A life in waiting
January 28th, 2011
06:00 AM ET
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At the front of the room, Pierre Siue calls roll. The rest of the room stands in their uniforms quietly, attentively, collectively with pens and pads out ready to jot down the notes from today.

A man with slicked-back silver hair approaches the front of the room carrying a wooden tray - part of today's lesson. "This is from Connecticut," he says pointing to the object on the right of the tray. "And this, is from Provence," pointing to his left. "Both are washed rind and will be new cheese selections on the menu this evening."

This is DANIEL, the flagship restaurant of famed French chef Daniel Boulud - one of seven restaurants in Manhattan with a New York Times four-star review and one of five with three Michelin stars. And this is the meeting held every day before dinner service, where the maître d' goes over the reservation book details, executive chef Jean François Brue explains any addendum to the menu and the general manager Pierre Siue oversees the calm before the dinner rush storm.

There are no models or aspiring actors in the room. It's an education, a continuing education at that - but it's also a career where the word "part-time" doesn't exist in a world where the profession of serving tables is typically viewed as a transient one.

"People still ask: 'Well, what do you do for your real job?'" says Anthony Rudolf, the general manager of Thomas Keller's Per Se in New York City, another restaurant that has received four-stars from the New York Times and three from the Michelin Guide. As all front-of-house employees do at Per Se, Rudolf started as a kitchen runner and worked his way up the food chain.

From the bottom up, there are benefits offered - dental, medical - 401K plans, and paid vacation just like those "real jobs" they're asked about. There is also room for growth; everyone on the management level started as front-of-the-house.

“… My salary was three times that at which most people started in publishing,” former Per Se captain Phoebe Damrosch wrote in her book, Service Included: Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter.

For these folks in the high-end restaurant realm, serving food is a conscious, calculated career choice. It's a craft rooted in long hours, aching legs and a passion for food and wine. "At your service" is not a tagline, but a way of life.

Just as investment banks and hedge funds come to college campuses, so do these fine dining restaurants. Recruiting is a big part of the process, including advertising on Craigslist (which is standard practice in the hospitality industry) and in the New York Times, through culinary school networks, word-of-mouth or displays of downright passion - even from the likes of graduates from top tier universities like Stanford and Georgetown.

At both Per Se and Daniel, as well as other restaurants of their caliber, it’s typical for 80 to 100 résumés to come in a day for serving positions. Of those applications received, about five are called for a phone interview; of those five, two are called in for a face-to-face and one is asked to trail, or shadow, the actual position.

Just as any applicant to any other competitive job would, it’s as much about the candidate qualifying as a fit in the space as it is for the space qualifying fit to the candidate.

"We recruit very heavily and not because we’re looking to fill positions," said Rudolf. "You just never know when the right person is looking, so we look continuously. We’re never replacing a person, we’re just constantly grooming and fulfilling the roster."

"Candidates are like milk - when it’s boiling, it’s hot, but then it’s over," said Cynthia Billeaud, Human Resources Director for The Dinex Group, Chef Boulud’s restaurant management company.

Then once a server is actually hired, it's off to basic training before they’re thrown into the fray of dinner service.

With things to remember - the peekytoe crab has a coriander tuile or that the Medjool dates that accompany the butter poached lobster (from Nova Scotia, no less) came from Hadley Orchards in Cabazon, Californian - it’s easy to see why. Remembering the elements is one aspect, but understanding the philosophy of the product they're serving is the ultimate goal.

At Per Se, it’s an average of two to three weeks of one-on-one training with another kitchen server and a 125-page manual just for the entry-level position – and that’s not including a separate beverage manual.

"The training program is like sipping water through a fire hose," says Rudolf.

Over at Daniel, training camp is in full swing too. Along with hours of on-site training, there is an educational seminar everyday - whether on wines by the in-house sommeliers, cheese by cheese steward and captain Pascal Vittu or even, going over body language or the art that consistently rotates on the restaurant's walls.

"We look for the finesse of a ballet dancer, because it’s like choreography what we do; discipline of a military person because there are 65 people on the floor in the front of the house; and team spirit of a football team," said Pierre Siue. The young Frenchman started as a runner in 2001 and has since become DANIEL's general manager, the top management position, in what is considered one of the country’s best restaurants – again, he approaches his work from a career, as opposed to just a job perspective.

At this caliber, they all do.

“We always say it’s like you’re Derek Jeter and you’re playing for the New York Yankees,” says former Per Se captain, and now maître d’ Antonio Begonja.

Instead of pinstripes, they're wearing tailored suits, and instead of bats, they're playing with bottles of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

“The grace, the art of the service - it’s up to us to keep it alive.”

What are your perceptions of waiters? Serve up your thoughts on the service industry below.

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Filed under: Best in Life • Bite • Dining • Favorites • Fine Dining • New York • Restaurants • Service • Tipping • Travel


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soundoff (366 Responses)
  1. Really? From Florida

    In most states servers make less than minimum wage. I, for example, make a WHOPPING 4.56 per hour (which gets taxed)! I am a college student and my water/electricity/car payment/insurance rent isn't any less because of that. At the end of my shift I have to tip out a bartender and a bus boy. So if I do not get tipped... I just payed to come to work. How many of you could possibly say you went to work and lost money? I've done it! It's demeaning and yet people expect to be doted on like royalty for a measly couple bucks!? You are paying for convenience. The restaurant alway gets there cut when you pay the bill. But what about the people that clean the floors, and your table, clean up after your kids, take care of you as if you were guest in our home? If you can not afford to tip should not be opting to dine out.
    If you really have strong opinions about not tipping be a server for a week. Better yet, go to you favorite place to eat and ask your server how much they make per hour, what percentage of their tips do the actually get to keep, what happens if the don't get tipped, what happens if someone dines and ditches (hint: the server pays!).
    Places were you get your local latte, get your car washed, AND the hotel bell boy all make at least minimum wage. The people who give you FULL MEAL SERVICE DON'T.

    February 5, 2011 at 2:23 am |
  2. Kevin

    If you can't afford a decent tip for decent service, then don't go out to eat. Retired2 you are an arrogant ass..plain and simple. And just remember, never piss off the people who bring you your food. Want some extra flavour with that? BTW, a good waiter or waitress enhances the dining experience. If you never notice them during your meal, then they have done an outstanding job.

    February 2, 2011 at 3:44 am |
    • Janis

      Touche'!

      February 2, 2011 at 12:32 pm |
  3. Think

    Hope all the low/no- tipping advocates out there are paying in cash... Might want to start checking your bank statements closely if not.
    I believe opportunistic servers are carrying card swipers:

    http://washingtonexaminer.com/local/2009/03/secret-service-restaurant-waiters-key-players-area-credit-card-scam

    February 2, 2011 at 1:40 am |
  4. Peter Griffin

    There is no dignity in being a food carrying slave for rich f%cks. It's like being the best bellhop at a five star hotel, who cares, you're on your feet all day and you suck. You are a slave for rich people.

    February 1, 2011 at 10:30 pm |
    • RST

      I define my dignity, not you.

      My dignity is working 24-32 hours per week, making about 60k/year, and receiving full benefits with that. Yes, there are rich a-holes in the crowd I serve, but there are also really fun people that make it worthwhile.

      I am like Chickenliver above...I have a degree, but make more money serving in fine dining – while having fun most of the time. That is dignified to me.

      February 2, 2011 at 11:31 am |
    • some waiter guy

      I timidly hold onto my dignity by insulting millionaires to their faces after I've figured out that they're too dumb to even know it. =)

      June 8, 2013 at 12:44 am |
  5. Chickenlivertoasts

    Jack, I agree with some of your points toward the end there, but I can't help but be somewhat insulted by the "how can you put a price on your dignity?" question.

    Perhaps "with no goal of it ending" was your outlook. A lot of my co-workers are also using the experience as an education, to be come sommeliers, or have an apprenticeship for the kitchen... And how is "sucking those people's di*ks everyday" any different from working in real estate, or as an agent, or a lobbyist? Not too drag others into this, but how are tips (in this caliber of an establishment where a wine and food pairing are recommended for example) any different from a sales commission?

    I feel sorry for your experiences. Also, because I would never work for an employer who allowed me to be berated by guests, or would, illegally withhold my earning for the night if I decided to quit.

    I am a server at a fine dining restaurant. I make all of my income through tips. I also am a college graduate. Anthropology. Amazingly (sarcasm) I ended up working in restaurants. I currently earn more (on tips) than my friend with the same degree, employed in her field by a non-profit organization. I absolutely love food and wine and my restaurant, which is more than my friend can say for her job. I would say I have dignity and my job is real.

    February 1, 2011 at 8:33 pm |
  6. Jack

    Wow, these poor people who get roped into being servants for life. I was so glad when I was able to get out of working in fine dining. The money .. the "art" of the service ... whatever, how can you put a price on your dignity? How can these people stand spending every day bending over backwards for rich ***hole snobs with no goal of it ending? You could not pay me enough to go back to sucking those people's di* ks every day. I own a business now and have the freedom to tell people exactly what I'm thinking whenever I want. Unbelievably cathartic after years of having to keep my mouth shut as people were incredibly insulting to me if I wanted to take any money home that night. From reading some of these comments, you can tell who are the customers that treat the waiters like garbage. "How do they deserve 20%?" Because they get paid less than $3 per hour and they have the same bills you do, and American society (of which you are a member like it or not) says you're footing the bulk of their wages, you horrible greedbag. Everyone should be a waiter for a short time to gain just a little bit of empathy for those poor suckers who still have to do it.

    February 1, 2011 at 6:58 pm |
    • Kevin

      Everyone prostitutes themselves for money. Period. Some are just lucky to be high class whores.

      February 2, 2011 at 3:48 am |
  7. Janis

    I waited/bartended for about 20 years and in the larger picture of things my experience was pretty good. There was a fair share of complaining wait staff which I made a point to avoid while working. Their negative attitudes rubbed off on everything they came in contact with..including their customers. Sure there was the oddball knucklehead customer who didn't/wouldn't/couldn't tip properly but at the end of the night after all the dust settled I still would consistently make AT LEAST three to four times minimum wage at the time and if you include what I'd claim for tips many times it would be even higher. It paid for an MFA degree wo loans; a great car and allowed me to live on my own fairly comfortably. For any food service folks reading this..here's a tip>>>Leave your negatve whiny attitudes outside the front door of the restaurant....add up all the cash you're going home with that's in your pocket + hourly wage /hours worked = $/hr...and then ask yourself how you're doing. Chances are tht that's the reason you're still in the game. CHEER UP{8^))

    February 1, 2011 at 5:54 pm |
  8. Darrell Dotson

    If you go to a restaurant where you do not walk the food to the table yourself – you tip – bottom line – you are being provided a service. For those of you who have never waited before – let me fill you in on something – at a high percentage of restaurants, the servers must pay the rest of the house from their "tips", including the bus person, the hostess and the bartender – this is all based on the amount of sales for the night – let's say 5%. So, if one of the tables that was waited on had a $100 bill, and did not leave a tip – it cost's the server $5 to wait on the table...yeah, that is fair.. Bottom line – tip your Servers at a minimum of 15% or go to McDonald's where you walk your food and drink to your own table..

    February 1, 2011 at 5:19 pm |
    • John Keebler

      Darrell, If you wish to get a guaranteed tip go to Europe to work. I tip on QUALITY of service provided. I do not blame my waiter for anything not related DIRECTLY to service. I have left from 0.02- 100.00% for a given experience. Should a restaurant require a minimum tip, I find somewhere else to dine.
      There is no harder job that I am aware of than Waiter/Waitress (nasty word server,hate it). The job by itself is demanding enough; add in customers and it really can get bad. I am amazed sometimes by the sheer breath of knowledge and seemingly limitless patience. To put a fine point on it, with me great service equals great tip the opposite is also true. Not to mention comments on the way out which cover both high and low.
      There are always going to be Bums around, regardless how they are dressed, who never think of anyone else.

      February 1, 2011 at 6:16 pm |
      • Jack

        Did you even read his post? You think it's fair for you to leave basically nothing, in effect costing the server money due to tipouts? Even if the service was bad, fine – tip 10-15%. If you personally have a bad day at work and screw something up, I bet your employer doesn't just NOT EFFING PAY YOU for the day. Unless they told you that you're bald and fat and your wife is ugly, and spat in your food in front of you, you are in fact a Do*uche for your tipping scheme that you are so fond of – I hate to break that to you since you clearly think very highly of yourself.

        February 1, 2011 at 7:06 pm |
  9. Pants

    If you can't afford to tip, or don't want to tip, stay home.

    February 1, 2011 at 5:17 pm |
  10. David

    The stuff where people don't tip would be absolutely hilarious if it wasn't so annoyingly selfish. Money doesn't appear out of nowhere, folks – if there were no tipping and restaurants paid their waiters, then food would be 15% more. If the restaurants paid their waiters less then you'd have crappier service. People who stiff every single waiter are simply getting discounted meals at the expense of everyone else. I think the guys who are saying "tipping is liberal" are particularly funny – cheating your way to cheap meals by burdening everyone else seems like exactly the sort of "liberal" conduct they're complaining about.

    And please don't get rid of tips – I LOVE having that much power! Don't get me wrong, I'm a very generous tipper, a 20% tip is my minimum for 99% of my restaurant visits. But on the rare occasion where I have a real beef with the waiter, maybe once every six months to a year, I want to be able to seriously impact him. There's nothing that says "You screwed up big-time" more than that "0.00" on the tip line.

    February 1, 2011 at 4:13 pm |
  11. Megan

    Thanks for the article. I am now a well paid programmer but used to be a waitress for 18 years. Loved my previous career, but it was hard on the feet.

    February 1, 2011 at 4:08 pm |
  12. DontGoOutToEat

    If you have a problem with tipping then don't go out to eat! Simple as that. You are paying for FOOD when you get your bill, you then TIP to pay for the SERVICE of having someone take your order, bring you a drink, and then clean up after you so you don't have to. THAT IS A SERVICE. The restaurant is providing you with FOOD, you pay. Why is it so hard for people to understand that the TIP they are paying is the only money the server will see, after taxes, the server NEVER sees their 2.13 (NJ server wage) they are earning an hour. So yes, if you don't tip me..the server LITERALLY is volunteering.

    ATTENTION PEOPLE: If you don't want to pay, servers would rather have you not come in and give them 5% because after they tip out the bar, runner, hostess, and busser...they LOSE money. Stay at home if you don't plan on tipping.

    February 1, 2011 at 3:19 pm |
    • S_V

      We DO tip, and yet servers constantly complain that it's "not enough." Stay home, you say? Okay – WE WILL!!!!

      February 2, 2011 at 12:17 pm |
      • DontGoOutToEatThen

        If you read correctly, which you obviously didn't, you would have noticed when I stated that if a customer tips LOW enough (i.e. 5%) I end up OWING money to the house because I have to tip the bar, hostess, runner and busser. For an example... When someone has a 100 dollar check, I will owe $7 dolllars to tip out. So unless the customer tips me OVER $7 I will have just worked for FREE!! Yes, If you are going to tip under 7% I am URGING you to stay the fu ck home or learn how to tip accordingly.

        February 4, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
        • joe b slerver

          You tip out 7% ?!??! Damn no way. Yeah if the service was absolutely terrible and the server was a little rude i mean u should still tip 5% to cover tip out...

          July 5, 2014 at 12:29 pm |
    • joe silva

      if your going to come to a restaurant and serve with an attitude like that, how about you stay the fu ck home and collect unemployment. eat that bit ch.

      i make 65k a year hon key, and guess what...I don't tip. not 10 cents. it's people like you that make it easy for me to skip the tip.

      February 7, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
      • tina89

        You act like making 65k a year is a lot of money or something. It's no wonder you cannot tip your probably a backwoods hillbilly or something. Ignorant asshole.

        August 16, 2013 at 10:11 am |
  13. Ryan S

    Retired 2 – Your asinine acronym isn't even correct from a diction standpoint. Given the context, 'ensure' is the correct verb, not 'insure' .... maybe you'll start spelling TIPS with an E instead?

    Your boorish attitudes demonstrate that no one deserves the indignity of serving you.

    February 1, 2011 at 3:19 pm |
  14. S_V

    I recently started working in the hospitality industry ... all the complaining or bragging I hear about tips has caused me to cut SEVERELY back on eating out – I hardly ever do it anymore. I know now exactly what goes on behind the scenes, and it's just repulsive. I know damn well that if I don't tip at least 20%, the server is going to complain, and who needs it? I'll just make my own food, know where it came from, and be happy. I think the service industry is going to put themselves out of business – people are sick of hearing their complaints! Why go?!

    February 1, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
  15. Austinites Missing Fine Dining

    I moved from San Francisco to Austin several years ago. Locals in Austin rave about the food, and I do admit that there are some really good restaurants. HOwever, you do not find the kind of service described in this article or in fine restaurants in SF or NY. It is really a shame. 95% of the waiters in town are college students who don't really care about service, food or where the cheese came from. I hope that in coming years, Austin steps up its focus on the service so that the food doesn't get overlooked due to bad service.

    Of course, there are a few exceptions to the rule. Tyson Cole of Uchi and more recently, Uchiko, does a FABULOUS job in the kitchen and dining room.

    February 1, 2011 at 3:04 pm |
  16. justin_thyme

    To quote from the above article: "Along with hours of on-site training, there is an educational seminar everyday . . . . "

    The author and her copy editors need a grammar lesson: "everyday" is an adjective that means commonplace, ordinary, or normal. "Every day" means "each day."

    Everyday is a single word and is an adjective, so it's used in front of a noun to describe something as normal or commonplace. Every day is an adjective (every) plus a noun (day), and it means each day.

    February 1, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
  17. Paul

    If you've never waited on tables full time, your not really qualified to give an opinion that can be defended. I put myself thru two different college degrees (Finance, then Nursing) by waiting tables, and it is hard, often thankless work. Servers depend on tips for income; restaurants pay $2.xx per hr which is taxed. Servers must tip out buspeople, bartenders, and sometimes hosts.

    If your not willing to tip for service when you go out and good service is given, please stay home and eat a pizza (dont have it delivered, your expected to tip the delivery person).

    February 1, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
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