It’s preshift at my restaurant. Sleepy servers dressed in black rub the hangovers from their eyes. It’s 5pm and most of us slept for most of the day. Our uniforms haven’t been washed yet this week and only the men have showered. Half of us are getting over the same cold. We sip on black coffee, bitters & soda, or freshly squeezed OJ that we stole from the bar. Fishing season for halibut opened this week and Chef is detailing the new special. He gets lost in a tangent on current oyster prices, then on the mating habits of feeder king salmon. My head throbs behind my eyes and my mouth is dry from last night’s Jameson and I’m in no shape to charm the general public but my coffee is strong and I hang onto Chef’s every word because I can’t help but be excited about the food.
When people find out I’m a server, they say, “That’s perfect for you, you get to talk about food all the time!” But your typical server doesn’t love food, although she is always hungry. She might even resent it because it places her in an awkward servile position; servers are slaves to the public, slaves to the kitchen, slaves to the food. Your typical server is hungover or drinking off a hangover or is already drunk; is generally high; has probably taken eight cigarette breaks in the last hour and eaten eight french fries off plates1. He is in college or was a few years ago and plans on going back, or just finished or finished five years ago and plans on going back. He doesn’t sleep more than four hours a night until a day off rolls around and he doesn’t leave the bed except smoke breaks.
We don’t get this job because we’re into the food scene. We didn’t start serving because of food or even people but because of flexible schedules, instant cash, and a plethora of coworkers who are always just a little fucked up. We love the energy of the dinner rush and we’re good at multi-tasking and we hate meeting new people on our days off. We call kitchen mistakes “dead food” and bring it to the wait station and descend upon it like starving seagulls; all servers are scavengers. When the kitchen preps us the special, we’ll eat it and decide too salty or just spicy enough or fuckin’ awesome, but nobody’s sitting there discussing the nuance of tarragon in the Bearnaise or how it complements the asparagus.
There are days we have energy, we’ve eaten breakfast, maybe we’ve even showered, we love people and life and the new dish on the menu because all of us ate it at preshift. Maybe there was a wine tasting that day. Maybe the right crew is on. Maybe it’s been the right week and we’ve all made some money without working too hard and no one’s breaking up or fighting and the foreigners are few and we’ve gotten good grades this semester. We have days when we love our tables, when we give them free apps just because they’re new in town, when a table doesn’t finish some expensive wine and we all share it in the wait station, taking swigs from the bottle before running some drinks to our table.
And then there are nights when we all have a cold at the same time. When we’re all hungover from the same party. The same series of parties. The nights that bleed into new nights and new headaches and new people, so many people that eventually everyone begins looking alike. You remember a table by their order, not who they are. Someone tells you they’re new in town and you want to punch their face. You fuck up easy orders, forget to ring in a table for a whole twenty minutes, beg your manager to send out free apps until you fuck up so much you stop caring, you say screw it, it’s just one of Those Nights and you bear down and get through it and tomorrow’s tips will be better. These nights aren’t our standard, though; there are only a token few of us who are always in a bad mood. Your typical server is too exhausted to waste that much energy hating everything.
I’m all of these things, but I’m also a nerdy server. I love the food. This is not normal. I’ll spend precious minutes during a dinner rush detailing potential gluten free creations or extolling the virtues of Pacific Northwest salmon while other servers snicker at my enthusiasm. When our bartender has a guest with a weird question about chicory, I overhear and offer a much more detailed history than either of them were looking for. I am that girl who not only takes pictures of her food in restaurants but also hates herself doing it.
Still, I can be very much your typical server if I’m having one of Those Nights. I’m sure every job has them. Anything can start it, but once it starts I hate everything. I hate at least fifty things per hour, irrational things, things that other nights don’t bother me. I hate when guests order iced tea, I hate calling customers “guests,” I hate when they ask personal questions or questions about my “favorite thing on the menu” or any questions at all, I hate when they hand me plates while my hands are full or ask for more water when I’m on my way with a pitcher or won’t stop drinking from their damn glass when I’m trying to fill it.
But I survive in this industry mostly because I’m not one of those servers for whom every night is one of Those Nights. Most nights I am at most bemused, but certainly not incensed, by even the most inane requests – like one middle-of-Friday-night-dinner-rush request for a dinner to be served “without any of the food touching,” an abominable version of When Harry Met Sally’s “on the side.” On good nights I love the industry because I’m on the front line of the food world (or maybe just a line or two back). When there are avocado shortages because of the drought in California, we change our summer salad; when spring has arrived early we make nettle pesto in February.
Even more, I get to be the liaison between a chef and his masses, an interpreter of a very specific kind of art, the only art we can literally consume, art that is specifically gustatory in nature. When someone extra picky comes in, it’s a fun challenge; when someone wants me to guide them through an experience, it’s a privilege. For these customers I slow down, take time, figure out exactly what they’re looking for and give them what will make them happy. On good nights it’s all about that moment I see the fork in their mouths and the expression on their faces that tells me I’ve done my job well. On good nights, your typical server stops being your servant and becomes your partner in crime.
1 Before they go out to tables or after they come back depends on the restaurant; the classier the clientele, the more the servers trust that it’s safe to eat off their plates.