Saturday, March 14, 2009

Waiting Tables in England

I have to admit, dear reader, that I was rather snarky in my previous entry about the Mechanics of Tipping, and that this fact--as much as my convoluted prose--detracted from the message.

In fairness, my very best restaurant experiences were in Europe, though not in the UK, ever. And, though I can recall most if not all of them, these marvelous French, Italian, Vietnamese, Chinese and Greek meals, their accompanying service and the charming restaurants in which I had the great pleasure of dining were not the intentional subject of my petty diatribe. Alas, the collateral damage the from the tone of my explosive charge has rendered my original argument less effective than I’d hoped but I will nonetheless press on.

In spite of the deliberately irritated (and irritating) tone of my retort, I intended only to suggest that the relatively few superlative experiences notwithstanding, many if not most of my encounters with service in Europe and the UK were not only unsatisfactory but were often unpleasant, made so by a waiter either burned out or prejudiced against Americans. While the French have a somewhat deserved reputation for being, shall we say, short? with their patrons, they do not have a lock on the behavior. Not surprisingly, I had my share of rude waiters in every country, and the the UK easily tops the list.

Note that this is not to say that all my experiences were bad, just that enough to make me wonder why service in the US, even with all of its superficiality and false friendliness is so often better. This is in spite of the fact that in Europe, the waiter is considered to be a professional. Sadly, though, this makes sense. Like a doctor or lawyer, the waiter feels comfortable treating his customers with impunity because he knows they have no recourse. Don't like the service? Don't complain. It won't get you anything but worse service.

Rather than continue to bellow and complain in the manner of my most boorish customers, I will refrain from more insults but illustrate my point by relating a real story, for I have actually worked as a waiter in a restaurant in the UK. Though it has been a long time ago, I know whereof I speak, and can prove it here if you believe what I relate.

The year was 1975 and I was living with my parents and brother in Bedford, England. Lynda had taken a job selling insurance to American GIs on the Air Force bases in a region that is known in England as the Midlands. Circumstances--to be explained in another entry--had brought me to "back home" to live for a while before I went to college, and it wasn't long before I knew I had to have a job in order to maintain some independence and dignity.

The only skill I had at the time was welding, which I'd learned in the job just prior to moving to England, and this wasn't something I wanted to pursue. What I did want to do was work in a restaurant. I'd already gotten the bug, so to speak, when I worked as a busboy at the Barn in High School, but I really didn't have any experience waiting tables at the time. This didn't deter me, as I knew that I could do it. It was just a matter of convincing someone to hire me.

In England, this was not--still isn't--an easy, or, for that matter, legal thing to do. Labor laws are tight today but they were tight even back then. Hiring an undocumented worker--dare I say alien?--would have had serious consequences for the employer. No one could imagine hiring an American because we--yes, even I--stuck out like such sore thumbs that we could never effectively pass for a Brit. One word, especially 'tomato' or the like, would blow our cover, and there'd be no going back after that.

This meant that I could work in the kitchen, and I did, at first. I got a job on the overnight shift at the Golden Egg, a fast-omlette and chips (french fries) place that served more grease than actual food. We did virtually no business during the night, so three of us sat around and played cards. At first, I couldn't understand anything the others were saying, but after a month or so, I picked it up.

After a month or so of working nights and I was burned out, so to speak. I quit and went to work for a vending machine delivery driver on one of the American bases, Chicksands. This was about as boring as it sounds. I couldn't stand listening to the driver talk endlessly about the minutia of his life--for example, he expounded daily about the benefits he accrued from buying toilet paper, mayonnaise and peanut butter (American staples all) on the base, in bulk-- so I began to search, eagerly, for another job.

As it happens, my parents had already discovered the restaurant where I ended up working. Called Sorrentino's after the owner, it was a tiny little two-story affair tucked into a corner of a little "mall" (an open space with shops around) just off the High Street in Bedford. It was a superb Italian restaurant with a cozy feel and food that tasted like it came from Italy. The 'Vitello Sorrentino' was a delightful dish of cubed veal sauteed with marsala and cream and mushrooms; the invention of the owner, Franco Sorrentino.

The day I met Franco was the day he hired me. I went to the restaurant in the morning, around ten, as I recall. Inside it was warm and and delicious smelling already. A woman with two small girls was seated at one table near the kitchen and a large Italian woman was standing over them apparently yelling at them to eat, eat! When I told them that I'd come to apply for a job, they told me I needed to see the Franco and they sent someone to fetch him from upstairs.

When he came down, I thought he was the owner's son, because he looked so young. I don't recall how I began, but it was awkwardly, as I asked him who he was. To his eternal credit, Franco took this as a compliment and smiled. I told him I was looking for a job, and again, to his credit, he didn't reject me out of hand, but asked me to sit down and tell him why I wanted to work for him.

I explained that I wanted to be a waiter, and I'd chosen his restaurant because I'd eaten there and loved it. This sentiment appealed to him but he told me that it didn't work the same way it did in the States, that waiters here didn't get tips the way they did over there. Franco was clearly interested in America and I was a perfect person to tell him about it, so we talked for what must have been an hour or more about the differences in our two countries, especially about what he saw as the American spirit of entrepreneurship. As a small business owner, he'd had so many difficulties with the government that he imagined he would not have had to endure had he been in the US.

To be continued....

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