Waiter Confidential: Monkey in the Middle

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I work in a professional no-man's land, a crossfire of commerce in which I negotiate dining room detente, and navigate all the bullshit bandied about back and forth. And from those I serve to those who sign my paychecks, all parties concerned keep me at the center of the minor crises that all add up to another day's work. At times, I feel like I'm always "it:" The accommodating monkey in the middle of a game I'm not so much playing myself as I am being played by two sides in tandem. And the object seems to be to pit me against every potential powder keg of a problem to see how fast I can grasp and defuse any given situation before it blows up in all our faces.

What follows is an amalgam of some situational sticks of dynamite, typical of those flung my way on a regular basis:

"Waiter, I don't have your duck for table 22," Chef might summon me to the line- maybe ten minutes after I've taken that order- to inform me, case in point. "The count was wrong. It's 86'd."

"Yes, Chef." That's the only answer I'm allowed, of course. Because Chef- despite his kitchen's imperfect mise en place math- is still perfect. He cannot be held accountable or even be bothered by this. Not in the middle of everything. Not ever.

So now- in the middle of everything- it's officially my problem. Forget the fact that the duck order in question was placed too long ago for me to just waltz back over to the table and say, "Sorry, you can't have that now."

The customer ordered duck three trips to the table ago. I complimented his choice, and since then, that customer's been feeling pretty good about his decision and looking forward to that damn duck dish, free of any caveats or concerns. Now, I'm expected to politely go and piss in his Cheerios.

"Sir, please accept Chef's most sincere apologies," I lead-in when I arrive tableside, bad news in tow. "Chef discovered a quality issue with the duck breasts we received with this afternoon's delivery. It's something that became apparent halfway through the roasting process. Chef would like to know if you'd allow us to serve you a sampling of our signature pasta while he prepares another dish for you?"

I return to the line. Chef's waiting for me with a look like the whole thing is somehow my fault.

"Did you get another order?" He's busy, bothered, and as impatient as he is unapologetic.

"Lamb. Medium." I'm short, too. I've got a dam of other things to do building behind this issue.

"Six minutes." He shoots back.

"Then may I have a half order of gnocchi on the fly, please, Chef?"

"Fire a half gnocchi, on the fly," Chef calls back, doing the right thing.

Things start flowing again. For maybe five minutes.

"What's the problem on 22?" Mr. Manager/Owner whispers in my ear while I'm punching in another order. "I see three entrees going down on a four-top."

"Ran out of duck. Reorder is lamb." I only have time for the conversational cliffnotes. "Comp mid-course pasta going out now, right behind you."

Manager/owner whirls around and then back, and looks me in the eye, skeptically. As is his nature to do, he suspects a problem on my part.

"You took the right order?" he grills me.

"Yes, sir," I answer back obediently, biting my tongue.

"You brought the right dish?" he persists.

"Dish was never served. Duck ran out." I reiterate, praying for patience. Manager/Owner's next move, I think to myself, will be to confirm circumstances with Chef.

Bingo. Before I even finish the thought, he does. I snicker. As I turn on my heel, the wife of the duck-turned-lamb guy at 22 is giving me a come hither look.

"Yes, ma'am?" I almost hate to ask what's up.

"Tell your chef the gnocchi are wonderful," she beams. "And such a nice touch, to take care of us like this."

"He's good at what he does." I go with it.

"How's my lamb doing?" Equally impressed but still hungry husband inquires.

"Let me check, sir." I offer and walk off.

Chef's waiting for me at the line when I arrive. But there's no lamb in sight.

"Was there a problem with the gnocchi?" he barks. And I don't want to get bit, so I don't ask him about the lamb.

"Compliments on the gnocchi, Chef. They're content for the moment." I communicate everything he needs to hear in as few words as possible.

"Thirty seconds on your lamb." Chef commences the final countdown. We stand across from each other silently waiting it out. Thankfully, the dish materializes by the time I make "twelve-Mississippi" in my mind. Chef slides me the plate with a head nod, his good job gesture to me. I take what I can get, reciprocating in kind.

"Get out that fucking lamb!" Manager/Owner barges in, breaking up our chef/server bonding moment.

"Lamb walking," I trundle off, whispering "douchebag" under my breath once I'm at a safe distance from my "superior."

"Wow, those are beautiful," Mr. Duck-turned lamb says, ogling his T-bone chops when they finally arrive after all the hubbub over the almost-incident.

"Worth waiting for I'm sure, sir." I wager, before walking away. Sure enough, he picks the bones clean, shakes hands with Chef and Manager/Owner on the way out, and tips like an AIG exec handing out performance bonuses.

As I'm heading out myself that night, I pass by Chef and Manager/Owner, who are exchanging congratulations over a little wine.

"To a job well done," they clink their glasses. "You, too," they raise them again in my direction, catching my attention before I reach the door.

Hey, at least they recognize- every once in a while- where their toasts are buttered.

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