I hope you took the time to read Part 1 about my experience with poverty and food as a youth. Read on for the second part in the multi-part series.
In my humble opinion, I think everyone should experience work in food service at some point in their life. Whether it is waiting tables, working delivery, fast food, dishwasher, chef, or prep cook, it doesn’t matter. You come away from that experience changed. Sometimes for the good, sometimes not.
Food Service – Precision
My first experience in food service was at our family deli. Making sandWISHes*, slicing cold cuts, running the register. In college I worked the deli counter for Price Chopper. While home on summer break I worked in the meat department for the same grocer. Pal Mike worked there as well (you can read his blog here).
My first waitressing job was at The Friar Tuck Inn in Catskill, New York. For those of you who aren’t familiar, it was akin to an Italian version of the hotel in Dirty Dancing with all the angst, sex, illegal gambling, and drugs you’d expect. But without Patrick Swayze (pity). I fell even more deeply in love with food. Watching the culinary team turn out LITERALLY 1000 covers of a six-course meal every night with the precision of a Swiss watch was energizing! They were their own perfect ballet company behind the line.
Calls of “Behind” and “Watch Your Back” made me jump to the side because I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. It was amazing! My love affair with the hospitality industry was born. I made a ton of cash, I was thin, my arms were ripped, I made lazy busboys cry (for real), became more confident and stood up for myself, and learned new skills that would serve me later. And the food? I could eat any damn thing I pleased from the line. Amazing soups, good pastas, fresh salads, stuffed Clams Casino, in a quantity that was limited only to the time I had between services.
What I didn’t know at the time was I was my own garde manger. The waitstaff was responsible for making our own salads and plating our own cold appetizers. Nothing too complicated; melon with lemon, scungilli salad, “house” salad, but each and every one needed to look exactly the same so no one at the table felt slighted. This trend continued at several waitressing jobs across my career in food service, from pizzerias, to upscale dining, to buffets, to banquets. And I loved it! The funniest thing is that it wasn’t until I went to culinary school that I found out I had been part of the “ballet” all along but didn’t know it.
Growth – Experience
After my experience at The Friar Tuck, I knew I could work in virtually any restaurant on the planet. I had found a true love of food service and sought out more jobs because my Friar Tuck job was only April thru October. I worked seven days a week, simultaneously at a pizzeria (weekdays), nightclub (weekend nights – where I met my husband), country club (weekend evenings) and The Friar Tuck (weeknight evenings). The following items were in my car: uniform items, spare shoes, panty hose with support, makeup, deodorant, cigarettes, and a basic first aid kit of bandages to combat the inevitable blisters on my feet. I earned a lot of “experience points” and was as comfortable doing upscale dining as I was at slinging drinks or pizzas. It was 1987. I had a cocaine problem. I was 22.
I had no misconceptions about my abilities. Yeah, I was good, but not great, but I still had difficulty finding a job after getting married at the end of 1987 and making my first move as a military wife. Because of my work ethic, knowing I was only going to be in Denver for 6 months, I was honest about my limited time there, and no one would hire me. They didn’t want to train me, just to have me leave.
John was on mids (6 pm – midnight), so I really only wanted to work evenings. One jackass wanted me to work “splits” – come in at 10:30 am, prep and work the lunch shift until 2:30, then come back at 4 and work until 11. Fuck off. I was offered a dream job at Raffles Hotel and had to turn it down because I didn’t feel it was fair to them. They wanted to send me to school to be a sommelier. Turning down that one made me cry.
I despise lying but found myself doing just that so I could get a job. I ended up working at a Marie Callender’s, my first and only chain restaurant experience, complete with ugly polyester pinafore uniform, shitty food, and shitty tips. If I was lucky, I made $30/night in tips. But I had a job. Having worked at more upscale places, I was kinda snobby to be honest about the food there, but I do admit the pies were good. And it was a MASSIVE cut in pay too. Let me put it this way – in 1987, I paid for my wedding in cash after saving for less than one year.
Then we moved to Spain. Once again, I had to find a job. One of the most frustrating things about being a military wife is that I could never really have a career of my own. There was no internet or work from home option back then and without a college degree, there were few options open to me. None of which offered transfers when John was moved. Each time I’d get seniority, we’d move.
Even though John was in the military and was getting a steady paycheck and housing allowance, both of us were up to our asses in student debt with nothing to show for it. His check paid for the bills, and my paycheck paid for food and entertainment (basically). Thankfully there were vibrant “clubs” on the bases back then. I ended up working in the NCO and Officers’ Clubs as a banquet server and dining room waitress. The tips sucked, the food sucked, and while I was happy to have a job, my American co-workers sucked too. I learned valuable lessons here. This is where I learned about differences in people’s life experience and what constituted “good” for them. This was where I learned that I had graduated from “needy” to privileged in some ways and didn’t know it.
Disdain – Snobbery
While waiting for a banquet to start one evening the waitresses and hostesses started talking about their weddings. As the new kid on the block, I just sat there and let them talk, growing more and more scandalized by the descriptions of their weddings. You see, in my family and circle of friends, there was only one way to have a wedding. You got married in a church; posed for pictures; then you had an open bar cocktail hour with passed hors d’oeuvres, and then either a sit-down dinner or a buffet dinner where the open bar continued. There is cake and dancing, and a good time is had by all. Period. That’s it. That was the only way unless you eloped. Still, to this day if Mom or anyone else in my family goes to a wedding, the first question I ask is, “How was the food?”
Tales were proudly told about backyard BBQ’s, and receptions catered entirely by the family (who were not caterers or even in the food industry). Finger sandwiches and potato salads were a common theme. I heard retellings of 350-person church basement receptions with cake and punch, nothing else. Not even dancing! With the prices of the dresses ranging from $300 to $800 (in the 80’s – that was a LOT). Wait! What? How can you have a wedding reception without booze or dancing? You had it outdoors? Didn’t your dress get ruined? You spent that much on your dress and you didn’t serve dinner? All those people traveled to celebrate with you, and you only gave them cake and punch? WTF?!
I thought to myself, “LeAnne, just shut up. They already think you are a snob; they don’t need to hear about your wedding.” But of course, all eyes turned to me and they begged me to share. So, I told them.
“My wedding wasn’t as big as some of yours. I got my dress on sale for $85. We only had 125 people. There was a cocktail hour with passed hors d’oeuvres, a sit-down dinner, open bar, dancing, and cake.” I tried not to speak in a disdainful tone, even though my 23 year old heart held nothing but disdain for their bizarre (to my mind) celebrations. I spat it all out in one breath hoping that would be the end of it, purposefully leaving things kinda vague. Then the questions started. What kind of hors d’oeuvres? What was the dinner? What’s an open bar? When I explained what an open bar was, they were floored, “You PAID for all of those people to get drunk?” I asked, “If you invite people to dinner at your house, do you ask them to bring their own drinks?” The response was unanimously “yes”.
They labeled me a snob, and never spoke to me again. Seriously. Whenever I had to work with any of them, there was no camaraderie. No chit chat; it was work talk only. And there was no team support either. While they would help each other bussing or setting tables, or filling water glasses, I was left to do mine alone. It was working this job, that I realized people who loved food service had different expectations and feelings about celebrations and food in general. These bitches thought this food was good!
Most of these gals had never been a waitress before and they were only doing so now because, like me, it was the only job they could get. The difference was, I liked it. Here I was, acting like a snob doing the same fucking job as them…yeah…that. It was 1988. I was 23. You don’t know shit when you’re 23.
Learning – Growth – Gathering
That was when I learned to shut the fuck up. It was then that the lightbulb finally went on. The lightbulb indicating my experience with food and dining culture was incredibly limited to only what I knew. If I was going to grow up, I needed to shut up and learn.
The Spanish career waiters took me under their wing and started teaching me Spanish and inviting me to eat with them. For the record, THEIR dinner was excellent because the entire line in the kitchen was Spanish. The family meal was classic Spanish cuisine. Being invited to eat with the Spaniards further deepened the riff between me and my American co-workers because they were jealous, and I didn’t give a flying damn. At least the Spaniards befriended me, which is more than I could say about the Americans.
The Spanish staff members talked with me about the differences between American and Spanish restaurants. They wanted to know as much about American dining culture as I wanted to know about theirs. I had to chuckle when they told me they thought all American restaurants were either really fancy or like Mc D’s. They taught me to flambé. It was here I made my first Chateaubriand and almost set my bangs on fire. They gave me my own nickname – La Reina or Agrippina depending on who was addressing me. And they taught me how to eat like a European. It was here that I learned the restaurant business was a way of life in Europe, not just a gig. There was so much more to experience out there! It was 1989. I was 24.
Leaving – Change
After an abysmal year or so of working with American women who didn’t like me and I didn’t like at all, I left that job. I liked the job, I just didn’t like most of my co-workers and that makes for a miserable work environment. I went back to retail, which I hated. Considering the lack of good tips and the shitty hours, retail was the better option on base for pay and stability for someone with my limited qualifications. I had to work until 7 on the latest shifts. That meant John and I could have dinner together some nights. The hourly pay at the BX was better. I hated it and sucked it up because I didn’t have any better options.
I hoped I could get a transfer to the BX at our next assignment and keep my pay scale. That was not to be. We moved to northern Maine, the tundra. And I went back to food service, at a job that nearly destroyed my love of food permanently. That was October 1991. I was 26.
Next up? Continued adventures in Food Service and Culinary School
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*I always type sandWISHes for a decent ‘wich…