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As the Creek Dries
The true 'n' tawdry tale of a four-star server
By Ella Lawrence
It's 4:30pm, and I am part of a group of good-looking twenty-somethings who traipse through the back door of a four-star restaurant, past a congregation of empty produce boxes, to punch in at the time clock. We pass along a line of cooks and sous-chefs who may ignore us, scowl at us, leer at us or give us a casual nod, depending on the mood in the kitchen and who is coming through the door. Eyeing with various degrees of mistrust--or famine--the "family meal" that has just appeared on the line beneath the heat lamps, we push through the double-doors near the dish pit, drop our aprons on the bread-cutting counter, exchange high- and low-fives with each other and request a soda from the bartender.
We gauge how the night will be by the bartender's state. If he's cheerful and not shaking when we arrive, it means he's already drunk and will be falling down and dropping glassware by the end of the night. If he's crabby and yells at us right off the bat, it means he's sober at the moment but will cheer up around 8pm when he starts chugging wine and bourbon behind the bar.
Now armed with our caffeinated beverages of choice (Diet Coke for the female servers, coffee for the male servers, Red Bull for the bussers), we head back into the kitchen to gather a plateful of the family meal. This free meal, ostensibly a perk of the job, is really a way for the chef to get rid of catering food from the week before, bits of gristly meat that are too tired to serve to paying customers and whatever starch has been discontinued from the menu. Depending on which chef makes the meal, it can vary as much as the bartender's mood. Soft tacos elicit the fewest groans, but most waiters will choke down anything simply because our home refrigerators are devoid of anything but Perrier and beer.
We wolf our meal quickly to avoid tasting it while absorbing the maximum amount of calories for what promises to be another busy night at one of the poshest so-called destination restaurants in the wine country. The three floor managers (who have been sitting together at the bar and gossiping about the upper managers for the last hour) begin to yell commands. We servers turn well-practiced deaf ears; the bussers gulp even faster and jump to sweep the carpets, slice bread and butter, stock the lowboys and set up the dining room for a large party.
At 5pm, we have finished spot-checking the tables in the restaurant, which consists of looking busy, avoiding the watchful eyes of management and prompting any busser who is standing around and looking lost on what to do to get the restaurant set up for dinner service. The first cocktail drinkers drift in off the street and gather at the bar. One of our favorites is Mr. Oldman, who comes in nearly every evening for a Rob Roy or a Gibson. Tonight it's warm and sunny, and he's wearing seersucker and enjoying a mai tai. Mr. Oldman lived in Belvedere for years and still dresses the part; nautical, gold-buttoned garb is a staple in his expensive wardrobe. He's been a local fixture ever since the family came here on vacation 15 years ago and, as he once told me with a chuckle, "Mommy liked it so much she bought a ranch!" while he was out having lunch.
Another bar guest, an artist whom we have dubbed "Suede Loafer" because of his villa demeanor and handcrafted Italian shoes, arrives and offers deux bisous as he seats himself for a glass of Syrah. I ensure that Suede orders the new appetizer. "Chef has added a whole quail to the menu tonight, stuffed with fresh herbs and a little brioche, finished with grilled mission figs and microgreens, and it's absolutely perfect." The dish was tasted by the staff at lineup, a daily exercise in futility in which Chef emerges from the kitchen to fill us in on menu changes and to bask in his own glory. Like most talented heads of kitchens, Chef has an ego larger than a wood-fired oven and a temper as hot. It is rumored that he once made all of his sous-chefs read Sun Tzu's Art of War so they were better equipped to intimidate kitchen underlings and front-of-the-house staff. When Chef swaggers back to the kitchen after listing the menu changes, the managers take over. They review the reservation book for the evening and update us on any large parties, VIPs who should be taken special care of and tables that need to be turned quickly.
By now, each of us has three tables waiting to be sat, so everyone scurries off to different corners, hiding themselves well but leaving eyes all over the restaurant, ready to begin another episode of the fine-dining soap opera that's been dubbed As the Creek Dries.
My first restaurant job was in the kitchen, working on the cold side of the line making salads, appetizers and desserts. After a year of low-paid yet happy chef work, I got a job as a busser at a popular continental place in Santa Rosa. There, I was lucky enough to have the toughest waitress on the staff take me under her wing and tell me what was really up. She'd been in the industry for years and, at age 20, was already a Tired Old Girl.
I learned of the pettiness and sex between waitresses and cooks; I was plied with free alcohol and enlightened on the finer aspects of wine appreciation and presentation at the age of 19. Most serious servers start at the bottom, bussing and washing dishes and learning the difficult dynamic of the restaurant environment, where every night is show night. And, of course, the job just gets easier the higher up the ranks you go.
Tonight, the head server explains it for my tape recorder. "Technically, you and I come into work," he says. "We light some candles, we move some things around, we drink a milkshake and some people come in. They're seated in your area. You go up to these people, and you say, 'Hello.' You make them feel better than they really are and prettier than they really are, and lie to them about their experience and what's going to come to them. You take an order for a plate of food, and then you might or might not bring that food to them. Then you walk around some more. That's all you do. We don't even carry plates."
We can expect to draw down some $600 in tips on a busy night.
I've got a table seated on the patio and go out to greet my deuce, a Lacoste-clad blonde couple: she in yellow polo shirt with a navy sweater on her shoulders; he in blue-and-white stripes with a Ralph Lauren hat and his collar turned up. They're mid-30s, she's dripping with diamonds and they're both already quite drunk. Typical wine country diners on a Saturday night.
"Good evening, folks," I chirp politely. "Welcome to ––––––. May I offer you a wine list?" I extend the 40-page, leather-bound tome, which showcases only local boutique wines. The couple chuckle jovially (thank God, they're holding it together well after a day of touring wineries) and order a Blanton's bourbon on the rocks for him, a glass of Chardonnay for her and a bottle of San Pellegrino.
I walk back into the restaurant as poised as a ballerina, and catch the eye of my busser across the dining room floor. I've demanded an adept busser tonight, and he's waiting to see what he should bring them for water. I discreetly wiggle my fingers at shoulder-level, the restaurant sign for bubbly water (a tap on the shoulder means tap water; a slicing motion, bottled with no bubbles), and duck behind a tasteful screen to enter their cocktail order in the computer system.
Lounging on the chairs in this station are a food runner, a waitress and a busboy. I shove their sprawled legs aside to get to the computer to open up my table, and listen to the food runner describe his most recent exploits with the waitress' best friend. This waitress and her busser don't have any tables yet, and there isn't any food to be run, so the screen is a logical place for them to hide from the kitchen and the managers, who are prone to assigning menial tasks to those unwise folks standing in plain sight.
Sighing with overexaggerated exasperation, I tell them to shut up as I enter my order; if they'd been given a table before me, our positions would be reversed exactly. After three minutes, the gossiping group disperses. As with anything in a restaurant--be it the dining experience as a customer, an evening shift as an expediter or a steamy relationship between two waiters--interaction is short and intense. The staff trot off to find a menial task that looks like work until it gets really busy, which it will in half an hour.
The food runner has dropped an amuse-bouche at the deuce on the patio, I've delivered their cocktails and collected the dinner order; the sommelier is at the table discussing the wine list. In the meantime, all four servers have been sat twice. As usual, we have a completely packed reservation book with just a couple spots for walk-ins, and once the night gets going, the restaurant will run like a well-oiled machine, barring server mess-ups and kitchen temper tantrums.
Fast-forward an hour and a half, when all of the tables have just been presented with their main courses. Now there's a possibility of breathing, going to the bathroom or dashing out back to swig from a bottle of stolen champagne and indulge in a quick make-out session.
Yes, dear diner, take a look around the restaurant about seven minutes after your chicken cordon bleu or poached lobster tails have arrived: sidelong glances are being exchanged, and waiters are returning to the floor with either guilty expressions (they're amateurs) or carefully composed "nothing faces" (they're pros). No matter how much cocaine was just snorted in the bathroom or whose pants were unzipped, true pros have their poker face on within a second of finishing the tawdry act, and will indeed deny any wrongdoing even if confronted with a video of the event.
Most seasoned servers agree that working in a restaurant can be an addiction. The furious crush of the middle of service that brings in the fistfuls of cash at the end of the evening is a huge adrenaline rush. Being in the weeds (i.e., having too many tables to juggle at one time) and successfully pulling yourself out of it requires focus and hustle.
"I consider myself a combat server," Jack (none of the names mentioned here are real) explains for posterity as we wait behind the screen to punch in dessert orders. "If you're not willing to surrender yourself to what can be the trenches at times--and it needs to be the trenches if you want to make any kind of money--then you really don't belong in a restaurant."
Lined up behind us, Jill says, "A restaurant's a pressure cooker. It attracts a certain type of person. If you're used to living the nightlife when you're young, it translates very easily into waiting tables, because you are a part of that same sort of alive feeling.
"Working at night is glamorous," she continues. "You're like a mini rock star of a restaurant. You're someone's big night out."
Indeed, working as a server in a fine-dining restaurant is a powerful position. As the go-between from the kitchen, the bar and someone's expensive dining experience, a server creates an evening of food and wine. Being a dynamic performer is key to being a good waiter.
But it isn't all glamour. Working in a restaurant has its ugly sides: the fish guts on the walk-in floor; the chef who loves to make servers cry . . . "It's really hard work, hard on your body, and you have to make it appear that it's elegant, effortless," Jill adds. "For the ultimate dining experience, you're saying, 'Here's the beautiful food, here's the beautiful wine, yes, I know everything about it, and I'm your attractive server.'" She keys in her latest order and heads back out to the floor.
Lingering for a second, Jack says, "Not everyone wants you to sing and dance, but there's plenty that do. If you're having a bad day, you've got to leave that attitude behind, because your customers don't want to see you having a bad day on their night out. You leave all your bullshit at the door. In turn, you leave the restaurant bullshit at the door when you walk out at the end of the night."
It's almost time to leave the bullshit at the door tonight. We've done 150 covers plus walk-ins, and the servers have been shooting back the same line to each other for the last hour or so: "I need a drink!" There are only two bars on the square, both of them usually filled with restaurant staff between the hours of midnight and 2am. Why do restaurant workers often drink until oblivion after their shift? A server who spent years working at one of San Francisco's hottest restaurants, Globe, speculates: "In a restaurant, you're someone else's good time. Kind of a slave, both to your employers and to the 30, 40, 200 people you serve a night. I think a big part of hitting the bar after work is a self-reward. 'It's time for me to have my good time, I gave so many people their good time.'"
During my own restaurant career, I've grown used to the hard-drinking and hard-drugging that food-service workers typically indulge in. There was the boy back when I was a busser whose pharmacist father began to suspect that he hadn't misplaced that many pills, and a fellow busser who always had white powder around her nose. Eight years later, both of these formerly drug-addled teens are still in the industry, now employed at different high-end Sonoma County restaurants.
Another woman I worked with hasn't fared so well. Once the top server at a top-flight restaurant, she recently served me at a medium-priced lunch place, and the track marks covering her arms made me sad for every server who has fallen prey to the fast-cash and hard-living lifestyle that restaurants foster.
The customers' good time is over on this busy Saturday night. All of our tables have left, the checks have been tendered and we're sitting at the bar waiting for the manager to access the safe so we can cash out. Although we've only been at work five or six hours, we're exhausted, drained by the buzz of the restaurant's speed during service, having given so much of ourselves to the people we're serving.
We're still amped up and need to unwind. We've got cash on hand, and in this tiny town, the only alternative is the bar. Tonight, we'll take it easy. We're trying to lay low due to the impending inquisition; recently, several drunken employees allegedly broke into a hotel's hot tub and had a naked soak and a few Budweisers. The same employees, managers reported among them, then purportedly proceeded to play Lionel Richie on the baby grand piano in the lobby at 3am while smoking a joint.
I keep hoping that the next place will be different, that the servers won't be debauched, the kitchen staff won't be lecherous, the management will really care about us as people. Ultimately, though, the truly professional server has to surrender to the business and realize it's not going to change. Chefs will always sleep with waitresses, bussers will come to work stoned and once in a while someone will get sent home because they're simply too loaded to be at work. But damn, the money's good.
Now, where's my beer?
Ella Lawrence no longer works as a server in Sonoma County. Given her tawdry tales, she may never do so again.
From the July 27-August 2, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.
© 2005 Metro Publishing Inc.