On the Job: Being a waiter is one big balancing act in many ways

On the Job: Being a waiter is one big balancing act in many ways

To be a waiter, you need the maths ability of a codebreaker, the balancing skills of a tightrope walker, and the patience of a saint

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Zhang realised there was a gap in the market for food from Hunan.
Photo: Alejo Rodriguez Lo/SCMP

There are many so-called perks to working in hospitality – free food, discounted meals, and late starts – but anyone who works in the industry will tell you it’s far from glamorous.

Last week, I spent the day shadowing Jane Zhang, owner of local restaurant Hunan Bistro. I learned – after a couple of spilled drinks and a bill mishap – that being a waitress is demanding work.

The restaurant in Wan Chai has been open since December. Zhang noticed that there was a gap in the market for authentic food from her home province, Hunan (湖南), which is why she left her job as an architect and ventured into the culinary world.

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Zhang made me start with a simple task: taking an order. “How hard could this be?” I thought to myself. My ego was quickly deflated.

I carefully took a woman’s order. “One stir-fried cauliflower, and one stir-fried pork with pepper,” I repeated to her, before reporting back to Zhang with a smug smile on my face. But, amid the lunch rush and my focus on getting the order right, I forgot to note down the table number – a big mistake when you’re trying to run a smooth, tight operation. I then had to awkwardly walk around the restaurant, and point the table out to Zhang – who was very forgiving, but warned me that if I mixed up an order, I’d be in big trouble.

The biggest challenge for Rhea with this machine was that it was all in Chinese!
Photo: Alejo Rodriguez Lo/SCMP

I wanted to prove to Zhang that I was indeed cut out for the job, and that I wasn’t going to completely ruin her restaurant’s reputation.

“Okay, let’s see you set the table,” Zhang said. I’ve been helping my mum set tables since I was little – I knew I had this.

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Zhang opened a set of drawers, revealing an array of tools. “We need to make sure each place has a chopsticks stand, chopsticks, a bowl, a small plate, and a tea cup,” she said. A huge number of things to remember in a particular order – and there I was thinking that I’d never have to use maths after secondary school.

Zhang masterfully balanced the cutlery and placed it on the table in front of us. Not only do wait staff have to take orders, and be organised and hospitable, they also have to juggle many items at once. The really good ones could probably double as Cirque du Soleil balancing acts with what they can carry.

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It’s safe to say that my attempt at walking through the busy restaurant, with all the cutlery and kitchenware teetering on just one arm, did not go as planned. Zhang took pity on me and let me arrange just one place setting. In the end, I managed to master the art of setting a table for one person – which doesn’t speak volumes about my waitressing abilities.

The part that I was very good at, however, was sampling the menu. Two to three times a month, Zhang makes a point of tasting new dishes, and giving feedback to the kitchen. While I was an exceptional food taster, I didn’t quite grasp the idea of providing constructive feedback. “This is amazing!” was as far as I could go, much to Zhang’s amusement.

Though I didn’t live up to my own expectations, shadowing Zhang and her staff at Hunan Bistro made me realise that any profession – whether it’s a standard nine-to-five, or a more unusual one – requires hard work, practice, dedication, and passion.

Edited by Charlotte Ames-Ettridge

This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
Being a waiter is no picnic

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