Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Yuppies, Foodies, Cheapskates, Drunks, Oh My!

“Waiter Rant – Thanks for the Tip – Confessions of a Cynical Waiter,” by Steve Dublanica, 2008

Workers don’t usually tell their tales. Well, this one did - the front of the house speaks! If you’ve ever been at a restaurant table, uncomfortable with the inability of a loved-one to make a simple food decision, or the demanding micro-attentions an aging in-law makes on servers, it has not gone unnoticed by those other than you. Dublanica writes a waiter’s blog of the same name, and got his book contract through that. He’s taken the inspiration from his posts and made a book out of it.

The Waiter hates demanding yuppies who have to have special tables, or ‘know the owner’ or parade their arrogant - and sometimes incorrect - foodie proclivities before the wait-staff. Or those who don’t tip well, or at all. The Waiter estimates 20% of diners are ‘socially maladjusted psychopaths.’ Of course, this Waiter works in New York. Thinking of eating out on Mother’s Day? Forget it – crowded, guilt-laden pandemonium. Valentine’s Day? Another crowded con with elbow-to-elbow diners.

As Dublanica puts it: “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.” Then he goes on about food porn from there.

It all actually makes you not want to eat out. Of course, if you read “Kitchen Confidential” by Anthony Bourdain about ‘the back of the house,’ you really won’t eat out.

Dublanica worked at an intense upscale Italian restaurant in Manhattan for 7 years before he burned-out as the head waiter/manager. Before that he waited a restaurant that was so dysfunctional he couldn’t last a year. He now works a low-key place that doesn’t pay as well. He was 31 in 1986, when he ‘fell into’ working as a waiter, after stints in a sexually-repressed Catholic religious school and a crooked health clinic. If you only thought old-country Greeks and Italians lasted that long in the waiting business, you guessed wrong. Throughout the book Dublanica worries about his status as an aging ‘loser,’ and while not the best part of the book, he finds it necessary to dwell on it constantly. Which is a gauge of how devalued the trade of waiter is.

The Waiter is kind to the ‘back of the house’ staff, as the cooks are called. As he puts it, if they made Mexicans from Pueblo illegal in the U.S., there would be no one to cook in restaurants. The restaurant industry would shut down. He knows that cooks contend with brutal hours, burns, cuts, low pay and crazy demands. However, he’s not so kind to the owners of these restaurants, who are many times petty, crazed tyrants. Or some of his fellow waiters, who backstab in order to get ahead. As he analyzes the wait-staff, a good proportion are ‘live for the moment’ alcoholics and druggies who get high on nights with $250 in tips. Though he’s not afraid to souse his exhausted miseries in three-martini late-nights after work. Vampiric? Hell, yes.

Of course the favorite topic of any waiter is tips. 15%-20% is expected, at least in the U.S. Among his other duties, however, Dublanica is not a sociologist, so he might be surprised to find some – even many - societies do not have tipping, and certainly not on the U.S. scale. American customers subsidize waiter wages, as dreadful state laws mandate tiny minimum wages for wait-staffs. This is a simple gift – call it corporate welfare - to the restaurant industry. And customers know it. It creates a ‘feast or famine’ atmosphere among U.S. restaurant staffs instead of some reliable baseline of pay. Tipping is not expected or required in India, China, Japan, Vietnam, South Korea, Turkey, Australia, New Zealand, Belgium, Finland, Spain, Cuba, etc. Sometimes it is only countries that are close to the American tourist or model that tipping is similar to the U.S., like Canada or Mexico. What is striking is that tipping in many countries has no mandatory level, and if it is done, is only for exceptional service or for kindness. The U.S., alone in the world if you believe Wikipedia, mandates a 15%-20% tip. Think about it.

The Waiter’s most miserable moment came when his restaurant, the fictional ‘Bistro’ as he calls it, suffered a failure of air-conditioning and the ‘POS’ computer system on the same very hot New York night, as crowds of hungry people lined up outside the door. ‘POS’ seems to be the order/billing software. Demanding customers, a boss calling him every three minutes to make him explain, clueless waiters who did not know how to add up bills without a computer, a dining area that reached 95 degrees and a kitchen that reached 110 nearly brought down the whole restaurant. Somehow, Dublanica pulled the restaurant through without having to close it. The show must go on. Dublanica also shows great generosity of spirit and psychological understanding to troubled souls who reveal themselves in restaurants. As one woman said to him while watching him gently talk a drunken lady into leaving the Bistro, “You’re not just a waiter, are you?" No, he’s not. No one is 'just' anything, of course.

Among other high-profile guests, he once waited on The Gladiator – Rusell Crowe. Crowe was the only one who publically identified him as the “Waiter” behind the “Waiter Rant” blog. Dublanica was flattered – and surprised.

Over the past 30 years, with the financialization of American life, and the destruction of private time, restaurants meals have grown in ‘necessity.’ I call it the privatization of the family meal. Instead of inexpensive, healthful food skillfully prepared in a low-key way at home, eating is now supposed to be a public event involving being served as if we were still children – or bosses. The food is lower quality, of excessive quantity and the prices are higher than most home meals. People who constantly go to restaurants even lose cooking skills. The U.S. restaurant industry survives on the backs of immigrants, bad government laws and low pay. If a government was to mandate a living wage and other benefits for workers in restaurants, many restaurants would disappear. As far as I’m concerned, that would not be bad at all. A restaurant that cannot provide health care, decent wages, regular hours and normal work conditions does not deserve to exist. And we don’t need them either.

And I bought it at Half-Price Books,
Red Frog, November 15, 2011

1 comment:

AA said...

"Kitchen Confidential" was a riveting read.

In some of the swankier places in London -- e.g., the Savoy -- waiters in the recent past had to pay the management weekly for their jobs as tip income was so lucrative (don't know if this practice still continues).