Because I Can

A conversation I almost never have, even with fellow servers, is why we do it. Or rather, why we keep doing it. Many of us have higher degrees, sometimes two, and many have had careers within our tenure as food service workers.  Yet, many of us choose (in most cases) to stay in service when the world and so many of our peers say we should be moving on to more established, adult roles. So why do we stay in the industry knowing that for the most part, we are looked down upon for being in it?

At work today, during a particularly slow lunch during which none of us could make even anything close to covering our weekend spending, a fellow server and I were having that very discussion. It began as a self-deprecating, “I’m so happy my two degrees are serving me so well…no, I’m sorry, we don’t have nachos, sir” but eventually grew into an articulate conversation about what we do with our funded freedom, and why we choose to stay in a profession (or at a job, depending on how you look at it) which is deemed menial by most standards. Being in service makes a person, if they choose to embrace this element of it, the mayor of their own little town for their shift. My seven tables will have a good experience if it’s in my control. They’ll feel taken care of and special if I can help it. I’ll make them laugh, answer questions they think may be silly (but never are) and they’ll hopefully want to come back. It’s all the control that I have, barring kitchen mistakes and management silliness.

The conversation stuck with me for hours after. I wondered how it worked itself into my daily life so I thought for a moment and listed off my weekend activities:

Friday – worked lunch then went to a few places with some co-workers where we drank fantastic cocktails in industry-friendly bars (and paid far below market prices), mentioned The Smiths to the bartender and proceeded to sing about eight songs along with that bartender and then stepped out happily into the night.

Saturday – worked a grueling double with only the happy memories of the previous evening to sustain me. Made good money, all cash, claimed all for taxes winkwink (I kid, I kid…)

Sunday – after a failed attempt to visit family, I napped on and off all day then gathered myself together and headed to the homo-centric part of town for Market Days. Had a fun, strange, interesting night with one of my very best bests. Did not make a single gay boyfriend, however (to which two of my favorite gays replied, “REALLY?!”)

This weekend I have plotted a much-needed getaway where I’ll be staying with friends who assured me, if I could just get there that they would take care of the rest. So I’m getting there.

What do these things have to do with being in service? One word: Freedom.

During my time as a server (and bartender and host and manager and and and), I have had the most delicious honor of working with and for three of – arguably – the best chefs Chicago has ever turned out. As such, because they are fantastic teachers, I have the delicious honor of not only being welcomed into their restaurants but now at the restaurants their former sous chefs who have left the nests. Tonight, I decided to put on a cute summer dress and walk over to the newest one in the crop. My chef friend wasn’t there, but a former co-worker was (three, actually). I sat at the bar where I ate four amazing plates of food and sampled several perfectly paired wines. The night ended in the most appropriate way: a discussion about Morrissey which lead to the entire restaurant having to endure several Smiths songs in a row, simply to satisfy two people. The check was half what it should have been, and I know that when I left three hours later, I had a standing invitation to return at any time. This is a common tale repeated around town with both friends and former strangers. Industry is family, whether you talk or see each other often enough to qualify that. It’s a welcoming commonality and when it’s based around exceptional food and drink, well that makes it all the better.

Perhaps it’s because I’m passionate about food. I imagine sports people or mechanics or attorneys are the same way. They get around their brethren and things fall into line. A wink and a nod, a knowing glance, a universal inside joke. But when it comes to food… lovingly prepared and delivered to friends, something very special happens. Bonding and discussion, yes. But tonight I gazed at my delicate, thoughtfully constructed cheese plate and glass of lovely Italian white and I truly had a moment. The music, the company, the food and drink – all was right with the world. And I have to owe a large part of that to industry. Not simply because I was in a restaurant but because I got it. I knew where the mussels and squid in my seafood salad came from. I know the farmer who grew my baby cucumbers, I’ve met him on several occasions. I know the man who created the dishes, we’ve shared drinks and hugs.

I’ve said this before, but it’s so much more than fuel for the machine. At least to me, it is. It’s a part of my life that when it takes knocks and hits, I feel them deeply. Leaving my previous job was really hard for a while, it still is sometimes. I left a nurturing, educating environment and felt so completely out of the loop. Suddenly I was depending on GrubStreet and Eater for new food news like the rest of the world and that didn’t feel good. Funnily enough, I was on my way to one of the aforementioned industry bars last week and ran into my former chef on the street. He waved to me first and when we met in the middle of the road to catch up it was like not a moment had passed. I walked way so very grateful that he’s not the egomaniac so many of them are, yet another lesson learned.

At a job interview months ago, I was asked if I was willing to commit long-term to the restaurant I was interviewing with. Never mind my general fear of commitment, but that’s impossible to answer because well, I never know where the wind will take me but also, it’s service. Who KNOWS what I could be doing with that in five years. Maybe I won’t be in it, maybe I’ll have found my dream job near it, maybe I’ll finally get to design those menus and branding for that restaurant that one particular chef asked me to do almost a year ago. Who knows? I do know that no matter what happens in the future, some part of me will be in it. Or at the very least, near it. And no, that does not make me terribly depressed but thanks for asking.

It’s no coincidence that I am in my 30s and as yet unmarried without kids, and am in service. I have had three careers in my time and have two degrees. It’s not for lack of want or trying that I don’t earn a salary and haven’t been insured since 2005. It weighs on me, I won’t lie, but being in service during this time of my life assures a freedom that I need while I can still run with it. Eventually I do want to settle down. I’d trade a Friday afternoon at the pub for a couch movie fest most days, but for now I have the best of both worlds – the pub today and the couch hopefully again soon. And that is the one thing I look forward to daily.

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