In my career as a restaurateur – first as a manager and later as an owner – I have trained hundreds of employees on how to wait table. So much of what I have to impart “turns,” as they say, on movement: how to stand, how to place plates or flatware or stemware on the plane of a table, how to move fluidly through a section and around colleagues and customers—rituals I learned and performed over many years of waiting table myself.
I was once asked, very early in my days as a waiter, if I was a dancer. This was, as I was given to understand by the customer, intended as a compliment. He had noted that I moved gracefully.
This is hilarious to anyone who has suffered the punishment of having to watch me dance. My sole experience with ballet – other than having the privilege of seeing great dance companies perform in the Chicago of my youth – occurred one day when I was asked by my mother to pick up my little sister at ballet class. Her teacher, a man, saw me standing in the wings (I was “pretty” in those days) and suggested I would be perfect as my sister’s classmate. He insisted that I execute a few steps, upon which he threw me a disparaging look and told me to wait until class was over.
I’m no dancer, as my wife will attest. This usually comes in the form of an admonition: “Don’t you go Greek on me!” referring to my inimitable style, a perverse mélange of the horah, a few moves I picked up while traveling through Sub-Saharan West Africa in the early ’70s and Greek folk dancing I was forced to participate in while living on Crete later that decade.
To appear graceful as a waiter has little to do with formal dance training. It has everything to do with knowing how to bend, swivel, reach and pull, all the while stacking or releasing plates from an outstretched arm, hoisting a tray laden with the entrées of a six-top, or carrying a disk with four or five mart’ or highball glasses and a couple of wine stems.
I have worked with individuals – hosts, servers, managers – who don’t have a clue how to move in the space. They walk in straight lines: from the reservation desk to a table and back again; from the pick-up line to the bar, thence to a table; from the office to the host stand, only to peer at what used to be the reservation book and is now a computer screen, and back to the office, perhaps checking with the expediter to see how the evening’s going.
The overall effect is haphazard, static, linear. Compare this to one of my favorite pastimes of the summer—now that I’m able to enjoy a summer, having sold my restaurants some years ago: watching bumblebees careen from flowering plant to flowering plant, gathering pollen and then returning to the hive—a vacant birdhouse suspended from a wall of our home. Their journey happens in reverse order to that executed by a wait staff: while bees gather foodstuffs and fly back to the table of the queen, waiters pick up plates on the line, delivering them to a multitude of guests in a dining room.
But if you examine each of these performances as inverse images of each other, what you witness is an improvisational geometry that is regulated – determined by the specific locations of plants or tables, the hive or kitchen – and the regiment of honey bees or servers who must navigate the space and each other in a finite series of equilibrated trips and gestures which are, in the end, supremely functional rather than aesthetic.
But here’s a cardinal difference: It’s not as if bees converse with stamens; they do their busy work silently. A waiter executes his or her moves, all the while engaging customers verbally, describing the dish he or she is serving or asking how the guest liked this or that plate. Try it sometime at home. You’ll immediately perceive how tough it is, especially if you’re gathering four or six plates with their attendant silverware.
Is there an instrument waiters, or bees, for that matter, could wear that would record how they move in a restaurant or garden? I doubt it. If there were, it would show a diagram of small loops endlessly circling and swerving in ever tighter or expanding oblongs and switchbacks, pivoting at acute or obtuse angles with punctuated pauses that define points of service.
Understanding how we move in a restaurant encompasses the fields of human body dynamics, classical mechanics and human movement—what is sometimes referred to as human motion kinetics, wherein a body’s movements can be charted on a series of anatomical planes: the frontal plane, lateral plane and transverse plane. And this movement occurs in a public space (the restaurant) that, in its functional reality, is transformed into performative space (service).
To experience space as an organic whole, be that space your section or the entire restaurant, is to begin the process of deciphering not merely the nature of space but the mystery of form and movement through it.
The rhythms of this movement are various, at times sweeping, at times syncopated, the whole performance constituting an improvised riff whose duration commences at the beginning of service and doesn’t conclude until the end of the shift. And, in fact, as I think about it, the whole conforms to a quasisymphonic set of “movements”:
The Overture: Pre-shift (Lento)
The First Movement: The calm before thestorm of the first rush (Adagio)
The Second Movement: The first rush (Allegro)
The Third Movement: The onslaught of a full restaurant (Presto)
The Fourth Movement: The night winding down (Moderato)
Often this structure concludes with a Coda: The denouement of performing side- work, doing the night’s books, sitting and talking with colleagues.
While the score underlying a restaurant’s performance may serve as a backdrop, the physicality of the work suggests dance, and the various combinations are familiar: solo, pas de deux (ou de trois, de quatre, etc.), and la grande spectacle of the entire staff – a corps de restaurant, as it were – moving synchronously.
But equally important, if often overlooked or taken for granted, is the silence that, at its best, informs the execution of service. The only ambient noise you ought to hear in a restaurant is the clink of glassware, the diminuendo of forks and knives on china, the hushed or raucous tones of conversation. You understand the importance of background silence when a waiter drops a tray, when a cook lets a stack of plates fall on the line or when a bartender shatters a glass. The noise grates on our experience as diners, and suddenly, the room is hushed.
On the other hand, there’s what one friend calls “noisy movement”: the erratic, staccato stop-and-start of a server (or host or bus person) who’s clearly lost, or “in the weeds,” as we say in the trade. The effect on diners is utterly disconcerting. Being “visibly noisy” is white noise of a wholly different order, a subliminal disturbance that, in calling attention to itself, can grind conversation to a halt.
It’s been suggested that the earliest “concepts,” discrete sensations experienced and objectified by humans, were breath, movement and heat. I don’t remember whether I first read this in Volume 2 of The Eternal Present: The Beginnings of Art by Sigfried Giedion, the Bohemian-born, Swiss historian and critic of architecture, or somewhere else. It may have been in a volume about paleolithic Yang-shao pottery in China. It doesn’t matter. What interests me personally is that every time I step onto the floor of a restaurant, these are the three realities I experience most immediately, most viscerally.
The dexterity of an employee’s performance in a restaurant depends on a sense of rhythm at once internally registered and externally expressed. And the individual instrument “plays,” so to speak, with every other person in an ensemble of varying scale. To watch a waiter move with delicacy, gliding through space, conversing with parties discretely, is to witness a real pro at the top of his or her game.
At the end of the day, I can no sooner teach a waiter to dance in the space, to move with intrinsic grace, than I can teach a bartender to hear and mix cocktails to the International Call Order. You either have it, or you don’t. But when we see it – as guests, as managers or as owners – we know it immediately. I don’t necessarily want to define this as “beauty,” but when we discern it occurring around us, it certainly is beautiful.