Nearly everyone’s had a job where they had to sometimes swallow their pride and say, “I’m sorry.” Restaurant server Otis Gray notes that, in his position, it’s almost a daily occurrence.
On this episode of “Story Corner,” the Philadelphia resident tells the tale of one particularly egregious encounter. Listen to the story above. Read a transcript here. And check out a Q&A with Gray himself on the satisfaction of feeding people and sending them away happy, and the focus, passion, intensity — and acrimonious personal attacks — of a well-run kitchen.
I love being a server. I truly enjoy giving people a great dining experience.
You can make a ton of money as a server, but there’s a catch. Every dollar you make comes from tips, so you’ve got to be knowledgeable, you’ve got to be efficient, and, above you all else, when shit hits the fan, and it always does, you have to apologize — which is hard because, when you’re a server, you lose all faith in humanity. People are just so rude.
One really busy night, a dude paid for his $27 bill in change. One woman refused to pay her bill because, after eating her entire meal, she complained that the room was too hot.
And during all the moments, all you can do is smile and know, if you don’t, you’re not getting paid, and you’re probably going to lose your job.
So, in my senior year of college, I got this excellent serving job at this high-end Italian place, and I was walking out every night with a bunch of money. And they even had this perk where, if your table got a bottle of wine and they didn’t finish, you, as a server, could cork it and take it home at the end of the night.
I’m working at the restaurant and, one night, I am super in the weeds. “In the weeds” means you are so busy that there is no possible way you are going to make all of your tables happy, and you’re running around, and you are trying to say “sorry” and apologize, but there is no way you can keep up.
And I see this woman walk in and get seated at my table, and she’s with these two just super-stylish gay dudes, and she barely makes it to the table. She is trashed. So I go over to the table and I say, “Hi, my name’s Otis. I’ll be your server tonight.”
This woman just points at me, and she says, “I want to order.” And she points to the menu and says, “I want this pinot grigio, but I don’t want to taste any peaches.” And I’m like, “OK, ma’am. This pinot grigio does have notes of peaches in it, as it says on the menu.”
“I want this pinot grigio, but I better not taste any peaches.”
So I put it in, and the wine gets to her table, and I’m going to my other tables, and she grabs me again, and she sticks the glass of wine up in my face, spills it on my uniform, and says, “Smell this. What do you smell?”
“Peaches! That’s right. I said no peaches.”
And the guys are just laughing. And I know this woman is not going to tip me, and I know that I should apologize and walk away, but I had it. I decided: I am going to sell this woman the most expensive bottle of wine on the menu, because I know these two dudes are not drinking. And I know if she has another sip, she’s going to have to get her stomach pumped. And this is like a $175 bottle of wine. It was called the Bodega Noemìa malbec from Argentina.
I said, “Ma’am, if you don’t like this pinot grigio, I think I have something you’re really going to like.”
And I put on this performance. I told her it was minty and spicy had these notes of chocolate. The soil in the Rio Negro Valley is exquisite.
And she is just entranced.
She said, “Yeah, can you bring that? Thank you.” So I brought the wine.
She had a few sips and passed out on the table. Her gentlemen paid her check and took her out of the restaurant.
I left that night at about 2:30 a.m., and I barely made any tips — but I did walk the beautiful streets of Providence, Rhode Island, sipping the Bodegas Numina malbec straight from the bottle.
Sorry, not sorry.
In the unedited version of your story, you joke about being a server as a result of your art school degree. Why did you go to art school? Are you doing sculpture work currently?
That joke was really just a joke. Being a server is something I have always loved to do, and it really should never be a job that is looked down upon by folks. I simply needed to pay rent and buy art supplies, and serving tables is always a job that someone can get.
I also got involved in the food industry during college and co-founded a food truck, where my sculpture degree led to my task of building the physical truck to fit regulations. So that’s when I also became heavily invested in food, how people react to it, and all that. Worked with a lot of great young cooks and entrepreneurs. I do not do as much literal sculpture anymore, but my education at RISD and adventures abroad all led precisely to where I am today with my food podcast. Sculpture was a means to tell stories and get dirty. I still do that today, and for better or worse always will.
You say you enjoy giving a good experience. What is it in you that you think responds that way? Where does the enjoyment come from?
I’m nice to guests, even through gritted teeth sometimes, because you need to make money to live. However, there have been times when a guest is so rude and against my morals that I have taken serious risks and confronted them on the job. I don’t know how I was never fired on these occasions, but they actually ended up apologizing and giving a fat tip.
In regards to serving people, I just treat them like they are in my home and I am cooking them food. That is my greatest pleasure — feeding and satisfying people. If I can do that and get paid, I could not ask for more. Unless they act like dickheads. Then they should not have come out to eat.
What are some of your favorite examples of restaurant lingo?
I don’t know. Most of it is very crass — a lot of talk about nipples, culos [“asses”], and phallic food references. But I just love the lingo when service is in full swing, yelling numbers across the kitchen that would be imperceptible if you did not work there. Fire times, temps, special orders, table numbers. All that stuff is fascinating.
A well-run kitchen is a finely tuned machine with an entirely different language than most people speak. But also a lot of nipples and culos.
Did you ever serve anyone famous?
I don’t know about “famous.” I’ve served a lot of VIPs and people that expect to be treated like kings. I helped serve Bruce Willis’ table back in Providence, RI. Good guy, and a generous tipper.
What is your favorite wine, and why?
I have never had the funds to have a favorite wine. I have had some incredible wine (like the Bodega Noemìa malbec) in my time as a server — but often I get the most out of wine after a long day with good people out of a cup. I would say malbec in a little glass cup with the bottle on the table is my favorite wine scenario.
Tell us about a benefit of waiting tables that you hadn’t expected.
Here’s the thing — serving tables can give you a nice leathery shield when it comes to dealing with people outside of the restaurant. But the real benefits come from working with the kitchen staff. Chefs, line cooks, dishwashers, prep cooks — these are the hardest working, focused, ridiculous people you will ever meet.
Especially when you are working with a great chef and cooks that really care about the food, they will get so personal in their attacks on you that you wish you had a desk job at Comcast. But if you dig through the pure vitriol of it, there is some serious passion and respect for the work they do. It really makes you learn and care about food on a whole different level.
And, yes, working in different restaurants, you are exposed to a gamut of techniques, influences, styles, and flavors. That inspires whatever I cook at home all the time. It’s like going to culinary school, but instead of grades, you just get yelled at on a sliding scale.
Gives you incredible work ethic, speed, and discipline in every other facet of your life. The adrenaline rush of a busy shift is intense and sometimes takes a day or two to wear off. That is hard to walk away from, especially if you are making decent money.
Otis Gray is an artist, writer and cook in South Philadelphia. He graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2014 with a bachelor’s degree in sculpture and is starting his own podcast called “Hungry,” about how food provides a raw look into the human experience. Subscribe on iTunes or listen on SoundCloud.
First Person Arts is Philadelphia’s premiere storytelling organization and the presenters of twice-monthly StorySlams, the weekly First Person Arts Podcast, and the annual First Person Arts Festival. Founded in 2000, FPA believes that everyone has a story to tell, and that sharing our stories connects us with each other and the world. From such artistic luminaries as novelist Toni Morrison, activist Angela Davis, and celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson, to emerging artists and everyday people, FPA presents a diverse array of storytellers to transform the drama of real life into memoir and documentary art.