A restaurant-service job can be a harsh mistress: long hours spent on aching feet, difficult customers, working late at night and on weekends, temperamental chefs and rarely such frills as medical and dental benefits. It's a tough way to make a living, yet among the students working part-time through school, the wannabe actors/singers/writers and the ones who are just stuck with service until something better comes along —among all those people are a few who not only make serving food a living, they make it a career choice. These are professional wait staff who know their jobs intimately, understand food and wine and can expertly guide a table through a dinner sitting under any circumstances, with the power to make a good experience great.
Da Maurizio's Kelly Allen has been a server for 15 years and although his start in the business was accidental, it quickly became his life. "I was in university," he says, "and needed to make as much money as I could in as short a time as possible." Allen began as a busser and was quickly working tables. Soon after, he dropped out of school: "I started making too much money," he says.
Allen's co-worker at da Maurizio, Carlo Giaretta, attended catering college in Europe where service has always been considered a profession. With a laugh, Giaretta says he doesn't know why he started. "Everyone forgets why they do this." Giaretta, who has been tending to diners for almost 20 years, left the esteemed Savoy in London when TV's Hell's Kitchen chef Gordon Ramsay took over the kitchen. "I was used to formal suits and white-glove service and all that was changing," he says. When Giaretta emigrated to Canada with his Canadian wife, he initially found the cultural differences challenging. "Having to talk to customers was hard at first. In Europe, we do not speak with guests like this."
The Five Fishermen's Avery Gavel had a different start to his 30-year professional career. He was working the front desk at the now-defunct Dresden Arms hotel and asked to be transferred to the dining room. "I quickly felt inadequate," he says, "and I began reading books about service from the library." Gavel eschews the idea of money as his main motivation. "Not at the Dresden Arms, in the mid-'70s," he says wryly, adding that waiting is "a version of entertaining at home but on a larger scale and with better equipment."
No matter how they started out, these professionals agree on one key point: You have to want to serve to do it well. A former manager told Gavel, "You can teach skills but not teach attitude. It takes a certain person with a service attitude in their blood." It's a sentiment that he whole-heartedly embraces. Allen adds, "be pleasant all the time. If it's not in your nature, don't do it."
Going to the same job day after day for years might seem tedious and dull, but these servers can attest to the fact that their working lives have provided a great deal of career contentment. "The job is different every day, never routine," says Giaretta. Allen also enjoys the social aspect of the job. "We have lots of regulars, Halifax's upper crust. They treat me with respect. I get to hobnob with the elite." But he doesn't only appreciate interacting with the guests. "I love coming to work with a bunch of friends who all get along great. All my friends work here."
Indeed, that's often the case. Those who work in the service industry tend to gather, date and mate with others in the business.Giaretta points out that those starting out need to make sure they are willing to sacrifice time spent with family and friends and all the stuff that comes with that. "Because you are working when they are off. It doesn't take much to begin with but it takes a lot to continue." Allen says it's difficult to maintain relationships if you're not in the same business as your partner, which can result in broken marriages and losing friends. But all is not gloom and doom. Gavel does not consider the hours to be a sacrifice and he stays focused on the positive. "It's nice being off when everyone else is working," he says. "I get to work in a nice environment, meeting every type of every guest imaginable. I'm around gourmet food and great wines and stay on top of trends. It's no sacrifice at all!"
As for horror stories and tales of woe, it quickly becomes apparent there is another reason for these servers' long and successful careers. No one is willing to embarrass guests and the only comment shared about them is a general statement from Allen. "I enjoy guests who are not pleasant," he says, although they're "a very small part of my clientele. They're a challenge—I love to see a grumpy person walk in and be able to turn them around."
Discretion may be the better part of valour and it's obviously a key part of professional service. Practical words of wisdom to those who would like to follow in their footsteps are best summed up by Gavel, "Always stay one step ahead. Think ahead so you don't get behind. And don't forget where you came from. There's nothing worse than gaining a little knowledge and thinking you're better than the people you serve."
So what happens when legs go, feet give out and the tips just aren't enough to keep the body moving? Allen plans to head where the pace is a little slower. "Maybe a hotel," he says, or perhaps a second career—in broadcasting. Gavel would like to tour wine regions but his fans needn't worry. Even after 30 years, "I've got a few good years left," he says with a laugh.
Liz Feltham is the food critic for The Coast. Read her reviews at: www.foodcritic.ca.