottle. It’s disappeared. The rehearsal dinner’s freaking out. To this day I think a customer at another table stole it. I dart out of the restaurant and run to a nearby liquor store. They have the same champagne at eighty bucks a bottle. I put it on my credit card and run back inside.
The table’s so touched that I bought a replacement bottle with my own money that they calm down. I get a grip on my section and bring everything under control. When the dust clears, the rehearsal party leaves me a $200 tip. They were nice people. Even after spending eighty bucks on the champagne and tipping out the bus people, I’ll still make a small profit.
Finally the night ends. The other waiters and I assemble at a back table and drink cheap white wine out of pint glasses while we wait for Sammy to accept our cash-out — the money and credit card receipts we accumulated during our shift. Sammy, being a petty tyrant, won’t let any of the waiters leave the restaurant until everyone’s cash-out matches to the penny. At the end of every shift, Sammy always eats a dish of vanilla ice cream dripping with chocolate sauce. He won’t even look at our receipts until he finishes. Deliberately lingering over his dessert to remind us of his importance, Sammy’s end-of-the-night shenanigans usually tack twenty minutes onto an already long day.
“C’mon, Sammy,” my brother moans. “I’ve been here all day, and I want to go home. Stop stuffing your face.”
“Just for that, I take care of you last,” Sammy says, smiling mischievously into his ice cream.
“Screw this,” my brother says, tossing his paperwork next to Sammy’s dish of ice cream. “I’m going outside to have a cigarette.
Call me when you’re done.”
“Suit yourself,” Sammy chuckles.
“Wait,” I tell my brother, grabbing my Marlboro Lights. “I’ll go with you.”
“Sit down,” Sammy says. “I didn’t say you can leave.”
“What is this, Sammy?” I reply hotly. “The military?”
“Kind of,” Sammy snorts.
“What do you want?”
“Caesar was pissed you messed up that table’s champagne,” Sammy says, once my brother’s out of earshot.
“Hey, I bought a new bottle with my own money.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Sammy says, shaking his head. “Caesar told me to give the bride a hundred-dollar gift certificate out of your money.”
“What?” I gasp. The price of the champagne combined with buying this woman a gift certificate means I’ll have worked this entire hellish day practically for free.
“That’s the deal,” Sammy says. “It’s out of my hands.”
“There’s another thing,” Sammy says, an avaricious glint forming in his eye.
“Caesar wanted me to fire you. I didn’t out of respect for your brother.”
“So give me fifty bucks.”
“Are you kidding?” I ask. “You want another bribe?”
“It’s not a bribe. Let’s say it’s a gift — for my birthday.”
“No way. Fire me if you want. No more bribes.”
Sammy looks at me, a cautiously surprised expression on his face.
“Suit yourself, newbie,” he says. “Suit yourself.”
When I get home at two a.m., there’s a message from Sammy on my answering machine. He’s taken away all my lucrative dinner shifts and replaced them with a motley assortment of low-revenue lunch gigs. To add insult to injury, he’s making me work Sunday brunch tomorrow. That means I have to be back at work in seven hours. As I toss and turn in bed, anxious because I know I’m returning to that hellhole, one question keeps looping through my mind.
How the hell did I end up becoming a waiter?
Excerpted from "Waiter Rant: Thanks for the Tip — Confessions of a Cynical Waiter." Copyright (c) 2008 by Waiter Rant LLC. Reprinted with permission from HarperCollins. Read more from "Waiter Rant."