Wednesday, May 7, 2008

A Real Job

I have worked in restaurants pretty much my whole life.

My first job was working as a busboy in a long-gone restaurant here in Austin called The Barn, back in 1972. I was just sixteen, and had yet to get my driver's license when I got the job, and though I didn't stay there long, it was my first taste of the work I've loved since then. Of course, back then, it wasn't a 'real' job, as my mother would say, but it did pay very well, at least for a guy who'd up till then only made money with a paper route. More than that, it somehow simply felt right, like where I belonged somehow. And despite the many times that Lynda asked me over the years, "When are you going to get a real job?" I managed to make at least a part of my living from working in a restaurant ever since.

My first job after high school was in England, I worked at Sorrentino's, which was a very small Italian restaurant in Bedford England, where I went to live with my parents in 1975, just prior to going to the American College in Paris. Franco Sorrentino was the owner of this tiny two-story eatery just off the High Street in a narrow alleyway, and at the time he hired me, he wasn't much older than I was. At the time, in 1975, I was just nineteen, and he was no more than twenty-six, so he was like an older brother to me. At least, he took me under his wing because his own younger brother, Tony, who was supposed to be in line to take over the business someday, was a complete wastrel. At seventeen, he was completely spoiled by his mother, Mama Sorrentino, and not only had no intention of working in the restaurant his whole life, he had no intention of working there even a minute more than required. In fact, he actually didn't work even when required, and this even when he was physically present in the restaurant. So, by comparison with Tony, I looked like the eager young American, and since I was willing to work for tips, he was willing to take a chance on me.

After two years in Paris, I returned to Austin and went to work for a new restaurant called Gianni's. This was just being created by Mike Young and John Zapp, who had been partners since Mike built Mike & Charlies, a very popular sandwich joint off 35th street way back in the early seventies. The pair were fresh off their rather unsuccessful Tex-Mex restaurant called Los Tres Bobos, and wanted to bring some real cuisine to Austin for the first time. Though billed as "Regional Italian Cooking" Giannis was simply the first Italian restaurant in Austin to offer fresh pasta and homemade sauces. We didn't have an Italian in the kitchen, but the restaurant was a big success. We often had two and three hour waits at the door on weekends and were pretty much full every night of the week. Mike and John went on to found Chuy's which they sold last year to a corporate giant from New York:)

At first, I worked as the pasta maker, learning how to run the first pasta machine in a restaurant in Austin. It was imported from Italy and I had to learn how to make pasta without a net so to speak, but it was really easy enough. I made the pasta early in the morning with Evelyn, our sauce maker and the pastry chef. Eventually I went on to become the pasta cook on the line, working a sixty gallon vat of waters and a half a dozen wire baskets filled with various forms of pasta behind me next to the two burners I used to make the alfredo sauces from scratch.

I worked the sautee station from time to time when Tony was too fried to come in or continue, but it wasn't my forte. In fact, it was service that I was really drawn to, so eventually I made my way out to the front as a waiter. This is where I really made friends with Henry, as he was, along with Tom and other, now 'old' friends, waiting tables at the time.

I left Giannis to return to school in Paris, but after Bill died returned to Austin and ground work at the Headliner's Club, which is a private club occupying the top floor of a bank building in downtown Austin. At first, I was a waiter in the daytime, but soon moved up to be come the Banquet Captain. This was a great title and a good job, but very demanding, physically. I often worked 12 and 14 hour days, finishing at two in the morning by literally moving two dozen tables back into the dining room and re-setting them all. Of course, I didn't do it by myself, but as the leader, I was required to get right in there with everyone else. Consequently, I became very strong and remain so to this day. Hard work has paid off for me in improved strength and stamina, but those days are certainly gone. I worked at the Headliner's Club for ten years, while I went to school and got both my B.A. and M.A. in Art History from the University of Texas.

When I left Headliner's, I had every intent of getting a real job, but in the interest of putting food on the table for my now family of four, I set aside the idea of moving to France to teach English and took yet another fake job at a restaurant in Austin. This was a place called Gilligan's, and if the name wasn't enough to warn me away, surely the facts that they were off sixth street and opening six weeks late should have set off alarms bells but they did not. It was certainly the second-worst job I've ever done (the #1 worst job I ever had was cleaning toilets at the American Air Force base in Chicksands, England)and the only job I have ever actually quit, on the spot, without giving notice. It got so bad that I used to sit in my car before the shift, hoping something would happen to close it down. Finally I went in one day and when I saw Stan, the owner, I called him over and handed him the key, telling him that I wasn't even interested in working that night's shift, thank you very much.

This is the time when I went to work full time at UT. My first job was a a receptionist in the Liberal Arts Dean's office and it paid so dreadfully that I actually had to apply for and use food stamps for about six months. Eventually I managed to move up and get a few raises, but money was always tight and I started looking to get back into the restaurant business.

This turned out to be Hudsons on the Bend, where I still work. I went to work at Husdons in the fall of 1996, but that was just for a trial shift. I did well enough to get 'hired' but this actually meant that I was the 'on call' waiter on Saturday nights only and in fact, because the turnover rate was so very low (and still is) it meant that I had to call in every Saturday for six months before I actually got to work a shift. Even then it wasn't steady for about six months or so, but after that I was fortunate to be allowed to work almost every weekend. This job made the difference in our lives, literally. We went from struggling daily to finally being able to at least make ends meet, so to speak. Valery and I could even go out once in a while and I am sure this helped us keep our relationship stable during those tough times.

Nonetheless, it still wasn't, in Lynda's eye and mind, a 'real' job, as that was what I did at UT. Never mind that to me it seemed the other way around, that I was working the UT job as a way of paying the bills, while working at Hudson's was both fulfilling and well-paying. Considering that, until I moved up the ladder and became the Liberal Arts Webmaster in 2000 that I made more money at UT than I did at Hudsons, it is no wonder that for me, this was the 'real job.

Eventually, though, before she died, Lynda did come to see that restaurant business is my chosen profession. I took advantage of an opportunity to become the wine steward at Hudsons about two years ago, and now balance a half-time position there with a half-time job at UT. It is a wonderful combination because it gives me the security of UT's health insurance and the promise of a retirement annuity in a few years time as well as the chance to have a high-energy job in a first-class restaurant. She had the chance to see this transformation, and approved of it! It only took 60 years, but eventually she saw how much I enjoyed it and why it was, in fact, a 'real' job after all.

Sadly for the dining public at large, only a few of us can claim to actually enjoy working in the restaurant business. Most people do not consider it a 'real' job, just a means to an end, like finishing school or getting that acting gig. But if you've ever been waited on by a an older-than-average professional 'real' waiter or waitress, then you know that the difference they can make in your dining experience as compared with, say, a nineteen year old student who could really care less is a significant one.

And, considering what we spend for the privilege of being waited on, shouldn't we come to expect, or demand, more professionals who treat it as a 'real' job and fewer aspiring models and actors who don't care if our food is cold?

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