I feel a growing resentment towards the restaurant’s approach to gastronomy. Still, I increasingly admire the waiters. The pride in what they do. Their pointless work ethic. The Sisyphean nature of work: redemption through repetition. The camaraderie. The competition. Their relationship with money and the ephemeral. The way they feel like part of a big family, of something distinctly French. That, unlike the rest of the city’s inhabitants, they know something special. A secret order of magicians, perhaps. Only much less glamorous.
Because if a waiter does his job right, he will manipulate your perception of reality. He is, by all accounts, an illusionist and his job is to deceive you. He wants you to believe that everything is calm and luxurious, because on the other side of the wall, beyond that door, is hell. He is actually the living example of the facade.
The management is always in a high state of anxiety because in order for the restaurant to fulfill its role and give the illusion of luxury that everyone in the dining room expects, the innards must come out. Out of the darkness, across the thin divide and into the world of the living. This makes the restaurant at its most vulnerable. Everything else happens out of sight: just allude to “the chef” and the diner will paint the picture for himself, which will undoubtedly not include a dozen emaciated immigrants being barked at by stressed Tamils or a squirming Corsican.
The waiters are the weak point in this chain, emissaries from the Underworld are sent out like yo-yos with the understanding that they will return, and in the meantime play their part and perpetuate the illusion. But a waiter is not a soldier – as we know, he is a bounty hunter, and the restaurant pays him enough to ensure that he can live his itinerant existence, but never enough to allow him to escape for good. So he steals and cheats and charms his way into whatever he can get, which is why you pay him a tip. It is a treasure, given on the understanding that he will perform his role to the best of his ability as actor, bounty hunter, stage manager, bully and whatever else you want him to be so that your food arrives just as you expected it to. You pay him so that you get better service than the other tables. So don’t think that the world behind that door has nothing to do with you. Just like us, you are complicit.
Running a restaurant is an exercise in cutting costs while serving the result with a straight face – and in Paris, just like in other cities, towns and villages, this is left to a group of criminals. Men who for one reason or another have fallen into the waiting game. The only way to deal with such a situation is to strip each person’s role down to its component parts. Like engineers on a secret project, no one ever has the whole picture. In the prep kitchen, men are assigned certain dishes; just like on a production line, they will spend the day boiling eggs or toasting bread, while plongeurs wash, cooks are tasked with specific meat, the waiter serves. (There’s a man in the lower kitchen whose weekend job is to boil eggs, hundreds of them, and put them on ice so they can be dropped back into the hot water for a second when another Eggs Benedict is ordered.) But, the waiter is unique, because he also has to be in contact with the clientele and of course the other important thing: the money.
As the service unfolds, the waiter’s wallet begins to bulge with income,
every order is logged and will be ticked off at the end of the day, but until then the money is his. A man you pay the minimum wage (the amount that some have considered the absolute legal minimum necessary to live in this city) has all the business’s money. The waiters are treated with suspicion by every other employee for this very reason, but every station has its kick-back – you rarely see a chef go hungry, despite management’s best efforts, while the waiters have to eat what has been rejected by the diners, like vultures .
I have been in the restaurant for a few months now and I have no desire to leave. Not yet, maybe never. I am strangely drawn to the world of waiters; there is something ancient about it: waiting in Paris, with all the rituals – it fascinates me. And I’m slowly being let in, becoming one of them, part of the brotherhood. I want to be a waiter, have their respect and my own. The prospect of an unpaid internship in London (if I was lucky), tasteless supermarket sandwiches in front of a computer for lunch and a return to sofa hopping would not be a problem for living in Paris. Even when you’re exhausted, broke and hungry, there’s still an indefinable magic about the place. And no matter how sore your feet are after an endless shift, how physically dead you feel walking up Avenue de l’Opéra at night, or across the Seine in the shadow of Notre-Dame, inside, you can’t help but feel intensely alive. Because you’re in it, you’re in the movie. You don’t watch, you have a walk-on, talking part. And everything feels possible. Besides, when you’re in Paris you couldn’t care less about anywhere else. Your world is shrinking; it is the center of the universe. There is nowhere else.
After understanding how to operate as a runner, and therefore getting a bit of the waiters’ tips, I now find that I always have cash, even if it is much less than the waiters have. Dirty old bills stuffed in our wallets. If we use them for food, it is of course always in the cheap local bistros where one faux fillet fries costs nine euros and a carafe of the house wine five. This is the waiter’s way. “Eat where they can tell you where the food comes from and that they made it themselves” is his hard-learned motto. That and “Paying for the view” is a completely unacceptable approach to dining.’
The drinking takes place in dive bars or PMU bars after the service, when we can’t sleep despite physical fatigue, take rounds of drinks to calm the nerves. A waiter seems to have no real social life. You are condemned to work society’s social hours and as such your world becomes the restaurant and the people in it. Adrien says that if he ever has enough time to take a girl out for a drink, it’s for two pints of La Chouffe, which has the equivalent strength of four, and that’s it.
“After four, we’re both interested,” he says dryly.
Of course, the money disappears as quickly as it comes in, and there’s never anything to show for it apart from the occasional haircut, fags or hangover. Of course we all kick ourselves for using it when we hit a dry patch and don’t offer any good tips for a while, but this seems to be the reason to use it freely when we have it.
The waiter, despite his low status, is unique. As the penultimate link in the chain connecting you, the diner, to the undocumented immigrant scrub numbers, the waiter is forced into an unbearable position. A position from which only physical action can offer a redemptive escape. He has no choice but to finish the job started by the others somewhere underground. To continue the reaction and play their part in the game. Up and out of the infernos, only to come back again.
I think about all this as I stand on the street smoking before a dinner service on a Friday night. Green and white buses move laboriously through the evening traffic, light reflected in the opaque windows. They stop regularly and swallow their human cargo into the river of silhouettes moving swiftly in the darkness towards unknown destinations. It’s the rush of the weekend, the stench of leisure. Occasionally you see a face, before it turns and fades into the evening. Every expression a glimpse into France; if only you can grasp it long enough – if only you can see enough of them.
Paris is not France; yet all France can be found in Paris. It is the monumental city. Center of the wheel. Imagined by great men and carved by the currents of history that cleave on a battered coastline. In Paris the street names are the same as in all French villages: Boulevard Ney, Avenue Foch, …de Gaulle, …Jules Joffrin, …Gambetta, …Victor Hugo, …Voltaire and so on. Today’s greats will have a public swimming pool or library named after them.
In Paris, the grandeur of the monumental characterizes the intimate. Buildings for God, warriors or thinkers, large squares and parks. All this overlooks the narrow streets of boulangeriespharmacies, Thai massage parlors, garbage, tabacsgraffiti, estate agents, dog shit and phone shops – the thread that binds the twenty quarters of the city. It is in these places that the people work. The people whose lives unfold beneath the indifferent regard for the city’s monuments. Paris cares little for them, for she has seen them all before and will see many more afterwards. No matter because the town knows she wants to stay, even if it’s only in her imagination. You feel it as you walk around. There are few other cities that offer such beautiful panoramas as you go to work. It is both epic in its proportions and intimate. Even visitors to the city feel it; you can tell by the way they dress. How many other cities inspire people to dress well?
Right in the center of this giant wheel that is Paris is the Bistrot de la Seine. A microcosm of the city, of the country as it is today. Full of a defined social hierarchy neatly cemented into place by the physical layout of the restaurant. On the surface, everything is light, but the deeper you travel, the darker things become.
Excerpted with permission from A Waiter in Paris: Adventures in the Dark Heart of the City by Edward Chisholm. Published by Pegasus Books.