Waiter for a day

Jorunalist Zanatta waits on the tables at Osteria Francescana, Bottura's restaurant. This results in 30 notes

by Gabriele Zanatta
Wednesday 23rd September: journalist Gabriele Zana

Wednesday 23rd September: journalist Gabriele Zanatta (in the middle) dresses the part of a waiter for a day at Osteria Francescana in Modena, the formula one of Italian restaurants (3 Michelin stars, second restaurant in the world according to the World's 50Best). The kitchen staff, left to right: Pino Cesareo, Denis Bretta, Andrea Garelli, Francesca Riggio, Zanatta, Fabio Galletta, Sara Lucchese, Pier Pullega, maître Giuseppe Palmieri and Luca Garelli

Zanatta (journalist at Identità Golose): «Hallo, good morning Giuseppe, I’d be interested and honoured to spend a shift in the dining room with you, do you think it would be possible?».
Palmieri (maître at Osteria Francescana): «Of course, let me check my diary a second. Is Wednesday 23rd September ok?»
Z: «Ehm, you mean on the night when Inter is playing in San Siro?».
P: «Yes, so you understand the sacrifices a waiter needs to face every day».
Z: «If you put it this way, I must accept».
P: «Bring a black suit and a white shirt. And remember you judge a good waiter most of all by his shoes. I’ll give you the tie».
Z: «Thank you. I’m terrorised».
P: «And rightly so. See you on the 23rd».

This is how the day the journalist spent as a “waiter” for a lunch in the most celebrated Italian restaurant began on the phone. A waiter so to speak, because were I to do half the tasks real waiters have to do every day, I would have cancelled in a few hours a huge reputation, built in 20 years.

Why did we do this? Palmieri explained this well on his Glocal blog: «Critics can, in fact they must, enter the wheels of a restaurant to go into detail. It is necessary that cooks and waiters share their respective points of view to grow together. This is how the Italian restaurant industry can continue to grow».

This resulted into 30 thoughts/notes that help us underline aspects that reviews often neglect. The nuances of a hard job, pleasing as few others but incredibly underrated.
(NOTE. In this article, I apologise, for the first time I break two style rules: I use the first person singular and use a list, following a recent trend. This experience was too personal to try and give a detached overall view and the theme was too complex to write a systematic and comprehensive post).

[[ ima2 ]]1) How long can a lunchtime service last in the second restaurant in the world? 2, 3, 5 hours? If only! I presented myself at the doors at 9.30 am and finally relaxed at 4.30 pm, when the last client left. 7 hours.

2) You need to learn to knot the tie properly (or ask someone to do it for you): as big as a plum, not a grapefruit nor a cherry.

3) Putting anything in the pockets of your jacket or trousers is forbidden: mobile phones (even the ultra-flat ones), keys and wallets are banned.

4) 10 am: the mise en place is the first task of the day. How hard can it be? We lay the table at home every day. Instead, this task requires the competence of a micro-surgeon: the place holder needs to be in line with the fold of the table cloth and with the edge of the table, the bread plate needs to be at 10 o’clock and around two inches from the place holder. A napkin with the smallest crease cannot be used. The position of the water holder varies depending on the size of the table. Glasses need to be placed and raised always holding them from the base, for flower vases you need to put a finger in the top hole... as in the scene of a crime, you should never leave fingerprints around.

5) The first day of service after the closing day (Tuesday, in this case), you need to clean all the silverware with acid, from cutlery to water-holders, to bread baskets.

6) Long negotiations with dry cleaners are necessary: daily cleaning expenses are extremely high.

7) Before each service, tablecloth and table covers need to be ironed. Only for firm and delicate hands (like the ones of vets who make cats swallow pills).

8) I discovered the meaning of guéridon, the tall and narrow table used as an extra support for the small table. It is strategic in that it is flexible.

9) Micro-dirt vade retro: «Always check», at some point in the morning chef Massimo Bottura admonished, «that something didn’t stay on the floor after the previous service. It must become a daily piece of wisdom, like watering plants».

10) The two meals of the staff (at noon and 7 pm) are the most fun moments, the only in which cooks and waiters joke together. During my break I had Mezzi paccheri with squid ink and seafood. A dish worth a Michelin star by itself.

[[ ima3 ]]11) The feeling was that a waiter has a better sense of what is going on in the kitchen than the cook about what’s happening in the dining room.

12) The worst moments of the service are the first and last 20 minutes: the phase that goes from welcoming guests on the door to the choice of the wine is the most delicate one because it influences more than others the mood of the client (see Beppe Palmieri’s masterly post Quei fatidici primi 15 minuti). This doesn’t mean that you can completely loosen up at the end: goodbyes are just as decisive because clients cannot leave with a bitter aftertaste. In other words, you can never relax during those 7 hours.

13) Waiters are shrewd psychologists: in just a short time they need to understand if the client is apocalyptic (if he wishes to be by himself) or integrated (if he feels like communicating). And behave accordingly. Postil: the fact a client might be eating by himself doesn’t mean he wants to socialise with the waiters.

14) Only the maître will collect the orders. It is a moment of subtle negotiation. I didn’t know this and took an order: a table with two Americans asked me about the two tasting menus. I gave a sufficiently banal answer, they were convinced, I collected the order and handed the piece of paper to the maître. Palmieri first observed me, a drop of sweat running down the temple, then kindly invited me not to do it again. Then, when he read he had sold two “Sensazioni” tasting menus (the top), he relaxed.

15) With very few exceptions (see the orders mentioned above or the wine management, which of course is handed to the sommeliers), everyone needs to know how to do everything: flexibility, soft hierarchies and a constant change of roles is the Formula One engine of Francescana. Bullying, muzzles and strict limits as in old school teams are frustrating for those who are subject to them and counterproductive for those imposing them. Giving ductile and universal tasks is satisfying and generates harmony among colleagues.

16) You need a baby memory to remember who wants still and who wants sparkling water in a table for more than 4 people. You’ll need to write down a sketch on a piece of paper and check it before serving the water. Instead of asking a guest twice, try guessing by the number of bubbles left in the glass.

17) You need at least 6 months to train a waiter properly.

18) In the first days of practice as a waiter, the only thing you can do is observe others, act as an ornament holding your hands (in front or behind your back, you choose), pretend you’re keeping everything calmly in control and obey to expert colleagues («Let’s go and clear the V3 table», ordered Pier, 18). Never happen to be more then 10 seconds by yourself in a room: they might ask you where Modena’s cathedral is and you may not know the answer.

19) A good waiter always walks the guest to the bathroom. Almost everyone, sooner or later, will stand up at least once. This means a waiter walks to the bathroom between 3 and 5 guests per service. Out of the corner of his eye, a good waiter waits for the guest to come out and walks him back to the table, helping him to sit.

20) A good waiter does the most humble jobs without batting an eyelid. Like cleaning the toilet bowl if a client has had too much to drink.

[[ ima4 ]]21) Waiters can speak between themselves in the rare moments of calm, but they must always whisper and for a very short time. Or they can talk louder and for longer if they’re away from the guests’ sight.

22) A dining room runs smoothly if the maître exercises his authority with his colleagues with a smile: the iron sergeant induces tremor in his subordinates; excessive permissiveness creates a team of lazybones. With Palmieri the team was working and joked the necessary.

23) A good maître is the one who, in general, dedicates the same amount of time to each table. A maître who spends most of the time at one table only, perhaps with important or influential clients, is not doing his job.

24) On average – between laying the table and clearing it, pouring water and wine, removing breadcrumbs, taking pictures, answering the most varied questions – a waiter intervenes at the tables around a hundred times per service. A waiter at his first service should not do more than fifteen of these tasks (and choose to remove a finished dish instead of serving a dish to be eaten: if you’re not calm, a shaky hand could ruin the dishing out and the mood of the client).

25) «You need to convey positive energy even when you lift a dirty dish» (Beppe Palmieri).

26) With a digital pedometer in the pocket, between lunch and supper a waiter at Francescana marches 15 km a day. With peaks of 23. On busy days, it’s like doing half a marathon.

27) Happiness in the dining room is having a chiropractitioner putting the backs of the guys back in place every week.

28) On the first day of weekly rest, a waiter is almost always out-of-order: he either is Robocop or he tends not to (or doesn’t want to) lift a finger. Since 6th of September, Francescana extended its closing to two full days (Sundays and Mondays). And the staff in the kitchen and dining room is happier: they now even have time to plan a short trip.

29) Having flat feet and rigid shoes is lethal: I would have never managed to return to work the next day.

30) Working as a waiter is addictive: you change your perspective of the world and the nature of relations with others. That night I went back to the other side of the barricade, sitting at the table. I had the urge to stand and go back to help my colleagues and serve myself.

The first guest to enter Osteria Francescana? An i

The first guest to enter Osteria Francescana? An iron

STAFF MEAL. The team’s lunch before the service

STAFF MEAL. The team’s lunch before the service (at noon). Left, clockwise, Enrico Vignoli, Luca Garelli, Giuseppe Palmieri, Denis Bretta, Pier Pullega, Andrea Garelli and Fabio Galletta

Zanatta working on the mise en place

Zanatta working on the mise en place


Zanattamente buono

Gabriele Zanatta’s opinion: on establishments, chefs and trends in Italy and the world