By Steve Dublanica, a.k.a. The Waiter
October 15, 2008
Steve Dublanica's insight into the restaurant business is told from the server's point of view. This waiter offerstips on getting good service, how to tip and more.
If a waiter wants respect from the back of the house, he or she has to show respect in return. And the best way to do that is to understand that kitchen staff and waiters are like the Palestinians and Israelis—separate and distinct nationalities uncomfortably sharing the same volatile piece of real estate.
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 …
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?"