Every restaurant is unique and thus every restaurant presents a unique set of challenges. And one of the primary challenges in being a server at the restaurant where I currently work is the steady stream of foreign toursists who breeze through the doors and right past the host stand, seating themselves at a dirty table.
I should pause right here for very necessary disclaimer: I have never traveled abroad. I know! I know; it's sad, but the truth. I have no idea how difficult or scary it must be to try to order a meal and a glass of wine in a country you don't know in a language you barely understand. I'd relish the opportunity to try this task, but the free tickets to Italy have never presented themselves.
Trying to decipher the menu while trying to observe local customs and etiquette completely alien to you is probably a overwhelming experience. I have sympathy for anyone attempting this endeavor. But now more than ever before I empathize with the person in an apron standing with pen poised trying desperately to figure out what people want to eat.
All of my previous serving jobs were in Tennessee, and the restaurants I worked in didn't draw a large number of travelers. I did sometimes have trouble understanding the guests at my tables, but that was rare, as I am fluent in redneck. I knew when Position 1 ordered a side of "raynch dip" that he wanted ranch dressing and likely lots of it. I once thought a young girl ordered a glass of ass, but it turned out she just wanted some ice. These misunderstandings were minor.
Now I'm employed at a fancy pants pizzeria in a mall that serves artisan Neopolitan style pies and creative anti pastis and pasta dishes featuring pig ear, but did I mention we're in a mall? The food is phenomenal and the menu is better than solid, but a good half of our guests just wander in, Hollister bags in tow, with no idea what they are getting into. Most of them know a very limited amount of English.
When the most important part of your job is communicating what the guest wants to the people who make it happen, it can be maddeningly frustrating to be unable to get across the most basic question. Something as simple as, "Would you like something to drink?" becomes a five minute blank-faced stand-off. I'm not exaggerating when I say many of the people I wait on can barely order water.
Again! Let me stop here to say I COULDN'T EITHER. I am not blaming or judging here, in the least. Drop me in the middle of Bangkok and ask me to order water and I'd fail spectacularly. But none of this makes it any easier for me to decipher what the hell people are trying to say to me.
There are some things I quickly learned: Water "wis no gas," is still water in a bottle. Panna. They want that. I know my Muslim guests most likely don't want pork on their pizza, but "pancetta" didn't set off any alarm bells for them. So, I clarify by saying, "That pizza comes with just tomato sauce, chile peppers and pork, that okay with you?" This allows them to order a vegetarian pizza and saves everyone a lot of hassle (in the kitchen) and disgust (at the table).
But most of the time it's a comedy of errors as I stand tableside and try to translate all varieties of French, Italian, Chinese, Japanese and German.
Right now it's heavy toursist season, and thus my section is heavy with tourists. After being seated with my sixth table of barely-English-speakers this week I asked the hostess if it would kill her to seat me with some locals. She said that there weren't any.
One table with a language barrier is tough enough, but try five. Or six. It can quickly become a nightmare.
The primary problem with these types of tables is that they are a time suck. Many worldly foreign travelers have no qualms about flagging down their server--or any server that wanders into their eyeline, for that matter--and relaying that they are ready to order. At which time the guests in question carry on a five minute long conversation amongst themselves in Spanish as you stand there waiting to be addressed.
How would you answer this question: What is a beet? What is garlic? Those are tough questions! I can tell you that pecorino is a type of cheese, but how to explain a beet? I am stumped with these difficult questions nightly.
And since I'm on the subject foreign tourists dining out, I would be remiss if I didn't address the issue of tipping. Or lack thereof. That's right, you knew I was going there! And how can you not, when you regularly get a dollar and three cents on a $120 tab?
This is a delicate subject, I know. But, oh my God, you guys, the not tipping thing is the worst. No tip, a few cents on $40, $2 on $200--this happens to me on the regular. The only way I can stomach it is by working in a place that pools the tips and divides them evenly based on hours worked. We all share in the stiffing. It's the only way I don't go mad dozens of times a night. I know that service charges are included in other countries. But if that's so, how do these travelers not know that here they are not?
I'll be honest here, and say it: If I'm slammed, my foreign guests are my last priority. It's horrible, I know, but the odds of a 5% tip or none at all is so high that I'd be stupid to concentrate my efforts where it won't pay off. That said, if I'm not completely weeded, then everyone gets the same level of (amazing, if I do say so myself) service, regardless of where you're from. But if the adorable gay regulars from Noe Valley are back and want another bottle of wine, they are getting it before the Italian teenagers (literally) snapping at me order their 7th Coke.
Perhaps one day I'll have the chance to travel to an exotic location and attempt to order a meal and will be humbled by the experience and regret ever publishing this. I hope so! In the meantime, these are honest thoughts on my work life that are likely shared by a number of people who work in my profession.
For a humorous take on this phenomenon from the other perspective, take a listen to this bit from Bill Cosby about the time he tried to order dinner at a restaurant in Italy and was shocked by what landed on the table.[I would just like to repeat I am a silly American who has never traveled outside US borders, so I should probably shut the fuck up.]