There is a definite skill set needed to be a successful server. You need some basic eye-hand co-ordination, the ability to multi-task, and grace under pressure; you need good short-term memory, strong arches and back. The most important pieces in this puzzle, however, are a sense of humor (a sick one usually is most helpful) and a genuine spirit of hospitality.
This last is the most important. If you don’t truly enjoy taking care of your guests and helping them to feel comfortable, relaxed, and welcomed, well, you better be damn good at faking it because people can spot insincerity a mile away. A successful, professional server will have skills in the physical and psychological aspects, and they truly enjoy what they do.
There are waiters that survive for years with an inferior skill set. They muddle through, day in, day out, making the same stupid mistakes over and over and over again. They are known in our business as “Shoe Clerks” (as in, “This guy should be selling shoes”, or doing anything besides waiting tables); they are no trouble for their boss, show up each and every day on time, and are probably working the slow shifts so their deficiencies go unnoticed and they don’t get fired. An old pro I worked with years ago used to say “Good waiters work dinner, bad waiters pump gas; all the rest work lunch.” Snap-snap!
There are servers that have superior food and wine knowledge, have the necessary hospitality gene in their DNA, yet cannot multi-task their way out of a wet paper sack. They are what I refer to as One-Spooners. The One-Spooner is a waiter who serves soup to one person at a table of four. Someone at the table will ask him for another spoon, as they would maybe like to sample their friend’s soup. You don’t have to be Nostradamus to predict what is going to happen here. Instead of anticipating that someone else at that table might want to do the same and bring THREE more spoons, One Spooner lives up to his name. He then has to go back, yet again, to the service station for more spoons when the inevitable request comes from the other two guests at that table.
There are also servers who are highly skilled, can handle a ton of people all at once, know the menu and wine list inside and out, yet have no desire or love for making their guests happy. They are more concerned with what the people at the table think of THEM than what their guests’ actual needs are. These servers are often perplexed and resentful when guests don’t fall in love with them, leave them 25%, and want to write them into their will after a two-hour meal.
Then there is the server who is knowledgeable, has the physical skills, the memory, and in all other ways is technically proficient. Yet you just don’t like them. Or they have all the personality of a bag of hair. They can make a meal about as much fun as having your teeth cleaned.
We had one of these wait on us last week when stopped in (finally) at the Oxbow Market. We were lusting after oysters, but of course the one Sunday that we finally make it in, Hog Island Oyster Bar has closed early for an “Employee Picnic”. This is all the more puzzling as it is pouring rain and 5:30pm. Cest la vie; we go across the breezeway into Oxbow Wine Merchant and deposit ourselves at one of the corners of the square bar in the middle of the room.
Our server greets us, not with “Hello, welcome, how are you?” or any other verbal greeting, but with a deadpan look and four glasses of icewater. The menus are already laid out on the bar, so no menu presentation is necessary either. We select some apps and a bottle of Ruche di Castagnolo Montferrato, a seldom seen wine (in Napa Valley, anyway) from a seldom seen DOC in Piedmont. Our girl, without a single word of comment on our choice or on anything else, puts four thimble-sized tasting glasses in front of the three of us, and dutifully fetches our bottle. She presents it to me, as I was the one who ordered it, and being unfamiliar with this particular producer, I say, “That looks like it.” To which she says, “Yes it is,” and begins to sink her corkscrew. My wife asks her for some larger glasses to accommodate the big Italian red. She lets out an exasperated sigh, stops the presentation, and walks out from behind the bar to retrieve some Bordeaux glasses from a shelf near the kitchen. There were some glasses, smaller than the Riedels that she brought back but larger than the originals, within arms length behind the bar; and when I comment that we would have been perfectly happy with those, she says “Yes, those really are the proper glasses” for this particular wine. Well why the big show about getting the ones from across the room then? And would it kill you to smile and say SOMETHING once in a while?
I can somewhat understand a server tiring of dealing with tourists who are often neophytes when it comes to ordering anything other than chardonnay and cabernet, or just about wine in general. I can also understand being in a snit because you are working on a Sunday. And if she were up to her ass in busy, I could even forgive a little attitude; but we are the only ones in the place at this point, so why is she up on a cross over our glassware request?
Anyway, the wine was great, the items on the Charcuterie and cheese board we ordered were excellent, all very well thought out, and went well with the wine. I also enjoyed a cup of a luxurious potato soup with tons of cream and butter (we did, however, have to ask for extra spoons!), and we all lusted after our friend’s five-year-old daughter’s Grilled Cheese from the Panini press. Great food and wine, but with “service” that added nothing to our experience.
And do you have the Cap-Toe Oxfords in black?