There are the standard meals at the burger joint, the plate and a beer at the local pub, the happy hour at Applebee’s. Good service and mediocre service are often indistinguishable except by a single-digit percentage points on the tip at the end of the night. Egregious oversights earn only a mild and reasonable demotion, while above-and-beyond service–defined by an extra cherry on top and the quick replacement of a fork dropped on the floor–means a couple of extra bucks.
Then there is the five percent of dining experiences where the service is exceptional. These servers shift the meal into another gear because that is what they do. They are professionals. They are passionate about food and wine; they are interested in your conversation but keep a respectful distance from the details; they are attentive without being overbearing. Little Bird in Portland has a young woman who made the “A” grade with an extra plus when Kristine and I went there last month. And a recent trip to Aqua Santa in Santa Fe, New Mexico yielded a notable experience worth writing about.
I entered the front door and felt like I had barged in on someone’s private dining room: there were a handful of tables salted with well-dressed older couples and peppered with fancily attired trios of twenty-somethings, very near to emptying a bottle of wine and raising a hand to request another. Candles were lit in the fireplace, and a chef stood just beyond a wide open kitchen counter, tending to meats and seafood in ovens and on stoves. One server, dressed all in black, nimbly navigated the scene.
“Welcome, my friend,” he said without the aura of insincerity that accompanies many commercial experiences. He sat me at a table with space from the rest of the patrons, but made it clear that he was not trying to buffer their dining experience from the single gentleman carrying a backpack and a heavy beard. He explained the wine options and offered me a taste and the choice of a replacement if I found it to be unsatisfying. Instead of the requisite, “It’s good!” in response to a request for an opinion of competing menu items, he explained each of them with subtlety and precision, noting flavors, textures, and color. He knew his stuff but presented it without pretension. The man took care to step back a pace when I spoke and forward when it was time for him to respond in turn.
Whitney introduced himself later in the meal, and we talked about the nature of professional restaurant service. I remarked at his strengths and he thanked me, adding that he is good at what he does, and truly enjoys it. “Fundamentally,” he told me, “you can only enjoy this work if you can understand that at your core, your responsibility is to serve.” Whitney shared a story about a colleague who had worked at the same restaurant (and with similar talent) had dropped the post because he couldn’t get past the simple truth that he was waiting on others.
The greatness of the best servers is realized in the combination of their own passion for food and their understanding and acceptance of the responsibility of service. The recognition of this seemingly submissive quality creates power for the best of servers: they truly own what they do, transforming themselves into a part of the experience rather than an intermediary between the kitchen and the table. These servers have wonderful comprehension of pace, an encyclopedic knowledge of foods, and an earnest desire to connect with people–and guests, in turn, want to connect with them.
It was unsurprising for me to discover that both Whitney and the chef at Aqua Santa had graduated from St. John’s College in Santa Fe. As a Reed graduate, I’ve come to experience passion in a variety of forms, with its expression realized both inside the classroom and in the community. Ultimately, choosing a life as a server of high quality is no different than a life as a researcher, artist or musician. Find your passion, and create something that can be entirely your own.