The woman at table 212 is not happy. She motions me over with a curt hand gesture and a look so sharp it could cut glass. Her salad with chickenâ€”a salty, sweet, sour, and decidedly terrific thing called Sarahâ€™s Salad at PS 7â€™sâ€”has arrived without its meat. I issue an apology and a promise to track down the missing bird parts.
But her face remains unchanged, the stony visage of the implacable. I lay out the situation to my trainer, a veteran named Nick Augustine, suggesting we might want to comp a dessert, which could go a long way toward making her a repeat customer instead of a casualty to incompetence. Augustine thinks the woman may just be one miserable human being to begin with, but he checks with general manager John Carter anyway. Carter agrees to give the bitchâ€”my word, not hisâ€”a free sweet and, before I know it, Augustine has assumed control of my two-top.
Itâ€™s the first table Iâ€™ve ever waited on in my entire life, and Iâ€™ve failed it.
Augustine, with his reassuring Abe Lincoln beard and his slicked-back ponytail, repeatedly tells me itâ€™s not my fault; the kitchen, not me, forgot the chicken. But Iâ€™m as implacable as the patron. I should have noticed the AWOL ingredient and asked the kitchen to add it before presenting the salad to the old battle-ax. It was a rookie mistake. No, wait, not a rookie mistake; that implies I had some kind of experience, that maybe Iâ€™d bussed tables at Benniganâ€™s or worked the late shift at Dennyâ€™s before moving from the minor leagues of hospitality to the fine-dining bigs. I had exactly two training shifts before descending on table 212.
As I wrote in April, there are not many formal programs for educating waiters and waitresses, despite some surveys that say service is the No. 1 reason people return to a restaurant (Food Issue, â€śSpecials Education,â€ť 4/13). Itâ€™s a horrifying notion when you think about it: A chef can spend years training at the best culinary school and the most prestigious dining rooms, and yet his multimillion-dollar business can be spoiled by some schmuck who thinks the â€śmother saucesâ€ť opened for U2 in â€™87. But thatâ€™s the hard reality of the restaurant biz; as more and more eateries open, fewer and fewer quality servers are available.
â€śItâ€™s hard to get any wait staff. Itâ€™s beyond getting good wait staff,â€ť says Carter. â€śI put an ad out on Craigslist two weeks ago. I had four people [who] said they wanted to start. I got one out of the four.â€ť
The push to get servers to the floor is stronger than ever. Management needs servers at tables, and servers want to jump in and start earning tips, which can top $1,000 a week at PS 7â€™s. The whole system strikes me as absurdâ€”unfair to servers, restaurants, and even to that pain-in-the-ass at table 212â€”and I wanted to see it from the inside. PS 7â€™s chef and owner Peter Smith agreed to run me through his training program and put me on the floor.
Training, according to PS 7â€™s manual, â€śis a four-day comprehensive programâ€ť that requires you to work two lunches and four dinners. With my deadline looming, I had time for only four shifts, including two lunches and two dinners. Carter oversees the training; heâ€™s the one who painstakingly explains everything, from the ridiculous (if you want to grow facial hair, you must leave the job first and come back only when itâ€™s fully grown) to the sublime (the â€śFrench serviceâ€ť of presenting bread with two spoons).
Because PS 7â€™s is a fine-dining restaurant, everything is fastidious: napkins folded to resemble small drapes, tablecloths removed so diners never see the table underneath, drinks delivered on a tray, whipped butter scooped into quenelles, every entree and appetizer presented to the right person at the right table (no â€śauctioningâ€ť of food tableside), coffee cups presented with their handles pointing to the customerâ€™s right and filled without once touching the cup. The lessons are seemingly endless, and they donâ€™t even include the off-the-clock time it takes to learn Smithâ€™s food, which requires that each server buy a copy of the Food Loverâ€™s Companion to look up foreign terms.
The hard lessons, though, occur in the kitchen, where you spend your first shift watching Smith as expediter control the madness, and in the dining room, where every table feels like a potential land mine. PS 7â€™s operates under a pool system, which means that servers pool their tips and cover one anotherâ€™s backs on the dining-room floor. Itâ€™s a good way to go for team players, not control freaks and hot shots who want all the glory (and the money).
On my first night on the floor, a busy Saturday, Iâ€™m supposed to shadow waiter Alex Osgood, but that proves hopeless. Smith and others in the kitchen keep calling out for runners to deliver breads, salads, entrees, apps, and desserts; they donâ€™t really care who the hell carries the food into the dining roomâ€”though the waiters do, believe meâ€”as long as the dishes get there fast.
Osgood and I pinball around the dining room, rarely seeing each other; he handles much of section 400, and I do whatever Carter wants, which is mostly gopher work. Of course, when I watch Osgood authoritatively announce to the table each one of the eight or so meats on Smithâ€™s house-made charcuterie plate (some of which look alike), I realize just how far I have to go. Iâ€™m suddenly very happy delivering bread with spoons.
My graduation gift for surviving Saturday is the chance to wait lunch tables for two days, with Augustine hovering over my shoulder. Carter decides to challenge me on my second day and gives me two tables at once. Josiah Boyer, a fellow trainee, tells me Iâ€™m doing â€śawesome,â€ť but Carter shows me how Iâ€™ve fumbled the coffee service, and Augustine steps in to explain a pair of dishes when I short shrift them. Plus, none of my customers, these cold little lunching prima donnas, seems particularly enchanted with me.
After four days of training, Iâ€™m nowhere near Augustineâ€™s and Osgoodâ€™s level. Iâ€™d be the kind of server who couldnâ€™t upsell a bottle of wine to David Hasselhoff. Still, on my final day, I ask Carter if heâ€™d hire me. He offers a tepid yes and then explains the importance of team players in his pool system. I canâ€™t tell if he thinks Iâ€™m a lone wolf in sheepâ€™s clothing.
Then I turn to Augustine and ask him whether Iâ€™d be a good hire. He laughs cynically and says sure. â€śBut only,â€ť he adds, â€śbecause theyâ€™ve been hiring waiters without fine-dining experience.â€ť
Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to email@example.com. Or call (202) 332-2100, x 466.
THIS WEEK: "Server Trouble" - Thanksgiving feasts, Tim's stint as a waiter, and the circumstances under which Erik will eat hair.
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