Saturday, 10 May 2014

Silver service and tears

I think if I wrote a novel it would have to be set in a hotel, or perhaps the story would revolve around a restaurant. After I left school I spent a number of years waiting on tables in hotel restaurants and then later in restaurant-bars in London. I generally enjoyed it and always had a sense of the theatre and mystery of such places: who were the nervous couple giving off such a strong sense of trepidation; who was the woman eating alone with such a singular expression?
When I first started-out I worked in a smallish provincial hotel that thought of itself as rather posher than it really was. Waiters had to learn ‘silver service’: a system where every part of the meal was served separately by the waiter onto the customer’s place. This meant that you turned up at the customer’s table with a trolley with a large variety of serving dishes. First you would spoon on the main element of the dish (usually some greying meat and gravy), and this would be followed by a myriad of vegetables. By the time you had finished serving everyone the one thing that you could be sure of was that the food was now at best lukewarm. The danger was with anything gloopy like mash-potato: because you were serving one-handed (the other hand held the serving dish) you had to flick the serving spoon to get the mash to leave, which could then hit a puddle of gravy which in turn could splash onto the customer. I was taught silver service by a man who had first worked as a waiter in a restaurant in London in the 1940s where waiters didn’t get paid. Instead they paid a small amount to the maĆ®tre d and lived entirely off their tips.       
There is one day of waiting on tables that is etched in my memory. I was working in a trendy new restaurant on the banks of the Thames. It was a very busy Sunday lunch with over a hundred covers booked. At some point, early in the service, the chef and the sous chef had a fist fight. The manager sent them both home and stepped in with a junior chef to take over the cooking. Meals were taking over an hour to get to the tables. We were giving away free drinks. The customers were furious. My job consisted mainly of apologising and trying to placate the customers. For three hours I sucked-up all their fury, all their frustrations, all their indignation. At the end of the service one table said I had done a brilliant job. That was too much. I went and sat by the river and sobbed big fat tears that fell in the Thames and were washed out to sea.

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