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Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter
The art of the day job
Eventually I had to accept that I wasn't working in restaurants to support my art like most of my coworkers; I was posing as an artist to justify my work as a waiter. The small café where I worked in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, employed artists as if there were quotas to be met: a drummer, a filmmaker, an actor, a dancer, a photographer, a designer, and myself—who at that point fancied herself a writer. Every so often someone would go on tour, decide to move back to some small town in some small state, or simply leave out of frustration with what he or she wasn't getting to do. It's a dangerous combination, this dichotomy of artist/waiter, one that often leads to listless service and half-finished Margaritas forgotten behind the computer.
I lived in a studio apartment upstairs from my high school sweetheart in Williamsburg (recently rated the hippest neighborhood in America—how scientific a study that was, I hardly know). We had broken up three years before and were now pretending to be friends, sharing a computer and sweaters, buying groceries, building bookshelves, and sabotaging each other's love life. That we spent most of our time together in the kitchen was no surprise; food had always been our bond. Between our early experimentations and our reunion years later, we had grown confident in our techniques and ambitious in our undertakings, mastering emulsifications and reductions, the art of kneading, and the importance of letting things rest. He played the chef, and I the visionary, reading recipes out loud from thefloor, my back against the refrigerator door.
When I found myself without a job, my ex-love suggested that I interview at the café where he worked. I would shoot for a busboy position since I had no experience in the business. When the manager asked if I knew how to make a cappuccino, I said in all seriousness that I didn't, but that I drank a lot of them. I have no idea why she hired me.
The café modeled itself after a funny amalgamation of cultures, from its curved mosaic ceiling to the eclectic cuisine, which I called Middleterranean: scrambled eggs with coriander and ginger, lamb shank with currants and pine nuts, salmon on Israeli couscous. Having just escaped my last job on Fifth Avenue with my sanity intact (I'll get to that), I pierced my nose, dyed my new pixie cut a dramatic platinum blond, and took to keeping my corkscrew, or wine key, tucked into knee-high boots. The café was perhaps best known for brunch, when the line ran out the door and we mastered the art of sprinting while balancing three or four coffee cups. Bed-headed hipsters make challenging brunch guests, barely able to utter their Bloody Mary order, let alone abide a wait for their eggs Barbarosa with crawfish and chorizo. Margaritas were essential to survival.
I was the only busboy not named Mohammed. Here, as in many restaurants around the city, any deviation from the distinct class/race hierarchy makes everyone uneasy. In most New York restaurants, the chef is Caucasian, the waiters are starving artists, the busboys are from Bangladesh, and the kitchen workers and dishwashers are from Latin America. I honestly think I was promoted so quickly from busboy to waiter because the chef and the waiters felt uncomfortable asking me to mop up their spills, take out the trash, and clean the windows. I certainly wasn't promoted for my skill or knowledge. When I came to the kitchen to pick up a salad, the cooks took a moment longer to anchor the teetering greens between beet support beams. They knew that when I picked up a bowl of soup the crostini, which was supposed to remain on the rim of the bowl, would be launched like a life raft into turbulent waves of soup. The foam on my soy chai resembled dish suds. I thought Cristal was a china company.
And yet, what better way to begin my career in the business than with a restaurant rife with clichés: roaches in the dry goods, mice everywhere, shady finances, messy love affairs, drugs, theft, basement flooding, and chefs with a penchant for throwing pots, pans, and produce. I lasted more than a year, in which time I saw at least ten waiters and two chefs come and go. We were always out of more than half the wines on the wine list and often couldn't locate the other half. The reservation system was a pile of Post-its.
When the neighborhood really started to boom and became saturated with new restaurants even hipper than ours, business lagged. The owners, whose only restaurant experience had been to piece this one together with duct tape and borrowed money, responded by hiring a real manager. They couldn't afford a seasoned one, so they found a cheap one. Enter Jessica, a smoky twenty-four-year-old with a severe bob and a crafty, brooding look. She fit right into the scene, with her leg warmers and short skirts, her carefully smudged eyeliner, and a tube of red lipstick she used as a bookmark in the new reservation book. Within months, both her drug habit and the fact that she was sleeping with the chef were common knowledge. One day she simply disappeared, leaving behind one black sneaker and a mirror. For a while, I took over many of her responsibilities: ordering wine, scheduling the Mohammeds, and planning private parties. The more involved I became in the business, the shadier I realized it was. We owed money to everyone and paid them off only when we needed to order something else.
I only began working in restaurants after I had exhausted quite a few other nontraditional ways of making a living. I had written a Web page for a Filipino dating service. I had walked a dog. I had consolidated online food reviews (my first and last desk job, lasting a whole six weeks). I had proofread for law firms, babysat for JFK's three grandchildren, and helped organize documentary film viewings at women's prisons. For two years after college, I pretended that I was about to apply to Ph.D. English literature programs, mostly because I had been in school my whole life and couldn't imagine anything else. Service Included
Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter
. Copyright © by Phoebe Damrosch. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.