How the restaurant business taught me that saying nothing can sometimes save your a**
People have their stories about the rollicking, nightmare-inducing world of working in restaurants. The drama and choreography, the stress, the physicality, the performance of it all. Every night, night after night, the same, the same, the same, but always… totally different.
When I was writing this story in the 80s, I was working in an Italian restaurant a lot like the one called Farfalle. It was a busy place six months of the year and hobbled along the other six during the long shoulder seasons. Nevertheless, it was hard to get a job there, the crew was tight, the hierarchy was explicit and rigid, and the physical strength required was notable. We wore white shirts and black neck ties, sensible shoes, and long white aprons, and our clothes got dirty from six hours of sweat and slinging food and busting through swinging doors.
We carried large oval trays that could hold four oval dinner plates and their underlining plates and four oval pasta side dishes and their underliners, plus all the food and incidentals like silverware and sauceboats. In the other hand was a tray jack, a flip-open stand that had to be cracked and positioned before placing the tray down. We’d sometimes have to walk sideways to get through the aisles to the tables, tables that kept growing in number the more popular the place got. It was a scene.
And by scene, I mean that the choreography of the waiters, the management, the cooks, and everybody in between was perpetual from the time the doors opened until they end of the night. Not anything new in the world of restaurants then or now, but really not the way the workaday world functions for most of humanity. Like an unpredictable theatrical parade every night, something that could either bring on dreams of giant garish heads screaming at you or of rolls of cash you didn’t expect.
In addition were the people — the regulars, the tourists, the once-in-a-whilers, the singles who sat at the bar, the folks who would only come in for the one dish they liked and never have anything but that dish. At this particular restaurant, there were a couple such dishes the talented chef created, dishes that eventually — along with the unpredictability of the long shoulder seasons — made a slave of him until he packed up for more a more consistent schedule and more freedom to change the menu whenever he wanted. His dream was to stand at the door in an expensive Italian suit, greet people, sit at the bar, and watch over the cooks in the kitchen like a hawk– a dream to his credit, he achieved not long after leaving Telluride.
Among the many mistakes we made as waiters — wrong food to wrong person, wrong attitude, wrong chemistry, spillage, major spillage, and pretty much anything a customer or management could identify as wrong — probably the ugliest was going to be wrong choice of words spoken to an unhappy customer. Less words was always more in these situations. Of course, that didn’t mean we could necessarily remember that in the moment.
Think about it. We’re talking the 80s. Five waiters, five bussers, two bartenders, hostess on the front lines of whatever dining humanity the quirky little ski town could throw at you. We would show up at work tired from whatever we’d been doing during the day, whether it was the second job, the hiking, bike riding, skiing, whatever it was, and we’d usually start the night off with an espresso or cappuccino, tired and wired. One waiter kept a flask in the ice machine. There was a $12.50 club, where enough so-called marching powder could be purchased for the night, for every night if that was your thing. We were basically personality-heavy drop-out punks from the real world in an insulated container of nightly experience. Serving people!
Occasionally, you’d get a ranting and raving lunatic of a customer who seemed to have it in for you as a representative of everything that had gone wrong in their world on that day. Sometimes they’d be locals who then remembered and brought it with them whenever and however often they entered the restaurant, and you had to beg for them not to be seated in your section. Sometimes they were. Sometimes you had to suck it up, drop anything you remembered about that last time, drop it all, wash it clean, in order not to serve them anger along with their food. Lots of times that didn’t work. So many times.
But isn’t it fascinating to think that such an extraordinary life lesson is always there for the plucking? That you can choose to keep your mouth shut for a microsecond and then in that microsecond choose to wipe the slate clean? Not serve the angry food? Give the moment a chance to nourish instead of poison? This is probably what is going to save your soul, in the end, right along with your a**.