Sunday, 3 June 2012

Spare a thought for your French holiday waiter

...Tishoo! All fall down and you've got a major mess to clean up, and quick.
I was contacted recently by a young friend of my sister's who wanted to know if I thought he could, or should, try to get a summer job as a waiter in a French Mediterranean resort. He says that a couple of other people he knows are thinking of doing the same thing to escape Britain for a while and earn some money at the same time. So, for those people and any others who may be considering becoming a waiter, here are a few reflections and realities of the job to help you decide.

It does seem like an attractive prospect, which is probably why I became one when I first came to France. God knows how I managed it, but I stuck it out for four summers and winters (ski resorts) before I was forced to stop as I was absolutely burned out.

There are a lot of jobs going right now for those who may want to go down to the Med and try their luck. You might have to ask in a lot of places, but with a bit of luck and a bit of French you may just get a job for the summer.

Here's the kind of daily routine you should expect if you get a job in a mid-to-large brasserie.

Up early in the morning on your first day, one of your first jobs is to set up the terrace, which often involves carrying all the tables and chairs outside as your brasserie opens to the public. It's fairly physical but nothing excessive. Then you will start serving clients.

That means taking their orders, going to the bar and ordering the drinks (much coffee in the morning) and beginning to master the art of the serving tray, which is a big one in most big brasseries and bars. You need to master this quickly and have a knack for balancing a tray full of drinks using just one hand, because most pro restaurants do not permit waiters to carry a tray with both hands.

Try doing that when it's full of drinks
At around 11 you will already have served, cleared and cleaned off a lot of tables and walked a couple of kilometres or more, depending on the size of the terrace. There's also a chance unless you keep an eye on clients that one, maybe two, will leave without paying unless you cash them up upon serving. Don't do that with the locals though, they won't like it. It's already getting very hot.

Then there's a welcome lull just before lunch, which allows you to set the tables. More trips with trays of glasses and boxes of cutlery etc. But this is just the calm before the storm, or should I say hurricane. It may be at this time that you will stop and eat lunch, although some places serve their employees after the midday service.

In the space of less than half an hour and starting from midday the terrace will be full of clients all waiting to be served. It's a curious fact of life that it's not because people are on holiday that they are not in a hurry to be served, and some of them can be quite impatient. So you take orders, usually two at the most at a time, and scurry inside to give the order to the kitchens. Then, don't forget to take out the drinks you have ordered earlier because the golden rule here is never go out or come back in with your hands empty or else you will find yourself panicking in the knowledge that you are falling behind.

It's a whirlwind of activity and tempers quickly become frayed. Take out dishes as soon as they are ready or the chef will bite your head off, and the same thing goes for drinks and desserts. Bread, water, drinks, food, cashing up, clearing tables off, seating new clients and starting all over again, your head will be full of things to do, not do, and not forget. There's so much to do and keep an eye on that it comes as a shock at first, so try and anticipate events and the progress of your tables. Stay calm. Also, the boss will be watching you with a keen and experienced eye, and if you can't hack it, well, it's a cruel and instant "thanks but no thanks, and au revoir." When will things slow down?!

After two whirlwind hours, and just when you're desperately wondering if it will ever end, the pace finally and thankfully slackens and you wonder how you're still able to stand. You've walked the equivalent of anything up to about seven or even eight kilometres during the many dozens, hundreds even, of toings and froings to the terrace and back. But then there's another nerve-racking moment when, just before taking a few hours off at around 14:30, you hand over the cash, cheques and credit card reciepts. Did you remember to cash everyone up? Maybe you didn't cash table 16 up? You'll know soon enough, and any shortfall is docked from your pay. Then it's off to rest and, probably, sleep a little. With anxious dreams of keeping hundreds of angry clients waiting.

Back on duty at about 6'ish, you will probably eat first. Then you will begin serving again, except this time it will be even harder than it was at lunch. First it's the helter-skelter madness of the evening meal service, when orders are often more complex and complete, which means even more toing and froing than you did at lunchtime. Try not to forget which dishes go to which tables. Remember to look after the more distant tables on your section. And try to get the balance right between exchanging a few quick and friendly words with clients and not speaking at all because you're hard-pressed for time. This is the worst part of the day because of the wide range of products you have to order and deliver. And, it lasts longer too.

Things finally do calm down a little however, at around 10pm, but no sooner do they do so than the terrace fills up again with people out for their evening stroll around, during which they stop for a cooling drink and/or ice-creams. Your tray is now full of tall glasses, bottles and ice-creams. It has to be full because if it isn't you're wasting time. The tray seems to weigh a ton and your arm aches.

This is when you will see how good, or bad, your memory is because table turnover is quicker and a lot of people want to order at once, so not only do you need to remember the orders of, say three of four tables when you go back in, you also have to decompose them into hot drinks, bottles, beers and ice-creams when ordering them to make the bar staff's job possible. Then, once out the door with yet another tray, you have to remember who ordered what, serve and cash them up, take new orders, clear off tables and go back in again. And you repeat this cycle over and over and over again. In busy places, all of this is done without you putting your tray down, or hardly.

It's now one in the morning thank the lord, and if you're lucky you can start taking all the tables and chairs in again. They seem to weigh even more than they did this morning. Next comes washing and cleaning the terrace and, often, the interior too. It's still very hot and you are dying to get your clothes off because they smell of food, and get under the shower. God knows how many kilometres you've done. Finally, you turn over the money, hopefully the correct amount, and leave. Back in your apartment you fall onto the bed, absolutely frazzled and wiped out. A shower is a must though, so you take one and go to bed, because you are getting up early tomorrow, just as you did today. You will sleep like a log.

This routine is repeated day after day, six days a week, week after week, and month after month. Under a hot sun. The first couple of weeks are very hard indeed because you're still learning the ropes and are still inefficient, much to your annoyance and embarrassment. As the weeks drag out however your system gets used to the pain and you begin to go to late-night bars with colleagues. Many waiters adopt the 'work hard play hard' principle and some nights can finish late. Which means not only do you not get enough sleep, you may have a hangover the next morning too. But what can one do? It's almost impossible not to want to relax and wind down after a long hard day. It becomes a vicious cycle.

It's a punishing job, and as the months go by you end up losing weight, your temper too occasionally, you look like a ghost, and life is one long tired daze. You get more and more irritable with clients and other staff. The job's no pleasure at this stage, and you're only staying thanks to a steely determination not to give up and walk away, head bowed and your tail between your legs.

It can be very tempting to pack it all in during the first month or so, and many first-time waiters who simply can't take the workload do just that. But if you can just hang on in there you will, at the end of the season, become a proud if totally exhausted member of the bona-fide summer servers fraternity. And after that you will go on a much-deserved holiday yourself and start looking at waiters with a professional eye and a different attitude.

So, think you can handle that, young friend of my sister's? If the answer is yes, then go for it, and good luck to you mate.

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