School for servers
Looking to wait tables at a prestigious restaurant in the center of the country? Expect rigorous training and an oral exam
When D. began waitressing at chef Eyal Lavi's Rokach 73 restaurant in Tel Aviv, she was a student looking for work that didn't involve much of a commitment. She never imagined that, before starting the job, she'd have to memorize a thick book and pass an oral examination on its contents.
Lavi wrote the volume, covering the restaurant's rules, service, practices and changing raw materials, over the course of about 15 years - "From the days of Pastis until now," he says. It contains thousands of pieces of information and is circulated among beginning waiters. Only after they've read it in its entirety do they start a lengthy training period, which includes courses on wine and learning about the eatery's raw materials.
At many establishments, the waiter's job is not only to serve food and advise diners, but also to keep up to date on specials, raw materials and ingredients, including information for the picky diner. For example, is the soy sauce gluten-free? Is there a drop of guava juice in the fruit dessert? Is there fennel in the salad? From which dairy is the cheese?
"Waiters working the afternoon shift, when we serve mainly business lunches, undergo different training than waiters on the evening shift," says Lavi. "Every waiter spends an entire day learning how to use our computer software. Waiters also work kitchen shifts, so they can learn how all the dishes are prepared - and they taste them all. The waiter must know more than what the diners demand of him, and he cannot be found to be ignorant in any area."
The test, however, does not mark the end of the training period. Those who pass are then assigned to veteran waiters, who they will accompany for several shifts. Only after trainees have completed this phase are they allowed to start working on their own. Afterward they will also take courses on wine.
Exhausting as it may sound, such training does not deter young people looking to become waiters at prestigious restaurants - apparently thanks to the relatively high tips they can get at such places. A waiter working four evening shifts a week at a reputable establishment can earn about NIS 10,000 a month (see box ). A number of restaurants in the center of the country even have waiting lists of would-be-waiters. At other eateries, waiters only get hired "with the help of connections or prior acquaintanceships," according to one waitress.What is the lamp made of?
So which restaurants in the center do most waiters want to work at? Topping the list is Mul Yam, which is considered the most prestigious. Next comes Brasserie, which pays waiters well in light of the high turnover of diners. These are immediately followed by Chloelys and Rafael, and further down on the list: Messa, Herbert Samuel, Catit, Rokach 75, Yakimono, Salon (where waiters enjoy chef Eyal Shani's performance cooking ) and Segev Express, considered a financial success despite restaurant critics' reservations.
Ofer Castiel, 40, is a manager at Messa in Tel Aviv, where he has been selecting and training waiters and other employees since the restaurant's establishment six years ago.
"We have serious service-training courses, like at El Al," he says. "What sort of client is seated at your table? What is he likely to order? What sensitivities might he have? A waiter must be familiar with all the ingredients in a dish and be able to provide information about special raw materials or flavors. The waiters have to know all the details of about 50 or 60 dishes by heart, including the ingredients from which they're made."
The training period at Messa lasts three months and only then does "a waiter really go up to a table," Castiel says. The servers are expected to provide inquisitive diners with information about the chef, the architect and the design of the establishment as well - down to the smallest details about the tables, lamps and utensils - because there will always be that pedantic client who is going to ask.
"I love 'digging' into everything having to do with the food, the multiplicity of details," says Assaf Barel, a 26-year-old visual media student, who has been a waiter at Messa for a year and a half now. He intends to remain there at least until he completes his degree. "I was surprised by the extent of the material, but because I like the field, I enjoy it. This isn't suited to everyone and it's very different from waiting tables in a cafe, for example."
At Mul Yam in Tel Aviv, waiters also go through several months of training, at the end of which an oral exam is administered by the sous chef and the pastry chef. Ben Maharovsky, one of the restaurant's owners, acknowledges that only waiters with a strong desire to work there actually succeed there.
"Our aspiration," he says, "is to develop each waiter individually, through extensive training. A waiter does not leave our restaurant the way he came in. This isn't just another student job."