Why I'm always nice to waiters
Cape Town - My father is strictly Mr 10 Percent.
And now that his eyesight is a bit tatty, he is sometimes Mr Eight or Mr Nine Percent. At the end of a restaurant meal, he holds the bill a metre in front of him, throws down some change, winks at the waiter and says: “Don’t spend it all at once.”
My father is not ungenerous. In fact, he is one of the kindest people I know. But he’s never been a waiter. He doesn’t understand that serving well-fed people in restaurants, many of whom enjoy kvetching about anything from clams to ketchup, is one of the most demanding jobs on the planet.
First, there are the feet. The weird thing about waitressing is that although it’s manual labour, servers are expected to turn up looking like Eva Mendes at a manicure demonstration. Have you ever seen a turnip tiller wearing a pencil skirt? Or a construction worker in high-heeled shoes?
My first waitressing job was in a 300-seater Edinburgh bistro frequented by bankers, accountants and buxom divorcees with orange lipstick on their teeth. Everyone would start the evening with some decorum, ordering bowls of fashionable mash, but by 2am, most were drunk, cackling and flashing unwashed accents. I was told we had to wear black shoes. I only had a pair of black clogs which, back in Pietermaritzburg, had been quite daring. One particularly vile night, I ended up clopping around with two blobs of potato on my shoes, as well as some sick I had cleaned up in the bathroom. The manager - a man with turquoise eyes and a scent of recently purchased sex - scoffed at my shepherd’s pie shoes and ordered me to buy more fashionable footwear. I spent the next four months hobbling around in a pair of pumps that turned my feet into gammon.
However, I also perfected frothing milk into stiff peaks, which I would pile on to the manager’s cappuccino when he held important meetings with important sausage purveyors. There’s nothing like watching a bad man negotiating the price of pigs with foam on his nose.
Then there are the chefs, who are often charming alcoholics outside of work, but become knife-wielding maniacs in the kitchen. Ivan was one such cook - a mild, cardigan-wearing man who read Charlotte Bronte and owned two Yorkshire terriers. While setting up in the evenings, we would discuss the merits of corsets and the marvel of daffodils. But once behind the stove, he yelled and screamed and clattered and thumped and called me names that were decidedly un-Victorian. Then, after work, we would share a bottle of Blanc fume and talk about Jane Eyre, and he would apologise for having called me rude names.
Customers fall into two camps: nasty and nice. Simple as that. Nasty ones will find anything to complain about - the napkins, the air conditioning, the taste of the fish, the chair, the music, the diner behind them. One American woman complained that her carrot cake looked nothing like she had expected. “But it’s a carrot cake!” I cried, stabbing at the icing, “See? Cream cheese icing, nuts, bits of carrot. What more do you want? Sparklers? A tiny spacecraft on top? A naked Russian gymnast leaping out of the centre?” She left me a copper coin - a symbolic expression used in Delaware for poor service.
Nice ones will watch you hobbling around in potato shoes with a sympathetic smile. During one shift, I was left serving all 12 tables in my section after my colleague, a nervous Canadian woman who dreamed of rescuing goats in Greece, quit on the spot. I took orders, tripped over my feet, balanced plates in my arms, apologised a lot, and tipped a plate of mussels in a hot creamy sauce down a man’s back. Fortunately he was wearing a leather jacket and had drunk nine pints of lager and didn’t notice me quietly wiping mussel juice off his back with a cloth. On the way out, one of his friends, a curly-haired man with kind eyes, popped a £20 note in my top pocket. “He’ll smell like dead whale tomorrow, but nicely done.”
Then there are the staff meals (burnt brinjals in a spit sauce), the 2am mopping, the pooled tips, the leery businessmen with their lame innuendoes (“I’ll have the rack. Is yours on the menu?”), the Gypsy Kings on repeat, the polishing of wine glasses, the rivalry of career waitresses desperate to climb the lima-bean ladder to success, the gluten-intolerant children, the eggs over easy and the smell of cheese that lingers in your hair.
Which is why, when I am dining out with my father, I always slip our waiter an extra 20 bucks on the way out. I smile knowingly, touch their arm and close the door gently behind me.
* Helen Walne is an award-winning columnist and writer based in Cape Town.