Thursday, March 23, 2006

Double Dipping

Restaurant Girl hasn't spoken in a couple of weeks because she's been scoopin' the scene at a new restaurant. Yes, as if it weren't enough to give my lifeblood, soul, and the best years of my life slaving away at night at one of San Francisco's finest, I decided I wanted to make a little (or a lot) of extra money and so got a job as a lunch server at one of San Francisco's finer.

I haven't worked doubles since I was twenty years old and Superwoman. Back then, it was no thang to take twenty units at school, train for (and win) a half-Ironman triathlon, work three restaurant jobs, and have an active dating life.

These days, I've already got two college degrees (more if you count the foreign ones), my bikes are gathering dust (except for the one with the little basket that I ride all over town to get to my jobs), and I'm thankful I landed a boyfriend before all of the chaos began because I can fall asleep on his chest and snore while watching March of the Penguins and I don't have to worry if he's going to like me in the morning (at least, I hope not).

There's something totally humbling about starting work at a new place. I've been working in restaurants for ten years now, more on than off, and I'm starting to understand why old waiters (please please don't let me fall into that category--yet) seek out expensive, small neighborhood places to stay at for thirteen years. It's humiliating to have to ask yet again where "position one" on a certain table is (and the likelihood is that you've forgotten what table number it is, anyway), to be the bumbling new person in everyone's way.

Restaurant workers are so transient; you have a problem with a manager, you quit or get fired and move on. You hook up with the chef, get engaged, and he gets a better gig somewhere else: you move on. All your friends graduate college and move away from the restaurant you've all been working in together: you move on.

I'm starting to understand the value of not moving on. Maybe this is how people get stuck in cubicles for decades. Me, I'm on my way to an elephant graveyard filled with fine silverware.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Psycho Chefs

I recently went to Soluna Cafe & Lounge down by Civic Center because one of my best friends has been a bartender there for almost three years. As I was having lunch at the bar (their absolutely excellent Mac 'n' cheese 272 with twirly Cavatappi pasta, smoked Gouda, Swiss Gruyere, Monterey Jack, blue cheese, topped with bread crumbs; $8.95), their executive chef Shawn Paul came out of the kitchen to say hello.

I went out on a couple of dates with Shawn Paul when I first moved to San Francisco in June but eventually had to discontinue the non-relationship because he seemed to be borderline psychotic. While many of my friends have pointed out to me that I tend to gravitate toward the exceptionally intelligent creative types with a 'crazy glint' in their eye, what struck me about that non-relationship is that so many executive chefs share personality traits.

The last time I had been into Soluna before that was a couple of months ago when I stopped in to see my bartendress pal and have a Soluna Ham & Cheese sandwich (my favorite item on the lunch menu). After waiting for what seemed a longer-than-usual time for the sandwich, I heard a plate shatter against the wall as Shawn Paul's voice resonated through the entire dining room, screaming a litany of obscenities. Every diner froze, wide-eyed, with a fork paused halfway to their mouths. More plates crashed, and my bartendress friend tiptoed out of the swinging doors that led to the kitchen.

"There aren't any more ham and cheese sandwiches," she whispered, eyes downcast. "Jay (the sous chef) just burned the last one. Do you want something else?" She looked at me hopefully.

"I...think I'm going to get a burrito," I replied quickly.

My bartendress friend tried to talk me out of leaving, but as more shouts ejaculated from the kitchen, I scuttled out the door and around the corner to the
Taqueria El Castillito

Shawn Paul had a laugh when I recently reminded him of this incident, and brandished his latest tatoo: a fire-red Balinese mask that covers his entire forearm, terrifying in its ugliness.

"I'm a lot less psycho since I got this tattoo," he said solemly as he widened his eyes. The glint was still there.

Friday, March 10, 2006

The importance of sidework in respecting one's co-workers

It's easy for restaurant servers to get along with their tables: that's what we're paid for. The more a table loves you, the higher your sales and your tip average will be. It's easy to get along with owners and management because the higher a server's sales and tip averages are, the more money the restaurant makes and the better its reputation. It's easy for servers to get along with the kitchen because the chefs and line cooks respect hard work and interest in food (which ties back in to how a server makes their money. The more you know about food, the more you can impress a table, thus ensuring higher sales and a higher tip average.). What's more complex is the relationships servers have with one another.

Because restaurants are divided up into sections of a certain number of tables (anywhere from four to seven) where one server is king, servers don't come into very much contact with each other during the course of a normal shift, except during the setup of the restaurant, a lull during service when servers *should* be doing sidework, and during closing-time when late tables linger and servers have nothing to do but wait until it's time to drop the check.

It's interesting how people's opinions can form about one another from these short interactions. I have no idea how my fellow servers behave at their tables, unless I happen to walk by while they're standing there and overhear a snippet of conversation. When one is getting trained to serve in a restaurant, one gets a feeling of how the server who trains you works, but that's pretty minimal. So servers relationships are forged purely on charisma (the type of small talk they make when setting up, standing around, and breaking down the restaurant) and the amount of sidework that is done during a shift.

Sidework is usually every waiter's least favorite aspect of their job. It includes polishing silverware and glassware, stocking things like sugar, coffee, and paper for the receipt machine, and folding napkins. It doesn't sound like a lot, but when you are king of your little world for an evening (as is the nature of the server's world), it hurts to have to come back to reality by hauling racks of silverware and glassware out into the bright light of the servers' line and spot-check every piece for leftover food and water spots. A lot of servers avoid sidework for this reason (or maybe it's just because they're lazy), which makes their co-workers hate them. Conversely, someone can be a bad waiter (low sales, mistakes with the kitchen, can't turn their tables fast enough) and if they do enough sidework, their fellow servers will never have a bad word to say about them.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Five and counting

I don't know about the rest of the waiters in the world, but when I work five nights in a row, it's pretty much all I can do for the week. Somehow, the difference between working four nights and working five nights means the difference between getting up and having another life outside of the restaurant in the morning, and hiding from the sunlight under my down comforter until noon, then groping for a coffee cup and staring vacantly at the wall until 2pm when I have to start thinking about getting ready for the evening's shift.

Yesterday before work Anthony and I went to Chow on Church and Market, which is one of my favorite restaurants for "just stopping in." Totally low-key and relatively inexpensive, with high-quality food and a frequently-changing menu. I think this restaurant for some reason was made for Generation Y; I feel like I have met everyone that's either dining or working in there before.

We each had a small green winter salad (organic greens, crunchy pears, gogonzola, and walnuts). It was a nice standard winter salad, a little overdressed as restaurant salads usually are. Very fresh ingredients, good flavor combinationsI had a glass of Chenin Blanc (extremely stressful day!) and we split a small sausage, fennel, and goat cheese pizza which was great. Super-thin crust, fresh fennel, nice balance of toppings. i like Chow because it serves nice California-cuisine standards. I've never had anything there that I haven't tasted before, which is somehow comforting. We got out of there for $15 each including a 20% tip.

The restaurant did more than 200 covers Saturday night (after a painfully slow Friday night where everyone was in a bad mood and nobody wanted to be there), and we all ran around like crazy until 1am. It's interesting how I can make the same amount of money on a Wednesday night when I have just a couple of tables as on a Saturday night when I have a full section with two complete turns. I think people tip more during the week because that's when the real foodies go out to dine. Friday and Saturday nights can be amateur nights at fine-dining establishments. People who want to go out to eat and have the full attention of the staff and a quiet scene will go out on Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday. Chefs usually go out to eat on Monday nights.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006


The feature story that I'm currently working on about so-called "temporary jobs" hits close to home. So many of my generation (the so-called "Generation Y," or children of the baby boomers) are those with college degrees and jobs that don't seem to fit. We work in restaurants, or retail; we work in coffee shops or bike shops. We are nannies, we clean houses, we bake bread. But when does a "temporary job" cross the line into something real?

Some say it's contingent on money; "temporary jobs" aren't allowing us to save for a down payment on a house (and in coastal California's never-bursting real-estate market, good luck to those in the office who might be able to swing it), but they are giving us satisfaction.

People in their twenties and thirties have seen their parents chase "the dream" (a white picket fence, a shiny SUV, and a split-level house all one's own) and either fail at achieving it, or remain dissatisfied despite achievement of "the dream." Priorities are shifting for kids these days, and it's okay to be a college graduate working as a waitress.
"So many people are looking for spiritual satisfaction through their job," says a co-worker of mine. "For me, my job is a way to make a comfortable living while enjoying myself in the company of a dynamic group of people. I get real satisfaction at the end of a busy Saturday night when we've fed 200 people and everyone's happy. I feel like I've really accomplished something."

I feel the same way, but sometimes it's frustrating to feel like I need to justify my choice in professions when someone asks me what I "really" do, or why a smart girl like me is "still waiting tables." I can't possibly imagine myself slogging away under fluorescent lights with the same people, day in and day out, for eight-hours-a-day-forty-days-a-week. The job I've chosen for myself is challenging, rewarding, exciting, fast-paced, and glamorous. Yet you never see servers talking to elementary school classes on career day (probably because they're hung over and sleeping).

Still, when parental-type figures ask me in all seriousness why I want to "waste my life flipping burgers," not understanding that what I really do is regularly pull in almost $300 a night serving filet mignon, it makes me wish that our culture placed value on the things that matter more to me: quality of life and enjoying every moment of it, as opposed to desperately chasing a dream that may or may not even be attainable.