On Sunday, March 8, I left New York for a trip to London, joking with one of my coworkers during my last restaurant shift that maybe the trip would get extended if the coronavirus ratcheted itself up while I was away. Let it be a testament to how much of an impossibility I assumed that to be that I was willing to even say such a thing out loud, fate be damned. Exactly nobody needs me to tell them how much that changed in a week.
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I have been a freelance food and travel writer for the past three years, but my bread and butter income since 2011 was as a server and bartender. Was. When I returned from London a week later—the prospect of an extended vacation no longer seeming lighthearted and appealing—I returned to a New York where I no longer had a job.
I came to restaurants relatively late in life compared to those who make up its workforce, beginning around the age of 35. I took a job as a server assistant in an upscale casual barbecue restaurant while I was in culinary school, eventually chucking the idea of cooking for a living because honestly? I loved the front of house work. Nobody tells you how fun it actually is. Nobody outside the industry lets you believe you’re supposed to like it. Film and television would cast restaurant work—particularly service work—as something to avoid, or only for those with no other options. Even in upper echelon restaurants, the occasional guest may still ask us what else we do, as if serving wasn’t enough. But in my experience most of us who do it, love it.
I loved it for its energy, its mental engagement, its flexibility, its staggering cast of characters. And yes, I loved it for the paycheck. In New York City one can make a healthy living as a server, especially given the flexibility it affords.
A job is an easy enough thing to lose, though, even if it’s financially stressful. The much tougher thing is, I no longer have an industry.
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In restaurant parlance, we use the term “industry” as shorthand for identifying our brethren. When other bar and restaurant employees are diners in our own restaurants—cooks and service staff alike—we tag them as “industry” and go to great lengths to show extra love. This may take the form of additional items or a minimized bill on the table, sometimes it’s extra attention; a visit from the chef, or a tour of the kitchen.
Regardless of whether we work in the same restaurants, or even in the same types of restaurants, we show the love because we’ve all kind of been in the same trenches together. We know each other’s beat. Now we’re really in a trench together, wondering what shape our industry will be in at the end of this.
That it was among the first to be sacrificed in the wake of curbing the viral spread underscores its importance, not its expendability: this is where we humans gather. Communion is the kindling for communicable disease. To stop it, you need to remove the communal table.
From my view as a writer, I am daunted by the prospect of summarizing my own heartbreak here, all the more so for the collective heartbreak of the restaurant industry as a whole. I’m still reeling myself, and will be for some time to come, how over the course of a single week, work taken for granted as the kind of thing one can do anywhere on earth and often at a moment’s notice, is no longer a failsafe option. Restaurant people notoriously come and go, but now there’s nowhere for any of us to go. Even after restaurant service is restored the landscape will doubtlessly be unrecognizable.
But what I do know about those of us who call hospitality a vocation is that we will be okay, whether in our own, or in another industry. Why? Because nobody knows resilience like a line cook who got dressed down for the duration of a punishing service by a sous chef, yet still had the humor to have a beer with her at the end of the night. Nobody knows professionalism like a bartender pulling back to back doubles and nonetheless giving excellent drinks and spirited conversation to a guest hell bent on telling him how to do his job. Nobody knows task management like a front waiter in an 8-table section with an 8-course tasting menu.
The idea of “waiting” tables has always been odd to me, given how kinetic the act of serving is. Restaurant workers are a restive sort. But, for those of us in hospitality, now we wait.
Header image courtesy of Yuri Arcurs/Getty Images.