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At Cioppino's Mediterranean Grill in Vancouver, restaurant critic Alexandra Gill demonstrates one of the many skills required for fine-dining service: When polishing the crystal, hold it by the stem to avoid breakage. (Lyle Stafford for the Globe and Mail)
At Cioppino's Mediterranean Grill in Vancouver, restaurant critic Alexandra Gill demonstrates one of the many skills required for fine-dining service: When polishing the crystal, hold it by the stem to avoid breakage. (Lyle Stafford for the Globe and Mail)

Critic turns waitress for a week Add to ...

It's nearly midnight at Related contentCioppino's Mediterranean Grill and the prima donna at Table 10 is just warming up.

Earlier this evening, she yawned through my description of the specials, huffed because there wasn't any salmon on the menu and shoved her plate off to the side before her date had finished eating.

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But now that Little Miss Sunshine is draining her third cocktail, she has finally stopped complaining about the room temperature and is no longer swatting the air when she wants me to buzz off.

My legs ache. I'm severely dehydrated. And I still have to help break down the tables in the wine room, lug the extra chairs out to the hallway and do my cash-out before I can drag myself home, crawl into bed and then come back tomorrow to start all over again.

Why did I ever think that being a waitress for a week would be fun?

The challenge

As The Globe and Mail's Vancouver restaurant critic, it's usually me on the other side of the table driving everyone crazy. Some say I can be harsh on wait staff, an opinion that puzzles me since I often refrain from commenting on the service - unless it was exceptionally good or egregiously bad.

Yet I firmly believe that one shouldn't dish out criticism unless one's willing to eat what's flung back, or at least try to understand it. So I recently spent a week waitressing to gain a better appreciation of what servers endure from their customers and how they perceive us.

I chose Cioppino's because Vancouver's Restaurant of the Year, so named by Vancouver Magazine, seemed the ultimate challenge. And given that I've already reviewed (favourably) this upscale Yaletown hot spot and have since become friends with chef/owner Pino Posteraro, I won't likely be writing about it again.

I must admit, however, that in the review, I was incredibly hard on the waiter, Patrick Malpass. I actually called him "The Dictator" and wrote that there was a point during the meal when I felt the urge to punch him. Ouch.

Now it's Patrick's turn to hit back. As the restaurant's headwaiter, he will be solely in charge of training me.

Is it any wonder that the night before my first shift, I have disturbing dreams, and I lurch to work feeling like I'm going to vomit?

Training time

Tuesday through Saturday, I arrive for the dinner shift at 3:45 and typically stay until 11. For the first two nights, I nervously shadow Patrick - who demonstrates a saint-like capacity for forgiveness - and simply try to stay out of everyone's way as I learn to set tablecloth creases on a perfect axis and place napkins just so.

In addition to the regular menu, the kitchen creates at least 10 daily specials that we must memorize and recite to each table, replete with details about the cooking methods, provenance of the main ingredients and potential allergens.

It's even tougher than it sounds, I soon discover, after waxing rhapsodic to one gentleman about the veal "tonatello."

"Do you mean tonnato?" he retorts, his tone as arch as his eyebrow.

Some of my early mistakes are obvious. When polishing the crystal, hold it by the stem to avoid breakage. Remove water glasses to refill or risk pouring an avalanche of ice across the table. And never scrape crumbs onto the floor. (Use a small plate or napkin.)

But then there are all sorts of niceties I never could have imagined. When directing customers to the restrooms, for example, it's best not to point. Patrick recalls a woman who once took umbrage to this indelicate gesture. "I don't want everyone to know I'm going to the bathroom!" she hissed.

Reading the customer

"I remember my first day in school," Gaetano Tursi, a long-time waiter from Italy, recalls during a pre-service staff dinner. " 'You are not here to learn how to be waiters,' my instructor told us. 'Your first job is to learn how to be a shrink. You have to look your customers in the eye and immediately figure out who they are and what they want.' "

But what happens if the customer fibs or requests something a waiter doesn't condone?

"Does Chef know he's drinking coffee with the kingfish?" Gaetano whispers, frowning at a customer who has ordered the chef's menu.

"That's what he wants," Patrick replies. "He's allergic to wine."

Gaetano harrumphs. "Moron. He could drink water, or anything, but coffee? Seriously, I think you should tell Chef before he comes out to the table."

Patrick refuses. Chef Posteraro attends to the guest with each course (all specially prepared without wine) and doesn't say a word. But later, when the gentleman raves about some of the wine pairings sipped from his wife's glass, Chef is momentarily taken aback: "I thought you were allergic?" Nothing more is said. At least he didn't ask for cheese on his white truffles, which appears to be the only case at this restaurant in which the customer is not always right.

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