| The man, the brand: Rocco DiSpirito (Courtesy photo)
"Hel-lo, my name is Stev-en. I'm going to be your wait-er this eve-ning. Press one if you would like a mar-ti-ni. Press two if you would like a mer-lot .... " So went the stand- up act of a chef for whom I worked nearly three of my five years waiting tables.
Adding commentary to his stand-up moments, this chef claimed that if machines replaced waiters, the whole system would improve overnight; his banter was typical of the daily back-of-the-house versus front-of-the-house friction.
Other formative moments from my years as a server: a drunken floor manager who asked a woman when her baby was due - but she wasn't pregnant; married, fake-tanned, silicone-breasted women who openly flirted with male staff members; a waiter who spent 10 minutes with each table badly performing a version of the daily specials; and impersonations of all these characters by a very beloved colleague named John.
"This is the perfect setting for a reality show," I said to myself some nights. We would call the show Fine Dinin', naming it after another of the chef's regular comedic riffs.
It's true that comedy comes from pain. A reality television show, The Restaurant - which debuted last summer on NBC and is now being rerun on the Bravo network - attempts to give viewers a behind-the-scenes look at the humor and agony found in most restaurant settings.
Staged at Rocco's, a new restaurant where Rocco DiSpirito's mama makes the meatballs, The Restaurant follows the establishment from Rocco's quest to find a perfect space in Manhattan to a series of day-in-the-life glimpses of the restaurant. In early episodes, the tension can be summed up by the following questions: Will Rocco find the location of his dreams? Will the place open its doors on the scheduled and highly publicized opening day? Will the waiters survive the demanding Rocco? (It is assumed, as it is in restaurants without TV shows, that the kitchen staff already knows what it is doing.)
In mid-season episodes, the tension shifts to grouchy customers and the lack of efficiency found in any restaurant still greasing its wheels. Conflicts include the waitstaff versus the customer, waitstaff versus the management and waitstaff versus the kitchen nature. Is it compelling? If you were or are in the busi-ness, it's painful.
Waiting tables requires resilience, eloquence, patience, attention to detail, and a sense of urgency. When a server pulls it off, he or she has mastered a very intricate dance. "This is the night to work out your choreography," Rocco tells his waitstaff 15 minutes before the restaurant's soft opening or "dress rehearsal," as he calls it earlier in the same episode.
Aside from those two nods at table service as an art form, The Restaurant does very little to celebrate waiters. Yet, the show shamelessly and self-consciously celebrates brands: Mitsubishi, Coors, and American Express compete with the kitchen staff, the customers, and the waiters for time on-camera.
In the end, Rocco himself becomes a brand. "If I was a celebrity chef, I'd spend a lot more time being a chef and not so much time being a celebrity," Topher, the cast's token gay waiter, says under his breath as Rocco works the room.
To Rocco's waiters, the chef is a villain, but so are the customers. During my five years in the trenches, I watched as customers brought servers to tears. I also witnessed incredible kindness. Regulars rewarded their favorite servers with holiday bonuses and occasionally treated them to a bottle of wine. At least once a week, a customer would ask me about school and my career goals. These same people would turn on me in a second if we ran out of their favorite wine or the calamari came out lukewarm. Still, if the show's vision is to expose its audience to the realities of the restaurant business, it should attempt to give a balanced, complex view of customer behavior.
Despite its shortcomings in the realistic realm, The Restaurant rings true as it echoes a familiar stand-up routine. "We have waiter problems this evening," a cook says, as he recognizes Topher is in the weeds. "They're called computer problems! One and the same, one and the same." •