06 February 2009

Don't forget to tip...

Tipping, or more precisely, how much to tip, is a source of constant controversy among those Americans who actually can afford to eat in a restaurant once in a while.

When the check arrives I take a look at the total and figure out ten percent, double it, and if that feels too small, throw in another dollar or two. Or I don't. I am definitely inconsistent when it comes to tipping. I used to bartend, and I still remember how bad it felt to be shorted on a tip.

Other people will inspect the receipt, line by line. Subtract the sales tax and invoke The Eisenhower Rule: It was 10 per cent then and it's ten per cent now.

Taken all together, tips even out. Some diners over-tip, some under. Some tip out of guilt, others to show off. A few people hang on to cash like it was their own blood. All together, an average night in an average restaurant.

Wait staff has their opinions, too, and you'll certainly hear them in "Waiter Rant." Waiter Rant is the name of a new book by The Waiter. That's his name. He's anonymous because he's still working.

The rest of the title is "Thanks for the Tip – Confessions of a Cynical Waiter" and it's a great read, enlightening for anyone eating out and just as useful, probably, for someone considering entering the food trade.

Not long ago both of us here at home read another book on the trade, "Service Included: Four Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter" by Phoebe Damrosch. We learned a lot about tipping and about everything else it takes to run, or simply to eat in, a good restaurant. We started telling Damrosch stories to our friends.

Ms. Damrosch worked at Per Se in New York, sister restaurant to Napa Valley's French Laundry. Per Se is a fancy place, as high-level as they come. The waiters take dance lessons to learn how to stand gracefully, attend seminars on sea salts and virgin oils, learn to juggle complicated sets of plates and silver, and best of all, study the names of all features in Central Park visible from the restaurant's tables. In case a customer asks, and they never do.

The Waiter is a different kind of cat. Before he worked as a waiter he had a job restraining rich mental patients in a clinic for drug abusers. This prepared him for restaurant work.

At Amici's in New York, before his first shift, the headwaiter announced two waiters had suddenly quit.

"You mean there are only four of us taking care of two hundred people?" The Waiter asked.

"This place is a meat grinder, kid. You're meat. Get used to it."

He did, and The Waiter continues to work, anonymously, and collect stories.

The Waiter rants. Phoebe Damrosch explains. The closest she comes to a rant is naming two customers Mr and Mrs Bichalot. "Service Included" is a revelation. It takes way more moxie than I could muster to successfully set up a new multi-starred restaurant in the big city. The whole thing is rather amazing.

Some passages cover the same territory as Elizabeth Gilbert in her best-selling memoir, "Eat, Pray, Love." Damrosch's slow-developing love affair with a fellow worker is the weakest part of an otherwise enthralling book, although certainly the most heart-felt. The best parts are when she's working a busy weekend at the restaurant. Caviar is flying off the frozen mother-of-pearl spoons, the roasted turbot cheek is plating, and half of Table Four just went outside to check their Blackberrys.

Both of these writers have a lot to say about people who take advantage of all that service and skill but don't know how to act or how to tip. These two books provide a major service to diners: After all, getting along well with the people who feed us is a life-enhancing skill.

Both books are unstoppable entertainments. You may never willfully ignore, abuse, or undertip a waiter again. Never. Unless they deserve it. Or you're Mrs Bichalot, or the guy who... well, you'll have to read the books.


Oh, how I wish I had an hour-long show on this subject. There's so much more meat in these books than I can indicate here. Restaurants are to good stories as frogs are to ponds. They just naturally go together.

"Waiter Rant" by The Waiter. Ecco/HarperCollins hardcover $24.95. ISBN 9780061256684.

"Service Included" by Phoebe Damrosch. HarperCollins paperback $13.95. ISBN 9780061228155.

Eat, Pray, Love

Have you read "Waiting" by Debra Ginsberg, or "Turning the Tables" by Steven A. Shaw? More here

And now a word from another abused segment of the working class, the airline stewards.

A TIP (from "Service Included"): If you want to change the majority of the components in a dish, you might consider choosing something else.

ANOTHER TIP (from "Waiter Rant"): If you can't afford to leave a tip, you can't afford to eat in the restaurant. Stay home.


Anonymous said...

I liked Waiter Rant too, but I liked the poignant scenes; times when he mediated an argument or smoothed over a rough spot. It's been a while since I read this. Isn't there a chapter where there's a kid with a harried parent? I gave the book to a friend who had worked his way up from waiter to manager at one of the better restaurants in town. Two months after I gave him that book, he got laid off.

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