Thursday, January 28, 2010

Tales from the kitchen

Can you think of the worst server you’ve ever had at a restaurant? Was it me?

I won’t be offended. I was a terrible server, no doubt about it. The opposite of fantastic. I was spastic, clumsy and I couldn't remember daily specials. I always misplaced my pen, got easily stressed out and grimaced when someone ordered bacon. (bacon, blech!!!)

Thankfully, (for me and the general public) I no longer wait tables and can laugh about spending summers home from college serving Middle Eastern food in uptown New Orleans.

I worked at a very delicious and moderately priced Lebanese restaurant, and considering my server skills, I actually made good tips. Enough to buy clothes and beer.

I was hired because Joy, my twin sister, had already been working at the restaurant's other location as a back waiter/“pita bread girl” and hadn’t set the place on fire.
And since we're twins, that must mean we have the same work ethic.

The owners were Lebanese and made a mean Baba Ghanuj. One owner was named Marejuan.
“Nice to meet you Marejuan,” I said on my first day, with a tiny smirk.
“Yes, I know, Marejuan like marijuana,” he said in his thick Middle Eastern accent.
I laughed.
“First time I hear it I laugh. Second time, I giggle a little. THIRD TIME NOT FUNNY!” he shouted.
I laughed harder. Thank God Joy wasn't there because we would have been on the floor.

Marejuan kept his distance from the servers although he used to come in yelling angrily into his cell phone in Lebanese when he was upset at the restaurant staff.
You know, like if the kitchen got backed up during belly dancing Thursdays and someone complained that the lamb kabob took too long.

We had to wear all black with a long black bistro apron (those things are especially long when you are five feet tall, I had to roll mine ten times just so it would clear my ankles) and we had to answer questions about the detailed Middle Eastern menu.

There were times when I literally forgot to ring in orders. I remember this one young couple sitting there for a while looking hungry when it hit me.
I never put in their order! They’ve been sitting there for 20 minutes and I haven’t put in their order!
There was no reason why I hadn’t. I probably just plum forget between making more iced tea (iced tea, blech!!!), toasting pita bread, filling up sodas, telling the vegetarians that no meat is ever fried in the deep fryer, only eggplant, and forgetting that they do fry children’s chicken fingers in there sometimes.

I rang in the their order immediately, begging the line cooks to make the dishes as quickly as possible. I then got the couple a free draft beer each.
There was no bartender during the day so you could sneak a free draft beer or two. Or five.

Another problem I had with being a server is the math. I hate math times infinity. My brain literally rejects the idea of enjoying and retaining mathematics skills. I still count on my fingers, no joke.

Thus, I dreaded when people would pay with cash and ask for change. I would hand-write simple arithmetic problems in my notepad in order to give correct change, because I never bothered to get a calculator.

“What is this?” asked the manager, Sean, who was American and graciously put up with my foolishness.
“A math problem,” I said. “I had to give some people change earlier.”
“So what do you want me to look at?” he asked.
“Can you tell me what kind of wine they want?” I said, pointing to my notepad. “I wrote it out phonetically.”

He looked at the notepad, which had a fancy Italian name followed by “peen-no-war."
"It's a type of red wine, I think," I said.

Wine was quite a hurdle for me. We had to open bottles at the table. Sometimes I did it well, but not all the time. It was a crapshoot, and even I didn’t know if it was going to be successful when I began the process.

“Let…me,” said a man before I even started to open a bottle one day. He must have sensed my incompetence.
I looked hurt, but gave him the wine and opener.
“Don’t worry about it,” his date told me. “He’s a wine rep, so he gets like, really anal about it.”

None of these exploits held a candle to the nightmare that was being a server at Applebee’s.
Don’t ask me why I decided to work at Applebee’s, because I don’t know. I think I thought I’d make money because it’s such a popular place.

It wasn't a cash cow. And none of the other servers liked me because I was working to make extra spending money and not to support a family or pay rent. I was treated like a spoiled stepchild.

One morning, two girls sat down at 11 a.m. and ordered strawberry daiquiris. They looked old enough and, besides, I hated it when people carded me when I was 18. Welcome to New Orleans.

I heard the bartender loudly exhale when he read the ticket for the daiquiris. Those drinks required a blender, you see, and ice and mixing different things together. There was also the cleanup afterwards. He was a lazy. He looked at me and then his eyes darted at the girls who placed the order.

Ugh, did you even card them?” he asked me, hoping to dodge the blender drinks.
“Yes,” I said in my confident voice. “And they want whipped cream on top.”

I was called into the manager’s office the next day.
Bobby told me that you aren’t carding people,” she said.
I didn’t say anything, because she was much bigger than me and I was scared of her.

As a punishment, I had to wear a piece of flair that said, “You’ve got the cutest little baby face, may I please see some I.D.?”
“You will card anyone that looks under 30,” the manager said. Welcome to Applebees.

The next shift, a man who looked like he was in his 30s sat down and ordered a Bud Light.
“Can I see your I.D.?” I asked.
“You kiddin me?”
“No, sir.” I pointed to the button. “This is serious.”
He had to stare at my chest (great) in order to read the button aloud.
He chuckled. Hehehe hahaha OK.
I think his I.D. said he was 40. Someone with better math skills could have said specifically how old he was.

Another man misinterpreted the button as a pick-up line and made me a flower out of his napkin.
“Cute, huh?” He said. “Cute like a baby face!”

One Applebees diner, who I will never forget, placed the oddest, most disgusting order I have ever heard.
“I’d like the oriental chicken salad, but instead of dressing, I’d like nacho cheese on top.” (This was the exact conversation.)
“You want what?
“Nacho cheese on top.”
Perhaps I didn’t hear him correctly.
“You want…the ORANGE cheese we put on the nachos on top of your salad?”

I rang in the order and typed, "Sub dressing for nacho cheese.”
“Where’s Jenny?!?!” shouted the expo. I walked into the kitchen. “What the hell is this??” he yelled, waving the ticket with the special note on it.

“I know, it’s weird and gross,” I said. “But, I asked him about it twice and he said he definitely wants nacho cheese on top.”
“Well, if he sends it back we're not making it again!” the expo yelled at me. Welcome to Applebee’s.

The man ended up eating the salad, every last bit of it, and I almost gagged when I had to bring the orange-stained bowl to the washing station.
It was almost as bad as cleaning up the riblet plates with the round, spit-covered, marrow-like bones on them.

I quit Applebee’s when a “secret shopper” came in and gave me an “F” for not suggestively selling the Mucho Margarita or the potato skins appetizer.

“What does it matter?” I managed to ask the manager. “I mean, are people really going to order something because I suggested it?”
“Absolutely,” she said with a straight face. “Now go over there and ask those people if they want to split a molten lava chocolate cake.”

I think about these experiences every time I go to a restaurant. I observe the servers walking in and out of the kitchen, I pay attention to whether they are nervous and sweating or calm and collected. It’s a hard job! Certainly too hard for me. I didn’t need a “secret shopper” to tell me that.

As someone who eats out at restaurants a lot, I have a high level of respect for genuinely good servers, those who remember to put in food orders and can open bottles of wine on the first try.
Yet, even if I do get a less than stellar server, I make sure to always tip well. Just in case they’re in it for the extra spending money.


1 comment:

  1. I hate the mandatory upsell at chain restaurants. HATE IT. Places that have great food don't need to upsell, the good stuff just sells. I stop going to places that make their employees upsell everything (I'M NOT BUYING A MUFFIN WITH MY COFFEE, CC's).


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