Thursday, March 25, 2010

Bitch, bitch, bitch.

And what is Right Speech? Abstaining from telling lies or deceiving, from slander and divisive speech, from rude, impolite or abusive language, and from idle chatter and gossip: This is called Right Speech. If your speech is not useful or beneficial it is best to keep silent.

-The Pali Cannon


If you do not like something, change it. If you cannot change it, change your attitude. Do not complain.

-Maya Angelou

I don’t know about you, but I love to bitch. I bitch about the guests, I bitch about my GM, I bitch about the kitchen and the bar and the bussers, I bitch about lousy tippers, campers, people that come in 5 minutes before close, people with ridiculously special orders (chopped salad: dressing on the side (house vinegarette and honey-lime vinegarette), bacon, blue cheese, egg and avocado on the side plus an additional side of cheddar; cucumbers and shredded carrots added, and please separate onto two plates - Actual order), my coworkers (specifically, a-holes that kill the coffee and don’t re-brew it) and just about everything and anything that isn’t the way it should be.

For those of you not familiar with Buddhism, one of its core teachings is the Noble Eightfold Path. It’s kind of like the Buddhist Ten Commandments except that they’re more like suggestions (Buddhism doesn’t really have any “Thou Shalt’s…,” it’s more like “It might be helpful if you…”). One of the eight elements of the path is Right Speech (“Right” in this usage meaning not “morally” right but more like “ideal”). The principle behind it is that one should not only speak truthfully and honestly but also that your speech should actively promote harmony and good will; as it says: if what you say is not useful or beneficial don’t say anything at all. So while it may be true that table 6 has been camping for over an hour or a foreigner just left me ten percent, is it useful or beneficial to complain about it? Is my bitching promoting harmony and good will?

It’s a high standard, and it’s only when you start actively trying to practice it do you realize exactly how much of what we talk about at work is completely negative (and this is just complaining - forget about gossip, which is a definitely the unofficial sport of wait-staff everywhere). Part of the problem I’ve found in trying to practice this is that it seems to cut me off from my co-workers; complaining is the main way we relate to each other – it’s the way we bond. It’s us against them, “them” being the guests, the kitchen, the managers, the bussers, or anyone else getting in the way of our night and our tips . Bitching in the side station over shared irritations is fun, it lets of steam. It’s why the “waiter-rant” blog is so popular. It’s why when waiters go out for drinks after work almost all they can talk about is work.

But does it really let off steam? If it did, why is it that I feel the need to bitch about the same thing multiple times to different co-workers? Far from dissipating the gripe, I think the complaining just keeps it alive; there may be a temporary relief but what really seems to happen is that the annoyances just accumulate and accumulate, and by the end of the shift all I can think about was how awful the night was and how glad I am to be done.

I think inherent in any complaint is a boost for the ego – they are wrong, I’m/we’re in the right. We like to be pissed off because it means that we know better than they do – that we are better. Guests do it all the time – any waiter will tell you that some guests come in just actively looking for something to be upset about. To wit: at my restaurant we have this ridiculously gigantic burger: 10oz angus beef, plus bacon, short ribs of beef(!), cheddar cheese, mushrooms and sautéed onions (it’s phenomenal). So I’m bringing this to a table the other day, and rather than the oohs and ahs that usually greet it the guest just kind of stares at it and then starts poking at it with her fork. I ask if everything looks all right and I get back “It looks a little small.” I assure her it’s 10oz, plus all the toppings and she replies, “No, I get this here all the time, this is too small. I want to see a manager.” I apologize, and go grab a manager. Well, it turns out that we just recently (like, the day before) changed the way we press the patty – it’s still 10oz, just thicker instead of wider. The manager goes to explain this to her, that it is the exact same burger, just the proportions are slightly different, and the guest is still angry, still doesn’t want it. We offer to get her something else and she says no, she doesn’t want anything now. So here is someone who took such personal offense at not getting what they wanted (even though they did get it, it just looked a little different) that they would rather miss their own meal than let it go. I mean, we weren’t even asking them to admit that they were wrong - we offered to freaking get them something else when there was absolutely 100% nothing wrong with the meal in front of them, and they basically decided they would rather be indignant than eat. It’s an extreme example, but don’t we all sometimes go around looking for things to be pissed off about?

And I should clarify – Right Speech doesn’t mean that you don’t stick up for yourself when you’re being mistreated or that you don’t speak out against injustice when you see it. It’s not saying that you should walk around being super sunny and positive all the time, or that you should pretend everything’s okay when it’s not. What it is saying is not to complain just for the sake of complaining. Either do something about it, or don’t. One of the side-effects I’ve found from the few times I’ve actually managed to make it through a shift practicing Right Speech is that not complaining forces me to accept whatever slight it is I’ve suffered. Because if you can’t bitch about it, you can either keep rehashing it in your mind over and over again (which is essentially just bitching to yourself) or you have to let it go. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever been given is that if you have to bitch, you get five minutes to bitch as much as you want. After that, don’t ever mention it again. What do you think? Is it possible to get through an entire shift without complaining once? Outside of restaurants, can you go a day without complaining? Moreover, even if it is possible, is it something you’d even want to do?

Thursday, March 18, 2010

When what "shouldn't be," is.

So much of the job is acceptance, time and time again. The guest does not treat you how you should be treated, the tip received is not as large as it should have been, the kitchen/bakery/bar is not running how it should run. As long as you insist on what should be rather than what is, you will know only disappointment and frustration. If you say “yes” to every moment, say “yes” to the reality of what is, you will never be frustrated. It is the discrepancy between the way you wish reality would be and the way it actually is that causes you pain. The solution: do not wish for anything. Simply embrace reality as it stands, meet it on its own terms. The secret to eternal happiness is to never wish to be anywhere but where you are. Wherever you are, embrace it fully. Say yes to it unreservedly. For there is nothing more foolish than fighting the reality of what is. Disappointment is a function of expectation. It is not an issue of lowering your expectations; it is a matter of not having them at all.


So, I totally almost flipped out the other morning, and we hadn’t even been open for an hour. In fact, it was because we had just opened that I was so pissed off. To explain: I had one of the very first tables and they ordered an appetizer and two entrees. Since the appetizer was one of the first orders of the day I (wrongly) assumed that it would be out quickly. Add to that the fact that this particular appetizer – a sashimi style tuna dish – doesn’t even have to be cooked, and I figured five to ten minutes max. Max. And, since I know this is not a very large appetizer (more like a tapas dish) and would be eaten quickly, I sent the entrees a little after the five-minute mark.

So what happens? At ten minutes and no appetizer I went into the kitchen to check on it. The expediter goes to ask the cook about it, and the cook doesn’t have any tuna. So a) what should have been a five minute appetizer is now going to take over fifteen , b) my timing on the entrées is all f’d up, and c) I can not f’ing believe that the cook didn’t say something the minute he saw the order. And I’m livid. Absolutely livid. If it had been in the middle of the lunch rush and the kitchen was slammed, I might have taken it in stride. But because it wasn’t busy – because there were almost no other tickets whatsoever, I was furious. Part of it was because it really doesn’t reflect too well on us when we can’t execute a ticket with an empty restaurant. Also, even though it could not be less my fault it’s certainly not going to help my tip any. But mostly I was furious because it shouldn’t have happened.

That’s the crux of it. I was hung up on it because it shouldn’t be, and yet there it was. The more I kept thinking about it (and I kept thinking about it) the madder I got. Then, when the entrées took over twenty minutes it just stoked the fire (even though it was kind of a good thing they took so long since it somewhat mitigated the timing problem (they still managed to came out too late though)). Lastly, my pre-ordered desserts took five to ten minutes too long (dealing with our AM baker is a whole other entry in itself) – so we had managed to keep the guests waiting on appetizers, lunch and dessert. And it wasn’t even twelve o’clock. The thing is, the guests didn’t seem to care at all. They were just hanging out, enjoying each other’s company, in no hurry to get anywhere. If it had been another type of table it might have been a big deal, but these people were totally chill. I got the same 10 on 60 I probably would have gotten regardless, and they left with zero complaint.

But I was still mad. I was still mad well into my second turn, and I just couldn’t let it go. I kept trying to get back into the present moment, to just forget about it and let it slide, but I couldn’t shake it. It was frustrating because I knew I was being stupid about it, I knew what the “Zen” thing to do was, and I still couldn’t do it. And it was all because it just shouldn’t have been. And that’s a huge lesson: to let go of what “should” be. Should the cook have alerted someone right away when he saw he didn’t have the ingredients necessary to make the order? Of course – but all I can do is make sure the Kitchen Manager knows about what happened and hope he’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again. Beyond that, I just need to let it go. Deal with what’s right in front of you and move on to the next thing. That’s one of the great things about waiting tables: every new table is an opportunity for a fresh start – if you let it. A big struggle for a lot of servers is not letting that one rude table or bad tip (or kitchen mistake) affect the rest of their night. Guests can tell when we’re in a bad mood, and while our negativity and/or frustration may have nothing to do with the tables we’re dealing with now, it still comes out - the guest can still sense it. And they don’t like it. It would never occur to the guest that maybe we’re having a bad day; they just think that they have a rude and surly waiter (and will tip accordingly). Also, as long as your mind is still dwelling on the past you’re not present – and much more likely to make a mistake.

But knowing all this and putting it into practice are two different things – and actually putting it into practice is what this whole Zen thing is all about. It’s not enough just to know it; what does that help if you can’t apply it your life? That’s what I love about Zen, it’s entirely practical. It’s all about dealing with reality as it is. I wish I could just flip a switch and turn it on, but anger and negativity have a certain moment all their own – once you start it up they build up steam and become harder to disengage from. Yelling at yourself, “Stop it! Be Zen!” doesn’t seem to work too well. I finally realized when I was doing that that I was still denying the present moment: I was denying the fact that I was upset. I shouldn’t be this upset, and yet I was. So, again with the “shoulds.” When I finally accepted that I was upset and unable to turn it off – when I made that my point of entry – I started to calm down. I was able to step outside myself and see that even though I wasn’t at peace now it was just a mood that would dissipate if I let it. So I let it, and it did. Within ten minutes I was out of it. So I got two lessons out of yesterday morning: let go of what you think reality should be and just meet it on its own terms, and when you’re not at peace accept that reality as well. We’ll just have to see if I remember all this the next time my apps take twenty minutes.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

(Servers) How to deal with rudeness or (Guests) How not to get your food messed with: a cautionary tale

One of the most difficult tasks in waiting, as in life, is to have patience for those you serve, especially when they are demonstrably rude. How does one have patience for those that are antagonistic, demanding and short-tempered? If a guest comes in with an attitude, or is untenably rude, above all do not take it personally. For, though it may feel that way, it is not personal; the guest does not know you, nor you them. For whatever reason - a bad day, frustration, a poor childhood - the guest is cranky and taking it out on you. You need not be affected by this. The master waiter allows rudeness to slide off him as water off the back of a crane. Be grateful: in most jobs when you have a difficult client you must work with them for months. Yours will be gone from your life in an hour, hour-and-a-half.


Soften your self.

Do not take things personally.

You cannot be annoyed or frustrated if there is no “you” to frustrate.

Become as water.

We all act out roles in our day-to-day lives; to a certain extent we all play a part. There are socially defined norms that determine how we behave - roles like husband and father, son and daughter, employee, employer, even artist and “individualist” come with certain expected behaviors attached. In service, there is a very clear delineation between server and served – as a waiter I am a guide, a facilitator, and sometimes somewhat an entertainer. But the one commonality is that my guests have a certain power over me. That’s not to say I let my guests run me, or that I don’t have control over my tables, but at the end of the day what the guest wants the guest gets, and it’s my job to get it for them. I really don’t ever get to say no (how I sometimes envy waiters and bartenders who work at those kind of jobs where they can be openly rude to the guest, and tell them straight to their face that their tip or behavior was inappropriate, or have managers that will tell guests not to come back. But alas, that is not the path I have chosen. It’s definitely not very “Zen” of me, but I absolutely revel in those rare times I get to tell a guest “no.” One time a guest asked if he could substitute his vegetables for extra short ribs(!), to which I was able to reply, “I’m sorry sir, absolutely not.” It made me so happy).

So with these two defined roles of server and served comes a certain agreed-upon relationship. In acknowledgement of their power over me I am granted a certain level of respect, since it's understood that I am in a position where if I am disrespected, I’m pretty much powerless to say anything or respond in any way. One guest complaint, even if I’m completely in the right, can cost me my job. So when a guest is rude, it puts me in a very awkward position of having an insulted ego and not being able to do anything about it. I simply have to swallow my pride and go about my business.

One of the most important things I’ve learned over the years is how not to take rudeness personally – if a guest is a jackass they’re just jackass and I usually let it go at that. Sometimes the guest pretty much just refuses to acknowledge me, and I’m fine with that. I know a lot of servers can’t put up with this but I understand that sometimes guests just want the bare minimum of service necessary and don’t want to be bothered: they don’t want my personality, they just want their food and drink in a timely fashion. And that’s fine. I’m not going to force service or social interaction on someone that doesn’t want it – I’m usually pretty outgoing with my tables but if the guest wants unobtrusive and reserved I give them unobtrusive and reserved. And sometimes guests are not very forgiving of any delay whatsoever – and that’s fine too. It’s nice when guests understand that there are things out of my control, or that I’ve got more to deal with than just them, but I don’t necessarily expect it. Sometimes the behavior is so rude I find it amusing – like when a guest snaps their fingers at me, it just makes me laugh (though it’s definitely taken me awhile to get to that point. And to all the non-servers reading this, let me give you a little insight: I have access to your food and drink before you do. And in that interim, all sorts of things can happen. Some rather foul and disgusting things. Not to say that I would ever do such things, but let’s just say that in the industry as a whole it’s not unheard of. So when a guest is that rude it just makes me think to myself – do you really think I’m not going to mess with your food now? (I don’t of course, but it makes me chuckle)).

But there are certain behaviors that are just really, really hard to swallow. Because the very nature of my job is a subservient position where I can’t fight back, to be pointedly insulted with no means to respond is almost untenable. Example: one of the little “finer points of service” my restaurant requires is that I say the guest’s last name when I’m handing back their credit card after payment – e.g., “Thank you very much Mr. Simon, have a nice day.” I think it’s a little cheesy, but the company wants me to do it, so I do it. Sometimes, however, it’s not completely clear how the guest’s last name is pronounced (I’m actually pretty good at this – a basic understanding of phonetics and the rules and tendencies of different nationalities/ethnic backgrounds is key). This was one of those situations. I can’t remember for the life of me what this guest’s name was – but point being it could have been properly pronounced at least three different ways. So I did what I always do in that situation: when returning the card I said, “Here you are sir and, if you’ll forgive me, how do I pronounce your last name correctly?” Then, 99.99% of the time the guest will tell me the correct pronunciation, and I respond in kind, “Thank you Mr. So-and-So, I always prefer to ask rather than to butcher someone’s last name.” And, usually having their last name regularly butchered in these situations, they laugh (again, going back to roles - the guest subconsciously understands that this is a part of my job: that while Jonas the server cares about the pronunciation of their name Jonas Simon the actual person probably couldn't care less. I'm just doing my job).

Well, this time when I did my usual spiel the guest responded, with a palpable air of contempt: “How do I pronounce my name correctly?” Taken a little aback, I threw out my line about not butchering the name and the guest rolled his eyes and turned away from me, not responding. The entire exchange made me feel about three inches tall. I wanted to grab him by the collar and shout, "Hey (expletive), do you think I actually give two (expletives) what the (expletive) your name is? Go (expletive) yourself with a garden hose!" But of course, valuing my job more than my pride, I said nothing and slunk away.

So, the Zen response to all this clearly is to divorce myself from my ego – to not allow one man’s rudeness to injure me in any way or make me feel any differently about myself. His arrogance and self-importance are a reflection of the qualities he is lacking, not mine. The “self” I feel the need to defend against insult so vehemently is just a mental construct - it’s not who I really am, it’s just an ego. And, as I said, I’ve gotten pretty good at this.

However if I ever see this guy again, he might be getting my (expletive) in his water.

Just saying.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

"Just" a waiter.

How fortunate the waiter who knows who he is - he knows he is not just a waiter. How unfortunate the waiter who does not know who he is - he thinks he is not just a waiter.

--Sammaditthi Sutta (Discourse on Right View)


Do not look to your job to make you happy. Look to be happy while you are doing your job.

One of the most common questions I get from guests is “Are you an actor?” or “Are you in school?” (actually, since I turned thirty not so much that one any more) or also “Do you do anything else besides this?” (sometimes it’s an even more presumptive “What else do you do besides this?”). I can’t think of any other profession where this is the case. No one would think to ask a teacher or a banker what else it is they do, even though waiters on average have a comparable if not higher income than those professions.

Through most of my twenties I suffered from “just a waiter” syndrome. I had dropped out of college and had no desire to rack up any more student loans until I could figure out what it was I wanted to do with my life. Whenever I stopped too long to look at where I was at, I’d get depressed because I was nearing thirty and still “just a waiter.” Whenever anyone asked me what I do for a living and I told them I wait tables, I would immediately follow up with “But I’m also a writer.” Forget the fact that I hadn’t had anything published, I was still a writer first, waiter second. But since I actually paid my bills waiting tables and hadn’t earned a dime writing, which one was I really?

We live in a society where what you do defines who you are. And if you don’t do something that’s viewed as socially acceptable than you must be either a student working towards a job that is socially acceptable or some sort of artist trying to “make it.” But can a person ever really be summed up that way? I am not just a waiter - waiting tables is what I do to earn a living. But I’m not a writer either - writing is just something I do because I enjoy it. Is waiting tables totally fulfilling and it’s what I want to do the rest of my life? Probably not. But the idea that we should have some sort of career that is both a status symbol and personally fulfilling is a relatively new concept (and primarily a western one). In our grandparents generation they took pride in simply having a job, any job, and in doing an honest day’s work (my grandfather ran a pawn shop – I highly doubt that was his passion in life). I think it’s a mistake to look for a job, or anything external to ourselves, to make us happy. I think the point is to try to be happy while we’re doing those external things. So what do you think? Do you feel the need to be doing something else, something “more” with your life? Are you embarrassed to tell people what you do for a living? Is it possible to be happy and be “just a waiter?”

Waiting tables is an… interesting way to make a living.

To say the least. First of all, I can think of no other job where one’s income is so completely at the mercy of other people’s whims; rarely in the professional world is there so little connection between the amount of work provided and its compensation. In most jobs the harder you work the more you make. In service, this is not always (in fact, rarely) the case. In most jobs, you have a set salary that you can count on pay period to pay period – in service your income can swing wildly night to night, week to week, and month to month. Also, the job itself is just incredibly stressful – nightmares about work are an all too common occurrence (I always wonder, do lawyers have bad dreams about briefs being misfiled?).

I’ve been a server for most of my adult life, and a student of Buddhist/Eastern philosophy for the same. After only a couple of years of frustration with bad tippers, campers, special orders, d-bags that come in 5 minutes till close, crashing kitchens, backed-up bars, rude guests, and the myriad of other annoyances and grievances that come with the profession both minor and major, I was getting pretty burnt out. I started to wonder if there was anyway I could do this job and not want to murder multiple guests and co-workers in the process.

In what I can only describe as a (painfully) slow and ongoing process, I began to see how the principles of peace and acceptance I was reading about in my off hours could be applied to that chaotic and hectic world I inhabited five nights a week. My book, “Zen and the Art of Waitering,” and this blog are the results of that realization, and it is my hope that the lessons therein can be an aid to both waiters and non-waiters alike - to anyone in stressful situations who feels stuck, to anyone who feels forced to suffer in the present moment just so (hopefully) they can be happy some point in the distant future, and to anyone else looking for a window in a locked room. I also hope you think it’s at least a little funny.

A good friend of mine who’s been in the restaurant industry for years once described waiting tables as “spiritual boot camp.” And it is. Serving forces us again and again into acceptance, letting go, not taking things personally, detaching from the results of one’s actions, going with the flow, and being kind to others regardless of how they treat you (that one might be the hardest).

From years of service, I think I’ve learned a few main lessons. One: inner peace is not some mystical state to be obtained through years of meditation or going to stay with a yogi in the mountains of Tibet – it is a choice we make, again and again. Two: the idea is not to put up with our lives right now so we can finally be happy once we graduate school/become a famous actor/publish our screenplay/get a “real” job/etc, etc. The idea is to be happy while we’re working towards those things. As John Lennon said, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Life is what happens “in the meantime.” Third, and most important:

It’s only food.