Saturday, November 3, 2012

Dress Shirts and the Female Waiter

Over 100 years later, and I have an Albert Nobbs dilemma. 
Let's face it...the restaurant industry, especially fine dining, carries the weight of over a hundred years of tradition. While most of this is elegant formality, the way gender is handled in this context still carries vestiges of an era before women were allowed to be waiters( or other professions, such as a professional musician, for that matter).  Waitresses were the girl working at her family's inn or pub, or later the gum snapping woman at the diner who called you "hun".  Waiters, on the other hand, were the elegant gentleman laying a napkin in your lap in a formal setting, Rudolf from The Harmonia Gardens in Hello Dolly, the privileged upstairs staff at Gosford Park.  Even now, women often earn less in the restaurant industry, and in my personal experience are more likely to be seen as less professional or capable, despite the switch to the more neutral term of server. 

While there are no easy answers for gender politics in the food industry, there is one category in which I think some education would make a great deal of difference: the clothing.  To this day, serious restaurants have a standard for clothing based on formal men's dress: slacks, collared dress shirts, ties, and suit jackets.  All of these are a challenge to fit properly to the female form if bought from the men's section(risking looking like a little boy in his older brother's clothes), and it can be difficult to find female versions that meet all requirements.

For dress shirts, it took me several days of hunting to find three suitable shirts.  Even then, two are far from perfect.  My first is a women's dress shirt: I was able to find one with no ruffles or detailing, however it lacks a top button or crisp collar (making it look sloppy with a tie). It has 3/4 sleeves, so when I wear it under a jacket, there is no hint of cuff like there should be.  It's winning feature, though, are the double chest pockets.  My second try was a  men's dress shirt.  Getting one to fit properly, though is a challenge. Too big, bunchy under my jacket even if the neck fits, and the collar is too large for someone with a more petite build.  I was surprised to find that the shoulders, though, fit more comfortably then a woman's blouse, which are usually designed for a build with a narrower upper body frame then my own.  Too much bulk through the rest of the shirt didn't seem to make up for this positive, though, and boy's shirts were too tight across my bust.  Would I ever find a shirt that looked crisp and professional?

Frustrated, I turned to the internet and stumbled across dapperQ, an awesome site geared towards the female bodied who prefer a more masculine or androgynous aesthetic. At last!  Multiple articles navigating  my problem, including a breakdown of the measurements needed to get a good fit.  Information and measurements in hand, I went to my local Macy's and found myself a lovely Ralph Lauren slim fit (15 neck, 32-33 arm), on the sale rack no less.  If you go this route, though, be prepared for the possibility that staff may not be helpful.  With my short hair, and already wearing my masculine work clothing outside of the "acceptable" restaurant setting(I stopped by after training one day), I caused some confusion and discomfort for staff.   That is not a good feeling...and my heart goes out to those who feel more comfortable on the masculine end of the spectrum if that is what you have to deal with day in and day out.

As a surprised bonus, it seems other male tops, T-shirt and buttoned in particular, fit my frame better then women's clothing, a discovery I'm planning on making good use of.  I carry myself more confidently with a well-fitted and more androgynous look in the restaurant, and find that people assume I am more capable. It will be interesting to see how that translates once the restaurant opens and I'm interacting with guests.  Could this be my key to side-step the traditional gender issues in the industry and compete with my male colleagues?

Only time will the meantime, though, next on the agenda is a properly tailored suit jacket. 

Saturday, October 20, 2012

First Week Down

...celebrated by a huge sigh of relief, and still being in my sleepwear at one in the afternoon. 

Oh, my word.  This might just be the most challenging job I have ever dreamed of, much less done.  Worth it, though?  Yes.  In spades.  No spoilers or leaks for the menu at my restaurant, but it wishes to become the premiere seafood destination for the Bay Area and earn a Michelin Star in the first year.  Do I think it can?  Yes...I do.  The quality we're talking about is breathtaking, and if some of my colleagues are an indication, the service should match. 

Biggest worry?  Memorizing.  Just got the tasting menu in last night.  An entire set menu on top of everything a la cart I was already working on...I'm beat.  It's a lot to learn, and I'm a bit of a perfectionist.  I want 100% on the test at the end of next week so badly I can almost taste it.  Even dreaming the menu last night; woke up explaining to an imaginary audience what vadouvan is!

Goal for now though is  to practice describing things so I don't catch or stutter trying to recall. Children make excellent guinea pigs--want to learn how to hold someone's attention?  Explain a dish in a way that makes a first grader want to try caviar.  I dare you. 

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Wine Files

As previously mentioned, new job starts this week.  Am I nervous?  Yes, yes I am.  For someone who has never worked as waitstaff, the difference between a family-style restaurant and fine dining might not seem like a big deal, but trust me, this feels more then a little like training for years to be, say, a dentist, only to discover you're needed as a veterinarian.  Hopefully most of that is just nerves.

One thing I know is NOT nerves...I need to get a good grip on wine, and fast.  I never anticipated interviews for a fine-dining location starting with a written test(left those--and the heart-pumping anxiety they produce--back in college, right?).  Didn't do too badly(thank the foodie gods)...except for wine.  No, I do not know what grapes go into Bordeaux. I can't list five types of after-dinner drinks, either.

Fortunately, I was able to explain during the interview why, despite many years in food service, my knowledge of wine is limited to a degree that might make it difficult or impossible to get a job at a nice restaurant in Northern California(and thus, why they should give me a chance anyway on enthusiasm and willingness to learn):  I was raised in a very devout culture which does not drink tea, coffee, or alcohol.  As much as I respect the family values of this faith (if not necessarily their application), and am intensely proud of my heritage, I left the faith formally a year ago.

Since then, I have experimented with small amounts of alcohol in a way that would seem rather clinical to most people raised in a enthusiastic alcohol culture(like the stereotypical big Italian family).  I keep notes on what I drink, and rarely have more then one drink at a time, saving it for nice meals once or twice a week (well below the glass of wine per day some doctors now recommend for health reasons, as well as substantially below the threshold of what it would take to get drunk).  The results have been interesting: I am calmer and less anxious, it is an excellent way to insure a "time out" at dinner where we slow down and talk as a family, and it seems to help with my weight loss efforts, making it easier to stick to the low carb diet my doctor suggests and seemingly reducing my carb cravings.

On the whole, though, my experiments have mostly been with local small-brewery beer, and the occasional mixed drink including reasonable amounts of good-quality rum, vodka, or gin.  Not so much wine.  I've tried a couple of times...and had some decent results for very light, dry white wine, and sweet dessert wine, however, red wine is something that I really need a better understanding of. The ones I've chosen blindly smell like my grandmother's Concord grape vines left unpicked at the end of summer, when she'd shoo me away from the now over-sweet and borderline tangy fruit. I'm hoping that's because I'm doing it wrong, as having my nose spontaneously wrinkle at a job that not only requires me to be able to suggest pairings, but has required wine tastings as part of their staff education could pose a problem and imply that my new boss was wrong to give me a chance. 

So far, my efforts have consisted of putting a stop to the occasional blind wine trying based on a pretty bottle or sale.  Now, I'm slowly inching my way through the omnibus of Wine All-In-One For Dummies, the first in a small stack of books compliments of the public library.  Chapter 6: Pairing Food and Wine suggests that yeah, I've been doing it wrong.  I have a lot to learn, and hope that starting now will serve me well working and living outside of one of the most competitive food cities in America. 

Monday, October 8, 2012

Goodbye and Hello

Since 2009, I've run a blog called Great Grandmother's Kitchen.  It's been quite a learning process, and a wonderful place to show interest in historic food, and experimenting with food from scratch.  I've run tea party ideas, book reviews, and biographies.  And I'm going to miss it.

Over the past two years, though, my life has changed.  I see more beauty and hope in the world, despite problems.  I have been diagnosed with an illness that means that most traditional Western European food does not work for me anymore, especially the home-cooking style full of sugar and flour that I'm used to(while simultaneously having less time to cook).  I've moved to the SF Bay Area,  a food paradise with some of the best restaurants, farmer's markets, ethnic cuisine, and opportunities I have ever seen.  This week I also start a new leg of my professional career; fine dining. I will be starting out as a backwaiter (a sort of jr. waiter who keeps things going smooth behind the scenes while the frontwaiter primarily deals with the guests).  This is a huge opportunity, and I'm both excited and nervous...not to mention working my way through Wine for Dummies.

I've thought long and hard about these changes, what they mean and where I'm going.  While I could try to pull GG's Kitchen in a new direction, it makes more sense to have a fresh start.  I look forward to talking about new discoveries, the old food things I have time for around work (like the leaf lard sitting in my freezer waiting to be rendered), and my growth as I move into modern cuisine.  I hope you join me on the journey.