My first job in food service was as a dishwasher at a deli-cafe-catering company. It was the summer of my junior year in high school.
Due to the lack of staffing, I did a little bit of everything: took orders, delivered food, spread cream cheese on bagels, wrapped thousands of figs (cut in half, with a dab of goat cheese) in thin strips of salty prosciutto to be later served as hors d’oeuvres by me at a 200-person wedding in the August heat. And after the wedding was over we walked around the tables stacking plates, collecting wine and champagne glasses, each of us with Dixie cups into which we’d pour leftover alcohol and drink it behind the catering tent before we went home for the night.
I’ve worked in the kitchen at a summer camp, cooking, serving, and cleaning for 300 campers and counselors. The head chef was a Jamaican lady who kept a two-gallon jar of pickled Scotch Bonnets she used to season the jerk chicken and to scare us into submission by threatening to slip them into our food.
In college I became a hostess and bartender, and then a waitress. The first time I walked up to greet a table, I felt like I was onstage. There I was, talking to a strange, captive audience, all eyes on me, my stomach full of opening-night butterflies.
I’ve been told to speak louder, smile more, be more confident, take as many drink orders as you can, always assume the guest needs change, don’t talk about tips on the floor, don’t paint your nails, smile more, warn the parents that the plates are hot, ask if they would like their children’s food to come out first, try everything on the menu so you can give an honest opinion, learn the menu backward and forward, be able to recite the menu in your sleep, smile more.
Sometimes I’m awkward. When the restaurant fills up and there’s background noise and I can’t hear what guests are saying to me, I smile and nod and repeat out loud everything:
“You’ll have the cod, great!”
“No, the Cobb.”
“The Cobb salad.”
“Oh. My hearing,” I cup my left hand behind my ear. “I must be getting old,” and as I’m speaking I realize the woman is in her 80s at least, and then I blush and stammer out a “thank you’” and walk quickly away from the table.
As far as making mistakes, a little bit of awkwardness never hurt anyone. It’s not as bad as dropping something or spilling a drink, all of which I’ve done.
The time I tipped a tray and a Sam Adams spilled all over a woman’s lap. “I’m so sorry!”
“Well,” said the woman to her friends. “I guess this night could get worse.” And then I melted into a puddle on the floor.
The time a plate slipped out of my hand as I was clearing off a table and crushed a man’s glasses. “I’m so sorry!”
“It’s okay,” he said, “I needed a new pair.”
But nothing is quite so awful as realizing you’ve forgotten to put in someone’s order. I’ve never met a server who hasn’t experienced the frightening drop of their stomach, felt the hot flush of panic rise up through their neck and spread out across their face. It’s a sudden overwhelming rush of adrenaline, dread, and hysteria when you figure out the reason why Table 40 has not received their appetizers. Then you have to deal with the kitchen, which is simultaneously pissed off and gleeful at your screw-up.
I’ve always enjoyed being around kitchens, enjoyed the anonymity of being a pair of hands delivering food, moving between tables to answer someone’s beckoning. Though sometimes it bothers me when people don’t make eye contact, I take pleasure in being able to slip a glass off a table, fill it with water, and replace it without disturbing the conversation.
A good waitress is like air, someone once told me. She will be indispensable to the table, but the table won’t even notice they need her. This is my job; this is why I’m here.