Chow Bella

Embedded at Petite Maison: Lauren Saria Tackles the Front of the House

For most restaurateurs, it's simply about gluttony. But James and Wendy Porter of Petite Maison in Scottsdale are gluttons for punishment. There's no other explanation for why they would invite Chow Bella contributors to work both the front of the house and the kitchen on a weekend, and during Arizona Restaurant Week. Earlier this week, Zach Fowle manned the soufflés. Today: Lauren Saria hits up her inner hostess.

They say you shouldn't judge until you've walked a mile in someone else's shoes. Well, as food writers, my colleagues and I have done quite a lot of judging. But last weekend, I got a chance to walk the walk.

I can't speak for Zach Fowle, who stuck to the kitchen, but I'm pretty sure that in the one night I worked at Chef James Porter's Petite Maison, I covered well over a mile.

Greeting, seating, watering, busing, and resetting seats for 100 people. As I shadowed my fellow hostess, Sarah, around the small restaurant floor, I realized that's essentially what my job boiled down to. Well, that and keeping a cool head and friendly smile on all night.

Not impossible, I thought to myself as we prepared for the night to begin.

And the first hour slipped by surprisingly easily. After saying "I'm sorry you'll have to speak up" a few times, I ditched my cautious inquires for a confident timbre. I was just getting comfortable greeting patrons without feeling like I was iniviting guests into a stranger's home -- then the real work began.

A constant stream of customers wanting tables we simply didn't have available began to arrive. Course after course came out of that tiny kitchen, meaning piles of plates to be removed. Water glasses seemed to empty on their own.

"I warned you the first hour would be slow," quipped one of the servers as he whizzed by, obviously noticing the of panic slowly creeping into my face.

Eventually, I found my groove. I had to. With no time to worry about how many ice cubes I was pouring into each water glass, I, too, began to whirl around corners and tables with the confidence of . . . well, a regular hostess. I got pretty comfortable -- I think I took them all by surprise.

"That's a big smile for this late at night," Wendy Porter remarked around 8:30. "You looking for a job?"

I'm not. At least not this one. Because the truth is, these jobs -- even if you're really good at them -- they're hard. Really hard. They don't always pay well. The hours aren't great and they stress me the heck out.

I'll admit I do quite a bit of fine dining and from these experiences I've come to expect what I would consider a careful balance between reserved professionalism and polite flattery from front-of-the-house staff. I often imagine my waiter's thoughts as he or she sizes me up, determines if our party is a worthy investment of time and effort and delivers service accordingly.

But last weekend, it was refreshing to see a dinner service from a different point of view. As a member of the small and carefully chosen group of people who want, above all, to provide their diners with delicious food and exceptional service. Sure, they also want you to put a fat tip at the bottom of your receipt, but they know the only way that happens is by making sure you have one hell of a meal.

It's all too easy to forget that outside of being your waiter, these people are just that: people. Which means there are things -- plenty of things -- they can't do, change, help, prevent, foresee, or otherwise stave off from ruining your night. It doesn't mean they're out to get you and probably doesn't mean they don't care; it just means you got some bad luck. And, yeah, that sucks.

But when you can't change a situation. The only thing you can do is change your attitude about it (thanks, Mom, for that lesson). During my night at Petite Maison I saw one customer ruin his dinner with cynicism, stubbornness, and, at times, a downright rude attitude.

Trust me, you don't want to be that guy.

There are a million and one reasons why you may have to wait an extra five minutes for your table despite having a reservation. I saw at least a dozen just that night. As Zach Fowle can attest, there are a million other reasons why your food may arrive in more time than you would have hoped. In some of these situations, there may be a single person at whom you can point your accusatory finger. In most cases, it results from a string of events that may well be outside of the control of your server, hostess, and even the restaurant owner.

Nothing's perfect in this world, and from one picky, high-expectation customer to another, no restaurant will ever truly meet all your expectations. No restaurant and no restaurant staff are perfect. And at the end of the night, at least at the end of my night, as I as hobbled away on sore feet and basked in golden silence, I realized that's okay.

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Lauren Saria
Contact: Lauren Saria