Authors: Steve Dublanica
Thanks for the Tip—Confessions of a Cynical Waiter
THIS BOOK IS DEDICATED TO MY MOTHER, MY FATHER,
AND EVERYONE WHO’S EVER WAITED TABLES.
’m a waiter. I bring food to tables in exchange for tips. At first glance it seems like a simple job. Just be neat, polite, display some salesmanship, and don’t forget to smile. Easy, right?
What world are you living in?
Today waiters are expected to be food-allergy specialists, sommeliers, cell-phone-rule enforcers, eye candy, confessors, entertainers, mixologists, emergency medical technicians, bouncers, receptionists, joke tellers, therapists, linguists, punching bags, psychics, protocol specialists, and amateur chefs. Foodie-porn TV programming has generated a new class of entitled customers with already overblown culinary expectations and a rapidly diminishing set of social graces. Economists say that the restaurant business is a bellwether of the nation’s economic health—but I think it’s a bellwether of America’s mental health as well. And let me tell you, 20 percent of the American dining public are socially maladjusted psychopaths. We should start putting Prozac in the Perrier.
Ordering from a waiter is one of the most-taken-for-granted human experiences in modern life. We’re never more ourselves than when eating out with family and friends. While engaging in the basic rituals of breaking bread, we become a lot less guarded
and a lot more primitive. Thinking that the waiter is a powerless tip slave, customers often direct that primitiveness toward the person trying to take their order. Waiting should be a simple job, but it isn’t. It’s not all gloom and doom, though. If you keep your eyes open, you’ll see the occasional crumb of human grace fall from the table. Eighty percent of my customers are the nicest people you’d ever want to meet. But I’m concerned that the percentage of people who know how to act in a restaurant is diminishing at an exponential rate.
For the last four years I’ve been anonymously chronicling my restaurant exploits at a Web site called Waiter Rant. From my server station at a white-tablecloth restaurant called “The Bistro,” I’ve written about the joys and pains of working in the food-service industry. Staying anonymous has let me freely chronicle my customers’ bad behavior without fear of retribution and bad tips, but it’s also allowed me to talk about people behaving beautifully, too. I’ve been fortunate that my writing has attracted millions of readers, won a few awards, and grabbed a little bit of that crazy stuff called quasi-fame. Despite all the attention I’ve received, very few people know who I am or where The Bistro is located. After three years I was confronted by a customer only
This book is a natural outgrowth of Waiter Rant. In addition to dishing about insane customers, tyrannical owners, and drugged-up servers, I also hope to give you a real “pain in your bones” sense of what it’s like to be a waiter in America today. After you read this book I doubt you’ll ever look at your server the same way again. And maybe you’ll learn how to be a better customer in the process.
So how did I end up becoming a waiter? Why did I start writing about the restaurant industry? If I’m ranting about it all the time, why don’t I just quit and get another job? Just who the hell do I think I am?
As with all good stories, let’s begin at the beginning.
o, you take it up the ass?” Benny asks me.
“What kind of question is that?” I reply.
“You’re a fag,” the chubby Mexican says, glancing slyly at his coworkers. “We all know you are. It’s okay You can tell us.”
“C’mon. We know you’re queer.”
No, I’m not being set upon by a gang of amorous inmates in a prison laundry. It’s 1999, and I’m in the kitchen of Amici’s, a two-hundred-seat Italian restaurant located in a hyper-affluent New York suburb. Two weeks ago I was fired from my job as marketing rep for a psychiatric health care company. Facing immediate penury, I asked my brother, a longtime waiter at Amici’s, to get me a job so I could keep eating. As a thirty-one-year-old baby waiter learning the ropes, I’m quickly discovering that the hot topic of kitchen conversation is figuring out which waiter’s gay and discussing the merits of inserting foreign objects into other people’s rectal cavities. Ah, restaurant kitchens—they’re all about tequila, buggery, and the lash.
“Why you want to know, Benny?” I ask. “You interested in me?”
“Me?” Benny says, untangling a wad of half-cooked spaghetti with his bare hands. “I’m no
“You’re asking a guy you don’t know whether or not he’s gay. Doesn’t that seem strange to you?”
“No,” Benny says, staring at me blankly. “I just want to know if you take it up the ass.”
I guess Benny’s never heard of the “fear is the wish” thing.
“I don’t take it up the butt,” I reply, a half smile playing on my lips. “But your wife does. Tell her I said hi.”
The kitchen guys start whooping with laughter.
“Oh shit!” the grill man hoots.
“He got you, yo,” the dishwasher says.
Benny says, his face reddening.
“It’s not my fault you can’t make you’re wife happy,” I say, rapidly egressing the area. Benny
have access to sharp knives.
!” Benny shouts after me.
“Right back at you,” I shout over my shoulder.
After reading about this exchange you might be thinking I’m some kind of misogynistic homophobe. You’d be wrong. I’m merely engaging in a legitimate act of restaurant self-defense. My brother gave me an invaluable piece of advice when I started working at Amici’s: never take flak from the kitchen lying down. “You’re always gonna get shit from the cooks,” he warned. “But if you just sit there and take it, they’ll run right over you.” That’s why I brought it to Benny. Most waiters would get killed if they brought it to a cook in front of his crew like I did, but I’m not worried that my exchange with Benny is going to cause any problems. He’s a tough hombre who, unlike many cooks, can dish it out
take it. Besides, we actually have the makings of a friendship going on. Benny teaches me little kitchen tricks, like how not to cut off my fingers when I slice the cheese, and I help him with the occasional English words he doesn’t understand. Of course, Benny wants to know about only the weird words. Yesterday he asked me what
meant. I never should have told him. He kept trying to use the word in a sentence all day.
But getting into a profanity pissing contest with the kitchen crew can take you only so far. 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—
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 knife-throwing-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
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 Sat
urday 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
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 shit.”
“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
“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 fuck 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.