All summer, BR readers have been asking me when Nelson would return to the site. It's tough to determine whether they love him, or love the vitriolic comments that follow his posts. Either way, he's been off playing shows around the country and we're glad to finally have him back! To make amends for his absence, Nelson will be serving up a trio of articles entitled, How NOT to Suck. Here is Part One of his sure to be controversial trifecta of stories.
Whenever I go out to eat, which is far less often than I'd like it to be, I am inevitably and not-so-gently reminded that things can and do go wrong. These errata could be due to bad service, questionable cooking methods, or my own erratic behaviors, wild mood swings and drunkenness (we'll have to save the story about the time I felt compelled to rake the shins of an eighty-year-old maître d' for another time). Nevertheless, in Part One of this series "How NOT to Suck", I'm going to give my take on how not to suck on the service end of things.
Service is a relatively underrated and often overlooked aspect of dining culture--that is, until it's really bad and turns an otherwise decent meal into a nightmare. Recently, much has been written about the dos and don'ts of restaurant service. So, I'm not going to reinvent the wheel here. Uber-chef Eric Ripert's "129 Cardinal Sins", which first appeared in his most recent cookbook, On the Line, offers an almost exhaustive list of what not to do. But just in case Chef Ripert missed something, restaurateur Bruce Buschel came up with another, often duplicative but just as good, list of "100 Things Restaurant Staffers Should Never Do", that appeared in the NY Times. Taking cues from these two thoughtful pieces, I figured I might highlight the items from their lists that have particularly irked me but that, for some reason, seem to be endemic--at least in dear old Buffalo, but surely elsewhere as well. Thus, it's another excuse for me to rant and rave and to elicit a few more death threats. Gosh, I love this job!
After surveying 229 server sins from both authors' lists, I feel that there are roughly six categories that all these culinary anti-imperatives might be reduced down to. Here, I've decided to frame this issue in the affirmative. Instead of summarizing what not to do, for a moment I'm going to formulate what a sever should do, generally speaking.
My six simplified categories are: courtesy, delivery, communication, information, efficiency, and ambiance (or the facilitation thereof). In other words, a server should be courteous and thoughtful; should deliver the food, table settings, condiments, etc. in a timely fashion without omissions; should adequately communicate all the relevant and necessary information to the patrons and listen (and act upon) patron's instructions; should be knowledgeable and informed about the menu, ingredients, policies, prices, and any other pertinent information; should manage all duties within a reasonable time-frame, logical order, and proper meal pace; and should endeavor to help facilitate, in every possible way, an inviting, hospitable, elegant, peaceful and satisfying dining experience. Sadly, from my experience, that's easier said than done!
Note to reader: I am now going to get somewhat snarky and snippy, perhaps even incorrigible, and may start barking orders. I apologize in advance. Also, remember that this piece is intended to amuse as much as infuriate and, yes, even inform. So, there is a kernel of truth in all these snide remarks (isn't there usually).
First off, let's talk about courtesy. Both Ripert and Buschel cite problems with servers playing favorites. How many times have I witnessed a server (or bartender, particularly) spending "special time", conversing and laughing like he just heard a poop joke with some table of blondes while me and my party are treated like we have the plague. There's nothing worse than going into a new place and feeling like everyone else is part of a secret club but that you are an outsider, an interloper, not part of the clique.
Look, we're all a little insecure going to a new place, not knowing the menu, the owner, the spécialités de la maison, etc. Thankfully, the server is our liaison, our welcoming committee, our conduit to feeling part of the scene. It sucks when, instead, the waiter is hamming it up with his pals or other staff while you are waiting five minutes just for menus and wondering whether you've accidentally crashed a private party. Servers should downplay the drama, antics and posing. Let the guest ham it up. Servers are there to treat every table like royalty and to be a dutiful servant. Yes, I realize "servant" sounds bad in today's everyone-gets-to-be-a-rock-star-all-the-time culture, but it's true, you are a servant. Treating every diner equally and knowing your proper role is an essential prerequisite for the type of quiet diplomacy that servers need to consciously exercise and embrace at all times.
On the other hand, it's important to have a sense of humor and to suss out the vibe of your table. If everyone is joking around and trying to bring you in on it, try to laugh and act somewhat jovial. There is nothing worse than a humorless waiter--it only makes you seem thick-headed and dull. It also makes the customer feel like he's done something wrong. If you're a moody person, this line of work is not for you. Eric Ripert agrees.
Besides being a thoughtful ambassador for your restaurant and not a cheerless a-hole, servers need to stop messing up orders, forgetting utensils and necessary condiments, and leaving my dinner under the warming lamp while they pop out back to have a cigarette. No one is perfect, but after flashing that shiny smile, your primary responsibility is to deliver my meal--the correct version thereof--with a knife and fork (and how about a spoon for soup), and to refill my water even more than once. Also, please bring me some extra napkins when I am eating a double of extra hot, extra saucy chicken wings. And, if my waitress disappears for some unknown reason and I'm dying with a bone stuck in my throat, please administer the Heimlich-- even if you're not my waiter. Maybe even when I need those extra napkins, if you're not my waiter, you could bring those, too. Somewhere along the line, servers got way too used to the notion, created only by them, that there is some impenetrable firewall between them and customers at tables not assigned to them. There isn't. If someone at another server's table is jumping up and down for a replacement fork while their meal is getting cold, please get them one, even if it's not "your" table.
Yes, I am demanding. Yes, there are so many tiny details to keep in mind. Yes, this job is hard. And yes, I will tip you well if you get it right--maybe. In fact, the better you do, the more I'll tip, and vice versa, supposedly. And on top of that, you should try to read my mind. But is it really an act of psychic ability to predict that I'll need those napkins, that I'll ask for grated cheese on my linguine and clams (and, while you're at it, shouldn't you also bring some red pepper flakes?), or that I'd like some fresh ground pepper for my salad? If so, then servers really do need to have or develop these incredible psychic powers because this is what it really takes to do this job--and not suck.
No one wants to have to ask for every obvious, foreseeable accompaniment to their dish. After a while, one starts to feel guilty for asking you to do a million things, things that you should have done on your own without being asked. Alas, the customer will give up, on you and particularly on the establishment. I know if I feel like I should be saying sorry all the time (and sometimes I do feel that way), that actually you've done something wrong. Don't you agree?
Now that I'm getting warmed up, I think it's time to stop being so nice. There are a few more incidentals to cover before I sneeze on the next table. I'm not even sure this is your job, but servers (or the venue's handyman) needs to make sure my table is level! I don't want to be playing teeter totter every time I fold my hands on the table. It's not my job to put sugar packages or matches under the table leg. If necessary, it's yours. Also, you might want to know the menu since people are going to be asking you about it as if you are the authority on it. In fact, you should know some things about the ingredients, how it's prepared, etc. If you don't, you indeed suck!
Speaking of sucking, I once overheard a waitress at the old Park Lane addressing the very next table, attempting to answer a very reasonable question from her poor customers who wanted to know what swiss chard was. She hesitantly informed them that is was swiss cheese that had been charred and would be served on top of the other ingredients in the dish. After she strolled away, I leaned over to the adjacent table, apologized for intruding, and quietly told them what swiss chard really was. They were grateful, but of course they also thought that their waitress was an imbecile, which, of course, she was. If you are a server, you might need to know what the hell everything on the menu is and generally tastes like. If you don't know, you need to ask, go to Wikipedia, Google or do something, but find out!
I love specials. They are so often vehicles for fresh, seasonal, and local ingredients. What I hate about them, and why I don't order them as much as I should is simple: because I can't remember what the server said about them, usually because the server was saying them too darn fast. Please, for the love of Escoffier, slow down. And if possible, please write them down so we can have something to look at.
Relating to that, will servers, restaurateurs--whomever--please show or say the prices on those specials. Just like I don't want you to make me feel unwanted, stupid, or sorry, I don't want you to make me feel cheap, or worse, poor. There's the old adage, "if you need to ask, you probably can't afford it." It's as true today as it has ever been. However, it's not in your best interest to rub my face in that truism, to embarrass me, or make me feel like an idiot. I may be all these things, but please, just list the freakin' prices and don't hold it over my head like a two ton question mark.
These and many more dos and don'ts were featured in the two source articles I've credited above, I've simply expanded them adding my own "emphasis". Everyone has their pet peeves, these are mine. I also have just a few pet peeves reserved for customers and, yes, even some on hold for those that prepare our meals, our beloved cooks and chefs. Parts two and three will address those culinary sins. Until then, I'll be waiting for my Parmesan--please hurry the heck up!
Buffalo Music Hall of Fame-er and rocker Nelson Starr is known as one of Buffalo's most influential musicians, composers, and producers. By bringing celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain to Buffalo and developing his own hit food show, All Access Pass with Nelson Starr, Nelson has dedicated himself to highlighting the region's food finds. From pub grub to haute cuisine, Nelson is game to explore anything "that rocks" with his signature sarcasm, egalitarian ethos and philosophical outlook.