Waiting on Tables

When no one’s being served

Serving can be an undignified job with little growth and long hours. It’s often a starting point for new immigrants, the maintenance income for drug addicts, the side gig for theatre kids, or the penultimate option for the failed and depressed. The day you start serving, you can see the “Dead End” sign on the faces of your new co-workers. But serving can also be one of the best jobs for the unskilled and the over-educated. No matter your situation, it’s reliably there. At least that’s what we thought.

In 1999, The New Yorker published a little-known writer whose most recent culinary failure had inspired him to become “a traitor to my profession.” He described restaurants and the practices that servers see but always try to hide from their tables. His name was Anthony Bourdain. The next year, he published Kitchen Confidential with the plot line of a classic Greek comedy: the hero rises from lowly beginnings in the kitchens of Cape Cod, out of drug addiction and failure, by dint of his own character and with the help of unlikely personalities. In The New Yorker and in his book, and as he would on television later, Bourdain offered tales of naughty behaviour and sexualized cuisine, and he made the chef a figure of intrigue: “Professional cooks belong to a secret society whose ancient rituals derive from the principles of stoicism in the face of humiliation, injury, fatigue, and the threat of illness.”

Bourdain was following in the footsteps of Marco Pierre White, the first of the cool celebrity chefs, and a long line of cook-cum-writers. Indeed, chefs have a proud tradition of ­literary achievement: Le viandier, which Guillaume Tirel may or may not have written 700 years ago; Brillat-Savarin’s philosophic La physiologie du goût, from 1825; Montagné’s encyclopedic Larousse gastronomique, from 1938; and Jacques Pépin’s illustrated La technique, from 1976. You can also toss in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, from 1961, and the long-running show that followed.

But carrying all that food are the servers, who walk in circles without a grounding mythology of our own. We don’t have an inspiring equivalent to François Vatel, who we’re told killed himself one spring morning in 1671 over a fish order gone bad. We have no Auguste Escoffier (“La bonne cuisine est la base du véritable bonheur”), no equivalent to the Culinary Institute of America, and no Cordon Bleu. Even in Bourdain’s tell‑all, he told all too little of us. But there we are, brandishing notepads, sporting fake smiles, and wiping tables. Chefs have the prestigious Bocuse d’Or, while we have a risible competition called the Coupe Georges Baptiste. To compare the two is to compare apples to Agent Orange.

What servers often do have is money — that 18 percent added to your bill (after tax). It’s the reason we continue walking down this dead-end path. Otherwise, we’ll insist we’re really musicians, actors, or writers. Serving, we’ll tell you, is just the side order of life’s main course. When it comes to the big dream, we have everything mise en place.

Servers find the highest tips in restaurants where patrons pay their bills without looking. At these places, the unwritten rule is to avoid recognizing the customers: you never know when a man who is with his wife one night might have visited with his pay-as-he-goes girlfriend a few nights before. The luckiest servers can top up their paltry minimum wage with $2,000 a week in tips (and most will declare only 10 percent of that). It’s not uncommon for them to make as much as the third-year Bay Street associates they’re serving any given day.

The restaurant where I serve isn’t at that end of the scale. Most of our patrons are make-work marketers in Condoland or hold administrative sinecures in the neighbourhood, made obvious by the gossip sessions they charge to the company card. Our only high roller, if you could call her that, is an interior decorator you often see on TV. Every day, she sits in a lounge chair that’s the same shade of violet as the McDonald’s character Grimace. It’s almost as if he’d been poached and turned into furniture.

Bay Street or Main Street, front of house or back, coke is everywhere. Servers walk faster, smile wider, and schedule more double shifts because of it. But absorb too much of the potent performance enhancer, and you’ll lose sight of the big picture — your brain “shrivelled by cocaine,” as Bourdain put it twenty years ago. As customers and orders wait, servers will polish stemware to perfection or set tables immaculately. Promiscuity remains common, and not even the neutering of “waiter” and “waitress” to “server” has helped. Fun affects customer satisfaction, though, and the success is tallied up at the end of every day. Servers compare their sales and tips in a highly competitive environment that many can’t handle. The best in the industry are skilled, competent, fast, and tough. Most of all, they are shrewdly intelligent.

But today, even as many chefs prepare mountains of takeout orders, the vast majority of servers, of all stripes, are still idle at home and collecting their CERB. Some wait, made patient with hash and the naive hope of getting back to normal. Others have taken an unexpected turn, replacing their nose coffee and cigarettes with exercise and routine. The lockdown has become an opportunity for an industry of server-­musicians, server-­actors, and server-­writers to finally focus on their dreams and break free from the hyphen’s shackle.