Thursday, May 17, 2007

Order! Order!

A couple of years ago, when I dined at the Indian restaurant run by the Temple of Fine Arts here, I looked around at the 'waiters' and 'waitresses' in awe. I'd heard that were all volunteers, professionals like doctors and lawyers who had devoted their time to serve at the restaurant. As I looked at the men in their dignified kurta-pajamas and the ladies in their elegant saris, I felt a deep sense of respect for them.

Little did I know that a few years later, I'd be one of them.

Last week I got a 'promotion'. It was a very proud moment for me. When I started volunteering, I was stationed in the kitchen and my task was to get the food ready to be taken out by those in saris and kurtas. The 'promotion' indicated that I was considered presentable and trustworthy enough to 'take the floor'. Meaning not only did I get to serve the food to the restaurant patrons, I also got to wear a sari and do it. I've been 'on the floor' for almost a week now, and though it is very different from being inside the kitchen and getting the orders ready, it has its own challenges.

Firstly, there's the weight. Even light meals are actually not that 'light'. It's not easy to balance everything on the tray, navigate amongst the mesh of tables and chairs, find the right table and then go around it, carefully placing each dish in front of the right person. And all this in a sari and jewellery (the other aunties insisted I wear a bigger bindi and some jewellery too)! You have to memorise the table numbers and locations, there's no way you will find your table if you just walk around looking for the number, cos it will be invariably be covered by a jug of water, a napkin, the menu, and what not.

And oh, did I mention I'm on the way to becoming ambidextrous now? My left hand is getting stronger by the day. Here's now. When you serve a thali meal, you carry the tray with the million things on it using both hands, but once you reach the table, you have to serve the basket with the puri/chapati using your right hand. And at that point in time, the gigantic plate with all the little dishes is resting on little but your fragile left hand. 90% of your concentration must be on not dropping it on your patron's head, while the other 10% goes into mental calculations on how to make space on the table for the plate to rest. Not easy. I really admire my 'boss' Aunty R (of course, we're all volunteering, so there's no 'boss' system, but she taught me almost everything I know) who can effortlessly carry two meals at a time and glide through to the table tucked in the middle of everything.

Temperatures in the kitchen are often as high as the oil in which the puris are deep-fried. On the floor, however, is a calmer picture. So when I am fleeting in out of the kitchen, my facial muscles get a lot of exercise. In one moment, it'd be, "Where is the extra raita with the chana bhatura??? I asked for extra raita with the chana bhatura!!!!!!!!!" and the next moment, it'd be a calm, pleasant and hospitable, "Here's your chana bhatura with extra raita, sir. Enjoy your meal."

And just when you finish serving and head towards the kitchen, you encounter raised hands from what seem like every alternate table around you. My history as a teacher of primary school children makes me want to yell, "One at a time, kids! Okay? Otherwise I will not attend to anyone. Understand?" but I have to stop myself from doing that. Ahem. The raised hands can be for anything - from "Can I have an extra basket of papads?" to "Where is the washroom?" to "I ordered a mango lassi, but it is not here yet." to "I did not order this, but can I have one too?" to "Does this have garlic?" and what not.

A lot of the patrons are non-Indians, and they ask the weirdest, most random questions of all. Once I was asked, "Is the South Indian thali more sour or the North Indian one? I'd like to order the more sour one." Thankfully, my familiarity with both kinds of cuisine helped me out on this one. Tamarind is used in both sambar and rasam, so surely that had to be the more sour one. The Indian patrons - many of whom are South Indians, also present a challenge, especially if they name the dishes they want, in Tamil! Everyone at the restaurant speaks Tamil, and sometimes all I do is catch the English words and figure out what the hell everyone is talking about. This guy once ordered what sounded like "Nimbu without ice". I did not wanna clarify if he meant numbupani (lemonade) because he looked so confident (he was a regular), so I went in and asked if there was a drink that sounded like 'Nimbu'. Thankfully Clueless - my partner in crime - was able to identify the word as 'Neer more' (buttermilk). Phew.

Of course I have the last laugh when people order in Hindi. Once Aunty R came to the kitchen and asked me what kind of a dish "Adha" was. Apparently someone had ordered "Adha". So I asked her if he'd said something before or after the 'Adha' and it turns out he wanted half a portion of the potato curry. And Sayesha saves the day muahahaha.

Then there was the Caucasian lady who stared at the painting on the wall and engaged me in a lengthy conversation about sari pallus and dupattas.

On my first day on the floor, one of the guys at a table asked me if I was new. Sheesh. "This can't be good" I thought to myself. I'd got the order right, I'd not spilt anything on any of them, why the hell was he asking me if I was new? When I said I was, he even asked me my name. Man, he was so gonna complain. But complain about what? Later, Aunty R put my fears to rest. Apparently, they were regulars. People who worked in the area and ate there every single day. No wonder they got curious when they saw a new face. Phew, that was all it was. Of course, Aunty R told me in detail how they got scolded for not asking her name when she'd been serving them for months, but as she put it, "one young girl appears and they want to know her name??" Hahaha! :D

But the best part is when all of us 'waitresses' sit down in the late afternoon, chat and share stories. I heard a good one today. One of the girls was on her way back to the kitchen with a complicated order in her head when she was summoned by a guy at the next table. She went over, nervous and heard the words, "Too sweet... lassi...". So she started profusely apologising for the high sugar level in the lassi, only to realise that all he was doing was trying to order "Two sweet lassis".

Ooh this one's mine. In my quest to be as professional as possible, I started incorporating the "Enjoy your meal" phrase after serving it. Yesterday I served a lady her meal, and said, "Enjoy your meal." and went back to the kitchen to fetch her guy friend's meal. However, when I got there with his food, she'd finished her food, but he'd gone to the bathroom. I kept his food on the table, and felt this sudden loss of words to say. I felt like I should say something, but there really was nothing to say. It had become such an automatic thing to say "Enjoy your meal." that I had to literally strangulate my cheeky self to not end up saying "Enjoy his meal." to her! Sheesh.

Volunteering there teaches me a little something every single day. And I'm not just talking about killer cooking skills muahaha. Often, I smile at the parallels I draw between this and my previous job as a book editor. The supplier who waited for the books that were still in production, the patron who waits for his Mysore masala dosa that is still in the kitchen. The reader who discovered the error in the book, the patron who discovers he has got the wrong meal. The excellent teamwork based on competency and trust I had with Bananapen at work, ensuring smooth production and delivery of the books, the excellent teamwork based on competency and trust I have with Clueless, ensuring smooth production and delivery of the orders. The madness when tons of books, each of a different kind had to be printed within a short period of time, the madness when tons of orders come pouring in, each of a different kind, to be sent within a short period of time. The celebration when projects ended with positive feedback, the celebration when the shift ends with patrons leaving the restaurant with a smile on their faces, and a thank-you for the volunteers for all their hard work.

In the past, I could never stand people being rude or sarcastic to waiters and waitresses, but after volunteering at the restaurant, it has reached new levels. I actually laugh less at the scenes from the TV series FRIENDS that show Rachel as a terrible terrible waitress. Though I'd always identified with Phoebe, now I've started to identify with Rachel. Waitressing is not an easy job, and now I know so.

Be nice to your waiter/waitress - we're really doing our best.


Sakshi said...

And I read the post!

Looks like you have conquered you saaree battles :P

Enigma said...


Hey, u know, u actually inspire me to so some voluntary work... many a times we learn big lessons from the simplest incidents in life... maybe thats why "thye say" "You never stop learning"...


nidhi said...

lost the silver to firefox's idiosyncracies :(
Bronze ain't too bad either

BTW ur post is hilarious and kinda sweet too :)

oxymoron said...

never been to this place. feel like going now, just to have some fun at ur expense - muahahaaa!
wat say bhai - when should i drop by -:)

Unknown said... were a senior editor right? then what propelled you to take up this line of work?

Thisisme said...

wow..this is soo very interesting...even though i give waiters etc a lot of was kind of a mystery to knw whats goin on inside the kitchen :)..n yea man..i really appreciate the way they balance the trays!! scary!!
and btw..ur doin real gud work :)

Iday said...

Going by what u said during the reception in Chennai, i guess u consider urself to be a christmas tree waitress ;)

Bivas said...

Seriously...y on earth did u ever get a B.E.!!! [;)]
"Enjoy his meal."
Loved this one...wud hv been so much fun, had u said that...n So much Joey :D

Sayesha said...

Haha! Yeah, almost! But I still can't take a bus in a sari, I can only carry it indoors :)

Hope you find something meaningful and fun to do. Fun is important! :P

Thanks! :)

Hahaha! Dude, I'm starting my new job soon, in fact I only have a few more days of volunteering to do. Too late eh? Besides, do you really want to show me your face - oh great anony-moron? :D

Haha! :) This is not "my line of work" yaar. I'm still an editor, I'm doing this because I have a month's break before I join my new company. :)

Thanks! :))

Hahahaha! Yeah, decked in a sari, I do sometimes feel like a Christmas tree waitress! :P Especially when the other waitresses fawn over me and ask me to wear necklace and big bindi and what not. :P

Hahahah! Yeah, I'm engineer-turned-editor-turned-waitress! :P I guess the B.Eng degree was to satisfy my technical, mathematical side, the editor thing was to satisfy my creative side, and this is for my community service side :)
ps: Hey, I'm Phoebe, not Joey! :/ :P

ggop said...

Its nice to put yourself in the shoes of a waitress! I often read Waiter Rant and his posts were an eye opener on the hectic kitchens in restaurants.

I will remind myself to be more patient in a restaurant next time.

Neihal said...

I am always extra nice to the waiters,to the extent, it irritates whoever eats with me. So I am ok there.;)
And a word abt ur Saree battle, "well done!!!"

oxymoron said...

// Besides, do you really want to show me your face - oh great anony-moron? :D

have told u earlier - i've got nothing to hide. next time i bump into u, i'll let u know. but that hasn't happened in a long time - :D

Unknown said...

//"I could never stand people being rude or sarcastic"
Same here. I hate people who do that :)

Great job Sash. Keep it up :)
The sweet lassi story was hilarious :D

Sayesha said...

Thanks :)

Thanks! :)

So when am I gonna bump into you? Prepare for a big thwack on the head, you! :D

Thanks :)

Vijay said...

That's a realllllly long post. I shall read it after my comments don't mind :)
I think when it comes to treating waiters I am so influenced by the surroundings of the hotel/place.
If i were in a round the corner hotel i would tip badly or not tip at all.
If it were a posh restaurant i would be very nice to the waiter and not shout even when they make me wait for a long time and give me cold tasteless food.
And when i am flying I say Thank You to the Air Hostess even when she says they don't have the brand of beer i wanted and smile at her even - probably because i can't threaten them i won't pay and walk out and also because of the fear that if i don't comply they might throw me out :)


oxymoron said...

even i dont know when will i be 'thwack'ed on the head!
prepare to see me in helmet

Melody said...

How brilliant the whole thing sounds! Looks like you're having the experience of a lifetime. And the way you put it, makes me wanna go get me a job waitressing!
Keep yer chin up girl!

Bivas said...

ps: Hey, I'm Phoebe, not Joey! :/ :P
I was referring to the ppl on the table...had they said it :P
neway, the How U Doin thing wudn't suit u ;-)

shub said...

Hey girl! Fantastic thing you're doing! :-) Hugs! Yes, I am back! Will call over the weekend :)

Sahasra said...

a good post!!!
One can understand the importance of anything, be it a job, a prob only if he/she has

Anusha said...

Aww, such sweet words! Merci! *blush*

I don't know how the regulars there do this day after day, but I have so much respect for them after volunteering at that place. It has taught me so many things (patience being the most important) - you've totally captured the essence of it all. Maybe I should write a post on the behind-the-scenes madness? :P

youtham said...

oops late in club

even i applied to volunteer for same but recently two months back.
still havent received response 8-)
mera number bi ayega

i have also started volunteering in sinda to teach computers to kids.
wanna join us :D


youtham said...

i wanna drop by when ur there



Sayesha said...

Well in Singapore there's no tipping system, so everyone basically has to be nice. :)

Ah, then you should be easy to spot! ;)

Thanks! I recommend it highly! :)

Hehehehe, yeah! :P

Welcome back! Hope you got my green chilli sauce from India! :D
If not, don't bother to call. Hmmmph! :/

Thanks! :)

Thanks! Glad to know it has made you more patient. Actually I was apprehensive about introducing you to the place knowing how impatient and frustrated kids your age can get in a high-pressure fast-paced environment like that (I've worked with student interns before), but you proved yourself! :P

You'll get in soon, don't worry! Hey, I may just bump into you there! :)
ps: I saw the SINDA ad for tutoring too! Did consider it for a moment, but I won't have time to do so much :)