The Waiting Game – Starters

January 21, 2015 – Culture

above: artwork by Sophie Branigan

Starters (Or Entrée if you Dare)

I started my first job as a dishwasher when I was 14. The next year I became a waiter in an Indian restaurant in my home town. It was kind of like Empire Records – all school age kids running the place from the ground up under the watchful eye of the married drunk couple who acted as chef and manager. It gave me the basic vital knowledge I would use in my subsequent waiting jobs – customer service, how to carry four plates at one time and how to keep up when drinking with your co-workers (teenagers and waiters being two of the most alcohol saturated groups there are).

Although I constantly gained skills, it took a while to become the talented server I am now. I wasn’t always good at the job, and I was fired a couple of times while I was trying to figure it all out. Almost ten years ago, when struggling to open a wine bottle, a customer took it from my hands and opened it for me. Needless to say I started drinking wine that night, partly due to the shame, but mostly so I would never end up in that situation again. I would certainly experience a few crises of confidence in restaurants over the years, locking myself in bathrooms to steady myself before returning to the floor, but all of this was part and parcel of me building my confidence. These days I only lock myself in the disabled toilets to catch a break and maybe eat some untouched something or other from a customers plate.

Soon after school I moved to Belfast, which would not have been possible without the money and experience afforded to me at this job. I got a job as an Assistant Food and Beverage manager in a health club. Up to this point being a waiter was a fantasy of mine that was easily made a reality. It played simultaneously to my need for attention and communication, and now that I had left my home town, it was the ticket that allowed me to escape – something that it would continue to do for me over the next ten years.

When I moved to Dublin, the year I turned 20, being able to take this kind of work was what made the transition smooth. It meant that I could fund fun while I was supposed to be studying, but it also broke up my days. For me, the more I have to do then the more I get done, so balancing work, school and a social life meant I rarely let a moment go to waste (or had a moment to sleep). Waiting provided me with cashflow and flexibility. I was able to work, mostly, when I needed to so I could support myself, but the work itself was flexible enough that I could do less around exam time, and more in the summer when I needed the cash to drink in parks. Back in the mid-2000’s tips were enough to live on without eating into much of your pay, so it also allowed you to save as much as you spent. During a brief stint in Elephant and Castle we would be mad if we didn’t walk out with at least €100 cash on a Thursday, Friday and Saturday night. This was the height of the boom and waiting, especially in the tourist restaurants of Temple Bar, was probably the best job going for someone of my age.

Of course, as a waiter, once you have worked in enough places you will quickly realise that the phrase “same shit, different day” was designed specifically to describe this industry. The skills you gather in a restaurant are more or less the same in every single one – all you need to do is figure out where each place keeps everything, the mysteriously absent or non linear table numbers and the eternally infuriating, misplaced buttons on the micros system. The transferability of these skills the world over becomes one of the biggest benefits of the job. When the economy crashed and people started emigrating, a lot of my friends were able to do so because of their experiences as waiters. I had two friends who headed off to Australia – he, a waiter by trade, found work in a matter of weeks. She, who had mostly experience in retail, ultimately had to come back early because she couldn’t fake the perfect cappuccino. It was a godsend to me when I lived in New York, since internships that fit the visa criteria are really difficult to find. Being able to wait meant I was also able to live while I looked for the right alternative to come along, and because New York restaurants mostly specify ‘New York experience’ once you can make it in a restaurant there, you really can make it almost anywhere.

Waiting has benefited me when it comes to travel, but that’s not the only culture I have learned from the job. I have worked in so many different kinds of restaurants and that has been instrumental in stretching my pallet: Mexican, Indian, Japanese, Greek – I now about these food cultures because I have had the chance to explore them at length from the inside, on my lunch breaks. It’s a great way to study cuisine without having to shell out on the bill, not to mention what I learnt from working in vegetarian juice shops and my encyclopedic knowledge of tea. The year spent in a tea shop, I would simply drink a different tea a day while researching it online. Make the most of your time – do everything you can to turn your job into a learning experience. Working somewhere is a great way to infiltrate culture. I remember years ago in college during a discussion on interculturalism we were asked “Do we live in an intercultural society?” A girl raised her hand: “Well, not really, because even though we have people of all different cultures working in restaurants in Dublin, that’s the only time you interact with them.” I laid into her: “Maybe you don’t in your mansion in SoCoDub – some of us actually have to work to study, not just grab a handful of gold doubloons from Daddy’s counting house every time we need a new text book!”

The point is, I have worked with people from all over the world. I have listened to conversations between Polish and Moldovan women about their relationship to Russia. I’ve gotten wasted with Brazilian girls at salsa parties. I’ve come to understand the immigration process through the eyes of immigrants. Japanese, Mexican, American, Italian, Australian – I have worked with people from all these places and every one has helped to expand my world view, something that, if the girl from my class in college is to be believed, would not have happened if I hadn’t been working in this particular industry.

There have been so many advantages to doing this kind of work, so many things that I’m thankful for, and I wanted to write about those things first – because despite all of that, there is an underbelly to it. If it seems like I’m totally in love with this line of work, then maybe it’s time to move onto the main course.

  •  Words: Andy Apples
  • Illustration: Sophie Branigan

The Waiting Game is a three part series written by Andy Apples and illustrated by Sophie Branigan.