Otto Mueller studied and sneered, pacing slowly, wordlessly, along a stage one step above the floor, evaluating his new group of students. It was clear he regarded us with distaste. Maybe he felt it necessary to intimidate. He stopped, his angled jaw thrust out like a commandant's. I imagined him wearing, in place of wire-rim glasses, a monocle.
There were seven of us, and we sat, expectantly, at two folding tables parallel to the stage. Mueller stopped at a table with settings for two. He paused, as though waiting for one of us to run up and hold the chair for him, then took a seat. His linen was spotless, an arctic plateau lain with enough china, silver and crystal for four or five courses. He plucked his serviette and unfurled it with a single flick, then placed it, with practiced discipline, on his lap. He looked at us and spoke. "I am Otto Mueller. You are here to learn the proper way to serve." His inflection was pure Gestapo. He raised his chin and looked down at us through the bottoms of his bifocals. "I see you have noticed my accent," he said. "Make a note. I am not German. I am Austrian."
Jenna leaned over and whispered, "So was Hitler."
"We will begin," Mueller said, "with a brief test of your present abilities. You there," he motioned to a young woman sitting at the end of the row. "Please join me for dinner." She did as she was told, walking tentatively to the front of the room and taking the chair opposite the teacher. "And you," he said to the next woman in line, "will serve us."
The girl he chose as waiter looked to be all of twenty-two. Mueller bade her to begin. She teased her hair with her fingers and pondered what was expected, almost as though she had never waited tables. Then she remembered. "Welcome to our restaurant," she said, nearly making the statement into a question by raising the pitch of the last two syllables. "My name's Erica and I'm your waiter. How are you guys today?"
Mueller stopped the proceedings with a raised palm. "Exactly as I had feared." He signaled for Erica to move away from the table. "Your dinner guests are not guys," he said, stretching the pronunciation of the word until it hissed with derision. "They are ladies and gentlemen. I do not understand why everyone in this country is guys.'" Eyes widened at the folding tables.
"Do not speak to your guests as though you work in a McDonald's. Treat them with respect. Assume they are intelligent. They know they are in a restaurant. They know you are their waiter. And they do not care about your name. You do not need to tell them any of this."
"Well," said the confused Erica, "what should I say?"
"Return to your seat," Mueller said. "I will try to select someone with better manners." He pointed at me. "Care to give it a try?"
I admit, I've dropped "you guys" on my customers as often as the next server. But in ten years of waiting tables, I've also learned to read the people who come in to dine. Some find an affable waiter as important as a good meal. For them I spend the time not for tips, but because I want them to enjoy the experience. Couples on dates are fun. They're usually in a good mood and appreciate a waiter who takes a minute or two to get to know them. I'll bring them a taste of a new appetizer the chef is preparing that makes them feel a little special. Others want you to take their orders, bring the food and keep out of the way as they have their own discussion. I recognize these people before they even sit down, so there's no offense taken if they seem unfriendly.
Mueller's exercise wasn't so much about server etiquette as about playing to the audience, and I had him pegged. I stood up, threw my shoulders back and walked smartly to the stage. I bowed slightly. "Good evening sir; madame," I said in my most cultured tone. "Allow me to serve you."
Mueller seemed unimpressed. I mimed a pair of menus into their hands, and produced, with a flourish, an imaginary wine list. Just to show him I was in on his game, I asked, "Shall I have the sommelier suggest a special vintage this evening?"
Again the palm. "Presumptuous and ostentatious." Mueller said. "Do not rush. Ask me if I would care to see the wine list. And not so elaborate. We are not here to notice you. You may sit down." I rolled my eyes at Jenna on my way back to the table.
"Clearly we have much work to do if you people are to be allowed to work in the finest restaurants. Thank God your employers have seen fit to send you to me . . . before it is too late." Mueller smirked slightly, assuming his insults were lost on this latest class of incompetents. He picked up his chardonnay glass to toast himself and accidentally tapped it against another, producing the melodic ting of fine crystal. Jenna couldn't help herself. "O.K., not Hitler," she whispered. "Colonel Klink."
I was glad to have Jenna as a classmate, and appreciated her more as a coworker. "You ever think of doing standup?" I asked her during a shift at Enrico's, after watching her trade quips with customers and other waiters. But then, she didn't have to be funny to get attention. "What a body!" said Moe, the owner, after her interview. "I want it." I admit, on first look, she brought every traditional, chauvinist, Hefner-esque adjective to mind: blond, blue, busty, pink, perky. The first time I saw her perfect backside, when she bent slightly to place a glass on a table, I uttered an unconscious but audible "Oh." I wanted it too, but unlike Moe, I was more realistic about my chances.
After I got past obsessing about sex and accepted her as a coworker, it was actually fun to watch Jenna shoot down the single men who tried their best pickup lines, and smile at the married ones who sneaked peeks while pretending to peruse the menus. Her humor made her accessible. I've known women as attractive as her before; around them I usually feel like an Untouchable. She was so open willing to talk to anyone. She would even joke with the busboys.
Jenna didn't have experience at a restaurant as elite as Enrico's; she was more of the Olive Garden type. But it hadn't mattered to Moe. He hired her on the spot and since then had taken every opportunity to admire, praise and proposition her. "I will get her in bed, you wait and see," he said to me in his remnant of an Egyptian accent a couple of weeks after she started working here. He bought her flowers, offered champagne and invited her to a weekend in Cancun (which she gracefully refused). Hey Moe, that would be one expensive lay.
These classes, she said, would get in the way of her acting lessons, but she was willing to attend because she believed it would be the best way to keep her job and keep Moe off her back, or as she more aptly described it, keep her off her back and Moe off her. Me? I had to take two weeks off from my art for this, which was fine because I was pretty tired of the grind of exhibitions and weekend shows in the park, trying to explain what the canvasses meant to middle aged couples whose appreciation of art was limited to "Thomas Kinkade, painter of light."
I haven't sold anything lately, and each unsuccessful show has been like a BB of doubt shot into my artist's soul. At least Moe was paying us for the time we spent with Mueller. Honestly, I was a little flattered when he asked me to go to the classes. At least I'm getting somewhere in this career.
As we prepped for the dinner crowd that evening, I saw Moe at the bar with his daily martini. "I have to know," I said. "What's with this School for Service?"
He smiled like a man about to lay down a royal flush. "Enrico's is the best," he said. "We already have the best food. Now we will have the best service."
The best. The biggest. The most expensive. Mohammed Shabbani had the valets park his Bentley in front of the restaurant to make sure everyone knew just how successful the place had made him. To his credit, he spent much of the profit on improvements. He augmented the soaring, intricately tiled ceilings by springing to have the walls inlaid with deep-hued Central American mahogany. Marble floors and polished brass served as accents. He expanded the bar so it sprawled over nearly one full side of the restaurant it featured more than one thousand varieties of spirits so many spirits, joked Jenna to Moe, that the place must be haunted. He laughed at that, then, in his tiring style, invited her to come home with him to see his personal bar.
Never mind the food image and self-promotion were the keys. I should copy his attitude the next time I'm sucking cheap white wine with potential art lovers.
Today Moe was thinking business, not sex. "If you two learn something from Mueller, I'll send the rest of the waiters," he said.
I could see his logic. Add "classically trained wait staff" at the bottom of his advertising, and traffic would increase simply from people wanting to see what that meant. "I get it," I said. "But why Mueller? It's Stalag 17 in that classroom. There must be other schools you could have sent us to."
Moe smiled again, less deviously. "I talked to a few. They were all the same get you in and out and make sure the check is good. He's different. He has passion."
"He's a crazy old man."
"Crazy enough that you should listen. He's been doing it for fifty years. He knows everything."
He might know everything, but at least half of it would be lost on our clientele. Even at Enrico's, hardly anyone would complain if their food was delivered to the wrong side or the silver wasn't perfectly aligned. I'd attend the class, but would keep Mueller's lessons in perspective. The trick would be to incorporate his knowledge into my own technique. And what about Jenna? She wasn't as practiced as I, but her personality and attractiveness more than made up for any waitering deficiencies. Surely Moe didn't intend to turn her into a robotic order taker.
The second day and the class was down to six. Mueller didn't seem to notice, or was so used to this occurrence he didn't care. That even this many remained was a surprise to me, but I eventually learned that the other four students would receive incentives from their employers for seeing the class through. "I have two words for you to remember," Mueller began. "Preparation and anticipation. These are two of the three concepts you must understand to be a waiter of excellence."
Erica, confounded by Mueller's apparent lapse, asked the begged question. "The third attribute," answered Mueller, "some of you may realize in time. And some will never comprehend." The answer didn't help her. I predicted Erica would not share in the coming epiphany.
He summoned two classmates, Nicole and Rico, to his table. They stood and waited for his command. "What do I want?"
"How should we know?" Nicole asked.
"What do I need?"
Mueller looked at the rest of us. "Help them."
I thought I might have it. "Attention."
"Good. I know you will bring me those other things. What I need, as the gentleman has said, is your consideration. You do not simply thrust a menu under my nose. You wait until I am ready to receive it. Perhaps I desire your assistance in adjusting my chair before you begin. As your guest, I must become the singular object of your concentration."
Jenna leaned and whispered. "This is insanity."
Mueller heard her. "And why is that, miss?"
She gave him her sexiest smile mouth slightly open, head tilted, hair falling over one eye the smile, had she graced Moe with it, that would have knocked him to his knees in surprise and delight, and which, of course, is why she would never let him see it. Mueller, however, did not flinch. She straightened. She would try to be serious. "You make it sound like we're slaves."
"Clearly, you are not. You are being paid for your work. And that is why you must perform it correctly."
"Does that mean we have to fawn all over our customers?"
"Quite the opposite. Fawning is the last thing you must do. Instead, you should be nearly invisible to them."
"Well, my customers like to see me." Male and female students all appreciated her remark. "They want an experience, not just food and service."
"What you must understand is that in a fine restaurant, food and service are the experience. That is the difference."
I wished I could have stopped the class to explain to Jenna and the others what I'd realized about Mueller's lessons. They didn't need to fight him, just listen. Whatever they could take out of this class might make them a little more attentive, and that wouldn't be a bad thing in their case.
Jenna wasn't done, though. "What if they want to talk to me? A lot of my customers do, you know."
"Yes, I have noticed how many people are interested in the trivial details of each other's lives," Mueller said. "If they insist on indulging in this practice, you may engage them. But true ladies and gentlemen converse about more important matters." Even when he agreed with people he was able to insult them. Jenna realized she couldn't win this debate. Mueller moved on to a discussion of the differences among spoons.
Monday, and I had a day off from both Mueller and Enrico's. Time to get in some work on my art. A half hour into the session, Paul, from the gallery, called, apologetic. They're struggling too, and like to promote local artists, so they've been showing my paintings for a year now. "Hey, don't worry," I said. "You know you can call me anytime."
"I didn't call just to touch base," he said. "We have to let you go."
"You have to?"
"We can't sell you."
"What? After a year you just dump me like that?"
"Rick, that's the point. A year. We've tried. We can't get anyone interested in your work. Frankly, you should be tired of waiting for us to come through for you. I'm surprised you haven't dumped us."
I didn't know what to say. After a few seconds, I replied. "You led me to believe we were getting very close."
"I thought we were too, for a while. But the interest just isn't there. And to be honest, we have a couple of other artists who show promise, and we have to clear your work out to make room for them."
I imagined that while he was speaking another artist hung over his shoulder, massaging his neck, and that when he finished they embraced and jumped into bed together.
Despite Mueller's insistence on our attention, I had a difficult time staying focused on the lessons the following few days. I knew he'd catch me the moment my gaze drifted from his sermons, so I watched, but vacantly.
He called on Rico to set his little table. What this shaved head, pierced nose kid was doing in the class was beyond me, and, apparently, beyond him as well. He acted as though he'd just walked into class for the first time this morning, creating a display that would have any diner groping for the proper glass or utensil. Others tried, even Jenna, and I realized I wasn't the only one not paying full attention. But when he directed me to set the table, I surprised myself. Something must have been getting through. I was the only student who could tell a pinot noir glass from a cabernet, a demitasse spoon from a teaspoon. I set his table perfectly. I was the nerd in a class for waiters.
But what still confused me was Mueller's philosophy the contradiction of taking pride in being someone who was supposed to remain anonymous becoming something by being nothing. He returned to the theme of the noble waiter several times a day, and it was obvious he had no hope that any of us could grasp the concept, tainted as we were by a lifetime of self-indulgence and self-importance. We might eventually learn the intricacies of crystal and cutlery, timing and courtesy, but if that was all would the art of waiting be lost?
At five minutes of three on Thursday, during the penultimate lesson, my five classmates began closing notebooks and storing pens, like high school algebra students anxious for the bell to release them from the purgatory of a dull subject and duller teacher. Mueller played his part in this drama, refusing to let them go until the last second. Exactly at three he said, "You may go," and the quintet broke from their prison into the parking lot. I had daydreamed a bit towards the end and was left alone to pack my things. Mueller brought out a stack of small boxes and began to meticulously store the settings from the practice table. I recalled what Moe had said about Mueller's fifty years of experience, and shuffled closer to the stage. "What was it like, back then?" I heard myself ask.
He began without looking up. "A very different world. People knew what was expected of them. You had a job to do and you did it, and if you were very good and had patience, you would move up. I was headwaiter then; in charge of fifteen staff, and I was working at the finest restaurants in the country, Steirereck and Drei Husaren among them."
I sat back down. He had been waiting for someone to turn this spigot. He said, "This was a world you will never know. We served the most influential business leaders, performers, political people. Many times we hosted royalty: princes and princesses, dukes, counts, when they were in the city. Two thousand; five thousand dollars for dinner or a fine Pomerol was nothing to them. Of course, everything had to be perfect. Your customers must not be allowed to want for anything. I saw to it. The service was without flaw, and the guests did not even realize all the work we did."
I felt I had to stand up for a more democratic principle. "But for most of these people, wealth and prestige are just an accident of birth. How do they deserve such service?"
"Again you miss the point," Mueller said. "It is not who is being served, it is the service itself that is the object of your efforts. Do you understand? You must stop believing the work is beneath you, as the others do. Only then will you be able to achieve the highest level."
He was crazy, but it was an interesting story and that evening I waited for a break to relate it to Jenna. I thought she might be able to make a joke or two out of it. "I have to tell you what happened after class," I said.
"That class," she said. "I'll be so glad when it's over. Did I tell you? I've got a part. I have to get out of there early tomorrow so I can make rehearsal."
"How? When? You've either been in class, or here."
She hit me with the smile that had bounced off Mueller. It went to my core. "I had one night off. My girlfriends and I went to a little playhouse. After, this producer guy said he remembered seeing me in an improv show I did a few months ago. We started talking, and he invited me to audition last weekend."
"Are you sure he's legit?"
She touched my forearm. "Don't play big brother," she said. "I know what I'm getting into."
Back on the floor, Moe pulled me aside. "I'm glad to see the class has done you some good," he said.
I hadn't noticed any real difference in my service.
"You're developing quite an eye for detail," he said. Every table is perfect. Every aspect is timed perfectly. This is what I was hoping for. I'll have to call Mueller and thank him, and set up the rest of the staff to attend."
Maybe Mueller's lessons had helped me become a better waiter, but that didn't mean I was going to make waiting tables my life's work. I'm a painter, after all, not a waiter. There may only be two letters difference in the words, but there is a galaxy of difference in the pursuits. As an artist I create, I comment on the world. I stand for something. A waiter is a tool. A servant. The vocation requires no thought. Let's just say nearly anyone can do it, Otto Mueller be damned. I thought about Erica, Nicole and Rico from our class. They were made for waiting tables.
What I had noticed, though, was the seriousness with which I now approached my job as a waiter. I was incredibly focused. I suppose I had redirected my energies from those usually employed in painting. I hadn't been on my canvas for several days, and didn't, thanks to Paul's phone call, have the urge to express my art.
Friday was our last class with Mueller. I was expecting some sort of ceremony or at least a certificate noting our achievement. He directed the five of us (Jenna had decided to bail) to organize ourselves and serve him "to the best of your abilities." The others chose me as headwaiter and I assigned them roles as maitre d', sommelier, waiter and server. Mueller then became a one-man party of dissatisfaction. "This knife is dirty. I did not ask for lemon in my water." From the moment he was seated until the final cup of espresso, he criticized, condemned and sent back everything we pretended to serve. Our final exam, I realized. Could we take it?
"No matter what he says or does, just keep quiet and comply with his demands," I told the others. "This will all be over soon and we can go back to our jobs."
"I want to kick him," Erica said.
"Save it for later," I instructed. "We'll have a drink and get it all out then." It struck me that Mueller had combined every rudeness he had suffered at the hands of his beloved royals into a single episode of abuse. If we kept quiet, as he had, we would pass the test.
Jenna's absence from class should have been a clue to her departure from Enrico's. The note Moe found on his desk that evening made it official. "Bye, Moe," it said. No explanation included. Moe knew I was friendly with Jenna and grilled me. "She could at least have given me notice," he said. "What did I ever do to offend her?"
"We're friends," I replied, "but only at work." I figured she'd had enough of Moe's advances and an abrupt exit was her method of payback. It probably had something to do with that "producer."
Without her there to brighten us, Enrico's became a somber, darker place. Mueller would probably appreciate it. My customers, I wasn't so sure. Some of them still wanted clever banter before their dinners, or at least a friendlier approach from their server, but I was no longer in the mood for repartee. Instead I calculated the distances between pieces of silverware and the angles from the knife tip to the wine glasses. I wanted them right.
Within another two weeks, every aspect of my service was approaching perfection. Nothing, apart from menu items, had to be requested. I anticipated every need. I managed my tables like a choreographer. Each course was precise in its timing, temperature and consistency. No order proved impossible. When a guest requested a half order of crab Louie not even on the menu I worked with the chef and the man was obliged.
At a large table in the restaurant's private library, an extended family celebrated a golden anniversary. Their banquet was my exclusive domain for the two hours or so they would occupy the room. At one point, when I started to go back to the kitchen and check on their orders, I noticed the level of wine in the patriarch's glass was low. I instantly turned to refill it. He had ordered a bottle of 2002 Chateau Petrus Bordeaux, a glorious vintage, for his wife and himself, and their adult children. He was engaged in a discussion to his left, his hand extended from a monogrammed sleeve to gently clasp his granddaughter's. I swung noiselessly around the table to his right and lifted the bottle to pour not the ostentatious stunt of pinching the bottom rim and letting the precious liquid fly from high as a bartender at a night club might perform, but a simple, unobtrusive replenishment.
A dozen conversations buzzed simultaneously from within the room and the main dining area, obliterating thought as I served. I focused on the wine, a velvety red that slithered into the bottom of the large glass, like mercury released from a vial. A slight rotation of the bottleneck at the precise moment completed this simple, yet engrossing task. I set the bottle down. The old man instinctively placed his index and middle fingers astride the stem of the glass and began to swirl in contact with the tablecloth, without ever realizing I had been present. Perhaps I was not. I watched the scene, removed, as though I were outside a larger glass examining my own performance, being watched from outside still another a microcosm of perfection, repeated like mirrors held up to one another, reflecting into infinity.
I thought about that old man for several days. He did not ask me for my name, as so many other diners did, and I did not offer it, yet we knew each other intimately, diner and waiter, exactly as Otto Mueller had inculcated. And at the end of that contemplation I was refreshed. I had lost all need to know the individual identities of my customers, their status, the amounts they spent at dinner. The chatter and jokes were no longer necessary. My role was simplicity to observe and provide. I had become the perfect waiter, ubiquitous yet invisible, and the realization was liberating. It was as though the pieces of my life had finally fallen into place.
A few days later, as I dressed for another shift at the restaurant, I passed the door to my studio, slightly opened, and saw the canvas I had been working on when I stopped painting. The cloth covering it was uneven, revealing the corner of a lush vista of my imagination. A surge of adrenaline shot through me, like the first time I had been inspired to paint. I walked into the room, picked up a brush, rolled it between my fingers. I was ready to go back to my art. And I would soon. But first I went to the mirror and finished knotting my tie. I slipped on my waiter's jacket and headed for the door. It was time to get to Enrico's.
Copyright © Joe Ponepinto 2008.