Drawing Back the Curtain
The hidden side of fine dining
When you enter a restaurant and sit down to eat, you see the smiling face of the maître d’, you hear the jolly banter of the bartender, and you listen to the carefully rehearsed special of the day from a courtly waiter.
But these interactions are only ripples on the surface of an ocean. As anyone who has ever worked at a restaurant can tell you, beneath the surface is a dramatic netherworld. There’s conflict, love, lust and hate. There are prima donnas and peacemakers, narcissists and neurotics. There’s shouting. Drinking. Liaisons.
A quarter-century ago, I served on the wait staff at a now-defunct white-tablecloth establishment in the Vieux Carre. What happened when the customers weren’t watching was extraordinary.
Look in the kitchen: The chefs are wrathful, yelling at each other, seething at the self-important waiters and waitresses. The dishwashers, by contrast, are mellow souls. One has a severe intellectual disability and giggles his way through every shift. The other has a physics degree from MIT. “Washing dishes soothes me,” he says as he works out an algorithm involving dinner platters and bolla glasses.
With food everywhere, there’s bound to be gluttony. A busboy steps into a freezer, grabs a chunk of cheesecake and gobbles it in two bites. A chef takes a filet mignon, dips in in melted butter, and devours it like a Snickers bar. In the stairway, a waiter passing a food runner grabs a handful of calamari from a plate destined for a customer’s table. At the bread oven, a busboy sneaks a piece of bread. The manager catches him:
“Are you eating something?”
“Mm-mm,” the busboy shakes his head.
“Open up your mouth,” the manager says, patting the busboy’s cheek. The busboy later reports that his pay has been docked $10.
And, yes, there can be cruelty in a restaurant. A brawny waiter grabs a busboy’s hand, holds it down on the bar against his will, and plays five-finger fillet with a steak knife. The manager tells a waitress she needs a name tag, then charges her $8 for it without her consent. A disgruntled waiter calls in a phony reservation for an elaborate, 15-top party of VIPs, just for the schadenfreude of knowing that the manager put himself out to set it up. That same waiter, predicting a small tip from a certain table with whiny patrons, declares: “Let’s give ‘em the Shoney’s job.” The head waiter is suspected of shorting his busboys on tips.
Don’t let the black-and-whites fool you. Beneath those vests and bow ties can occasionally be troubled souls. There’s something about the combination of high stress and quick cash that comes with waiting tables that lends itself to bad decisions. When the shifts are over in the thick of the night, some members of the wait staff wander to French Quarter watering holes to pay their tips forward to bartenders. Copious amounts are imbibed. At the bar, a waiter is inhaling something out of a handkerchief. Another shuffles out the door toward Rampart Street to buy some coke. As one waiter put it when the subject of smoking crack came up: “Yeah. I went down that road.”
Of course, a lot of drinking can occur on the job, too. Waiters hide shots in a closet and take hits as the shift goes along. A waiter and a busboy move to a quiet corner to guzzle half-empty bottles of Dom Perignon and $50 wine left unfinished in ice buckets.
There is also romance – and lust. One waiter is in love with the hostess. A waitress takes a young busboy home after too many after-work drinks. A busboy makes eyes with the young lady at Table 12 throughout her meal, and wakes up in her hotel room the next day.
“Pour water at Table 4,” winks a European waiter to a busboy. The busboy knows the wink means that a woman is wearing a loose top and that, when he pours the water, he will have a good view down her shirt. That table ends up getting a lot of attention.
But above all, behind the curtain, the restaurant crew is working its hide off, often under high-stress conditions. Hands are burned on ovens. Sweaty foreheads are dabbed with napkins. Heavy trays are lifted. Miles are put on black shoe soles. Smiles are forced at nasty customers. Outside of coal mines, restaurant employees may be the hardest-working people in America. So be nice to the wait staff and tip well.
Peter Reichard is a native New Orleanian who has written about the life and times of the city for more than 20 years, including as a former newspaper editor and business journalist.