Throwback! This is an article that I shared with OneModernCouple about my experience working in a French restaurant in 2016.
The First Day
I tip-toed into the dining area as the sound of the repeated yelling of the words “putain, merde!!” came from the kitchen. The fear that manifested as a slight queasiness intensified as I was faced with the head chef/owner. The commis was looking listlessly at his sunken soufflés. I hoped that I would do better on my first day.
The intimidating chef reeled out a list of instructions. All of my French vocabulary escaped me. His face contorted as I spoke, in the same intent listening expression many French people adopt when I open my mouth. I’d become somewhat accustomed to it. Minutes later, I was shaking as I was opening a wine bottle in front of a table of four french people. The more nervous I was the slower I was, the slower I was, the more nervous I became. At home I could rip into a bottle of wine no problem- and do so every night (when in France…) This was different. Drops of red wine dripped all over the white tablecloth…
On my second day, I dropped an entire box that was on a high shelf of handmade little meringues. The kitchen staff didn’t speak to me for the rest of the day. I don’t blame them.
Inexperienced and Linguistically Challenged
French people can transform any job into a métier, or a trade. You specialise in what you do and you’re proud of it. The chef must have been desperate to hire me; I had never worked as a waitress before. Many local businesses didn’t want to give me a chance as a foreigner; they assumed I wouldn’t be around for long. Living in a rural village in France only gives you so many options.
Shift work was not an option. As the team or as the chef called us, his ‘soldiers’, needed so much training, we worked both lunch and dinner service. I found out the hard way that this is why French restaurants serve meals at specific times. It’s the same staff for lunch and dinner service.
I found myself in seemingly perpetual cycles of working, eating, sleeping and nothing else. Though I have to say I’ve never been skinnier! My brain was exhausted not only to keep up with the French but the French slang that is so commonly in restaurants. Everything is abbreviated. On orders, cabillaud (cod) is KBIO, personnel is ‘perso,’ a carafe of water is a circle with a line through it. My french vocabulary was incredibly slow to improve due to my inability to actually hear what anyone was saying. I tried to pick out words that I kept on ripped little pieces of paper in my back pocket. During quiet moments I’d quiz my colleagues. Who knew there were so many expressions with the word fart in them?!
Une Canadienne en Provence
The clients participated in a constant guessing game of where I was from. Oh, to be exotic. Thankfully, there were exclamations of joy whenever I mentioned I was Canadian. This was swiftly followed by the interrogation of why on earth I would move here when all the young French people are moving there. Trust me, I had doubts. I learned that being Canadian is oddly considered chic and la classe. Explaining the nationalistic difference between French Canada, where I’m from, and identifying myself as Canadian instead of Quebecois was a constant topic of conversation. This interest in my heritage thankfully disguised some of my inept shaky serving.
Learning about French Apéritifs
The drinks were tricky. The French love of sirops (syrups) meant that I had to learn, rather unsuccessfully, all the different names of sirops combined with water, pastis, lemonade and beer. For example, a ‘Monaco’ is a ‘panaché’ (beer with a little lemonade) with grenadine sirop. A gommé, or a demi acid, is beer with lemon sirop. Then, there are all the French and local specialties. How to serve Pastis (aniseed liquor) with all it’s various sirops and their various names. Rinquinuin…what a name! Once someone asked for their end of meal coffee to be “arrosé”, which means watered. Turns out they wanted it with a shot of cognac! It was a constant learning experience trying to catch up with what all French people already knew. After an evening shift, the chef once made me try Jet 27; it was like drinking toothpaste. Though, a lot of French people wouldn’t agree.
Learning to Say ‘Non’!
I began to learn how to say to say ‘non.’ As an English speaker from a capitalist society, I had a hard time getting used to the fact that the customer is not king. Eventually, the long days and the lack of extra money for extra hours and the French inability to tip, allowed me to adopt some of the French waiter attitude. You want to eat at 7pm? The chef had no problem telling potential clients that “we eat then, you eat afterwards!”. You want your beef well done? “Impossible!” Your want a special menu for your kid? Non. You want to eat lunch at 2:30 in the afternoon? Non. You’re not ordering an entrée? How dare you not eat all of your meal? All this, along with the chef’s strong conviction that all vegetarians should be hospitalised, led to some interesting situations. Surprisingly, the French actually put up with this and indeed expect it. There is a respect for the kitchen staff and waiters who quite frankly, sometimes know best.
Locals are King
A part of the job is getting to know the clientele. This is paramount in a rural French village. I’ll never forget the local olive producer’s exasperation when I made him spell his name for me on the phone. Everyone knew and revered who he was since he was a child. Olive oil production is big business here. Well, this Canadian didn’t know.
I become adept at details. You remember to reserve the table next to the kitchen for the guy who comes every week with a different girl, you remember (after much tongue twisting practice) that 5A quality Andouilette actually stands for: Association Amicale des Amateurs d’Andouillette Authentique. You also learn to ask the Brit who doesn’t know what it is and is ordering it to impress his date: “are you sure?”
You learn that it’s rude not to do the 3 ‘bisous’ (kisses greeting) with every single person in the kitchen when you get to work in the morning. You learn to keep a straight face as hot coffee spills on you. You program yourself, through sheer anxiety, to distinguish the ring of the bell from the kitchen despite the noise of a roaring restaurant. You can even tell the mood of the chef by the way he rings it.
An Everyday Struggle
The pecking order of a restaurant is evident at all times. Everyone is asking something of you, even the dishwasher. You wouldn’t believe the effortless insults that can be utilised while amazingly still using the formal ‘vousvoyer’ form. You learn to jump at the chef’s exclamation of “Hellooo??” If you don’t stand up for yourself, you’ll be trampled. Everyone is testing everyone. As I’m a smiley person, this can be contused as insecure and even dumb in French culture. As you can imagine, defending yourself in another language is a constant battle.
After shifts, in the early hours of the morning, I’d angrily punch into Word Reference all kinds of words I wish I had known at previous moments during the day. I remember being exasperated that there doesn’t seem to be a translation of smart ass in French. I had a colleague in mind.
On my days off, I’d help Robin with the house. We were renovating our tiny house while living in an even tinier studio as we had no roof.
A Learning Experience
After two months, when I thought I was getting the hang of it, I was replaced with someone who could handle six plates at once. I only learned to carry 2.5. I learned how to make foam for a cappuccino and the difference between a parmentier and a parmentière. I was able to have an insight into French restaurant peculiarities, such as amazingly leaving half bottles of wine and taking cigarette breaks between each course. I learned the incredible subjectivity of the restaurant experience in that one service everything can go wrong and another can be a pleasure.
From now on, I’ll be leaving much bigger tips!
An update in 2020*
Working in a restaurant is difficult in any country. Unfortunately, it was more difficult for me due to my inexperience, language difficulties and being from another culture. Despite this crazy stressful experience 4 years ago I’m so grateful to have had it. I learned a lot and despite his fiery kitchen manner I’m actually still friends with the chef, a man I have a lot of respect for. I often bring clients to the restaurant during my day tours of Les Alpilles. There’s a lot of love that goes into restaurants that decide to make everything from scratch and this has to be admired.
If you’re curious about other expat blunders by moi :