Listening to Ann Patchett’s book of essays, “Stories of a Happy Marriage” has made me surprisingly nostalgic and left me craving certain restaurant dishes so badly that I scoured Pinterest until I found knock-off recipes. We have eaten Portillo’s Chopped Salad twice and had Maggiano’s Shrimp Aglio Olio tonight. The Cheesecake Factory may be next.
Through college, I worked at Maggiano’s Little Italy in Oakbrook Mall. That upscale outdoor shopping center teams with all of the mid-range to upscale corporate chains you can think of. Maggiano’s and The Cheesecake Factory were my favourites. And just down the road was Portillo’s. I miss the Chicago suburbs for their restaurants alone. It explains those 15 pounds I could never drop.
Like Patchett, I waitressed in my 20′s. She worked at TGI Fridays while I on the other hand waitressed at Maggiano’s. I also worked part-time at a Jewish country club and two family owned restaurants – one upscale Italian and one Irish pub. In many ways, though, waitressing at Maggiano’s educated me in far more useful ways than my Bachelors of Science ever did. What strength my degree gave to my resume, waitressing at a nicer corporate restaurant gave me in business acumen. My degree got me an interview, but my waitressing experience got me hired and moving up the international corporate ladder.
That sounds very odd, but Maggiano’s with it’s mandatory wine tastings, extensive menu exam, and free meals exposed my 20 year old self to the likes of culinary culture and etiquette I’d never seen in my small town, middle class upbringing. (How I got that job as a doe-eyed minor I will never understand.) I needed to know how to sell the dishes and wines and Maggiano’s let us taste it all for free so we could speak with authority. I had no idea at the time how rare (and smart) this is. I learned how to approach a table and keep a mandated schedule (approach the table within in 3 minutes of being seated, never ask them how they are feeling, give them your name, deliver a drink order within 5 minutes, etc.) without looking rehearsed. I learned how to take criticism from nice people having a shitty day and from shitty people having a nice day.
I am a strong believer in the service industry. It taught me how to treat people and to separate them as people from whatever piece of work or food they are delivering to me. A waitress does not make the food or prepare the drink, but they are the face for better or worse to the customer. Most people are just doing their job inside of a large machine while swirling within a variety of circumstances. I learned that I can only control my part, but I can make sure to do that part well. Most people appreciate that. The others are miserable assholes.
I thank Maggiano’s for teaching me how to navigate a menu at any restaurant and order wine without looking like a hick. It taught me how to make small talk with anyone and the all important art of smiling and nodding in a convincing enough manner to encourage conversation, but not reveal my utter lack of knowledge or interest in a topic.
It was also the first time I had ever really dealt directly with grown-ups besides those in positions of authority. I was treated like an adult with all the weight of responsibility and the pure joy of earning some serious cash if I busted my butt. I looked down on the other waiters like only a sheltered college student can. Like Patchett, most of the women were newly divorced. Most were getting back into the job market by any means possible. Like Patchett, many were artists – authors, actors, writers. I could have easily been working with Patchett which blows me away now to realize since I admire her work so much. I should google my old colleagues. Their days at the restaurant would make for some great material.
There were a lot of adult problems going on around me – infertility, infidelity, insolvency. Bus boys snorted coke in the bathroom and managers quite literally got caught with their pants down with a married waitress. My naïveté mostly sheltered me from it all. Incredulous, I did not see things happening right in front of me. And people were too decent to expose such a fragile little bird.