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Friday, January 6, 2012

Why Don't We Send Waiters to School?

Posted By on Fri, Jan 6, 2012 at 8:23 AM

This used to be a common sight in dining rooms. - FOODPICTURES / SHUTTERSTOCK

Up until the middle of the last century, being a waiter required a significant amount of culinary skill: You didn't just greet customers and deliver food, you dressed salads, carved chickens and deboned fish, and sautéed meats at the table. (In this month's issue of Bon Appetit, Brett Martin profiles one New York restaurant that continues to practice the waiterly arts.)

But with the rise of Nouvelle Cuisine in the 1960s and 1970s, chefs began composing individual plates in the kitchen, and all those tableside rituals began dropping away. Now waiters play a much more, let's say, etiquette-oriented role in restaurants -- still critical to a restaurant's success, but one that many aspiring waiters seem to think requires no formal training.

After enduring waiters who wanted to sit at his table or sneak exorbitantly priced bottles of wine onto his bill, Robert Sietsema, restaurant critic at the Village Voice, has had it up to here. Partly in jest -- only very partly -- Sietsema wonders why we don't require waiters to attend formal service training:

The basic skills could be taught in a week -- though it takes a lifetime to perfect them. This school would have a rudimentary wine class, and another that taught the basics of French cooking and how to pronounce the terms. The same course could also include the fundamentals of Italian, Chinese, and South American cooking. 
Other sessions would address table settings, the methods and mathematics of tip distribution, the job of the maitre'd, service ethics, and the respective duties of greeters, bussers, and wine stewards.
Now, any cook who makes it through culinary school is likely to spend some time on the floor of the school restaurant; many of them walk away swearing never to leave the kitchen again (except, perhaps, to star on Top Chef). And waiters in the highest-end restaurants have to undergo rigorous training. But mid-priced restaurants, where SFoodie encounters most of the most egregious service errors, would be the biggest beneficiaries of sending their waiters out for schooling. 

Sietsema proposes that restauraters, not waiters themselves, foot the bill, arguing that it would be cheaper for restaurants to pay for a week of training (or only hire waiter-school graduates) than to train waiters while they work. Restaurant folk: What do you think?

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Follow me at @JonKauffman.

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