What I've Learned Working in Restaurants
Like so many other hopefuls I came to New York to pursue acting, and quickly found that I needed a way to pay for my expenses. Rent, food, acting classes, headshots...it adds up. I had tended bar in college, so it was a natural progression for me to bartend in the city. I began working in restaurants to make ends meet but came away learning so much more. Having been laid off because of the closures due to COVID-19, I’ve had a lot of time recently to reflect on what I’ve learned working in restaurants.
When you work in a restaurant you typically have the Back of House, and the Front of House working alongside one another. While pots of steaming hot food are passed gingerly around the kitchen, servers weave through to grab condiments, butter, an extra lemon for that needy guest who is convincing themselves that they only want water. We have a common language to keep each other safe. “Behind,” “corner,” are called out with confidence and authority as soon as you pass the threshold, off the floor, behind the curtain, out of view of the guest.
We put on a show every night. We aim to be like swans; composed on the surface while our legs are beating feverishly under the water. Everything could be falling apart. Your appetizer took 20 minutes to hit the table, you forgot to ring in their champagne, still you face your imminent failure with a smile and humility as you look your guest directly in the eyes and apologize for your mistakes.
Humility. Working in restaurants grinds this into your DNA. You must have zero ego and yet, be the most confident person you know in order to survive in this environment. Every day brings something completely new. You must be a problem solver. You may think you’re set up for success. Your section has been detailed with a fine-tooth comb, you have finessed your spiel of the specials, and in walks drunk Gary just looking for the dog he can kick because he is in a loveless marriage.
Working in a restaurant requires compassion for all types of people. When someone comes into dine and they are unhappy, they will take it out on you. You must ask yourself, “why are they behaving this way?” The truth is, it has nothing to do with you, yet you wield the power to change their state of being.
You will also have wonderful guests. Regulars who will order a new bottle of wine every time they visit, insisting you taste with them and experience something new together. Guests who look for you when they come in, and want to be updated on your personal life, “Are you still dating that guy?” “How are auditions going?” Suddenly you have an army of people invested in your success and happiness.
Although it may sound cliché, it is true that the people you work with become your family. When you are weeded, you must rely on your family to get you out of the woods. At the start of every service we have our pre-shift meeting or “lineup” where we discuss the specials, VIPs of the evening, and plan how we are going to run service. At the conclusion of our meeting we gather, both BOH and FOH and eat family meal. At a long table, like a nightly potluck, a variety of food is made from what is on hand. We line ourselves up and pass dish by dish filling our plates, making sure there is something for everyone. Food is an expression of love, and it is never clearer than when someone cooks for you.
Once everyone has a plate we eat together. Spanish, English, Mandarin, French bounce off the walls. If ever you were concerned that the American dream is still alive, work in a restaurant. From the dish pit to the bar are men and women who immigrated to this country because they believed in the opportunity for a better life. Talk to someone about what the experience really is like to come from a foreign country, and risk it all so that his grandchild can one day go to college.
Like a family, we also fight. A restaurant is like a pressure cooker with hundreds of people who have warring needs and desires. In this incubator, someone is bound to explode. It is an unwritten rule that we fight it out, then as soon as you clock out, those feelings are reset, and we start over fresh. Typically, silently sealing the deal over a shifty at our local watering hole.
This industry has taught me that money does not buy class. I’ve seen men in fancy suits order $500 bottles of wine, only to hold the wine glass incorrectly. I’ve been asked what our most expensive tequila is, only to have someone order it in a margarita, masking its craftsmanship and flavor.
Your server knows if you don’t know what you’re doing. Hell, the line cook knows. So, when I am out and I don’t know something, I ask. I do not pretend to be an expert in anything, because someone in that establishment has worked tirelessly to have that knowledge. I respect their work.
There is an element to working in a restaurant that becomes harder to define. Watch a chef shave truffles over a dish, or a sommelier decant a bottle of wine, and you will bear witness to a passion and a joie de vivre that not everyone is lucky enough to experience in their day to day lives. Food and beverage live closer to art, than sustenance. Understanding this has allowed me to find joy savoring life’s simplest pleasures.
I believe that sharing a meal at the table together is the last forefront for harmony among people. In this industry you are a silent guest for all the big moments, the engagements, the anniversaries, the breakups, the birthdays, the memorials. You see the best and worst of people. Without a doubt, I know that real connection happens when people sit down and share a meal.
When this is all over and the restaurants open back up, I will be most excited to reunite with my work family. Who would’ve thought that I’d be eager to return to my survival job? My hope is that the people we serve will come out of this changed as well. May we all see this as a call to slow down and cherish our time together.