For most teens in their last few months of school, the prospect of a gap year is exciting and exotic, associated with white sands, emerald hills and a hammock strung between trees in the sunset-tinged jungle. Reality check: that’s not the reality.
At least not yet. So far, my gap year can better be associated with stacked plates, order pads and a pen shoved into the band of my ponytail. I’ve been working in a restaurant for four months now, and I thought I’d share some of my acquired waitressly wisdom.
- Food is cool.
Sumac. Nduja. Gremolata. Know what they are? I didn’t. Naive though it sounds, before working in hospitality I thought the grooviest ingredient you could add to a dish was rosemary. I thought it was pretty awesome if I put chicken and bacon into my pasta. But it turns out that there’s a whole world of culinary grooviness available. Working in a restaurant, I’ve learned that a simple ingredient like leeks can be transformed into a creamy masterpiece, topped with bright purple spices and served with sourdough bread. And duck can be cooked with cinnamon? Who’d’a thunk it. The restaurant scene is bursting with people who care a lot about food (duh) – where it comes from, what it goes with, what it shouldn’t go with but totally does. There are a thousand more fascinating aspects to food than the all-tomato-based-errythang world I previously inhabited.
(Note: Sumac is a bitter, tangy spice; nduja is a spicy sausage paste and gremolata is an Italian garnish made with lemon zest, garlic and chopped parsley.)
2. Drinks are cool.
I don’t just mean alcoholic drinks. We all know they’re cool.
In a similar way to food, I am continuously wowed as a waitress by the innovative things people do to drinks. A chocolate negroni, for example, made with a dark chocolate liqueur that tastes like evil heaven, often graces the specials board at the restaurant I work at. Fun fact: strawberries and balsamic vinegar totally go well together. Even wine now fascinates me – the care, expertise and thought that goes into the process of making good wine and packaging it right is astounding. One bottle I came across was designed to have strong, pronounced shoulders to emulate the bold, heavy-bodied taste of the wine inside. Genius!
3. Staff food is really cool.
This obviously varies depending on the restaurant you’re working in, but I think I’m pretty lucky. Chicken kebab and fried potatoes with chipotle aioli at the end of a six-hour shift? Yes please.
4. People suck (sometimes).
It really is true that you can judge a person’s character by the way they treat wait staff. I once served a family of five who spent over £70 between them, and at the end of their meal, the father handed me a £1 coin and said, ‘this is for you’. Keep it, I almost replied. You clearly need it more than I do.
Besides complaining about bad tips (which is a job requirement of any waiter worth their salt), it is the worst thing about the job when customers are rude. I’ve seen a lot of different characters and dynamics at tables, and types of customers emerge: the couple who want you to be silent and invisible but also want food to materialise before them; the customer who probably works in food and interrogates you on the wine list just to find a weak spot in your knowledge; the one friend who is extra nice to compensate for the rudeness of the rest of their group. It’s not that common, but the mean mean dining machines are out there.
5. People are awesome (most of the time).
On the other hand, it is the best part of the job when customers are nice. Not just kind and thankful, but actually engage with you and ask questions because they’re interested. I love taking payments because our card machine is a little slow at printing the receipts and so I have time to chat with the customers. ‘So are you guys from Bristol?’ can and has been the jumping off point for numerous amusing and fulfilling conversations. You can always tell when it’s going to be a good table because they smile, say thank you, look you in the eye, crack a joke. Be that person. It makes a shift.
6. Restaurant people are really awesome.
I’ve met some amazing folk in the last few months. Some of them work behind the scenes: organising the staff rota, masterminding the wine list. Others are in the heat of it: taking bookings, making drinks, cooking the food. Somehow they all manage to work crazy hours, show a love for what they do and smile at the customers when they walk through the door. I know I won’t be a waitress forever, but the time I’ve spent as one has made me see restaurants and hospitality very differently – and made me appreciate and admire those pros.