Wine and the service industry go hand in hand, and to be honest; if it wasn’t for all the years I have spent as a waiter and bartender then I wouldn’t have ever had the appreciation for wine that I do now. With this in mind, I thought I would highlight some memories of things during the years I have spent in the restaurant industry. This is kind of like my version of ‘Kitchen Confidential’
When I was younger I was obsessed with the USA. Now… not so much. However, growing up in the 90’s and early 2000’s I was subject to a lot of North American culture, from TV shows, to music, to food outlets.
My friends and I would always say that we were going to move to the USA. I look back and find it hilarious. We all thought we were so ‘individual’ but were so caught up in corporate American culture, yet too naive to realise that our favourite bands and TV shows were big portrayals of the US corporate machine that we used to claim that we were so against.
When I was 19 I decided that I was going to stay true to my old promise to myself and started looking into ways to move to the USA, at least for a little while. I got a visa and signed up to a company called ‘Resort America’. This company provided me with a visa and flight, and then looked to place me in a hotel or restaurant. It was completely at random so I could have ended up anywhere in the USA. I ended up being placed at a hotel called Sunset Beach in the Hamptons, New York.
I remember setting off from Heathrow airport and flying out to Newark, New Jersey. There were a few other people from the program flying out but going different places. To be honest, I kept myself to myself. They were all being very loud and just displaying annoying levels of excitement. People who know me may think that I can’t really say anything because I am a loud person, which is true, however just because I’m loud doesn’t mean I appreciate other people being loud (I know, I’m a dick).
I remember getting to a budget hotel in New Jersey, being assigned a room and told I had to be up at 3am. At 1am the door to my two-bed room opened and in came four strangers. They all were from Poland and said they were going to the same place as me.
At 3am we were bundled into a small van and driven to Penn station, next to Madison Square Garden in Manhattan, and we were then given an a4 piece of paper with vague instructions on and then told to have a good summer. We caught two trains and a Ferry, then were picked up in a blacked out SUV and taken to some shithole cabins in the middle of nowhere with no working ovens or locks on the doors. We put our bags down and then bundled into the SUV again and taken to the hotel we were going to be working at. We sat down with the General Manager who seemed pretty annoyed to be talking to us, and then we were assigned jobs. I had the advantage of speaking English as my native language and previous restaurant experience so was given the role as busboy.
A busboy is kind of like the lowest of the low when it comes to front of house in the restaurant industry. They’re invaluable to a busy restaurant and are such an important aspect as they support the servers in order to make the customer experience a memorable one. The only thing is, in some high tense situations they can be mistreated and it takes thick skin to keep going… especially at Sunset Beach.
During my tenure as a busboy, I had to put up with verbal abuse, sexual harassment and on one occasion came extremely close to being on the receiving end of a fist. There were times when it was so physically and mentally demanding that I didn’t have a clue if I would make it through the shift, but with all this said… I wouldn’t swap that experience for the world.
When I first started at Sunset the season was about three weeks in and I was one of the youngest people there. I was a fresh-faced 19 year old, coming for an adventure. My colleagues were all about 10 years older than me, some 20 years older than me, seasoned veterans in the restaurant industry. Where I had come for an adventure, this was their livelihood. Most people would work most of the year down in New York City, then come to the Hamptons for the summer to make money from the vacationing New Yorkers.
Most of my colleagues were from Brazil, Guatemala, Mexico, Argentina, Poland and Peru. I remember feeling that a large number of the seasoned workers didn’t really take to me at first. They’d all known each other for years, knew how each other worked and then they had to ‘babysit’ this young, naïve, ‘privileged’ asshole coming for an adventure during his summer break from university (I am by no means privileged).
There was one guy in particular who couldn’t stand me at first and he wasn’t afraid to let me know. I’d been thrown into this job with no training on how things worked in this specific restaurant, except for a once over of the table numbers. I didn’t know anything about the menu or the way an evening would go, if it was a set menu, or a-la carte etc. The kitchen was the strangest kitchen I’ve ever worked with too. They wouldn’t wait for servers to ‘fire’ the main courses. They would go at the own pace and ‘fire’ the mains when they perceived the table to be ready, so the food runners would often come with the main courses for a table and it not be cleared of their appetisers. On one occasion, this particular guy who took a clear dislike to me, came up the stairs to my section and then had to make space on the table and clear the appetisers. He just turned to me and in the most sarcastic way said, “You’re doing such a good fucking job” and walked off. I remember thinking “fuck that prick, fuck this place, I want to go home”. However I couldn’t afford a flight.
In my first few weeks, I really struggled to get along with the entire place. It was the furthest I’d been away from home and in a weird way I just didn’t feel that I was fitting in. At work everyone spoke Spanish, I couldn’t speak Spanish, then at home everyone spoke Polish and I couldn’t speak Polish. The veterans at work didn’t seem bothered about making a new friend and the servers, the customers, the food runners, the managers, and the chefs were constantly yelling me at.
I remember on my second day, I took 30 seconds to introduce myself to a colleague and the manager on duty shouted “Hey British! You’re not here to chat, you’re here to fucking work!”
Work was tough as we were doing about 400 covers per night and then at home there was always a party going on. Don’t get me wrong, I was partying hard and that was the only thing keeping me from going home, aside from the fact I was broke and couldn’t afford a flight.
It was after the third week where I started to embrace it. My contract and my bank account had all been set up so I was getting paid regularly and then all of a sudden I had money to spend. I’d been putting in some ridiculous hours and the veterans who wouldn’t give me the time of day started to embrace me. I started learning Spanish and building on my basic understanding that I had learned at school and I even picked up Polish (well the swear words). Things were getting a bit better and I just thought to myself “Grow up!” I was in a beautiful part of the world, getting paid decent money (for a 19 year old) and I just had to get over the shock to the system.
It was at this point that when my attitude changed, I really started to enjoy my time there. People also saw how hard I was working and that was gaining me the respect of my peers. Pawel, Jakub (Good friends of mine to this day) and I were always working Saturday nights. Pawel and I would work until 4am every Saturday, and then were back in at 10am every Sunday. There was one night in particular which made me realise that I had the respect of the head bar-back. We’d been working constantly all night, the sixth Saturday in a row and it was about 1am. The party at the hotel was going off as always, all our colleagues who had finished shift were partying, drinking, smoking and just cutting loose. Pawel and I were sat on a bench taking 10 minutes before going back to work when Marcelo, the head bar back starting shouting to us “James, Pawel I need you. I remember thinking “oh for fuck’s sake”. I was tired, had another three hours to go and just wanted to relax for 10 minutes. I shouted back “we’re on a break!” and instantly regretted it. Marcelo was the nicest guy in the world if you were on his good side but I remember him absolutely chastising me in my first week for having the ‘cheek’ to ask for a coca cola. He shouted back “Get the fuck over here now, I need you to help me in the walk in fridge!” Pawel and I looked at each other, sighed and then proceeded to walk to this big outdoor fridge. We opened the door, walked in and there was Marcelo with three Coronas, he cracked them open and said “Cheers guys”. We stood in this walk in fridge for the next 15 minutes just drinking and chatting, as equals. Marcelo had seen how hard we worked and that gesture is one that I always remember. It was simple, but to me, that gesture validated my reason for being there and a lot of the homesickness and feeling like an outsider went away.
As the season went on, we partied more and it felt like each week got crazier. On Saturday nights, the veteran servers and food runners would create a barricade between the mid deck and top deck parts of the restaurant so they couldn’t be disturbed by the customers and would have their own private party. Nobody was paying for their drinks, and sometimes on my breaks I would join them. I remember realising when I had been completely accepted by them when I climbed over the barricade to join them on top deck and have a sneaky drink whilst on shift. I was walking up towards them all and there were several lines of cocaine on the table, and not one of them cared that I was there. They knew I wasn’t going to report it to the management and just carried on.
I’m not saying that I gained ‘my stripes’ with them by being ambivalent to their drug use, however that was a sign that they felt comfortable around me. As much as people shouldn’t strive for the acceptance of their peers, it was a nice feeling. I’d been working so hard, was so young, and was so far way from home and it finally felt like I wasn’t alone.
A colleague of mine had to leave to go back to Switzerland due to family circumstances so we had a huge party for him. There were easily 200 people at this party, even the General Manager of the hotel turned up for a while (which so many people were angry about as they had to stop snorting coke while he was there). It was so hard to keep count of the people there, and I didn’t even recognise two thirds of them. So this is all happening in a shitty cabin with no locks on the front door or any door for that matter, I think you can guess what happened next. Shock horror, one of the girls who lived in the cabin opens her bedroom door to find out she’s been robbed! The party quickly ended when the police showed up and everyone started quickly trying to hide their drugs or had to run away because their visa papers weren’t exactly legit.
As the season went on, I was starting to get bored of all the parties. I wanted to come home with some money so started saving. The way I save is a bit strange. I have to save in cash or I will just spend my money as when I pay on card it feels like I’m not spending anything. So, I was taking money out of my account every pay day and stashing some away. I had a bundle of about $2,000 in my sock draw and one night I came home after a particularly busy shift. I was hung over from the night before, tired and just wanted to sleep. I got out of the pick up truck that used to take us to and from work, and then I saw my house. The front room was full. There were about 50 people all in my fucking house and I didn’t recognise a single one of them. I was trying to make my way through the crowds of people, to get to my room, to get to my sock draw to see if my money was still there. Thank fuck, it was!
I got my money, put it in my pocket and just left the house. I just couldn’t be bothered with another party, and from that moment my relationship with some of my housemates started to become a bit strained. They were always partying which was fine but a few of them started to become quite insular (perhaps they would argue the same thing about me though). I lived in a two-bedroom cabin with five other people. All five of my housemates were Polish and the rest of the ‘Polish Mafia’ as we affectionately called them would come to our cabin to hang out. At the start of the season I used to love coming home from work and getting smashed with them, drinking vodka in the traditional Polish way, but as the summer went on, it started getting old. I remember two guys from the ‘Polish Mafia, who didn’t even live with us had a bare knuckle boxing match in our front room and when they were finished there was blood all over the walls and so many holes in the walls. I woke up one morning a few days later to find the property manager for the hotel, with the general manager by his side inspecting all the smashed bits of plasterboard on the walls and then interrogating me as to what happened. Of course, I kept my mouth shut but I was pissed off at these arseholes that had come to my house, smashed it up and then put me in a position where I was being woke up an interrogated by my boss. At any one time there would normally be about eight people in my front room and as the summer went on they made little or no attempt to speak English around me. I completely understand people speaking their own language around their country folk as when I was living in France I spoke a lot of englishhowever I was starting to feel a bit marginalised as it limited me to how much I could interact with everybody.
Breaking point came one day when a few of us stupidly decided to drink and party on the roof of a cabin and ended up damaging it. Someone called the police, they came and we were lucky to not end up in a cell for the night. I remember my friend Julio, who was an illegal immigrant, gave a false name and as soon as the police officer’s back was turned made a run for it. Our boss then came and we nearly lost our jobs. Losing a job isn’t a big deal normally but if I got fired from that job then it would have meant that I got deported from the United States, and that never really looks good does it. Everyone then started playing the blame game and we got into a bit of an argument when I asked them to smoke outside. I’d picked up some Polish over the summer and could make out the gist of what they were saying about me, basically that if I didn’t watch out then they would kick the shit out of me type thing. I thought to myself “fuck this” and moved in with some friends for the rest of the season.
As the season started to come to an end, things just started to get ridiculous and despite trying to not party, I still ended up abusing my body with toxins on a daily basis. One of the Peruvian veterans got fired because he was arrested in the car park of our hotel. The police were originally going to stop him for getting into his car when drunk but then found a lot of cocaine in the car, three of the veterans were caught by the General Manager smoking weed, one was fired, one suspended and the other was shown compassion as he had a baby on the way so kept his job, then two of the veteran bar-backs left to work hospitality at the US Open down in the city. I remember one day Marcelo needed help so I just assisted him and then from then on I was a bar back for the rest of the season, on the days I wasn’t bussing tables of course.
The money you can make from being a bar back is ridiculous. A good bar back literally runs the bar and in Marcelo’s case, the bartenders worked for him. In my case, I worked for the bartenders. If you are good at your job then you should know what the bartender needs before he/she does. I remember the week before Labour Day weekend I worked over 50 hours in the space of three days. I was worked to the bone. Marcelo had brought a guy up from the city to assist me but he was fucking useless. I remember just shouting at this guy and telling him to go slice limes. He was slicing limes for five hours. Marcelo later apologised for bringing the guy in and chastised the fuck out of his friend who had recommended him. It felt good to know that I had done a good job and that the head bar back was apologising to me for making my life harder.
Everyone at Sunset was an alcoholic or addicted to something. One of the Peruvian veterans was once caught in the dry storage cupboard, on his own, drinking a beer. You could always tell when this guy was on coke too. He would be so sluggish at work from partying the night before and then he would go into dry storage for two minutes and then all of a sudden he would emerge with his chest puffed out, head up and ready to go. The guys from Queens were all stoners and couldn’t work sober, and the Polish just loved to get fucked up off anything they could.
There came a point when I was bar backing in the Café bar on the ground floor when ‘Jake’ the Serbian bartender lost his cool with me. We were five people deep at the bar, didn’t have one clean wine glass and he threw a bottle on the floor and yelled at me “I NEED MORE FUCKING LIME JUICE!!!” I just bolted and grabbed some lime juice from Marcelo’s bar on mid deck and threw it to him. Jake was a funny character as he was softly spoken but a raging alcoholic. After I had been bar backing for a few weeks, the bar started becoming mine and before we started service one day he asked me if he could have a vodka red bull. I let him, and then he had three more before service started. I couldn’t care less that he had four and not paid for them as that weekend we made over $100,000 in bar sales alone.
The whole vibe at Sunset was a weird one. In the book, ‘Kitchen Confidential’, Anthony Bourdain wrote that the restaurant industry is full of misfits who can’t/won’t conform to regular life, or words to that effect. Sunset was no different. The front of house team in particular was all just people who wanted to make money, travel and party.
I think my partying peaked when I finished work one night. Employees were allowed a shift drink, however I was under 21 so I had to disguise the fact that I was drinking Stolichnaya by adding orange juice to it. My friend and I got pretty fucked up and then headed to the few bars there are on Shelter Island. When they shut there was about four of us still wanting to party, so we headed to a house party that the stoners from Queens were throwing, then we got bored, headed back to Joe’s house whom he shared with three of our managers. We were drinking on the back porch, in the garden of this beautiful house and raided the beverage manager’s beer cupboard and drunk some rare Australian beer that he’d been given as a gift. Next thing I know, I am in this huge bedroom and semi conscious in a walk in wardrobe. I can remember vaguely seeing two of my female colleagues making out with each other and then next thing I know I’m waking up a couple of hours later in the main hallway of the house. All of my managers will have had to step over me when they got home so I just bolted and walked about 5 miles home.
I was at work the next day, feeling very tired, was very sluggish and just doing a shit job. Carlos (one of my manager’s) just walked up to me and said, “That’s what you get for getting fucked up last night” and it was never spoken of again.
A week later, I was closing up the bar when I witnessed one of the funniest events I have ever seen. The DJ of the bar was this old, effeminate French man. He was flamboyant, sassy, and the life of Sunset Beach. Rumour had it that the owner of Sunset paid him $50k for four months work. He was the face of the hotel. People would drive up from NYC to have dinner at Sunset just to see him. He’d been doing it for years and everybody knew him. Where everyone had to share accommodation (even the managers) miles away from the hotel, he got his own apartment to himself, on site. However, he had a nasty side and didn’t take well to being told ‘No’.
One night, I was closing the bar up and the beverages manager was cashing out the cash registers, when all of a sudden Pierre the DJ runs up to Cameo (one of the bartenders) and starts trying to hit her. Turns out that one of his friends had asked for another drink and she had said no because we were closing “DON’T YOU SAY NO TO ME OR MY FUCING FRIENDS YOU BITCH”. Tray, The beverages manager ran over and tried to get the DJ off of Cameo (It is worth pointing out that Pierre and Tray aren’t their real names). Tray was short, skinny and equally as flamboyant at Pierre. This was never going to be heavyweight-boxing match. Pierre turns to Tray and starts trying to hit him, he is literally trying to climb over the bar. I ran round the bar and separated them. Pierre is shouting at everyone in the strongest French accent you’ve ever heard “You go fuck yourself Tray, do you know who I am?? DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM????!!!” To which Tray just yelled in the bitchiest way possible “Of course I know who you are Pierre, YOU’RE JUST A FUCKING DJ!”
Tray went downstairs and I didn’t see where Pierre went, but then all of a sudden we heard a clatter of objects. We all ran downstairs and Pierre is throwing beach furniture at Tray in the middle of the street and they end up in the middle of the road, grappling each other. I separated them and Pierre’s face is bleeding from the scratches Tray had left on him. “James, let me go, who is ze boss? Who is ze boss?” Pierre was yelling. Tray made his getaway and I let Pierre go. The next day Pierre emerged, very sheepish and had cuts all down his face and out of embarrassment he couldn’t look me in the eye. I personally found this hilarious.
The next day, we were forecast a hurricane and I had to work. I was taking supplies to our outdoor walk-in fridge, was in there for two minutes, opened the door and then was greeted with a torrential downpour that lasted nearly two hours. I was trapped inside a fucking fridge for two hours! It was so warm outside but I had to remain in a fridge with nothing but beer surrounding me, so what was I to do? I cracked open a beer, sat with the door open and watched the beautiful rain crash down around me.
On one of the last weekends of the season the chef was in a jovial mood, which was a rarity. Justin Smillie is a very talented chef and was one of the nicest people I had met at Sunset… outside of work. Inside work he was one of the, if not the most hot headed, ill-tempered chefs I’ve ever worked with. Servers weren’t allowed in the kitchen and busboys like myself were only allowed in to empty the dish bins. I have a lot of respect for Smillie. I haven’t spoke to him for years but since working in different places I have to respect how he kept order in such a high volume place.
One night, chef Smillie was having a bit of fun and had a water bottle that he kept spraying people with. Fun for chef Smillie was all well and good but there’s a fine line, which could be easily crossed. Every time I came into the kitchen he would spray me with water. Juvenile but yeah it was funny, until about the fifth time. We were slammed on front of house and I just couldn’t be bothered to get sprayed every time I came into the kitchen and after the sixth or seventh time I turned around and semi jokingly, semi seriously said “You’re a fucking dickhead”. Chef Smillie was about 6ft 3” tall and towered above me. The kitchen went silent, and he walked over me, looked down and semi jokingly, semi seriously said “I’M A WHAT!?” he yelled. “Nothing, sorry chef” I wimpered. I quickly scuttled off.
Later that night, ‘Chef Eddie’ approached me to give me a heads up. He told me that Smillie had ‘put a hit out on me’ and that I should avoid going into the kitchen. That night I avoided any cook, chef, dishwasher and food runner. It was quite fun actually and turned into a bit of a game. Chef Smillie knew I hadn’t really meant the dickhead comment but at the same time he ruled his kitchen by respect and fear so he wasn’t going to let me get away with calling him a dickhead in front of every single one of his team.
I managed to evade the kitchen all night until about 11pm when I was walking down the stairs from mid-deck to the outdoor courtyard when out of nowhere I was hit by a cold bucket of water thrown over me by a line cook. I know what you’re thinking, it doesn’t sound that bad but then I was hit from the other side with a bucket full of flour, olive oil, chilli flakes, fish scales, mussel brine and dirty dishwater for good measure. I was stood there, soaked and stinking of all these ingredients that the kitchen had been putting to one side just for me all night. My brand new Hollister t-shirt and new designer shorts were ruined. I should make a point that I very rarely wear labelled clothing and can’t stand the people who use fashion brands as weapons or social statements, however just this one time I treated myself to a few of the finer things in life and two days later I was throwing them away as the stench of rotten fish was impossible to get out.
This was at about 11pm, and I was working until 4am. I remember walking through the café bar area to the general manager to ask him if I could go home to change and everyone in the dining area just turning round to look at me. It. Was. Humiliating. Alas, I got into the back of the pickup truck as the hotel driver refused to let me sit in the front seat, went home, showered, changed and finished my shift.
My last weekend was probably one of the most ridiculous working weekends I’ve ever had. It was the last time Pawel and I were going to be working together on a Saturday night, after working about 14 in a row. A lot of people were finishing their final shift and things were coming to an end. Pawel and I agreed to get drunk through the shift as we thought, “What’s the worst that can happen?” We got really buzzed and then towards the end of the night I decided to take a break. I made my way through the barricades to top deck and sat down on my own. I was sipping on a Corona and the next thing I know I’m waking up to the security guard peering over me while Carlos was shaking me shouting at me “wake the fuck up!!!” I was so groggy and drowsy. “Where the fuck is Pawel?!” Carlos yelled. I told him I didn’t know and he stormed off. Pawel was later caught playing FIFA with the guy on the front desk to the hotel.
This article hasn’t had much to do with wine, or anything to be honest. Throughout that season I was introduced to Chateau Minuty Rose wine. Got a corkscrew from the brand, which was with me for six years until I lost it (face palm) and learned a hell of a lot about the service industry. It was a coming of age for me and there’s things I’ve learned from that season has shaped my attitude to the jobs I’ve had since and opened my eyes to the fact that people respect hard work.
Wine is a constant in the service industry and just through working in different places I gained a decent knowledge on different wines, so I am thankful to have had this opportunity at such a young age, I’m glad I was exposed to all the stupid shit I saw. I’m happy I got trapped in a walk in fridge, that I got ‘tarred and feathered’, and that I once saw a grown man dancing erratically to silence, because he could hear the music in his head as he had just dropped pure MDMA. These stories helped shape my attitude to life and to work and I think that this is a good place to end this edition of ‘memoirs of a server.
– J A M E S