Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The Night I was a Waitress

I skipped out of work early to my second job for the day. For one night only (and maybe more to come) I was going to be a waitress. How did I get involved? I dialled a chef friend of mine to ask him for a recipe. Midst our chit chat he asked if I could work for a night at their catering gig if I could get off work early since they were short on the floor. I thought it would be fun, so I said yes.

I felt like a different person. On a normal day I wear a white shirt to work, but on that day I had to put together a black outfit. Their instructions were, “black shirt, black pants, closed toe shoes… and if you don’t have a black shirt, we will provide you with one.” Black. Black. Black. I guess the reasoning is that it is elegant and smart looking and you sort of become nobody in the army of black. I took the liberty to inject some of my personality so I wore a pair of red shoes. When I arrived, they took a quick cursory glance. “Ok, you are alright, you don’t need a change. Oh, but red shoes… Hmm… ok, I think it will be ok.” I thought about reasoning that they were closed toe, but I figured I should just keep silent.

The chef arrived and I’m rather relief to see a familiar face in this catering army that has arrived. “Am I black enough?” I ask, fishing around for more affirmation, “yes of course” is the reply and I get a smile and a nod of approval. Now I don’t feel so bad about insisting on wearing those red shoes this morning.

While people potter about, I surveyed the various ways that I could make myself helpful. I relish the idea that for a night I’m a part of some sort of machine that is designed to please people. For a night, we have to ensure that these people are well looked after—enough food, enough water and to keep the alcohol flowing all night.

My first attempt at making myself useful for the night was simple, a voice beside me barked, “Move this” and I moved the crates and chilled the champagne. That task was quickly completed, then I look around for something else but there did not seem too much to do, so I sneaked a peek in the kitchen to watch the brigade.

Surprisingly the kitchen is nearly 2°C cooler than the outside and the kitchen brigade worked in relative silence, like a well oiled machine. They were all at their positions / stations, bent over in full concentration of their canapé at hand. There was plenty to be done: scallops needed to be forked, aioli and cream needed to be piped, garnishes needed to be finished, and hundreds of Chinese soup spoons still needed to be filled with delicious nibbles… for that moment, I’m just there because it is air there is cooler and rightly so to prevent all the delicate terrines from melting.

“You belong out here” and that was my cue to get out of the kitchen and back to work. More work to be done. Work is good. It beats standing around waiting for something to happen. My next task was napkin folding. Mindless, yes, but I guess you try to find some pride in what you are doing. With that task, I attempted to make sure that the square napkins fold and form a perfect triangle but I soon find out that not all napkins are equal. Not all can be folded into a perfect triangle. So I do the best I can, I aligned one end with another and ensured that the company’s logo was visible. I worked my way through two stacks of napkins and I was quite pleased with myself. The next thing I do was to make neat stacks and to place them at the bar.

One hour to the event and staff dinner arrives. One large cardboard box filled full with styrofoam boxes of fried rice. I could not bring myself to eat it so I chose to fill up with water. Half an hour to the event and everyone started moving with haste. The wine glasses finally turned up and the bar needed to be straightened up, but that is not my duty for the night. Instead I am called away for my food briefing and we are introduced to the menu and have 20 minutes to remember to canapés that are served before the guest arrived.

Memorising was easy. The guest started to arrive and the kitchen started banging out silver platters of neatly arranged canapés, but that was still manageable. The biggest challenge of that night was the silver platters. Real silver = heavyweight. 1 hour into the event and I was really started to feel the weight of the platters in my arms, or maybe I could not feel my arms.

Surprisingly, trying to get the guest to eat something was occasionally challenging. Sometimes people were not interested in food but some could be persuaded. I think my winning line that got most people to bite was “Have you tried this? It’s really really delicious… (Followed by small details about the texture and flavours of the respective canapé I was pointing at)”. My favourite people were those who greedily ate and as a token of gratitude towards them I always promised to come back with a fuller platter. I also tried to do my bit as a responsible waitress, so I only really pushed the canapés that I liked and thought were really delicious and not those that I didn’t like too much.

The event more or less came to a close at 10.30pm. By then the kitchen brigade had already broken down their stations and packed up and the bar, which just closed was being the clean up operation. We cleaned, cleared the garbage, moped and packed. By the time we are done my legs are tired and I could only feel the ache in my arms. Absolutely exhausted, but I felt gratified from a fun night of waiting and entertaining.

After that night, my first impression of catering is this. It is like running a circus. You arrive with all your props (usually in a large truck or van) for the evening. Then you set up stations and your equipment and everyone works together like a well rehearsed group, knowing their positions and the roles for the night. And to pull it all together, you have the chef or the catering manager or something like that who is like the ring master for the night. Then when it is all over, you break down everything, pack up everything back into the van and disappear, and it might almost seem like you were never even there.

I’d like to think that with that new experience as a night as a waitress, I’ve become a more educated diner. To understand, to empathise and to be more aware about what service is about. That’s not the only thing I took away from that night, I had a good upper body work out too. The next day at lunch, I could not even hold up my soup spoon without my hand shaking. Yes, it was caused by the sheer weight of those damn heavy silver platters.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Red shoes? How wanton!


3:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

a pleasant change from the food blogs :) great read, thanks for sharing your experience...

i love red shoes. but never on me. i think i wld look samantha-ish.


9:31 PM  
Blogger Jocelyn:McAuliflower said...

A great insight! Think you'll do it again?

1:12 AM  
Blogger Sammy said...

I've never tried being a waiter before. Especially in grand occasions like weddings and such cause I'm so afraid I'll screw up!

11:13 AM  
Blogger joone! said...

ivn: hahaha, yes .. red shoes! ;)

kwanie: or maybe a little like ronald mcdonald?

mcauliflower: yes i would! I then told them to give me a call if they ever needed me in the restaurant as a stand-in.

the yummy dummies: oh me too! i was terrified because i'm terribly clumsy.. thankfully i didn't drop anything that night.

7:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Joone,
Lovely insight. Brings back memories about working as a waitress way back, while studying at university. Horrible memories I might add, because I would call myself clumsy, too ;)

1:25 PM  

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