The Apprentice Diaries #8

The husband and I eat out a fair bit, and even more so before I quit work. We sample all sorts of joints — ranging from hole-in-the-wall-joints to the more foo-foo fine-dining kind of places. Despite the adventurous foodies in us, there are a couple of places we keep going back to. For days when we want to kick back and not have to think twice, just want be served without too many questions asked, when we know the service will be smiling, friendly and prompt (even if the food doesn’t make my skirt fly up), we have a couple of places we frequent without thinking twice. One of our favourite eateries in Panjim is pretty much a hole in the wall. It is cozy, fits 5 tables, the menu doesn’t boast of a wide selection and I can’t even say everything on that limited list is excellent. We have our staples, we stick to them. And yet, we keep going back there, once every week, on average. Because while no other place has nailed the local chorice-pao (minced Goan sausages, fried up and served up in a pav-sandwich) like they have. It’s the only place where I can walk in and know a smiling Pankaj, our friendly waiter, will plonk a large Gin, a bottle of tonic water and a couple of slices of lime before me, within minutes of setting my bum down. I don’t have to do so much as ask. And that is something I value much more than a 10-page menu with everything from lobster to tiramisu.

Anyhoo, the point of this long winded story is to say that I realised long ago that we’re the kind of people who value service and an overall experience, as much as (if not more) than just the quality or taste of food. And this hit home the most when I worked at the cafe. One of the advantages of being on the other side was to get a glimpse of what it takes to go beyond the obvious good food, good service, good ambience triumvirate. And because I’ve always been a hands-on kind of learner, and harboured the constant nagging thought that my last-job was not hands-on enough, this little stint really hit the spot for me. It was like diving deep right from the start, and from then on all efforts were real efforts to stay afloat. Every day was like field work — live, in the flesh and real. Of course getting hands-on from day 1 was fun, scary and exciting all at once.

And here’s the verdict: it’s far from easy.

The result: it’s made me far more forgiving of waiters and stewards as people, but not so much of those who set up food-related establishments and think the job is done.

I got to see and experience a fair bit of the ups and downs of life behind the counter. I realised just how important time management and precision in being organised in jobs like this really is. I experienced what being dog-dead-tired is. I learned what its like to face an emotional rollercoaster, swinging from frustration to ecstatic highs all in one day. It wasn’t all easy, and some of the things I’ve had to do were downright the hardest things I’ve had to do in my life. Some of them truly tested my patience. Some even made me an emotional wreck.

Some highlights from what I remember:

Taking on rush-hour: We had our off-days, the slow days when people would trickle in, in ones and twos. And those were the days I enjoyed. Because I’d get the time to preen and primp the pastry case, try and make patterns on the cappuccinos, attempt something new like tasting and putting together salad dressing, frosting cupcakes and the like. Things that would otherwise be left to more experienced hands. And it was only possible because we had the luxury of time! Because when rush hour came in, we worked like a factory assembly line. Covers flying, remembering it all, working faster than the speed of light, balancing a gazillion things on a salver, remembering who ordered what, trying not to step on peoples toes, I can’t even finish the list here. There were days when someone managed to send a packet of ice crashing onto the floor. And the whole pantry was a fast-melting pool. One day we mucked up one persons order, three times in a row. Nothing is more painful than making multiple trips back and forth from the same table. One day, bang in the middle of rush hour the busiest time, I spilled hot coffee over my feet and I didn’t have the time to stop and take care of it. Rush hour was a bitch. But it was also where the best highs happened. When the peak time would subside and we’d get a breather, we’d also all be smiling, glad that it was over but also really, really chuffed that we’d pulled it off.

Dealing with children: I’m not a fan of toddlers that are old enough to talk, observe and understand stuff, but incapable of making decisions. Every time someone brought a tot to the pastry case and lovingly uttered those dreaded words, “What cupcake would you like?” my heart would sink. Because it meant nothing less than 15 agonising minutes of painful toddler-driven decision making. Which is basically non-decision-making. There were also days when the toddler would wander off from the table where his adults were seated, come up and demand a cupcake. We’d politely hand it over, only to be told later that it wasn’t authorised. By then the hopped-up-on-sugar kid had climbed up the railing, screeching at the top of his voice, when the mother rushed to grab him before he jumped.

Dealing with finicky/specific/annoying guests: “Can I have a pink lemonade, but not pink?” I was once asked. I took one look at the man and wanted to ask him just how weak his ego was, if a pink lemonade was enough to make him feel less manly. FYI, the pink came from fresh plums that we’d soak in the lemon concentrate. There is nothing more refreshing than that, and when you’re in need of a refreshing drink on a hot day, the colour is usually the last thing on your mind. Unless you are of course, the indecisive kid from the point above. Or the overly beefed up man who asked for the pink lemonade to be made non-pink. There was also a woman who would habitually arrive at 10 am every morning and ask for a club sandwich made of pound cake and cream cheese frosting. I was pretty sure she was doing some hard drugs. Because the mad look in her eyes as she watched me pipe the cream cheese over the slice of pound cake was baffling. It would have been less absurd if she just took her druggie-snack and went away, except she’d want to step in and assemble said crazy sandwich herself. Piping oodles of cream cheese on herself. One day she stacked 4 slices of pound cake laced with illegal, coronary-inducing amounts of cream chesse frosting inbetween. We had to tell her we couldn’t do it anymore. There were plenty of pesky people who came with them whims and fancies. Hummus in a pool on the platter, not in the dip bowl, please. Grilled sandwich, without butter please. Deconstructed salad, please. Bah.

Schmoozing with fancypants socialites: Possibly the hardest part of working at a fancypants cafe, being on the other side, was hobnobbing with the socialites that frequented the place. I realised that visiting the cafe as a customer leaves an impression that is worlds apart from the one that forms slowly when you are there everyday, seeing the same snobby faces day in and out. I was exposed to a weird bubble of socialites that I didn’t know existed in Panjim. Where were these people for the last three years that I have lived here? Panjim is small, surely I ought to have bumped into or at least seen them somewhere before. But it turns out they exist in a bubble, wander around invisible, hobnobbing only with each other at a select few places. Mostly far away from us mortals. I’m not good with fake PC. More so with fancy people who throw their money around but do not display the slightest bit of class otherwise. I serially observed that many of the richest people, who ran up the biggest bills often tipped the lowest. That kind of nonsense gets no respect from me. It was harder then, to keep a fake smile plastered on and be gracious to them lot.

Watching people: That I am a complete people watcher, is no secret. I love observing people, but I rarely stop there. I analysse and hypothesise and build entire worlds that I think they come from. And the cafe was a hotbed of great subjects for this activity. When I wasn’t tripping over my own feet delivering coffee and getting my brain in a knot totaling bill I was busy creating histories and backgrounds for so many people. I met and spoke with a lot of interesting characters too. The cafe is in an art gallery, so it attracted a fair number of intellectuals. And they’re always fun to mock chat with. Artists, writers, journalists, wannabe actors, restauranteurs, the works. World famous in Goa could be found at the cafe. With it came a fair bit of unwanted attention too. Like the one restauranteur who wanted to poach me because he thought having pretty girls as stewardesses wa s agreat hook to attract crowds. Yes, I wanted to spit in his coffee. There was also the bald Italian man who came to the cafe three days in a row and ordered espresso after espresso after espresso and when I still didn’t get why, decided to get rather forthcoming with his intentions. As luck would have it, he was bald and hot. Killer combination where I come from. I was gobsmacked, dumbfounded, speechless. For realz. And I cannot divulge how that story ended.

Getting it wrong some times: No matter how hard you try, there is always that 1% chance of a slip up happening. There was the time the salad dressing went out untasted and miserably lacking in salt. Then, another time when the tea bags were served with luke warm water. And yet another when we ran out of hummus mid-day and it hadn’t occurred to anybody to let the kitchen know. That is just the tip of the ice berg really. Things like this happened every so often and invited varying levels of wrath of the forces that Be. The trick in a hands-on workplace like a restaurant/cafe is to pick yourself up, dust yourself and get going again. All moping and self pity has to be shelved for later. There is almost no time to show that you have fucked up, or that you are low. Because that invariably sets odd a downward spiral of more things that go wrong. And they inevitably do. Trust me. I’m talking from experience of having set cupcakes down frosting-first, toppling coke on a table just as I gingerly set the glass down and cutting a cake off-centre. Wet Hands and Butter Fingers are my other names and the cafe taught me a thing or two in slowing down, focusing just a wee bit more and seeing what a long way that can actually take you.

Breaking old habits: The cafe tested my OCD to the max. There are few things worse than wanting so badly to stack the tissues ina  perfect pile, or line up the cupcakes just so, or keep endlessl wiping down the counter so it is always spotless; but not ever being able to, because you simply don’t have the time!! The same frustration crept u on me when I’d find an odd number of cupcakes remaining in the tray, or Id have to pack and uneven number of toasties, so the foil packages were on varying sizes. Needless to say I was forced to overlook many things, grudgingly, and focus on the big things. Did it reduce my OCD? Nope. Not even in the least bit. The other huge challenge I had was confronting my fear and hatred for math and numbers. I had to learn to sop spazzing out every time I had to total a bill, or key in a long list of things into the cash register. One time I mixed uo the product key with the quantity and ended up with a Rs 58,000 bill for a small pack of cupcakes. It only further enforced my fear of numbers.

This post has been long pending, and I realised every now and then that because I never completed the series, several people think I still volunteer my time at the Cafe. The truth is, it ended up being a 2-month stint because I was ready for more, and the limited space in the pantry just couldn’t give it to me. I wanted to be in the kitchen but that plan was moving slower than anticipated. C’est la vie. Because I had a blast for the 8 weeks that I was there and I cannot even begin to put in words what that experience did for me.

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The Apprentice Diaries, was my attempt to chronicle life at the cafe. Follow the rest of the journey here.

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3 Replies to “The Apprentice Diaries #8”

  1. awesome post, Revati:) It’s certainly one of your best works and amazingly enjoyable and fun. I believe good service is the norm of the day and thoughtful patrons should be grateful to people who serve them. Ive met quite a few dedicated staff members:)
    Cheers and kudos for this 1.

  2. Just a few days ago I was wondering if you are still working at that cafe. Wow, it must be quite an experiece. Front end jobs in service industry are always challenging, rewarding and frustrating in equal measures. One thing is constant thought, there is no sucg thing as a dull day. There always is so much to absorb and reflect upon. Nice post!

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