By Kaylee Hammonds
My first job was weekend hostess at a Waffle House off the I-10 in western Phoenix. My primary duties were to seat and greet people, to bus tables, and to clean the bathrooms. You really cannot ever be a snob if you have cleaned a bathroom at a Waffle House in rural Arizona. Seriously. I’ve since tried and failed. I graduated from that job to a job hostessing at a five star golf resort (Phoenix is a weird mix of low-income, farmland, and, in large part because of the excellent weather, resort). From hostessing I went to being a server-assistant. I got my first job waitressing at a funny little diner/bar in Tucson the summer after my freshman year in college. It’s safe to say that I “grew up” in restaurants.
Of course, I didn’t “grow up” in restaurants in the fondly remembered way that food memoirs often start. My parents didn’t own one, food wasn’t really part of much of the dialogue in our home, except for how to get my father to eat less of it. My childhood was not “redolent” with anything. (Can we all agree not to use that anymore, btw?) No, I worked in restaurants for money.
There were two main reasons for this. The first, and most obvious, is that my parents were not overburdened with wealth, and I wanted to buy lip gloss and go to the movies, and eat French fries with ranch dressing at Denny’s after school with my friends. The second is that my best friend got me the job as a hostess at the golf resort, and working together quickly became part of our friendship, and the tradition (which has proved to be formative) of identifying my peer group as “the people I work with” began.
This sounds like such a little thing, if you’re going to high school in a small town, but it’s quite a big one when you’re in college, and you don’t bother to make friends on campus because you’ve got a ready-made group at work. It’s a big thing when you somehow fall in with a group of meth-smoking strippers because you took a summer job at a fried-chicken joint. It’s a big thing when your restaurant friends teach your untrained palate how to taste, and a bigger thing when your cranky boss teaches you how to chop, dice, and chiffonade. And it’s quite a big thing when you move across the country for a boy you met at a restaurant party to a town where he is the only person you know. I started my last two years of college in Ohio; by rights I should have been participating in senior-year, Big Ten moron-dom.
Instead, I was wine tasting with friends older than I was, and making excursions to authentic Italian delis that were forty minutes away from my house for obscure wines and fatback. I didn’t make a single friend at Ohio State, which sounds sad until you know that I didn’t need to – I had my restaurant friends. Later, I’d go to grad school at NYU, and work at a funny Irish pub on 9th St. I have no friends from school. I have family from those jobs.
It’s a sort of weird thing, the restaurant life. Everything outside of it becomes what’s not real, and restaurant life becomes “real life.” This sounds funny when I say it to myself, so I will try to better-articulate it here: school doesn’t define you, your upbringing doesn’t define you, what kind of movies you like doesn’t define you – what defines you is how quickly you can make a cocktail or if you’re a badass who’s never in the weeds, or if you’re a prissy kiss-ass that management doesn’t see through. You may be a full-time student, but that doesn’t matter. No one sitting in the front of the house gives a damn that you need them to leave because you have an econ paper due in the morning and you haven’t even started it. They’re paying for that chocolate cake and by god, they’re gonna sit there in front of that almost empty plate until you think you’re going to die. I’ve known people (most often with families) who can separate their real-life from their restaurant-life, but those are few and far between. When you work at a restaurant, you eat that food, you participate in that culture–you live in that world.
Not to get too Anthony Bourdain about it, but working in a restaurant made me feel like a badass, and there are few ways for a musical theatre geek who plays the flute and prefers books over people to feel badass. (There should maybe be therapy in my future.) Getting into that perfect zone during dinner service? That moment when you’re working and everything sort of falls away, the sounds from the kitchen become distant, the sound of cocktails being shaken at the bar fade, you have twenty things to do at once, and you just sort of step outside of your body and watch yourself do them with perfect precision, in perfect order, with perfect grace and to top it all off, you’re witty as hell?
That moment is fucking badass.
Getting sloshed at a local bar with all of your coworkers, having just survived a war in which you were terribly outnumbered? Rolling into that bar flush with cash, full of funny stupid stories to tell, and wondering what the rest of the night will bring? That is fucking badass. Belonging to a group of people with whom you might never have found affinity, were it not for the solidarity of the nightly wars? Despite our penchant for revelry, don’t mistake these associations for flighty.
These people are the only people that will actually show up to help you move, pick you up when your car breaks down, and never, ever judge your (entirely questionable) romantic decisions. Apart from feeling like a badass, I think that’s the real reason so many people become lifers.
I have never laughed so hard, drank so much, or fallen more deeply in love than when I was ensconced in a restaurant family.
Kaylee Hammonds is a Birmingham, Ala. and New York City-based writer who specializes in food, shelter, and garden writing. She holds an MA in Food Studies from NYU, which she’s pretty sure qualifies her to eat a lot of cookies. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org on Twitter at @kayleehammonds.