PORTLAND – I knew right away that many of the physical tasks of waiting tables were going to be beyond me.

Like when Michael Farrell — the waiter I was shadowing at David’s restaurant in Monument Square last week — asked me to get three drinks for a table of five ladies having lunch.

I put the three pint glasses (two iced teas and a soda) on a tray and began carrying it with two hands. Farrell offered that he carried drink trays with one hand under the center, so he could serve with the other hand. I tried this, and the tray wobbled, so I grabbed it with the other hand. Then I tried one hand again, and almost lost all three drinks.

Farrell took pity on me and suggested I just set the tray down on an empty table near the ladies, and serve the drinks from there.

But I was more surprised with how difficult it was to place orders on David’s computerized punch-in order system. When I came back from taking an order at one table, I had to decipher my bad handwriting and then punch in the orders on a keypad with multiple screens, multiple codes, and keys used to modify orders.

You have to begin by punching your server code, then looking over several screens for beverages, appetizers, specials, etc., and punch the correct button on each screen. And press “send” multiple times.

I got lost immediately, spending several minutes looking for the unsweetened iced tea button. (All the iced tea at David’s is unsweetened, I later learned.) So from then on I basically just punched what Farrell told me to punch.

“Learning to do this is probably the toughest thing for anyone starting out here,” said Farrell, 34, of Portland.

That made me feel better. Until I went to a table to announce the lunch specials that day.

I had first tried to memorize the specials by just listening to Farrell recite them: “We have a Cajun pan-blackened chicken breast, with a Caesar salad, herb (something) rice and great salsa.”

GRAPE OR GREAT SALSA?

That’s what I heard, but it was not right. I missed the word after herb and it was a grape salsa, not a great salsa. Actually, it may be great, but that’s not part of the special’s description. So I wrote it down on my own little order pad, then went to a table of three to recite.

To my horror, I couldn’t read my own writing and told them of “the herb rice” even though I knew there was another word in there, which I could not read. Luckily for me, a kind man in a suit ordered the dish without questioning me further.

After I placed that order, Farrell told me the kitchen had just announced that there were only two of the chicken specials left. So we needed to keep that in mind.

Farrell said we should tell other servers this as we ran around the restaurant. And this is only a slight exaggeration, as Farrell really kept me moving.

Besides watching the seven or so tables he was responsible for, Farrell also zipped downstairs to get fresh table linens out of the dryer, hopped upstairs to fold them, and often went into the back of the restaurant to slice bread for his customers.

Often we rushed back up to the counter by the kitchen to get garlic knots (a doughy David’s specialty) and some olive oil, cheese and garlic for each table.

Farrell told me that when I brought the olive oil, cheese and garlic to each table, I needed to tell people it was for the bread, and then I needed to mix it with a spoon before leaving them. I know I forgot an ingredient or two a couple of times, and my mixtures looked pretty gloppy.

When a table of five was done eating, Farrell said it was time to start clearing the plates. He told me to take whatever amount of dishes I felt “comfortable” with. Not wanting to look like a wimp, I grabbed a sizable stack and soon realized these were not like my plates at home. They were about twice as wide, very heavy, and slippery with olive oil.

So I grabbed tight to the stack and tried hard not to bump into furniture or other waiters while making my way quickly to the kitchen. Once there, we brushed off the refuse and placed each item with others of its own kind: Plates with plates, silverware with silverware, etc.

Then we zipped back to the front of the restaurant to listen for chefs calling “Michael,” a signal that some food was ready to be delivered. When the food for one table was ready, Michael asked me if I remembered who ordered what.

I had no idea.

WHO ORDERED WHAT?

It’s important to know who ordered what, Farrell told me, so you can set the food down silently and without intrusion. That’s important during lunch especially, Farrell said, as many people have a limited amount of time. Or they’re talking business. Even friends on a non-work lunch probably don’t want to be intruded upon, because they’re catching up with each other.

To help me out, Farrell gave me two plates of food and whispered: “The chicken is for the woman with her back to us and the crab salad is for the woman to her left.”

With this info, I stealthily approached the table and quietly set the plates in front of the correct women.

But as I set down the crab salad — with a very delicately balanced mound of crabmeat sitting artfully in the middle of the plate — I apparently thumped the plate against the table a little too strongly.

And the mound of crabmeat toppled over.

 

Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at: [email protected]