Identical twins Heather and Rose MacDowell waited tables for five years in Manhattan before penning their novel, Turning Tables, out next week. Rose won’t name the restaurants they worked for, offering only that she was at one of the Ark Restaurants in Manhattan (it operates the Bryant Park Grill and others), while her sister worked at a defunct Italian restaurant in the Columbus Circle area. Nevertheless, she was quite candid about the industry she says she could only cope with via on-the-job hookups and shots snuck from behind the bar.
A lot of your novel deals with the tension between the front and back of the house.
Our main concern was trying to make the people we were waiting on happy; a lot of times, in order to do that, it meant direct confrontation with people in the kitchen. I worked with a cook who when he disagreed with how someone wanted their order prepared would find the worst end piece that he could and send it out as a message. There’s also resentment between cooks who feel like they’re not the ones making the money. It’s a very tension-filled environment.
The head chef in the novel is a bit of a tyrant. What was the worst abuse you had to take?
I was handed plates that were extremely hot and burned my hands as soon as I touched them. I almost dropped them, and when I set them down, the chef was furious. Of course, his hands were very calloused. The fact that I was startled set him off, and he almost fired me.
Did you engage in workplace trysts like your protagonist, Erin, does?
A lot. It made me look forward to a job I would normally dread and despise. If you were involved with a chef or bartender or fellow waiter, it always made it a lot more tolerable.
When you’re working so closely with the person, is it hard when you break up?
Yeah, especially getting involved with someone from the back of the house — most of the time, professionally their loyalty lies with the kitchen staff and with the chef who refers to waiters as waitrons, so when things go wrong it’s very intense and uncomfortable. Most chefs frown on it.
There’s a lot of drinking in the novel.
When I was working on Nantucket, there was a bartender — any night that was difficult he would have shots waiting, and whenever the manager wasn’t around we’d do shots during the shift. Heather used to hide a glass of Chardonnay behind one of the plants.
What’s it like serving a family member, like Erin had to?
Every waiter has a persona they have to put on when they’re waiting tables. When your family is there, they see right through it. When they see you at a table smiling and laughing, they can see what’s sincere and what’s put on because you’re on the job.
Is Holland, “New York City’s sexiest chef,” based on anyone?
Todd English — the guy opening restaurants all over, one of People magazine’s 50 most beautiful people.
What was your most humiliating moment on the job?
I remember waiting on a table of people from a competing restaurant. I thought that because they were restaurant people, they would be sympathetic. Instead, it was as if they knew exactly how to get to me — they’d make me repeat the specials at the top of my lungs. They sent food back. They ran me all over. Three hours later, they left a pile of change and singles that added up to about 13 percent. That was the only night I ever cried on the job.
Why do you thank Carlos Llaguno of Les Halles in your acknowledgments?
My agent is Anthony Bourdain’s agent, and he is the executive chef at Les Halles. He let me stand in his kitchen and take notes.
What did you think about Alan Richman’s complaint, in his review of Les Halles, that a waitress wouldn’t seat him at the table beside him because it was “reserved,” which it turned out not to be?
In order to keep from having one waiter having all the tables at once, it can be difficult when people keep asking to move. If everyone wants to move to one section, one waiter can get overwhelmed. Then again, if you start out the dinner denying someone something as simple as switching tables, it starts them off on the wrong foot.
What did you miss about waiting after you left it?
The cash. When I started working [an office job], I couldn’t believe how much taxes they took out of my paycheck. There’s a feeling of freedom, that you can quit tomorrow and find another job in the same industry and be fine. You can go from city to city and always be able to support yourself. Sitting down at a desk and answering a phone is so stultifying.