IMAGE: Basil Childers
Miss Dish gets lots of interesting calls from diners. Serious eaters ring up with tips, of course, but more often restaurant hoppers phone in to bitch about a meal gone wrong. Interesting, then, that this week of all weeks, Miss D. got a call from a diner who reported witnessing a waiter being unmercifully bitched out by the owner/chef of a hot downtown restaurant in full view of patrons. This diner was so incensed by what she saw that she sent in a complaint card. "That's slavery," she told Miss Dish. "I can't believe that people would put up with someone treating them like that."
Debra Ginsberg has no problem believing it. This former Portlander, Reed grad and author of Waiting: The True Confessions of a Waitress, worked as a server for 20 years and documented all the crazy sociological aspects of being on the front lines in a restaurant. Ginsberg uncovers the pecking order on the dining room floor, and reveals the real truth about why waiters put up with all kinds of abuse from the staff and, more often than not, the public at large. It all comes down to the money. As Ginsberg reports, waiting can take hold almost like an addiction, because the cash pulled in during a handful of frantic hours is hard to match in many other accessible professions.
Miss D. spoke with Ginsberg from her home in San Diego before she arrives in town to tell tales at Powell's City of Books on Monday, Aug. 6. Unfortunately for Miss D., Ginsberg was unwilling to reveal the true identities of the Portland restaurants (circa '80s) that she so eloquently deconstructs in her book. Ginsberg says that people's inclination to try (and fail) to ID the various eateries here and in San Diego that she wrote about shows how interchangeable the experience in restaurants is. Miss D. asked Ginsberg if she thought servers would ever unionize beyond those working for large hotels or institutions. "I don't think that it would work," she said. "Waiters are sort of mavericks. It's really an individual endeavor and a kind of transient profession."
Of late, books about the food biz are boiling. Ginsberg says she's often lumped together with Anthony Bourdain, of Kitchen Confidential fame, whom she admires and calls a "stud chef." Where he opens up the testosterone-driven world of the kitchen to readers, she lays bare the sexual politics in the front of the room. But, like the hierarchy in a restaurant, she says it's been interesting watching the different reactions the two of them get: master chef vs. server. Ginsberg shared a panel with Bourdain at a book fair, where women were going mad over him ("Oh, Tony, tell us about butter").
Miss D. asked Ginsberg if she thought most servers were foodies, and she said no. "Servers treat food on a much more symbolic level," she said. "But if you develop an appreciation for it, you sell it better."
Miss D. asks you to send in all your spicy tales of hauling hash to firstname.lastname@example.org. If they're particularly tasty, she might just publish them in this spot.