We Lived to Serve, We Served to Live
The Staff of The Stranger Tells Our Restaurant-Work Stories
It's scary, but someone who works at The Stranger has probably handled your food. The writers and editors of Seattle's only newspaper have previously been employed at Palisade, the Cheesecake Factory, the Roanoke, Cafe Septieme... We've touched so much food locally, and even more from London to LA. Pancake houses, bakeries, and a butcher have all paid us money in return for our (mostly very limited) kitchen and service skills. In some cases, they got robbed in return (most egregiously by Dan Savage—go figure). These are our stories.
The Deluxe, Palisade, Johnny Rockets, and Cafe Septieme (Plus Four More) in Seattle, Washington
by Dominic Holden
People say strange things to their waiters. A man ordered a hot toddy from me and then complained that it tasted mostly like water. "They are mostly water," was the only reply I could think of. One night my friend Ellen had a man send back a burger: "It tastes too much like beef." There is no reply to that one. "Would you fuck my girlfriend?" a man asked. No, I'm gay. "I ordered a well-done New York steak 20 minutes ago—where is it?" Cooking. A woman at Palisade, on the Elliott Bay Marina, was careful to enunciate her words the way practiced alcoholics do, as she sloshed a martini in the direction of the water. "You see that boat?" There are literally hundreds of boats in front of us—there's a 180-degree view of nothing but boats—so I say yes. "That's mahhhh boat."
Managers say crazy stuff, too. In the summer of 1996, my manager was on bended knee—hands clasped together, proposal-style—on a honeycomb rubber mat that you see in restaurant kitchens, but he was next to the dishwasher so his khakis were wicking up wet scum. He was actually "begging" me not to quit. It was Johnny Rockets, and even though I was a hippie, I liked tucking my rag of hair under a white boat-shaped hat and mixing malts. This particular franchise on Broadway didn't require us to lip-synch 1950s hits into ketchup bottles, but I did anyway. Betty Everett's "It's in His Kiss" was the best, obviously. Shoop shoop shoop shoop... here's your float, daddy-o! "You're the only one here who really gets it," my manager pleaded. But the cooks were doing heroin in the bathroom—there was simply no urgency in that kitchen to speak of—and the money was shit. So I quit. (Sorry, David.)
Seven years, four restaurants, and two blocks south later, I got fired.
Just before we closed one night at the now-demolished Cafe Septieme, four young men—Russian, which I mention only to give context to their beverage choice—ordered orange-flavored cake with whipped cream and shots of room- temperature vodka. I cheerily obliged. Pouring booze generously into tumblers, my back to the room, I smelled something burning. They'd dipped the butcher paper that covered the table into the candle, and the resulting combustion was pluming black, waxy smoke and tendrils of ash across the bar. I cheerily—always cheerily—asked them to PUT OUT THE FIRE. And when I walked away, they lit it again. Repeated smoke, more tendrils, requisite cheer, slightly firmer request. It was midnight now, which was after our last call for the night, and the foursome pleaded for another round of vodka. Always helpful and cheery beyond logic, sure... okay, you can have another round. When it was time to pay the $75 tab, they left me a tip of $1.52 in coins. My cheer assassinated, I told the gentlemen that they MUST TIP MORE. I knew I shouldn't have. Making demands isn't very cheery. But they didn't have any more cash. So I pointed to the intersection and instructed them, "Go to the cash machine and get me a real tip." How much? At least $10. They did come back with $10, but they also returned the next morning and talked to the owner. That owner, the wonderful Kurt Timmermeister, had exactly zero time for my excuses the next afternoon, and that was the end of working at Cafe Septieme. Fair of him to fire me, but I'd do it again.
Septieme was different from other places I'd worked not only because people would snort cocaine off the bar (sorry to tell you this way, Kurt), but because I was proud of the food. Timmermeister had a farm where he grew pigs, and the walk-in fridge at Septieme was sometimes their destination. Go to the grocery store all you like, nothing makes you confront mammalian mortality like four quarters of a slightly fuzzy palomino sow stacked vertically on a rack, each cloven hoof jutting out in disembodied parallels. Just focus on the ground, walk past, and grab the cakes. Don't think of the pig. Ignore the tag that says her name is Jessie.
I was sometimes ashamed to serve the food at other restaurants. Hold that thought, because on this tangent, I'd add something about restaurant work: In the grand scheme of jobs, restaurants have an acceptably moderate impact on the world. There's not a lot of landfill waste, unlike, say, printing nearly 100,000 copies of navel-gazing claptrap and leaving it all over the city every week. There are no child slave laborers chained to a hamburger loom. But sometimes the food is shit and you know it. Or the customers themselves are just freakishly unhealthy.
Monday was all-you-can-eat fish-and-chips night at the Deluxe. Every Monday, the same two men would come in and start with three pieces of fish (cod, previously frozen) and a plate of fries (Russet, previously boxed) and three sides of extra tartar. Also, Diet Coke (these types always order Diet Coke). Two more sides of fish. Three more sides of fish. Another plate of fries. Just a half plate of fries. Okay, some more fish and some more fries. Always more tartar sauce. Then pie.
These men doubled in size over two years of service, and I personally delivered at least one-seventh of those calories. I felt complicit in murder, or at least a heart attack. But they were nice. They never complained that the fries tasted too much like potatoes.
The Backdoor Bakery in Los Angeles, California
by Lindy West
After college, I lived in a sagging, blue, house-shaped pile of mice on Silver Lake Boulevard (on the shitty side of Sunset) with three friends, a basenji with bowel control problems, one million black widow spiders, an eternally wasted landlord with "power-mad dreams" (his words) living in the basement, and a trio of fashion designers upstairs who would frequently wake us at 3:00 a.m. by roller-skating in circles around what I can only assume was a Matterhorn of cocaine. It was the funnest place I have ever lived.
I needed to find a job if I was going to stay in LA. Just a few blocks down Silver Lake Boulevard (nice side of Sunset) was the Backdoor Bakery. They had great fried-egg sandwiches! Their name sounded like a butthole! And they were hiring! I worked there for exactly six hours.
Instead of a traditional job interview, the owners told me, they liked to have potential employees work a "trial day" in the bakery. For my time and trouble, I would receive zero dollars, one fried-egg sandwich, and—potentially—a job. I said sure. I arrived. They put me to work in a back room preparing their very popular fresh-squeezed orange juice. The Backdoor Bakery went through many, many gallons of fresh-squeezed orange juice every day. Math fact: The number of oranges required to make one gallon of fresh-squeezed orange juice is eleventy grillion. Backdoor Bakery fact: All of those oranges were juiced BY HAND. SPECIFICALLY, MY FUCKING HAND. There was an "electric" juicer, but it only "worked" if you leaned into it mightily at an arm-torquing angle. I juiced and juiced and juiced for hours. I sweated, I groaned, my limbs cramped. Then, suddenly, I found myself momentarily alone in the room with the employee who had trained me on the juicer. She approached me quickly and quietly. "Get out," she whispered. "Run. Don't work here. Run. Get OUT."
In the end, it didn't matter because the Backdoor Bakery never called me back. Apparently my free labor wasn't up to snuff. I moved back to Seattle a couple months later. I really miss those fried-egg sandwiches.
Jams of London in London, England, and the Courier Cafe in Urbana, Illinois
by Dan Savage
I owe Jonathan Waxman an apology.
No, wait: I owe the people who bought Jams of London from Jonathan Waxman an apology. Or two or three thousand dollars—and, hey, does anyone know what the statute of limitations is for grand theft? In the UK?
Jonathan Waxman, says Wikipedia, "is an American chef who was one of the pioneers of California cuisine." He opened a restaurant in New York City called Jams in the early 1980s. It was his second restaurant, and it was a huge success—Jams got name-checked in the 1987 Diane Keaton yuppie/ovary anxiety flick Baby Boom—and a couple years later Waxman opened Jams of London. I moved to London in 1988 and, through a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend, got a job waiting tables there.
Jams of London was an American-owned, American-style restaurant, but a pricey one, and it featured "American-style service." It was a style of service—four-star but with an air of casual informality—that Brits just couldn't do. Local waiters had two gears: lickspittle servility or barely concealed hostility. Consequently, the waiting jobs at Jams mostly went to American expats.
The clientele was moneyed—film and television stars, business execs, the odd (sometimes very odd) lord or lady—and the money was outstanding: A 15 percent gratuity was added to every check (American food, American service, American tips), and the waiters split the take at the end of the night. Jams of London was a great gig, and everyone who worked there realized how lucky they were and busted their asses for Jams, for Jonathan, for each other.
But like all really good restaurant gigs... it couldn't last. Waxman sold Jams of London to a bounder who owned a rib joint off Trafalgar Square, and the new owner immediately revised the tipping policy: A 15 percent gratuity was still added to every check, but the money was no longer distributed to the waiters. All tips went straight into the pocket of the new owner, a man who had a large estate in the country to look after.
The new owner should've fired the entire staff and started over, but the place would've collapsed. So we were all kept on. Only now, instead of a group of highly motivated American expats who were grateful to the owners and wanted Jams to succeed, Jams of London was staffed by a group of seething, unmotivated angerbombs who hated the new owner and couldn't wait for Jams to fail.
Here's the thing about screwing over your employees: They find ways to screw you right back.
Which brings me to the flatware at Jams of London. The place had amazing silver—Christofle? Have you heard of it?—and before every shift, we waiters would sit and polish each spoon, soup spoon, fork, salad fork, knife, and bread knife. One day, while I sat with another waiter in the dining room before the dinner shift, I polished one fork for Jams, one for myself, one knife for Jams, one for myself, dropping each piece of silverware I polished for myself into a backpack at my feet. I left Jams that day with 12 settings—72 pieces of silver—which I still have and haul out (and polish!) at Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Just the spoons—in the pattern Jams had and I have—cost $118 a piece. I discovered that a few years ago when I decided to replace one of the spoons, which I'd lost in a move, and Googled "Christofle."
$118. For a spoon.
Jams wasn't long for London, and neither was I. Three months after making off with thousands of dollars' worth of silverware—I was looting in London before looting in London was cool—I was back in the United States, and on to my next restaurant gig: making milk shakes for sorority girls at the Courier Cafe in Urbana, Illinois.
The Original Pancake House
in Detroit, Michigan
by Dave Segal
Summer of '78, I worked as a busboy and dishwasher at an Original Pancake House in a Detroit suburb. I was 16 and training for my high school's cross-country team between shifts there. Whipping butter at 6:00 a.m. until it's softer than a baby's butt builds character—not the sort of character I wanted to build, but, whatever. I got paid, yo.
It's instructive to get grossed out by massive quantities of foodstuffs before the sun rises. When you peel potatoes, core apples, or generate vats of batter for hours without a break, you marvel at the sheer bounty of food needed to keep merely one medium-sized restaurant amply stocked for a couple of rushes. (Clearing tables was the gravy, er, maple syrup of the job.) Doing such tasks also helps you to understand why Americans are such lardasses. Seriously, some of OPH's pancakey creations were bigger than Rush Limbaugh's head.
Another thing I learned while toiling at OPH: Restaurants are hotbeds of employee flirting. Foxy young waitresses lugging plates of greasy sausages, fat stacks of pancakes, and madly scrambled eggs stoke libidos and stimulate double entendres. While our patrons were stuffing their faces, we youthful wage slaves were fantasizing up a storm. Customers' bellies weren't the only things getting chubby at Original Pancake House.
"Satanry's" in Boise, Idaho
by Cienna Madrid
Satanry's was my favorite coffee shop as a teenager—my mom and I dubbed it Satanry's because of their diabolically delicious fresh-baked cinnamon rolls that were the size of a toddler's head—so when I was offered a summer job there at age 17, I was jazzed. Sadly, the nickname soon took on a horrible new meaning. The owner was that special breed of hag that routinely violates health and employee codes, and hires teenagers because they are less likely to protest. Think 10-hour barista shifts with no scheduled breaks, the "five-second rule" being employed for baked goods that fell on the ground before being sold, and high-schoolers serving beer and wine to customers without supervision. (She also stole money out of our tip jar to pay for parking. Total hag, right?)
So whenever I worked alone, I invited my parents and all their friends down to Satanry's for free pitchers of beer on the patio. It was fantastic—I got to hang out with my favorite people, and I made upwards of $50 an hour doing it (they tipped generously, as you should for free beer). Right after I quit, a former coworker told me that the owner was being sued for beating her neighbor's dog to death with a shovel. Satanry's closed soon after.
Borders Cafe in Boston,
by Paul Constant
I've never been able to understand the weird pride that restaurant workers carry with them everywhere they go. Kitchen jobs are often low-paying, zero- appreciation affairs, but a lot of chefs and baristas behave as though they are, James Bond–like, the one thin line between civilization and chaos. Why, if you're getting paid less than 10 bucks an hour, would you brag to strangers at parties about working 16 shifts in a row with no days off? Or find dignity in the fact that you worked through a vicious case of MRSA last July? I've heard cooks from Chili's announce that their restaurant would collapse if they decided to quit; I cannot believe that to be true. The entire Chili's chain is nothing less than a tribute to the utter replaceability of every human being on earth.
All that being said, I myself once suffered from a raging case of food workers' pride. When I worked at Borders, a series of mishaps and bad employee choices resulted in my becoming the interim manager of the bookstore's cafe. The cafe was also short-staffed: I had two full-time and two part-time employees to cover a little over a hundred hours of operation a week, including very busy weekday lunch rushes and a decent weekend tourist business. Everyone was working way too hard to support the company that couldn't be bothered to support us.
One morning, I arrived to learn that one of my remaining full-time employees was quitting. That day. I retreated to the back office to try to jigger the weekly calendar into something that could work, some sort of a humane solution to the problem, but I had no options: I had to work the next three days, from six in the morning until 10:30 at night. With the hour-long commute I was facing, this meant that the only intelligent (to use the word loosely) way for me to do this would be to work the first shift, sleep in the cafe for six or seven hours, work that next all-day shift, sleep there again, then work the third and final shift. So that's what I did. Almost.
It's all kind of a blur, really. I remember that morning, for reasons I will chalk up to youthful indiscretion, I chose to wear a powder-blue polyester leisure suit and white T-shirt to work. Soon, the T-shirt was yellow with sweat and the polyester was rank with cigarette smoke from the breaks I managed to sneak in between British tourists (who invariably asked for our overpriced, microwaved calzones as "cal-zoneys"). My sneakers were stained with coffee. Grounds got everywhere, and the soda fountain exploded on my hand, making my forearms sticky and matted.
That night, I slept like the dead, my feet poking out from under my desk in the back room, and sprang to life 15 minutes before my shift, the model of a good employee (except for the body odor, the greasy hair, the stubbly chin, the smelly clothes). I worked another day like that, stepping out for cigarettes and food at the McDonald's next door when my part-time employees showed up for their four-hour shifts. I slept under my desk again that night.
The last day, I must've gotten weird. Customers walked in, looked at me with my spiky, oily cowlicks and greasy, gray skin, and immediately turned around and left. I made lattes and Italian sodas and microwaved quiches and calzoneys and doled out slapped-together sandwiches for those remaining people who didn't care about things like sanitation, but my voice was hoarse from all the cigarettes I'd smoked in the last few days, and my eyes were doubtless wild from not leaving that Borders for any real amount of time over the past 72 hours. When customers would leave the counter, I could not say for certain if I closed the transaction by saying "Thank you very much" or "I fucked your mother." Finally, the store manager told me that they were closing the cafe down early, and that I should go home. I politely refused. I only had seven hours to go, and then I had two whole days off, I said. I could do this. He politely suggested that I shouldn't argue with him.
But then a bunch of stuff happened, all at once. Outside, there were a lot of shiny black cars and camera flashes. Some men in suits, Secret Service–like, came into the store and asked to talk to the manager. He went into a corner and talked to them, and then he came back to me. "The president of Ireland is coming into the store," he said, "and she would like a cappuccino. Can you do that, Paul?"
Could I do that? Pssssh. It was all I had been doing for the last three days. I could do it in my sleep. And so the president of Ireland, who was in town for the unveiling of a new statue celebrating Irish immigrants right in front of the store, came up to my counter. She asked for a cappuccino. I made it for her. I made the fuck out of that cappuccino. She took a sip. I was pleased and proud to note that the foam held the shape of her lips after she came away from the cup. She pronounced it "very good." I can't imagine the terrible smile I must've given her in return, since I hadn't brushed my teeth for three days, but, bless her, she didn't flinch. I stood at the counter while she drank her cappuccino with a few city officials, and as soon as she left, I closed up shop and headed home, where I took the best shower of my life and immediately fell asleep for 16 hours.
The Bainbridge Bakery on Bainbridge Island, Washington
by Brendan Kiley
One summer somewhere in my teen years, I worked as a night janitor at a bakery. Everybody wound up regretting it. I regretted having to go to work at 8:00 p.m., as my friends were all just going out for the night, and spending the next several hours mopping and shoving disgusting rubber floor mats into industrial dishwashers. My employers regretted that they didn't put their cache of nitrous oxide under lock and key.
I tried to relieve the boredom of the job each night by putting on music and taking occasional hits of nitrous—we called it "hippie crack" back then. One night, while suffering a strong attack of adolescent ennui (and its attendant selfishness), I went on a full-blown nitrous bender. I sat cross-legged on the floor, behind the counter so nobody could see me through the windows, with boxes of nitrous canisters and the bakery's whipped-cream dispenser. I commenced to huffing in as much nitrous oxide as my poor body and brain could manage. I had put on some music (can't remember what, but it could've been Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth, or maybe even some of the Grateful Dead's folky/country stuff—those bands were in heavy rotation that summer) and eventually woke up to the sound of music while I stared at the ceiling.
I figured they were going to fire me. They did.
I didn't really care—didn't even tell my parents—and soon afterward got my first newspaper job, at the local community paper, covering school boards and city council and land use and other boring stuff. But it wasn't nearly as boring as mopping that goddamned bakery floor.
The Majestic Cafe
in Detroit, Michigan
by Kelly O
I waited tables in Detroit during college. Lied and said I had experience to get the job. I had none. Made my family answer the phone "Torsch's Family Steakhouse" until the restaurant called. My mom, I mean "the manager," gave me a glowing reference when they did.
A white gay guy with solid gold teeth—top and bottom—trained me. He knew I'd lied, and he blackmailed me for tips for a while—made me do all the messy side work like candle-cleaning and "ketchup- marrying." I also worked with a junkie dishwasher artist, a stripper with big fake tits who always got in trouble for her visible pole-dancing bruises, and the funniest black comedian cook in the world.
The restaurant had three-star prices and one-and-a-half-star food, so none of us made much money. To make matters worse, if you tried to cash your hourly paycheck anywhere except the bartender's till at the end of a "good night"—well, let's just say that check would bounce, and so would your name, right to the crappy shifts on the next schedule. On "bad nights," we literally went hungry, so we'd have secret feasts. We'd lock the place down at 2:00 a.m., and cook up steaks and fancy pasta—whatever we could get away with pillaging. We'd pour ourselves a couple top-shelf drinks, and once our stripper even danced for us all while we ate.
I quit after college. I never did get to cash my last paycheck, and I still have it tucked away somewhere. Kept it for laughs. I also still smile when I look at the salt-and-pepper shakers in my kitchen. I had to "keep" those too, on my last day of work.
Leschi Market in Seattle, Washington
by Eli Sanders
In high school, I worked at a butcher shop. I wasn't allowed near the band-saw-like machine that cut apart ribs, nor was I to touch the slicer, or even consider the knives, so I busied myself making sure everything was always clean enough to sell meat off of.
Gristle, wayward slices of bacon, lonely little plugs of ground beef that had fallen somewhere along the path to becoming patties, loose livers, unwanted flaps of chicken skin, lots of stray fat—I touched them all. The only thing that made it less disgusting was that all of these unsellable pieces of animal went into their own rubberized trash can. Something about the trash can's agreement—"Yes, that is so disgusting it must be separated from all the rest of the disgusting, bring it right on over here"—made me feel cleaner than I was, standing there in tennis shoes that soaked up the stench of fresh-cut-but-racing-to-rotten flesh and wearing a white apron that didn't always protect my clothes from the blood.
I was prepared, thanks to movies, for skinned animals hanging on hooks in the walk-in freezer. I knew, thanks to going grocery shopping with my mother, that chickens and turkeys often came wrapped in tight plastic bags. The thing that turned me into a vegetarian was the boxes. The large cuts of meat and chickens arrived at the butcher shop in big, wax-coated boxes. The leaking juices would bead up and pool at the bottom of the boxes like rain on the hood of a brand new car. This was too much. The calculated coldness of a waxed box—I couldn't be a part of such a thing.
I didn't last long at the butcher shop. I also didn't last long as a vegetarian.
The Cheesecake Factory in Bellevue, Washington
by Christopher Frizzelle
At a desperate point in my life, I answered a cattle call for open positions at the soon-to-open Cheesecake Factory in Bellevue Square. Since I didn't own a car, I had to bus it. The interview process involved a written multiple-choice personality test like nothing I'd ever seen before—pages of probing hypothetical questions meant to gauge how out-of-your-mind thrilled you were to put on your pants every morning. Questions like "Do you ever have plans to go on a romantic date but then cancel because you're doubting yourself?" Absolutely not, all my answers said.
I got the job.
It's more like they're testing for an absence of personality, which makes sense considering how programmed every second of the Cheesecake Factory experience is. All you had to do was wear a bright white shirt, a bright white apron, bright white pants, and bright white shoes—at six feet five, I looked like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man—and say the things they trained you to say in the order they trained you to say them. Since I'd never actually been a server, this was helpful. (I'd been a busboy at a small, family-owned Italian restaurant that gave me a reference—they lied.) You had to learn the exact titles of all the items on the billion-page menu, and identify dishes based on slides, and be able to tell customers which ones had cilantro in them, and refer to the cheesecake with white chocolate and macadamia nuts as White Chocolate Caramel Macadamia Nut Cheesecake and to the cheesecake with peanut butter cups as Adam's Peanut Butter Cup Fudge Ripple (no "cheesecake" in that name), and so on. But once you had all that down, you were set.
Once there was a big hullabaloo in the dining room because what appeared to be a homeless man was eating popcorn shrimp along with a woman and two children. It was Bill Gates, with Melinda and the kids. The other perks were that you got to flirt with moneyed Bellevue ladies (on Easter afternoon, one gave me a $50 tip on a $20 tab because, she said, "I can just tell you're a good person"), and most nights you got to leave with $100 or $120 in your pocket.
The stressful part was the computer watching you constantly. You had to say a certain thing to a new table within 30 seconds of them sitting down and something else within two minutes. If a table didn't get their food within another certain number of minutes, the computer alerted a manager, who then became involved. Stressful as it was for the server, the upside was a very focused level of service—a level of service you might sometimes pine for when you're being ignored at a nice Seattle restaurant. The downside was that not every customer wants a focused level of service. Sometimes they want to plant a flag, start a colony, and live at their table forever.
One time, late in the evening, a couple said something like "We've planted a flag, we're starting a colony, and we're going to live here forever—you don't have to keep checking in on us." Since they wanted me to stop hovering and since I still had a chance of catching the earlier bus, I started in on my side work, which that evening involved walking into a refrigerator the size of my apartment and pouring ranch dressing from a giant square vat into a tiny round hole. The square vat and the round hole at the top of the ranch dressing pourer were clearly not made by the same person, so it took some doing, and by the time I reemerged the manager looked at me like I'd killed and eaten his children. Turns out that table had changed their mind while I was in there and decided they wanted to go, and they had to flag down a manager to ring up their bill. The manager had droopy eyes and a very detailed view about what I'd done wrong, and then he got out some papers and wrote me up, and had me read what he'd written and sign it, and then I walked to a bus station, dressed head-to-toe in white, to wait for the late bus home.
The Great American Turkey Company in Bellingham, Washington
by Grant Brissey
I worked at a place called the Great American Turkey Company in the food court of Bellis Fair Mall in Bellingham during college. The first day there, they showed me the bong that they kept in the exhaust hood. A week later, the guys who hired me got fired. The bong stayed. We drank on the job and stole money from the till when people paid exact change. There was a fake rubber turkey that we were supposed to spray lightly with water and display in the oven when it wasn't in use. I stole it when I quit.
Chuck E. Cheese's in El Paso, Texas; Fuddruckers in San Antonio, Texas; Jim's in San Antonio, Texas
by David Schmader
My first restaurant job was at a Chuck E. Cheese's in El Paso, Texas, where a 13-year-old me lied about my age so I could start getting paychecks. (There were Go-Go's albums to buy.) The job involved wearing a plush walkabout costume of a giant, pizza-loving rat, in which I sweated like a pig while being assaulted by kids too little to hit back. I quit.
When I turned 16, I tried again, this time at a Fuddruckers in San Antonio. If you don't know, Fuddruckers is an international chain famous for its humongous hamburgers, which are hacked off sides of beef hung in a glass-walled refrigerator near the entrance and ground in the kitchen. I was a dishwasher, which was okay until I used my first paycheck to buy Meat Is Murder, the Smiths album that instantly made my job wiping guts off bloody grinder blades seem deeply uncool. (It also turned me vegetarian for life.) I quit.
The third time was the charm. The setting: Jim's, a 24-hour diner in San Antonio, where I spent the summer between my sophomore and junior years of college, working the midnight shift. By this time, I was obsessed with Tom Waits, which was perfect: Waits's romanticization of bohemian losers made my low-rent job seem soulful, and much of the diner's late-night clientele would've fit perfectly into the wacked world of Rain Dogs. Case in point: Hitler Cowboy, a tall, thin man who ventured into Jim's after midnight a few nights a week, outfitted from head to toe in classic Western wear—black felt cowboy hat, butt-squashing Wrangler jeans, boxing championship–sized belt buckle, snakeskin boots. Between his nose and lip sat a perfect square of a mustache. Were his demeanor different, he might've been known as Charlie Chaplin Cowboy. Thanks to his bitchy tone, shitty tips, and incriminating far-right bumper stickers, he will always and forever be Hitler Cowboy.
The brightest star of Jim's at night was even bitchier, but beloved in a way Hitler Cowboy never could be. "Total Bitch" was her nickname, and how she introduced herself the first time she sat in my section. "I'm a total bitch," she said, not bothering to make eye contact. "But I'm a stud tipper. Now bring me my shit." Total Bitch's "shit," my coworkers informed me, was a scrambled egg plate and a coffee with five creams, and it was to be brought to her without asking from now on. I complied, and eventually pieced together the backstory: Five nights a week, she tended bar at a nearby strip club, and after eight hours of making nice with good old boys rolling around like hogs in their lusty privilege, all she wanted was her goddamn eggs and goddamn coffee with no goddamn chitchat. I loved her honesty. Serving her was an honor. Her bill always came to four dollars and some change. She always left a five-dollar tip.
La Boulangerie in Seattle,
Washington; the Ingleneuk Tea House and Sidetracks Cafe in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania;
Roanoke Park Place Tavern in
Seattle, Washington; the Unnamed Cafe in San Francisco, California
by Bethany Jean Clement
My first job ever was at a French bakery called La Boulangerie. It was owned by a diminutive but elegant European couple; he played the bassoon, professionally somehow, even though Americans barely knew what the bassoon was. I inherited the job from my friend Gerrit, who was going away to college, and I worked all day Saturdays behind the counter, all through senior year of high school. Work started at the ungodly hour of 7:00 a.m., and I didn't like coffee. When Gerrit trained me that first Saturday, he demonstrated the espresso machine by making me a mocha with approximately three inches of chocolate syrup—my gateway drug.
Within a few weeks, my coworker and I were having espresso-shot-drinking contests. By the time we closed up at the end of the day, we were pretty much mopping the ceiling to the Benny Hill theme song. The coffee also helped if I was hungover from a keg party in the Arboretum, as did a little lie-down in the back on the cool tile floor. I loved making coffee drinks—the buzz of the machine, the hiss of the steam—and did it exactingly: Don't run the shots too long, don't scald the milk. At the beginning, I'd surreptitiously dip my finger in to make sure the milk was hot enough. I'm sorry if I made you a drink there that had my finger in it; later, I realized you could just feel the side of the little stainless steel pitcher.
The true greatness of the Boulangerie was the paradise of pastry. I was always so hungry—so, so hungry. An abiding hunger lived inside me. It was smash-downable with a dose of food, but then it would come roaring back just a few hours later, with the voice of a Muppet monster: HONNN-GRY! FOOOOOOOOD! I was two-dimensionally thin, to the extent that my parents worried I was anorexic, and I could eat and eat and barely make a dent in the Boulangerie's trays full of golden croissants, the pillows of brioche, the sugar-crisped palmiers, and the little shell-shaped madeleines.
The taste of all the burnished baked goods is like a muscle memory; I can run my mind over them and compare every baked good ever to their perfection. (La Boulangerie is still open in Wallingford, but the European couple haven't owned it in a long time.) A proper ham and cheese croissant, made with Gruyère, heated up (convection or regular oven, NEVER microwave) remains my primary love, still. Occasionally, someone would special-order a Brie en brioche or a honey-almond tart, then (unthinkably) never show up to retrieve it: heaven. At the end of the day, anything left over was ours—bagsful of baguette and raisin-studded escargot and pithivier.
Sometimes, people would call and say they'd found a rubber band in their croissant or—one time, truly—a Band-Aid in their baguette. "That is terrible," we would say mournfully. "But you must mean La Petite Boulangerie. They're a Pepsi-Cola chain. This is La Boulangerie—we are a family-owned, authentic French bakery." Your spine straightened reflexively as you said this, and you gazed nobly into the middle distance. This was the feeling of justified pride.
I inherited my college, in a way, from Gerrit, too—one day he was home visiting from school, and I ran into him on the sidewalk. "How's Swarthmore?" I said. "It's cool," said he. "Should I go there?" I said. "Sure," he answered. I went sight unseen and loved pretty much every minute of it, except my employment at the Ingleneuk Tea House in town. It was a stodgy restaurant in a Victorian house; its claim to fame was that James Michener had worked there when he was a student, which seemed like a poor one. They took me on as a waitress, despite the fact that I had a terrible memory and couldn't carry things. I worked for one shift, during most of which I hid from my trainer, folding and refolding white cloth napkins, terrified to go out on the floor. The shift meal was substandard turkey and mashed potatoes and gravy, with canned cranberry sauce. I hope I called to say I wasn't coming back; I don't remember at all. The Ingleneuk later burned down.
A few years later, I was back in Seattle with the world's most expensive bachelor's degree in English literature, unemployed. I happened to go to the Roanoke one afternoon for a beer, and I got to talking to a friend of a friend, who turned out to be one of the owners, and by the time I left I had a job as a cook in the Roanoke's tiny kitchen. I had no experience. This is the kind of thing that happens at the Roanoke.
It was just simple stuff: sandwiches, nachos. I'm sure the nice owner-man thought: Any fool can do this job. I did eventually attain competence, if that may be measured by people no longer sending their food back because the cheese wasn't melted. But I never quite got the extremely basic triangulation of making each and every thing as delicious as possible for other people just as you would for yourself at home. Also, if I got more than one order, I felt like I was falling behind, all alone, doomed; I just didn't have anywhere near the nerve for working in a kitchen. If you ate something I made there, I apologize: Even pub food deserves better, and I never really got better enough.
I did learn the best way to cut an avocado, and how to pull a tap beer with a snap, and to never, ever take a drink from a man before it was completely, incontrovertibly empty—I almost lost a hand a couple times that way at the Roanoke. The jolly bartender Tom would go out back to "play ping-pong," leaving me behind the bar, and the guys who drank there in the afternoons teased me, and I was shy, which made it even better sport. Once when I was back in the kitchen five minutes before the end of my shift, the phone rang—an order for 20 hot sandwiches, to go. "Tommmmmm!" I wailed, sticking my head out. All the guys all along the bar laughed uproariously, especially the one still on the other end of the line. I loved the sight of the lady who cooked nights, coming to be my savior—she was older, with long blond hair, and clearly knew what she was doing, and still she was kind.
I didn't work all that long at the Roanoke—we called it the Chia Pet, because of its exterior coat of ivy—but I got to go to the annual Christmas party, which was at a real restaurant (now closed) and had an open full bar. A lot of the liquor had been infiltrated by fruit flies, which were infused in the bottom of a lot of the shots; everybody drank the bugs, and no one cared. I don't think I've ever seen a group of people more drunk, or more fun. I love to go to the Roanoke still; it's dim and friendly and worn, like a tree house with drinks and pinball, and the food is actually good, with actually melted cheese.
My last food job was in San Francisco. It was at a cafe that paid under the table; I lived in a room that was meant to be a closet, so I'd be able to get by. The cafe is gone, and for the life of me, I can't remember the name. I worked with the immigrant brother of the immigrant owner, who treated his brother more like a dog. But the owner wasn't around much, and the brother and I got along. He was taking ESL classes, and when we weren't busy, I helped him with his reading.
But there was the matter of the ravioli. I didn't even know we served ravioli until someone ordered it. I asked the brother about the ravioli. "Ah!" he said, and started burrowing in the glass-doored refrigerator. He went so far back that he all but disappeared. Eventually he emerged with a metal hotel pan with dripping, opaque plastic wrap over it. He unwrapped it to reveal a school of gray ravioli suspended in fetid water. "We can't serve that!" I whispered. "Oh, no, no, no, it's okay," he said, and fetched a colander and dumped the ravioli into it in the sink. He started running cold water over the ravioli, rinsing away the visible gray skin on each one. "NO!" I said, louder. "It's okay! It's okay!" he said. "NO IT IS NOT OKAY! WE CAN'T SERVE THAT!" I said, loud enough for customers out at the tables to hear. We went back and forth for a bit, but I put my foot down, and I made him throw it away in front of me.
A little while after that, a regular at the cafe was talking about his new internet company, and it turned out there was a job for an English literature major there. I called the owner to tell him I had to quit, that I was getting my shifts covered—he interrupted me with a stream of invective I've not heard the likes of before or since. "I GIVE YOU THIS FUCKING JOB AND THIS IS WHAT YOU DO TO ME!" He went on and on, cursing fabulously and liberally. It was insane, but he was a grown-up, and I was shaking with an animal fear. Finally, he paused in his rage, and suddenly I knew what to do. "NO, FUCK YOU!" I said, and hung up the phone.