John W. Fischer is a professor of hospitality and service management at The Culinary Institute of America — New York. Over nearly 30 years, he has worked as a captain, manager, wine director, and front waiter at some of the most famous fine dining locations in New York City.
What skills are required for waiting tables in fine dining?
You have to want to serve people. That sounds easier than it is. If — on a really fundamental level — you don’t get satisfaction from making other people happy, it’s wrong for you to try it as a career. Secondly, you’ve got to have a laser-like focus. You have to switch from task to task very quickly.
How do you spot a good restaurant to work for?
Of course, the reputation on the street is good to know. But take it with several pounds of salt, because hell hath no fury like a waiter scorned. Is it one person saying negative things, or several? Once you meet the people hiring you, take notice of how you feel around them. Do you get a creepy feeling? Do you enjoy talking to them? Working with people under stressful situations can be taxing and it’s better if you actually like each other. Also, if they offer you a ton of money that’s out of line with other restaurants like them, that probably means they’re a pain to work for.
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So how do you break in?
A good strategy is to identify the fine dining companies that also own more casual establishments. You can start in the casual location and move up to fine dining. But I think that if you’re smart and nice and hardworking, you can go to many great restaurants and say, “I will do whatever you need me to do, so I can work here and get better.” If you’re prepared to start by washing dishes, that kind of desire is very attractive to people in this business.