“Behind,” she says into the starched back of the chef’s white coat. Nobody has ever called her voice thin, but neither is it powerful enough to carry over the crack of rainbow chard hitting a hot-oiled pan. He knows not to step back until she passes.
At the top of grease-slicked stairs, “down.” She grasps the metal handrail and descends, gingerly. Her black Reeboks have skidded foot-lengths in this and other treacherous kitchens. Five minutes later, “up.” Her calls bounce off the white-tiled walls unheard.
All night she states her direction and location. The questions she faces at her desk on days off — where she’s located, where she’s headed, her intentions and trajectory—are uncomplicated here in the dining room and kitchen. For a waitress these aren’t figurative musings; where she is is where she’s standing and where she’s going is deliberate, clear. Efficient, too—no one walks to or from the kitchen empty-handed.
Position the plate so the chocolate tuile arches toward three o’clock. Today’s oysters are Hurricane Islands from New Brunswick, small and plump with lasting brine.
She looks at half-finished plates, gauges when last bites will be eaten. The lengthening seconds between each lift of the fork, the lustrous knife propped on its edge like a goddess in recline: signals for her to fire the next course.
Open-handed service. Serve to the left, clear from the right.
Between opening wine bottles tableside and marking guests with proper flatware, she scribbles lists onto her dupe pad: errands to run, e-mails needing attention, unfinished essays, submission deadlines. She looks up periodically, anticipating her guests’ needs. Before position three on table twenty empties her coupe glass, she’ll have caught the woman’s eye, whisked away the dead glassware, and set a fresh, cold cocktail in its place.
– Ask after guests warmly with a degree of detachment. Attentive service can slip easily into overbearing.
– Spend the first half of your subway ride studying menus, then switch to literature. You get so absorbed with stories, someone else’s stories, that you’ll miss your stop almost every week. Cross to the opposite platform for the next train back.
– Win the guest’s trust by recommending the cheaper bottle.
– Follow the dining room traffic rules: the right of way belongs to guests, followed by food, cleared plates, you. Ignore all this when the careless hostess quadruple-sits your section.
– Learn to unwire the cage off a champagne bottle. Press firmly with your thumb to keep pressure; the cork should not ricochet off a guest’s forehead. Perfect the quiet, pleasing dry hiss of bubbles releasing to avoid the ire of the sommelier.
– Nervously serve a celebratory dinner between a writer and her publicist, then Google them when you get home. Read her stories and marvel at his client list.
– Hunger affects people differently: some get quiet, some sullen or pushy, some angry. Know when to forgive diners for bad behavior.
– When in doubt, go with the cooler temperature. The chef can always re-fire the dish. Go too far and the meat will be ruined. Toss it. A chef’s anger is dry ice or skillet-hot—it burns.
– Take courage between the hours of 5:30 and 7:30. Things won’t get moving until eight o’clock. The waiting will underscore the slipping time, sparking desperation in you to flee and do what really nourishes you. Acknowledge the misery then move through it.
– Accept your low check average. You cannot push the $70 roast chicken for two just because the chef wants. Sell only what you believe in.
Seat 1: A small-boned girl with delicate features and brilliant skin. Spice-rubbed duck with braised salsify and haricot verts. Unhappy with the table the hostess presents, a deuce that sits too closely to a riotous five-top, she purses her lips, reins in her displeasure. I mark her for rare.
Seat 2: A boy as dainty as his date. He reads the menu aloud in a coaxing tone, changes his order to accommodate her. He will need a side of confidence, no extra charge.
Kale salad with shaved brussel sprouts, dried cranberries, and crispy shallots
Black bass with hedgehog mushrooms
Mettle poured tableside (compliments)
“Hands.” We come with supplicating palms, open to receive the white porcelain plates, hot from the salamander, their delicate contents precisely placed by long-stemmed tweezers in the shaking hands of culinary boys. Watermelon radish thinned by mandolin. Knobby sunchokes roasted crisp. “Jesus fucking Christ.” The chef glares as a pile of pots and pans topple thunderously onto the floor at the wash station. Fat ochre tongues of creamy sea urchins stirred into saffron gnudi. We turn on our heels. “Walking,” we say.
The kitchen opens out to a service station where the computer terminal lives with coffee cups, French presses, extra bread and butter plates, and silverware. A sharp right turn from this small space leads into the dining room. “Corner,” we say at this bend to avoid collision. In the restaurant’s nascent days someone thought of hanging a mirror to expose this blind spot, but the wall remains an empty field. When food reviewers and bloggers drop by with leggy tripods and lenses zooming in on plump leaves of purslane or a caviar pearl, the functional things get forgotten. So corner settled in our lexicon the way that four-top, all day, 86, soigné, and crumb floated in our minds.
In my nightmares, I am weeded in a section the size of a cruise ship’s deck. A needy guest holds me hostage at his table while he flips through a blank menu. I watch my section fall apart—dead glassware everywhere, food dropping at unmarked tables, twenty credit cards to swipe on a failing POS system. Diners playing musical chairs. But sometimes I don’t have to be sleeping to feel dread of this job, what often feels like a vacuum of lost energy, time, mind.
But there are real pleasures here. A renowned and feared food critic, dining for the third time, is not so ogre-ish but kind. A distinguished poet, a Tuesday night regular, offers to read the bartender’s manuscript, accepting in return only a well-stirred old-fashioned, on the house. The Bengali busser with the terrific smile, a father himself, cradles fat babies while weary parents enjoy their appetizers.
In this space, the same answers to the same questions, the routine regularity, is tiresome, and yet there’s something to be said for the assured movements here, keeping me anchored in a way that the outside, especially my writing life, with all its nebula and unbounded freedoms, does not. A magazine article, a row of jagged cuticles, a television episode, my sister’s number flashing across the phone screen, the night’s dinner, the Internet, afternoon sun on parquet, a nap, dishes, drinks with a friend.
A busser taking a tray of dirty glasses to dish,
a delivery of amuse-bouches walking out,
a frenzied server diving for the freshly washed pile of oyster forks.
At that spot between the service station and the dining room, entering or leaving the kitchen, there is a brief moment before I turn that corner, in one direction or the other, when I don’t know what will greet me. The moment catches, passes quickly as I angle myself to pivot and announce to whoever may be listening – I am fast approaching.