I now come to the last of my four-part blog series… Fine Dining! Of all the catering jobs I engage in for a little extra income, this one demands the most effort and energy to muster up. It is the one area I am least passionate but where the work is most abundant. How ironic!
Once again, my pep talk to myself begins in my car. These events usually take place in a stationary venue. One of my most frequent employers is a restaurant in the west side of Los Angeles (I will keep them anonymous for privacy purposes). This restaurant in particular is family owned and one of the family’s fine dining establishments. Their food is tasty and their owners are committed to excellence. In the evenings, the restaurant closes for private parties and events such as weddings, charity dinners, and bar mitzvahs. That is where I come in… Again, I am thankful for the income between acting gigs. However, for a bartender being asked to work as a server, I find myself having to work hard at finding the joy.
An intensive set up begins the moment I walk through the doors. Heavy furniture is lifted and carried out to the side alley to make room for rented furniture, a stage for the DJ and even a dance floor. Fine linen is spread, sliver utensils are polished and made to match, glasses are picked up from the hot scullery and shined, napkins are folded to fit perfectly printed menus and the tables are detailed to precision. Within the course of an hour, the restaurant is transformed into a lavish hall for the partying of the rich.
The bar mitzvahs tend to be the more flashy affairs. Tens of thousands of dollars are spent to celebrate the birthday of a 13-year-old who may or may not appreciate the magnitude of it or the fact that his party cost 3 times more than an average wedding of the American working class. At the end of one particularly long and expensive bar mitzvah, a mother asked the birthday girl, “Was it a great party Honey?” The 13yr old girl shrugged her shoulders and answered that it was alright. I was stunned at her careless response and could not help but think of my orphan siblings in India… but then I snap out of it. “I am in LA,” I tell myself. In Los Angeles, a $50,000 birthday party is the norm. Extravagant florists, magicians, photo booths, DJs, special smoothie or cotton candy booths, and arcade machines are brought in for the affair. Professional photographers and videographers are hired to document all of it.
It is also an opportunity for wealthy Jewish families to outdo one another with the party of the year. Therefore, there is no room for mistakes among the staff. We are briefed at a staff meeting where authority of the team captains and staff with seniority are made clear just before the event takes place. The team captains take pains to explain their plan of execution when the time comes for the delivering of dinner plates to the tables.
The staff bursts forth onto the party hall with smiles and energy anxious to please the guests and their employer. Tray passing is usually rather smooth unless the server is asked about the ingredients in the hor d’euvres and forgets it at that precise moment. Stress and tensions begin to arise in the kitchen area as we near the delivery of the main course.
The servers line up holding no more than 2 plates per person to maintain elegance. When the last server has received the last plate for the table, we file out in a line towards the wave of the team captain. All seems to go well for the first three tables. It is at that point when the confusion begins when a higher authority enters and decides to try the process a different way. This leads to a humorous confusion between servers, captain, manager, and kitchen staff. There is a yelling out of “I need another chicken” or “you took the fish to the wrong seat number”. The chef becomes irate, the cussing elevates in the kitchen and the servers cringe. All this time, the guests enjoy their five-course meal oblivious to the chaos behind the scenes.
Our feet begin to ache in our dress shoes and our bellies begin to growl with hunger as we clear the plates from the main course. The temptation to take a piece of untouched meat off a dirty plate becomes strong and I wonder how low I must get. I quickly dismiss the thought and dispose of the plate at the dish room. I fill my stomach with water and rush back out to the floor to maintain the pace. For the sake of elegance, only 2 plates can be carried at a time. This means several trips from the scullery to the floor.
And the whole time, I am yelled at or shoved by a power hungry Russian waiter who believes he is the boss. “Smile Caleb!” I tell myself but not soon enough… The manager spots my tired face and yells out the same before I have the chance to smile on my own accord. How quickly the positive sounding word “smile” turns into something you detest…
Sometimes the party extends beyond the allocated time. The servers continue to clean as we wait. I wipe off the spills and the food that 100 adolescent children have stomped on the dance floor and look over the bar where my lucky co-workers are doing the job I am more skilled at than what I am doing at the moment.
I wonder why I feel so defeated. It must be partly because it feels like I have taken a step backwards from doing what gives me passion. I am in my 30s still serving the rich. Haven’t I paid my dues already? It is also a question of identity. If someone actually takes a moment to acknowledge a server, they are not likely to assume that the server might be a college grad, a talented artist, or someone who has seen and done much towards contributing to the world. No. They are likely to assume that the server was not capable enough for any other career. These thoughts are swirling through my head as I join the other servers at the late hours of the night lifting heavy patio furniture and setting the restaurant back in order.
I tell myself to stay positive because it only takes a moment of frustration to ruin any credibility I might have as a man of faith who leads a church in Los Angeles. So I smile even though I am breaking a little inside. I ask for the humbling of my manhood to build endurance and character. I tell myself that my efforts brought some people joy that night as they ate, drank and danced.
I come home well after midnight, exhausted, and dejected. In the morning, I rise to prepare for church where I will tell the stories of humanity in light of the grand story. And then as if for the first time, I am reminded yet again that none of this is in vain. My day for fulfilled dreams is coming… and in the meantime, I am given the opportunity for my manhood to be tested, and humbled so that when the day of triumph comes at last, I will value it all the more. I rest in that hope and that brings a natural smile to my face.