Paris restaurant

The other side of a Parisian restaurant is hell

I feel a growing resentment of the restaurant’s gastronomic approach. Still, I admire waiters more and more. Pride in what they do. Their sensible work ethic. The Sisyphean nature of the craft: redemption through repetition. Friendship. The competition. Their relationship to money and the ephemeral. The way they feel they belong to a great lineage, to something typically French. That they, unlike the rest of the town’s citizens, know something special. A secret order of magicians, perhaps. Just much less glamorous.

Because, if a server does its job correctly, it will manipulate your perception of reality. He is, for all intents and purposes, an illusionist and his job is to trick you. He wants you to believe that everything is calm and luxurious, because on the other side of the wall, beyond this door, is hell. It is, in fact, the living example of the facade.

Management is still in a high state of anxiety because in order for the restaurant to fulfill its role and give the illusion of luxury that everyone is waiting for in the dining room, the innards need to come out. Out of the darkness, through the thin divide and into the world of the living. This puts the restaurant at its most exposed. Everything else happens out of sight: just mention the “chief” and the diners will paint the picture themselves, probably not counting a dozen emaciated immigrants being barked at by stressed Tamils ​​or a Corsica with the scimitar.

The servers are the weak point of this chain, emissaries from Hell sent like yo-yos on the pretext that they will return, and in the meantime play their part and perpetuate the illusion. But a waiter isn’t a soldier – we know he’s a bounty hunter, and the restaurant pays him enough for him to live his itinerant existence, but never enough for him to get away with it permanently. . So he steals, cheats and charms his way to whatever he can get, and that’s why you tip him. It’s a tax on the understanding that he’ll play his part to the best of his abilities as an actor, bounty hunter, manager, bully and whatever else you want him to be to make sure your food arrives the way you want it. were expecting this. You pay it so you get better service than the other tables. So don’t think the world behind that door has nothing to do with you. Just like us, you are an accomplice.

A waiter shows empty tables to customers on the terrace of a restaurant on Place du Tertre in Montmartre on March 30, 2017 in Paris.

Lionel Bonaventure/AFP via Getty

Running a restaurant is an exercise in cutting costs while serving the bottom line seriously – and in Paris, as in other cities and towns, that’s left to a group of delinquents. Men who for some reason have fallen into the waiting game. The only way to handle such a situation is to reduce everyone’s role to their constituent parts. Like the engineers on a secret project, no one ever sees the big picture. In the prep kitchen, there are men who are assigned specific dishes; like on a production line, they will spend their day boiling eggs or toasting bread, while divers wash, the cooks are tasked with specific meats, the waiter serves. (There’s a man in the lower kitchen whose weekend job is to parboil eggs, hundreds of them, and set them on ice so they can be put back in hot water for a second once another Egg Benedict is ordered.) However, the server is unique, as he must also have customer contact and, of course, the other important thing: the money.

As the service unfolds, the server’s wallet begins to swell with revenue,

every order has been logged and will be checked off at the end of the day, but until then the money is his. A man you pay minimum wage (the amount someone has deemed the absolute legal minimum necessary to live in this town) has all the money in the business. Waiters are treated with suspicion by all other staff for this reason, but every station has its backlash – you rarely see a cook going hungry, despite management’s best efforts, when waiters have to eat what has been rejected by the guests, like the vultures.

I’ve 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 servers; there’s something old in that: waiting in Paris, with all the rituals, that intrigues me. And I’m slowly being admitted, becoming one of them, part of the brotherhood. I want to become a waiter, have their respect and mine. 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 the couch wouldn’t be a patch on life in Paris. Even when you’re exhausted, broke and hungry, there’s still an indefinable magic about this place. And no matter how much your feet hurt after an interminable shift, how physically dead you feel walking up Avenue de l’Opéra at night or crossing the Seine in the shadow of Notre-Dame , inside you can’t help but feel intensely alive. Because you are in it, you are in the film. You don’t look, you have a role of extra and of speech. And everything seems possible. Besides, when you’re in Paris, you don’t care. Your world is shrinking; it is the center of the universe. There is nowhere else.

Having figured out how to function as a courier, and therefore get some of the tips from the waiters, I now find that I still have money, even if it is much less than the waiters. Dirty old bills stuffed in our wallets. If we spend them on food, it is of course always in the cheap local bistros where a sirloin fries costs nine euros and a carafe of house wine five. This is the server way. “Eat where they can tell you where the food is from and that they cooked it themselves” is his hard-learned motto. That and “‘Paying for the view’ is a completely unacceptable approach to eating.”

Consumption is done in dive bars or PMU bars after services, when, unable to sleep despite physical fatigue, we consume rounds to calm the nerves. A waiter seems to have no real social life. You are doomed to the social hours of working society 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 are worth four, and that’s it.

“After four, we’re both interested,” he said dryly.

The money, of course, disappears as fast as it comes, and there’s never anything to show for it but the occasional haircut, fags, or hangover. Sure, we all blame ourselves for spending it when we hit a dry spot and don’t tip well for a while, but that seems to be why we spend it freely when we have it.

A waiter during service at the Chartier Bouillon restaurant near the Grands Boulevards on October 10, 2020 in Paris.

Kiran Ridley/Getty

The server, despite its modest status, is unique. The penultimate link in the chain that connects you, the diner, to the paperless scouring plates of immigrants, the waiter is forced into an unbearable position. A position from which only physical action can provide a redemptive escape. He has no choice but to finish the job the others started somewhere underground. To continue the reaction and to play its part in the game. To go up and out of the underworld, to come back again.

I think about all of this as I stand in the street smoking before a dinner service on a Friday night. Green and white buses move laboriously through evening traffic, lights reflecting in their opaque windows. They stop regularly, dumping their human cargo into the river of figures moving rapidly in the dark towards unknown destinations. There’s that weekend buzz, the stench of free time. Every now and then you see a face, before it transforms and fades into the evening. Each expression a glimpse of France; if only you can grab it long enough – if only you can see enough.

Paris is not France; yet all of France is in Paris. It is the monumental city. The center of the wheel. Imagined by great men and shaped by the currents of history like cliffs on a dented 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 etc. The greats of today will have a public swimming pool or a library in their name.

Waiters enjoy the sun as they stand in the rue de Rivoli in Paris on October 20, 2016.

Lionel Bonaventure/AFP via Getty

In Paris, the grandeur of the monumental punctuates the intimate. Buildings to God, wars or thinkers, vast squares and parks. All this overlooks the narrow streets of bakeriespharmacies, Thai massage parlors, garbage cans, tobaccosgraffiti, real estate agents, dog poo and phone shops – the thread that connects the twenty neighborhoods from the city. It is in these places that people work. The people whose lives are played out under the indifferent gaze of the city’s monuments. Paris cares little, because she has seen them all and will see many more afterwards. Indifferent because the city knows that it will remain so, if only in the imagination. You feel it as you walk around. There are few other cities that offer such beautiful views when commuting 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 encourage people to dress well?

At 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. Filled with a defined social hierarchy perfectly cemented by the physical layout of the restaurant. On the surface all is light, but the deeper one travels 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.


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