"ARE you available?" the man leered at me over his Cointreau Tia Maria-coffee-whipped cream-flamed-over-Sterno. His wife shot him a flaming stare. "For parties," he winked.
I was beyond reaction. My feet had started hurting at 11:00. My legs had begun to stiffen at 11:30. By midnight, my brain was marsh-mallow fluff, and all I could think about was how it would feel to ease every disc of my spine into a chair cushion. I had only been a captain at the Company Inkwell for six hours, and I was planning to do my next story on something easy, like the Boston Marathon.
As a restaurant critic who had listened to a year-and-a-half of telephone complaints about service in restaurants, about being rushed or ignored, about being chased down the street for tips, I decided to find out the waiter's side of the story firsthand.
French waiters are the ones who have the reputation for being the most intimidating (with northern Italian closing in on the title), so I proposed being a waiter in French restaurant, a high-priced expense-account restaurant where a patron feels he is paying a lot for service. After visiting every French restaurant in town, I found the choice easy, since there are only a couple of such restaurants that ever employ women to wait on tables.
Sam McMichael, over the idea of Company Inkwell, guffawed over the idea of the story, and when he overcame his hilarity prepared a training kit so I could spend a month learning the job - one of five captains in the small dining room. In preparation, night after nght I took my children's orders from a menu at my dining table at home. I flamed and swirled Cointrean in the kitchen, trying to master Coffee Inkwell. I memorized the wine list, carried trays of glasses and bottles on my fingertips from my study to the kitchen. (Don't look," Sam had warned.) I transferred slabs of meat and vegetables from serving dish to plate. I got nervous.
The staff was told a few days ahead, the news greeted with hoots, snickers and more than a little nervousness. Those intimidating French captains were onviously expecting a restaurant critic to be even more intimidating (not to mention incompetent). One wondered how Sam had maneuvered this coup, but from the restaurant's perspective, it could have been more dangerous than advantageous. It took confidence in one's operation to allow a critic not only free rein in the restaurant for days, but also full access to its diners. Sam seemed fearless.
Shy smiles and formal greetings. Suspicion as thick as whipped cream. I met the staff, and we sat down to Saturday dinner at a long table set with candles. Chef Jean Marie issued platters of chicken with mushrooms from the kitchen. Pierre tossed the salad with a $40 flourish. Barbara passed glasses of wine and beer - and a couple of renegade glasses of milk. The eating was quick and businesslike. A last gulp or swipe of the sauce with the bread, and dishes were whisked away, the long table disjointed into small ones. Music went on. Lights were dimmed, spotlights lit over the paintings. Nick put on his tuxedo jacket.Gunther became Marcel. The telephone began to ring with cancellations, and Barbara's voice could he heard calling the waiting list.
Every captain has his own rolling cart; mine was identifable by being the only one on which the utensils did not look as if they had been arranged by a particularly compulsive surgical assistant. How many snail clamps would I need? Did I have enough gas in my burner? Jacques sidled over with a corkscrew for me; I hadn't known one was expected to bring one's own.
Six o'clock and three tables are full, the women attacking the bread immediately. No sooner have I become a captain than my head fills automatically with prejudices: women are poor tippers, as are pipe smokers and Englishmen and anybody who wears a bow tie/or white socks. California, one knows instinctively, are 10 percenters.
My first customer leaves everything in my hands. It has been for him a week of too many decisions. Saturday night he doesn't want to make another decision. I should just bring him anything - surprise him. I, who tell people all week where to eat and what, panic before one hungry mouth, agonize over the venison pate or the onion soup. But true to his end of the bargain, he is delighted with whatever I place before him. One success.
By 8 p.m. all the tables are full, the blender quiet from whipping banana daiquiris. The waiters are well into their act. A woman asks Nick where the ladies' room is. Without missing a beat, he jokes there is none. Not a single flinch - she asks, "Do you have a glass?"
With my patrons busily eating, I now have time to see what else is going on in the restaurant. The other captains make a big show of taking the women by the arm and escorting them to the ladies' room; no wonder there are so many trips back and forth. I have a lot to learn in this theater. Ordering, serving, tossing salads, delivering checks are only the stage business. The real art is in making the diner feel cared for, important. It is the way the captains ask how everything is, the sensing of how friendly the diner wants the captain to be, the air of drama with which a dish is presented. According to Jacques, if he kisses the women, they don't care whether their steaks come rare or well done.
Beginning to get the feel of the job, I pull up my cart to make my first flaming coffee. I concentrate on pouring the right amount of Cointreau, on glazing the sugar on the rim of the glass without dripping. It will be hundreds of flaming coffees before I can pour the liqueur in the three-foot-high arc the others achieve. But it glazes, it flames. Relief. And behind me, applause, for all the captains have gathered unseen to cheer for my first Coffee Inkwell.
In the lull between seatings, I review my job. I haven't yet remembered to offer fresh pepper with the salad. I never will, in all my days of being a captain. I keep forgetting to check the silverware before the main course arrives. I cringe remembering slopping the soup as I ladled it from the tureen. Nobody in the kitchen can read my handwriting. I begin to wonder how long it would take me to destroy the restaurant's reputation.
It doesn't take long before I know my diners' names, occupationg, drinking preferences, and approximately where they live. Within a half hour, I know about houses they have bought and sold, their friends who are sleeping with other friends, and how the salade nicoise was at the last restaurant they'd visited.
Sounds bounce across the room; the professor's tale of his student's amours weaves with another diner's announcement that the Sans Souci has been sold (must have been another Sans Souci). At table after table, people talk of how they would like to own a restaurant, but nobody talks of wanting to be a waiter. They winey rich fragrance of Oysters Favorite mingling with the rankness of my own sweat, I understand why. As the evening wears on, the talk is less of food and more of sex.
I resolve to speak more quietly when I am in restaurants.
Quickly I learn that diners assume that the price of the dinner includes the waiter. They want to know where I am from, what kind of work my husband does - well, maybe it is only fair, since I automatically know so much about them.
They don't want to know about my having to carve somebody else's lamb while they are waiting for the check. They don't want to know that it is easier if the six of them order in turn, rather than switching orders while I am trying to keep in mind who gets what. They don't want to know that a warm thank-you is not nearly as long lasting as a big tip.
The late night crowd starts out noisier, but Sam reminds me that I am lucky there is not a full moon, when things really get crazy in a restaurant.
It is the late night people who nibble pieces off the dessert tray as Nick shows it to them. The late night people buy drinks for friends at the next table, build up a bar bill larger than the food bill, order seven drinks a person, plus wine (then carefully figure a 15 percent tip to the penny). I am told of the late-nighter the evening before who comes often and falls asleep at the table; last night they couldn't wake him until 1 a.m. Late night people pick apart the centerpieces and eat the flowers from them, steal the plants from the restrooms.
At midnight I start sweeping petals and anthills of pepper from my last table, totaling the tips in my head.
Although a diner may think of a tip as a gift, for the waiter it is the salary. As a captain at the Company Inkwell, I would earn $12 an evening plus whatever my diners' generosity dictated. Saturday night that is a lot; mid-weeks, it may hardly be worth getting a tuxedo cleaned. There is no straight answer about how much a waiter makes. He has no sick leave, no vacation credit, no pension or health insurance, no job security that will last longer than his arches. And no social life. He must maintain a tuxedo and, if he has a family, two cars. On the other hand, he can fudge on his taxes. Asking around town about the income of a waiter or captain in a high-priced busy restaurant, I heard estimates from $15,000 to $25,000 a year. But one does not get to be a waiter at such a restaurant without years of lesser-paid experience, and there are few jobs at the top. Most women serving in restaurants never earn much over $5,000 a year. One wonders why they do it, perhaps just because it is a job. For many that is the only reason. Yet there are those, and many of those, for whom waiting on tables is meant as a prelude to opening one's own restaurant, and there are just enough success stories to keep the dream fueled.
In four weeks of being a weekend captain, I learned a lot - primarily that I had a lot more to learn. One Monday afternoon an angry woman called me at my office to tell me of her unconscionable service at another restaurant at lunch. She had, of course, left no tip. Why? The waiter forgot who got which drink, then asked if they were ready to order, before he asked if they wanted a second drink.
Oh lady, if I had been your captain, you probably wouldn't have even stayed around for a second drink.
I resolved to try harder, and the next Saturday I learned to use a sales pitch on the salad, describing it in luscious detail. I learned that it is much easier to serve everybody the evening's specials rather than carve a duck or flame a pepper steak, so I threw my verbal weight behind them.
That was rather easy, since the Saturday night specials are meant to be big sellers so the kitchen can cope with the crowd. Fish and veal was popular these days, fish on Friday and veal on Saturday. Anything with mushrooms sells well, and glazing a dish increases its appeal where it otherwise might not sell. I wonder whether there is anything Jean Marie won't glaze?
Nearly everybody four courses on a Saturday night, especially once you show the dessert tray. And almost anybody can be persuaded to order flaming coffee, given the right sales pitch.
But you quickly learn not to judge too hastily. An austere group of vegetarians, he with a pony tail, passed up my suggestion of drinks in order to get right to dinner. Small bill, I predicted, until they ordered Dom Perignon at $55 a bottle, and proceeded to talk about dining at Le Lion d'Or and on innumerable airplanes.
Women dining alone don't always rush through a single course. One woman came at lunch ("Watch out, she may be a restaurant critic," joked Marcel). She leisurely made her way from appetizer through liqueur, but still didn't beat the house record of a six-hour meal for one woman dining alone.
You learn what it means to be the diner's point of contact for the restaurant. If the steak is undercooked, the coffee slow to brew, the man at the next table too loud, you, the captain, are the fault. When people order a salad and forget they have done so, or one diner orders a bottle of wine and another at the table asks why you brought it, you realize you are responsible for not only the kitchen but the friends at the table, as well.
It was Pierre who warned me that when something starts to go wrong at a table, everything goes wrong. And it is contagious. When people at the next table see things going wrong, they also begin to find fault.
To prove his point, he sends me over to his table, where he heard them talking about calling a restaurant critic to complain. "How is everything?" I ask.
"Everything's fine. Couldn't be better," they smile at me, then go back to complaining.
To be a waiter is to deal with contradictions. One woman at the table for six spoons her soup in birdlike sips as the other five spoons for a focus for their impatience (me). A pretty bride is feeling ill, and spends the evening sipping tea while her new husband wends his way through two drinks and four courses, sending a dish back for further cooking and pausing frequently to call me over to tell me a dirty joke.
In comes the father of a writer I know, and I feel a sense of camaraderie with the table. It is all one-sided, however, the woman he is with keeps chastising me for not bringing a spoon when there is already one there, for reaching over a table I cannot move around. When they leave, I tell him how I admire his daughter's work, and his eyes reply that he is startled to find a waitress who can read.
The outsideness gets to me. I serve veal stuffed with delicious things. I smell heady soups. Fresh shrimps pass from my hand to table as I devour them with my eyes. Used to being filled to bursting with Washington's delicacies, I feel the sting of serving what I may not taste, just as I feel the discomfort of being on the edge of conversations in which I may not participate.
As the last guests leave, we collapse into corner table and begin to share horror stories - the evening a man ate his snails, shell and all; the time smoke poured through the vents and Sam had a hard time getting diners to leave, which they finally did - drinks in hand. Did Sam ever chase a diner down the street for not leaving a tip? "We don't chase them, we lasso them," Sam quipped, launching into the tale of the man with a $100 check who had a wonderful time but left a $2.50 tip - a mistake, he said, which he subsequently corrected. Then there was the $150 tip on a $125 bill. Nobody will ever forget that one.
By the last night I had my own tales. It was my final group of diners who had insisted on becoming pals, who probed me about my life, my previous jobs, my family. Since I was passing myself off as a newcomer to town, they started to tell me about good restaurants, and from there they got into restaurant critics. They spent the rest of the evening warning me about Richman on Restaurants. They couldn't exactly explain it, but they just didn'nt like her. All their friends, too, thought she was awful. She reviewed all kinds of little restaurants nobody cared about, and she didn't know much.
At least they left a big tip.