We humans love our traditions. Some have persisted for valid reasons. Others? Well, I think on some level, we just enjoy the drug of empty repetition.

I’ve long been an eager proponent of the history, rituals, and heritage of the meal. But sometimes, we confuse the latter concepts. Some traditions are really just calcified habits – long grown irrelevant. To find their rightful place as a cultural and an economic force, restaurants need to transcend the “tradition” of front-line staff, working for tips.

Now, I realize that I’m treading on dangerous ground. Thou shalt not criticize the 20% gratuity, especially here in La Belle Province. But after years of experiencing both sides of the gratuity system, the situation has become as clear as day to me.

The compensation methods, and hence the respect for and the job security of the server has not kept up with its rapid professionalization.

A restaurant bill in the US showing gratuity charges. Commensurate salaries and gratuity charges are common in many parts of Europe and Asia and have been shown to correlate to better overall wages, more job security, increased professional development opportunities and better employee engagement.

Despite a sharp hike in gastronomy’s cultural currency here in North America, we still cling to the quaint tradition of “tipping the service what it’s worth.”

There are college degrees for restaurant service now, for God’s sake, not to mention mixology, tableside prep and food service theory. (More on the odd tension of these degrees in a future article).

Artful dining and drinking are finally entrenched as legitimate “cultural fields” here in North America. The wealth of highly skilled servers has long outweighed the pretenders. It’s time to shake off the cobwebs and allow the industry to occupy its rightful place.

Where else are consummate professionals still legally encouraged to work for well under minimum wage?

The consumer’s echo? How unfair. I’ll just leave a bigger tip.

Well, I do that, and I used to get tips both big and small. That’s the problem. Instead of thinking beyond the issue, everyone just screams out to increase tips. We are perpetuating a system that is ultimately harmful to servers, restauranteurs, and eaters.

Why, in this one industry alone, are all the tried and tested responsibilities of the owner — adequate compensation for skilled employees, evaluation of roles and performance — deflected so heavily to the customer?

Tradition? Job instability, high turnover, and an uncomfortable and unnecessary dynamic for the client. That’s a tradition! An ineffable part of restaurant culture. But who is really winning from this tradition? And do we realize it’s predominantly a North American addiction?

I’m continually amazed by how rarely we compare the resto to similar cultural experiences. For some reason, we blindly accept that over-regulation and unquestioned traditions can utterly stifle in this one case — for no real reason other than the resistance to change. I’ve ranted in the past about how utterly counterproductive it is for this province to outlaw restaurant tickets, or to let people pay for reservations.

When it comes to working for spare coins, this old, logic-defying current prevails: Servers are inherently different from workers in cognate industries.

The problem is, that is just not true.

Perhaps we just feel guilty about being served food? Does it seem too much of a luxury to be compensated like a normal part of the economy? Try this offhand analogy: riding by plane is luxurious, yet I don’t hear of passengers being asked to invent a rate for the pilot once they’d safely landed.

Diners order give

Servers are not a special class. They are simply skilled people with jobs. Their skills and experience are as valid as any other profession.

Yet there is some weird mystique to the profession that fogs our view. The latter is one of the nasty byproducts of an empty tradition. It goes something like this: My server is akin to a street performer, s/he should have to surprise and delight me if I am to allow him/her to make ends meet.


Firstly, such expectations are not consistent with those we have for other services, and other skilled professionals. Customer satisfaction, typically, revolves around the expectation that the person we deal with is competent — hopefully decent — in their role. In most situations, this is easily enough for us to expect someone to be fairly compensated.

Second, a server is also not a freelancer in a public place. A server is an employee generating revenue for a government-sanctioned business. The restaurant industry is one of the most heavily legislated in the province, which is about the the furthest thing (on the surface) from an emergent street economy.

Why not just start paying servers like everyone else, which is to say paying servers based on normal principles of compensation? I’m no expert on the latter, but from my own life, it usually involves one’s prior levels of experience and performance year over year.

Check Please

Some say serving is a sort of performance. Fine. Yet unless they are being defrauded or willingly gigging for free, even, say, actors and musicians know to a much higher degree than servers the terms of their contract before performing the actual work.

Because when it comes to a server’s core earnings (tips), the contract is wholly unkonwn. The real contract is not with their boss. It’s with their diner. And they do not have permission to interview diners before the first glass of water is brought to the table.

The problem, therefore, is not the tip itself. People should always tip in life if they feel compelled, and cash is only one (albeit efficient) vehicle to acknowledge one’s actions, or to express gratitude.

But regular wages — eventually salaries — are the only way to keep servers and restaurants stable and relevant in today’s economic and cultural sphere. In no one’s fantasy is the restaurant still an economic or cultural experiment. Rather, it’s an institution, for whom structural change is long overdue.

So how can restos afford to pay servers real wages? Maybe increase booze markup, add a service charge, hike menu prices; in other words, let us diners absorb the cost of a newly stable profession. Because in many ways, we already are.

Look, I’m not judging anyone here, but the world is made up of all kinds of people, and not everyone is, let’s say, at home when attending some of the fancier events the world has to offer. That’s okay, though. Symphonies and lavish galas aren’t for everyone. But even those on the lowest rung of decent society have to climb up a few steps and try to keep their filthy pants on for a few hours to be part of one classy affair now and then.

It can be overwhelming if you’re not used to it, and frankly a little bit intimidating. But don’t you worry your pretty little tiara-topped head, because I’m here to give you all the advice you’ll ever need to be a bona fide smash at your next formal shindig. If you follow my guidelines, you can transform yourself from the crudest of turds to the hottest of shit.

Let’s start with the upscale dinner. Now, I’m not talking anywhere with unlimited breadsticks and bottomless pasta bowls here, you barn-raised cretin. The thing about real fancy restaurants is you pay more money for less food. The fancier the restaurant, the more expensive the entrée and the less meal on the plate. Most high-end eateries have very few buckets of anything on the menu.

Start by ordering the third most expensive wine on the list. That shows you have good taste, but you’re not a sucker. Make a comment about how whatever year it’s from was a good year for grapes. Wait, is wine made from grapes? That doesn’t sound right. Anyhow, say that it was a good year for grapes or potatoes or limestone or whatever wine is made from.

And don’t call the waiter “waiter.” Fancy restaurants don’t have waiters. They have concierges and maitre d’s, which I think are French for janitor and maybe blacksmith? Anyway, the proper way to address a server is “madam” if she’s a woman, which is French for “madam,” or “garçon” for a man, which is French for “dude” and is pronounced gherkin, like the pickle.

Another event many of you unwashed plebians might have trouble with is going to an art gallery, perhaps for an opening or a reception. Now, nothing says “class” like art, so it makes a great impression if you know a little about it. First off, there will probably be people serving wine or champagne, so snag some from the first one that passes you. Make sure to grab a couple glasses until you’ve got a handle on how fast they circulate. Once you’ve gotten a few drinks down your greasy philistine trap, you’ll be ready to look at some art.

Most art is kind of bullshit, actually, but just pretend for ten minutes that you don’t still stink like whatever gross cave you just crawled out of and that you understand it. It’s pretty easy. You don’t even have to say much. Act like you’re really contemplating it for a couple minutes, then say that you admire the artist’s bold brush strokes and gesture towards the dick. There’s always a dick in art. Talk a lot about the dick part of the piece and how viscerally it impacted you. Dick talk really gives the impression that you get art.

Finally, we have the opera. This one can be tough. There’s a lot going on at an opera. And they’re long, too. And in a lot of operas everybody sings everything. I guess that’s how they do things in Europe. There’s usually an intermission, and a reception after the thing, and you’re expected to talk about the opera. It can be done, though. Drop names of famous opera composers like Verdi or Gandolfini.

Make a big scene about how much you wept when Mimi died in Rodolfo’s arms, or when José killed Carmen, or when Aida died, or Violetta or Nedda or Antonia. Operas are all about women dying. Really you could just talk about how much it moved you when the lady died, and play Candy Crush through the whole thing.

That should pretty much do it. If you’ve managed to pull yourself out of your own filth for long enough to read this far, then you should be in for a resoundingly successful night. Just remember everything I taught you, and don’t forget to have fun! Have fun for me too, I can’t go. I’m not allowed back to the concert hall. Or the art gallery. Or any restaurant that isn’t Arby’s.


Photo by Beraldo Leal via Flickr

This post was originally published a couple of years ago, but it’s all too relevant today. Hope the tips help…

It’s hot. I love it. But I could do without my sauna of an apartment. Maybe this is what my rent increase is paying for, a built-in summer sauna. I can just hear my delusive landlord pitching the benefits to me now: “maintain a constant dewy complexion, sweat away those extra pounds and enjoy a higher power bill due to electric fans!”

Ah yes, electric fan. It’s a love hate relationship, isn’t it? If your pay checks are as piddly as mine are, and the idea of using a precious hundred bucks of it on an air conditioner gives you the cold (refreshing) sweats, then you’ve probably got at least two fans in your stifling hot abode. But let’s face it, all they really do is blow around hot air and give the illusion of a cooler temperature which lasts for about 3 minutes, and only if you’re sprawled out on the floor with both fans on either side of you. So basically, the only thing to do is pack a bag, pack a lunch, and get the hell out of your apartment.

The last few days have seen me wandering around, trying to get my air conditioned fix where I can. My empty wallet and dollar-less pockets have forced me to come up with creative ways of keeping cool. Maybe they’re not all ideal, but hey, it’s 30 degrees and only the most innovative survive!

1. Head to the grocery store.

No, no, you don’t actually have to grocery shop, you just need to grab a cart and pretend like you are! It’s like loitering…but you can justify it by calling it pre-grocery shopping, or grocery window-shopping. Grocery stores are always superiorly air conditioned, and they’re big enough to conceal you for a little while. But when a staff member halts you in Aisle 3 to see if they can help you find something (since your cart looks suspiciously empty), whatever you do, don’t tell them you’re browsing. This will certainly lead to your removal.

2. Go for a walk beside a high rise apartment.

I can see the questioning looks on your faces now. Understandable. So the other day, I found myself walking beside a towering high rise apartment building. Suddenly, droplets of cool water where gently falling on my sun-scorched arms and shoulders. I looked up to see what bird was pissing on me and realized that, instead, it was droplets of scuzzy humidity dripping from those lucky tenant’s air conditioners. But did I keep walking, out of the line of dirty droplets? Oh hell no, I’ve no shame. If I can’t afford an air conditioner, I’m going to damn well utilize everyone else’s!

3. Put a towel in the freezer.

This is the only legit method on the list for keeping cool, and it’s not even my idea. One of my awesome friends showed it to me, so all the credit goes to him. All you need is a face towel and a freezer and you are good to go! Ahem. Take the towel. Place it in your freezer. Wait. Wait. Wait. Remove the towel and place it on your shoulders, or your legs, or your face, or wherever. Your body will instantly feel ten degrees cooler, as if ice-cold ocean waves are lapping against your ankles, or like the time you got super drunk on New Year’s Eve and found yourself semi-naked outside in the snow as part of the Polar Bear Dip.

Well, these suggestions may or may not prove helpful, but they saw me through this week’s inhumane temperatures and a stifling hot apartment. As for keeping yourself hydrated, may I suggest popsicles and brewed ice tea (or sangria, it looks and tastes like juice, no one will know the difference!)

Good luck!

Photos:  sangitagurung.com