It’s a busy Saturday night and Café Machiavelli is packed. Waiting on a line three waiters deep to input my orders into the computer system, I watch as the food runner delivers my entrées to the customers on Table 26. Everyone beams with pleasure as the runner sets the plates down in front of them – everyone except the matronly woman on position four that is. She looks like someone shot her puppy.
“Goddammit,” I mutter under my breath. “Here we go again.”
As I glide across the busy dining room, weaving between chattering tables and bus boys clearing dirty dishes, I pin a solicitous waiter smile on my face. “Madam,” I ask, arriving at the table, “I couldn’t help but notice you look displeased. Is everything all right?”
“This isn’t what I ordered,” the woman says shrilly, poking her herb encrusted rack of lamb with a fork. “I wanted the plain grilled chicken!”
“Oh dear,” I say, pulling my dupe pad from my back pocket. “Let me double check what I wrote down.”
I examine the ticket. Sure enough, the lady on position four ordered the rack of lamb – even specifying it be cooked medium rare. As I inform the woman of my findings I restrain the impulse to shove the ticket in her face. That would be rude.
“I don’t care!” the woman huffs. “I didn’t order this! I want grilled chicken!”
I sigh inwardly. Customers ordering one thing with their mouths but expecting another thing with their minds is a situation waiters face with alarming regularity. Not to sound misogynistic here, but this phenomenon usually occurs with women. Suffering under constant and crushing media pressure to stay thin, it’s no surprise that many women in the USA have a complicated relationship with food. Despite lusting for capellini pesto under a thick layer of freshly grated parmesan cheese, ladies will often opt for a mixed green salad with dressing on the side. Hearts and stomachs pleading for hot fudge sundaes get overruled by guilty brains manipulating vocal cords into ordering dull bowls of mixed berries instead. Waiters get to watch the battle between the female id and superego every night – and sometimes we get caught in the crossfire.
I know what happening with my matronly customer. Her id wants the rack of lamb. Her superego wants grilled chicken. In a gastronomical version of the Freudian slip, the woman’s vocal cords decided to listen to the stomach this time. The superego, unable to tolerate losing to the fleshy id, is defending itself by deluding the woman into thinking she ordered the lighter calorie meal all along. Therefore, when the food runner set the plate down in front of her, she was expecting to see grilled chicken. When she saw the rack of lamb she’s got caught up in the grip of a powerful emotional dissonance. The dynamic is similar to shouting a name other than your partner’s when you have an orgasm. That can be embarrassing. And what do people do when they get embarrassed? They get angry. And that’s when waiters get burned.
“Take this back and get me grilled chicken,” the matronly woman orders.
“I heard her order the grilled chicken,” the woman sitting next to her says. “You’re the one who made the mistake.” Great – it’s a group delusion now. Sisterhood is powerful.
My superego and id are having their own minor border skirmish. I should stand my ground and not let this lady’s schizoid issues dump a $33 entrée into the trash – but I won’t. I remind myself that I’m not the manager here. I’m a new waiter and the owner’s mantra is that the customer is always right. He’s going to lose a ton of money thinking that way, but that’s not my problem.
“I’m terribly sorry madam,” I reply, my smile unwavering. “I’ll have the kitchen prepare you the chicken entrée.”
“And tell them to hurry,” the matronly lady says. “I’m hungry!’
“Of course madam.”
I go back into the kitchen and explain the situation to the chef. Even though I’m new he believes me. No power mad managers are in my face screaming that I have to pay for the lamb. So far everyone at Machiavelli’s has been professional. Of course, that can change in a heartbeat.
I grab the food runner and explain in Spanish that position four on Table 26 will be getting a Pollo Griglia in ten minutes. After confirming receipt of message I head over to the service bar and make myself a short espresso. I add two sugars and down it in one hot gulp. I need the caffeine
Suddenly I notice the hostess seating me a ten top. I toss my empty demitasse cup into a bus tub and head onto the floor. I feel my pulse quicken as my brain tumbles the tables and orders around in my head, seeking the most efficient use of time and motion. My waiter gears are rusty but they’re still there. Eventually I’ll be operating at peak capacity. I just have to give it a little more time.
Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.