It’s not like I don’t know the hospitality realm. Hell, I grew up in it. At age 5, I coughed my way through clouds of smoke as I helped the bartender at my stepfather’s Southern California restaurant wipe down his bar surface. Six months later, when my stepfather moved us east to D.C. so he could be more hands-on with his two hotels and their respective eateries and private club in one, I learned how to hold more than one plate in my small left hand so I could help clear seated tables.
By age seven, I knew how to greet a celebrity politician/actor/musician with the perfect balance of bland familiarity, deference and ego-feeding awe. By age eight, I was instructing my mother on all of the above in order to appear just cute enough to all the politicians/actors/musicians when she had me in tow. She failed one test quite miserably, however, when she asked Hubert Humphrey what party he represented. Despite her combination Marilyn Monroe/Doris Day sultry adorableness, which Humphrey totally appreciated, both my stepfather and I groaned audibly and wanted to crawl under a table at that moment on that evening.
But as I grew older, I grew up and far away from the biz. School, friends and adolescent teen-club dances gave way to a perennial call-out from my step-father’s business world. Eventually, my stepfather’s mutterings and curses about why to “never go in this business!” took hold. By the time I was 18, he’d sold it all, and all I wanted to do was write. Yet, to this day, I can’t pass by the AFL-CIO headquarters or a certain Senate office building on the Hill and not feel the surge of incredible memories of a 1960s D.C. hospitality heyday.
When I walked out of my office and light years away from my bland editorial job some six years ago and applied to “do anything” with a highly successful D.C. restaurant group’s new downtown location, I was hired on the spot. This was not because of my biz-in-the-blood effervescence. Rather, I agreed to start out as a host, the least respected you-have-to-be-a-ditz-to-do-this-job job in restaurants. I will forever argue, however, that hosting is the restaurant world’s lowest-paying, most energy-zapping and ultimate pressure-cooker task ever invented, outside of management, that is. Actually, the jobs are about on par. Next time you’re in a restaurant, look who’s always hanging around the host stand looking for a lifeline to sanity and a pretty smile with no responsibility.
To learn my new job, the group’s big boss stuck me in the busiest of their outlets to learn from an old-school maitre d’ who I will forever swear is the best of the best of the best anywhere. On my first day, I wasn’t thrown to the wolves, however. No, I was thrown into the entire wolves’ den holding giant raw steaks in each hand. I was eaten alive. I was mincemeat. I cried and cried as I called RG Son from the sidewalk minutes after I was cut, and told him, “I will never learn how to seat in a rotation! I can’t even read the seating chart! I can’t do this!”
I will also never forget RG Son’s surprise at hearing his mother’s vulnerability and his teenage ability to maturely step up in a stark reversal of an advice-giving role: “Mom, the chart is just numbers. I’ll help you learn them when you get home.” I love my boy for many reasons, but that moment ranks high on the top five of why I do.
Long story longer: I learned the table numbers the next day. Far more importantly, I learned lessons in service from my old-school maitre d’ that I have taken to every job since. I was recognized very quickly by this D.C. restaurant group and given various increased responsibilities and a few promotions. I still thank them many times over for taking a chance on a gal who’d been out of the biz for decades. And to think, I was worried to the point of quitting after my first day about table numbers.
Yet, with every restaurant job I take, I worry–obsess–over the next “I-can’t-do-this-they’ll-find-out-I’m-worthless-and-really-don’t-know’what-I’m-doing” task that feels like the next insurmountable mountain.
First job in SoFla: I don’t know fine-dining private events, I don’t know anything! I was a nervous wreck filled with self doubts for two weeks. Then I figured out I knew what I knew, and it was enough. And it worked out just fine.
First job in Keys: I can’t serve! I haven’t served since I was a teenager! I didn’t quit after the second day of weeds and my manager yelling at me, because I had no options on that second day. A few weeks later, I was making a stupid amount of money serving right up there with the best.
First bartending job in the Keys: I don’t know how to tend bar! I haven’t tended bar since I tended bar illegally at age 17! Shots? How do you measure a pour for multiple shots??? Yeah, I still have a certain shot phobia, but I did a damn fine job pouring every other drink. And shot recipes don’t matter when you garner a local following.
First job back in civilization and off the Rock: I can’t handle fine dining breakfast! I can’t carry a tray! No really, I can’t carry a tray and a tray jack and do it like the “real” servers do! I’m not even a real server!!! They’ll find it out in a second! I say the following more as a pep talk to myself as I take my next step: The tray issue was a nonissue within hours. Ask anyone who matters, you’ve done a damn fine job in corporate hotelville. To bad all the exhausting 45-plus-hours-a-week fine-diningness of it all sent you spiraling into mounds of debt due to overstaffing and other mismanagement. Trays…haha!
First job serving dinner and dealing with opening wine at tables: But I don’t know wine! I’ve never served dinner! I…I…oh, shut up. Okay, at least it’s upscale casual and not fine dining. Okay, at least they hired you on the spot thinking you know everything. Okay, at least you won’t have to get up at 5 a.m. ever again unless you have to catch an early flight. Okay, at least you know you are pathetic in your self doubt. Thus, as I watched more than ten You Tube videos about how to open wine as a server, I started to laugh. When the tenth video in a row still suggested setting the wine bottle down “on a surface” to open, I slapped myself upside the head. See, you know better than that. When the same ten videos showed servers “popping” corks, I knew I knew even “more” better. Now, if I can can just get my Celiac diseased finger joints to cooperate with the proper wine-opening process that I already know….
Every restaurant job I’ve had since I rocked my quiet editorial world has taught me that I know so much more than I think I know, and that I will always learn something more important about true professionalism in an industry rife with the mediocre.
Truth be told, I’d just like to make a living wage again, have a drink with my great guy after work because we’re on the same schedule, and maybe have fun at work one day out of twelve or twenty.
Okay, maybe my highest expectation is to not dread going to work anymore because that ultimately leads to second guessing your entire life when you’re not at work. Yeah, that’ll work for me.