In defence of the serveur

Naintara Maya Oberoi | Updated on January 09, 2018 Published on November 24, 2017

Set the table: There are several prestigious service schools in France, and your waiter at a high-end restaurant may have studied wine, food and service for years   -  Shutterstock

Ideas of good and bad service depend on cultural expectations

I’m often asked “Aren’t Parisians really rude?” And when I say, “No, not more than people in any other big city,” people look disbelieving and say, “Well, what about... French waiters?” in a hushed voice, as if the French waiter is a kind of dangerous clawed beast with a bow tie.

The Parisian waiter is the stuff of legend, a black-and-white figure silhouetted against the doorway of a restaurant like Cerberus blocking the gates of the underworld. He (it’s always a ‘he’ in this image) wears a long white apron, throws menus at you and flounces off, won’t speak anything but French, sneers at your choice of dishes, mocks your wine budget, and will never permit substitutions.

When I first moved here, he seemed ubiquitous. But I was spending time in touristy places, wandering from one seven-language menu to the next, eating at restaurants because they had a view of this or that over-photographed monument. The restaurants served bad food to people they knew they’d never see again, and the waiters, as they are across the world in tourist traps, were surly and inattentive.

But this breed is rare now. French waitstaff are more aloof than in many countries, but far from the misanthropes they’re made out to be. Away from the shadow of the Eiffel and the gilded centre of Paris, you will find a different kind of service: still reserved, but amicable. In most establishments, especially the newer hip eateries and bars in Paris, waitresses and waiters are helpful and friendly (with exceptions, of course), joking around with regulars. Younger people try to cobble together some English if they see you struggling.

Being a serveur is serious business. There are several prestigious service schools in France, and your waiter at a high-end restaurant may have studied wine, food and service for years. Until recently, there was even a waiters’ Olympiad, where participants dressed in full waiter and waitress gear ran a race carrying a full tray of brimming glasses and bottles.

Since French servers don’t depend on tips, their daily earnings are assured no matter what you do (save really heinous behaviour). This is a more logical system all round than many other countries’: the waiter won’t be penalised if the food (that they didn’t prepare) is substandard, or if the vegetables in the market weren’t as flavourful as they could have been, if the restaurant is frantic, or if you don’t like the wine you chose. Their wages are not controlled by chance and whim, but paid by their employers.

I’m starting to see that ideas of good and bad service depend on cultural expectations; what might be considered excellent care in one country is intrusive and annoying in another. In France, as in many other parts of Europe, eating out is a languorous process. Service entails a different contract; being a customer at the restaurant means you have bought the right to a nice meal, not to your server. Waitstaff (often there is only one for the whole room) try to be unobtrusive, and to not bother you, waiting for you to beckon or ask for things. Food arrives slowly, and no one removes your plates until the next course. Water is placed on your table so you can pour it yourself. They won’t rush you or bring the bill before you signal for it.

In India, it’s the opposite. Over-service is the order of the day; it seems Indian customers like to feel surrounded by staff. People hover two or three to a table, offering cold towels, refilling your water glasses and picking up dropped cutlery (while, for some reason, you often only get one menu per table, so you have to knock heads in order to read it). All very indulgent, but it can feel like you’re having dinner with seven people instead of just the two you came with.

Similarly, on holiday in New York, the effusive service made me feel a little pestered. People are very welcome to tell me their names or ask how my food is, but they always seem to turn up as I’m chewing, obliging me to either chomp faster and eventually choke, or start miming to convey how wonderful everything is.

What’s the magic trick for good service in Paris? For starters, don’t call anyone “garçon” — the French word for a young boy, “garçon” is akin to the infantilising and insulting “boy” or “bearer” that one hears in Indian clubs.

Tips are not necessary, though a few euros are always welcome (in spite of the several French waiters who have solemnly handed me my tip back, saying, “Madam, in France, this is included in the price of the food”).

For the French employee, a shop or a restaurant is like a home. Just as you wouldn’t enter someone’s house, park yourself on the sofa and start demanding things to eat, you shouldn’t do it in a restaurant either. Trot out a cheerful “ Bonjour” when you enter, and say “ Merci”, and “ Bonne journée” or “ Bonne soirée” as you leave. In France, the customer isn’t king (and given the fate of the last lot of French kings, perhaps that’s a good thing).

Naintara Maya Oberoi is a food writer based in Paris; @naintaramaya

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Published on November 24, 2017
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