In my twenty-six years of life, the thing I’ve spent perhaps the most time doing is working in food service. From the time I moved out at eighteen, it’s been my first job, my most enduring hobby, the reason I got through college, and the majority of my resume.
When I first started college, I worked counter service in Manhattan’s Chinatown. My school had felt so overwhelmingly wealthy and white, so alienating, and I was so homesick that I started working five shifts a week. The first and foremost reason I worked was, of course, to make money. The second was family dinners. At that first job, my boss’s grandmother (who we knew mononymously as Grandma) would cook us curry or fried rice or tomato egg or braised beef stew, any manner of Cantonese comfort foods. Before rush, we would sit side-by-side along the bar as she doled out seconds, fussing about how we had to eat up for energy. The restaurants I worked at became homes to me and working in service a core part of my identity, a familial pride of sorts.
I’ve found that asking someone who they assume works service is an easy way to vet who they are. The more privileged someone’s background, it seems, the more inclined they are to believe that the service industry is transitory, only a temporary state of shittiness. Of course, there are career servers out there who love it, people who are stuck working under the table, artists who use it to supplement their income in the long run, and everything in between. For many, a finite stint at a restaurant is a real expectation; most of my front of house coworkers have been students who worked a shift or two during the week and would go home during winter break or quit when they had internships lined up. I was a sushi waitress during undergrad but before coming to Yale, I spent a year working there full-time. Serving six or seven days a week is a far different experience. The intimacy of serving comes from familiarity, not unlike any other relationship. Mine was one of firsts.
The first time I was called a slur, it was by a customer who followed up with “You have to understand dear, it’s not offensive”. The first time a surprise party was thrown for me was at the restaurant. The first time an adult man screamed at me was during an especially bad Tuesday shift when he waited forty minutes for his entree. The fragments of Spanish that I understand come from behind the sushi bar. I can open a wine bottle in under a minute even though I don’t drink.
Routine is intimacy.
From table 28 to the computer,
to the kitchen window,
Chef, how long is that calamari gonna take?
Then to table 31,
Sorry, let me grab that fork for you!
To the serving station,
back to table 31,
to the host stand,
Jen, you won’t believe what those guys in that six top said. Oh my god I can’t fucking wait until I leave.
Rinse, polish, repeat.
The week before I left for grad school was a celebration. No more 10% tips from college students? No more bringing separate ramekins of spicy mayo for every wine drunk girl in the big party? No more explaining to white people the difference between nigiri and sashimi? What a dream. My regulars, many of whom had become friends, stopped by all week and I went home everyday with gift cards, cash, and flowers, and on one occasion, the professed romantic interest of a customer. It was a bigger, more dramatic ordeal than getting my BFA; I was graduating service, an idea that had seemed in the worst shifts to be a flickering mirage in the distance. I had never been sent out into the world with so much support before.
I was terrified to leave. I still worry that I’m a waitress NPC, not a person of my own who can exist without practiced banter, memorized orders, or fun facts about bluefin tuna (they have silver bellies so that larger predators swimming below look up and mistake them for the sky!). While I cook struggle ramen, I think about family dinners and how our chef would make us pad thai all the time because it was my favorite. During crits, I find that my serving voice is my default setting. I miss taking care of people. I miss the relentless, devastating host stand gossip and the customers we had collective crushes on. I miss the good customers and the bad ones and how we were excited to see the good customers every week and how the bad ones didn’t matter because we’d never see them again. But at some point, we all have to leave home.
Once, at the end of a meal, a customer told me “Thank you for your service”. That’s not how you use that saying, I thought, but you’re welcome.