Edward Chisholm on French restaurants and his memoir “A waiter in Paris”

OEating at the tables, this universal professional experience, is like hiding in plain sight. Walk through the swinging door of a restaurant and step into a completely different world, one that hasn’t changed much since the turn of the 20th century.

The profession is populated by budding actors, students in need of money, the poor, newcomers. It’s as much for those who go up as for those who go down well. Servers are often such a maligned bunch of misfits that the average restaurant treats them with disdain, while management pays them the legal minimum to live on.

I spent most of my 20s, from 2012 to 2015, serving tables in the French capital. The job taught me about hard work, human nature, and the brutal reality that is a waiter’s lot. It also introduced me to the underbelly of Paris, the strange hierarchies within the city’s working class.

The work is defined by ritual: polishing our cheap leather shoes with olive oil from the dining tables every morning; stealing buns and cigarette breaks during dinner service; judging where diners should be seated based on their appearance, wealth or fame.

As a waiter you are part of a distinguished tradition and an eccentric family – just look at George Orwell Down and Out in Paris and London Where Antoine Bourdainit is Confidential kitchen. In my case, the family included a former French legionnaire, a drug trafficker, undocumented migrants, an aspiring actor, a communist agitator, former guerrilla fighters, and a thief, among many others. We spoke to each other in bastard French and swore at each other in Italian, Portuguese, Tamil and Arabic. We were a brotherhood, a well-dressed Parisian street gang out to scam people for tips.

While the people we served rested, we worked. We went 14 hours straight without meals or breaks. In the wee hours of the morning, after the brutal night shifts had ended, we socialized in dive bars that served cheap drinks in exchange for the dirty bills that bloated our wallets. Sleep was taken on the outskirts of town, in thin-walled hovels with shared toilets, scheming landlords and bed bugs.

The job is defined by ritual: polishing our cheap leather shoes with olive oil from dining tables every morning, stealing bread rolls and cigarette breaks during dinner service.

There were benefits, that’s for sure. As servers, we were the most knowledgeable people in town. On a normal day, we serve a Hollywood actor food that, minutes before it reached the table, had been left on the floor. Or we could listen to a married politician whispering in his mistress’s ear.

But we were also like Tantalus, surrounded by people doing the two things we couldn’t: sit and eat.

Until recently, that is. The pandemic has shown servers that there are jobs that will pay you better and get you some sleep. It seems the waiters are tired of waiting and are looking for better things. There are currently between 200,000 and 300,000 vacant jobs waiting in France. It’s a similar story in most other Western countries.

During pandemic shutdowns, everyone dreamed of returning to restaurants except those who worked there. The next time you go out to dinner, think about your server. And maybe some changes too.

Photos: Thiery Beyne/Hans Lucas/Redux (table for three?); Paul Goldfinger MD (cover)