Yesterday, we revealed that the restaurant in Waiter Rant (for years the industry’s most notorious anonymous blog and now a book that Anthony Bourdain himself calls “the front-of-the-house version of Kitchen Confidential”) is none other than the Lanterna Tuscan Bistro, in Nyack. For legal reasons, the author, Steve Dublanica, can neither confirm nor deny this, but he was more than forthcoming when we asked him, on the eve of his unmasking, about annoying foodies, bad tippers, and waiters behaving badly.
How many of the details did you change?
When I wrote my blog, I didn’t want to get fired, so I made quite a few changes. Say a big, fat bald man came in complaining about some nonsense. I might say it was a thin yuppie guy in a turtleneck, while keeping what the man said and his behavior.
How many of the 50 signs that you’re working in a bad restaurant have you personally experienced?
All of them.
So you’ve seen a porn screen saver on a POS computer?
I should take that back; that was hyperbole. But I have seen a waiter surfing porn on the POS. I was like, “If a customer sees you doing that, we’re destroyed.”
Most of the book deals with your own interactions with customers. What’s the most outlandish thing you saw other servers do?
We had a very rotund woman eating. The waitress — one of these slim, pretty, vegan types — was physically nauseated by the presence of this overweight woman. She came up to me and said, “The woman wants dessert. I don’t think I should give her dessert.” She equated it to giving a pregnant woman alcohol. I had one waiter who broke up with a girl, and her new boyfriend came with her to the restaurant and the server was getting in the guy’s face and they had a yelling match in the back. I had to separate them.
During the course of the book you go from being a waiter who hates your manager to being a manger who is hated by your waiters.
That’s karma. I think the system is broken: It turns us into monsters. My situation wasn’t unique. I waited my own tables, but I was also the supervisor. The bulk of my money still came from tips. Most of the money I made an hour, as a manager, went to my health insurance, which cost me $450 a month. That led to some confusion and resentment because people would say, “You’re the manager; you shouldn’t be taking tables.” I’d say, “If I don’t take tables, I won’t be able to pay my rent.”
You outline the many types of tippers — the “verbal tipper,” for instance, who praises your service, but then only tips you 8 percent — but you don’t discuss race, like so many waiter blogs do. Did you think of going there?
I was looking at statistics and studies. They sounded very patronizing: They said a lot of African-Americans tip less than their Caucasian counterparts because they’re not exposed to white-tablecloth dining at the same levels. I read that, and something in it was making me go, “Uh, there’s something wrong with how that study was set up.” When I started, people said, “Black people are not going to tip. Chinese aren’t going to tip.” But what I noticed is that there are far fewer African-Americans going out to eat in white-tablecloth restaurants than Caucasians. The ones who have shafted me for nine years are Anglo-Saxon men.
Did you ever resent fellow waiters because they were better at extracting tips?
I had a waiter who was physically stunning. She went into medical sales. She was enthusiastic, and she was that rare waitress that could seduce men but not alienate women (some women might get testy in that situation). She would always walk out with the most money. I was jealous of that, but in order to get the gift I’d have to go through significant reconstructive surgery.
How close did you come to being discovered?
I’ve had people e-mail me with the exact location of the restaurant. I would go, “I cannot confirm or deny.” There was someone on Grub Street, a waiter named Cody, and everyone thought I was him.
Why do you call the Food Network the “Death Star of American cooking”?
They are the PR arm of the food industry. People watch it and have a much more educated palate. That’s great, but the problem is the expectations have gotten too high. They think every single thing they’re eating has to be sexy or amazing. I mean, it’s okay to have a peanut-butter sandwich! People watch the Food Network, and they assume they know what’s going on in a restaurant. I worked in the restaurant industry for nine years, and I’d never claim to be an authority on restaurants!
And you say that that has led to more “foodie speak” or “the seductive language of Big-Food Media.”
Foodies are like the guy who learned one karate lesson and thinks he can kick everyone’s ass. Foodie speak is basically describing the same thing in a million different ways to make it more appetizing. A peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich becomes, “This is a Jimmy Carter Ranch limited-edition peanut butter baked by Trappist monks.” Or they throw in “local” — like, “We have local greens.” In New York City? Did you grow these in your closet?
You mention briefly that your restaurant job put a strain on your relationships, but you never really explored that.
I was not in a relationship when I wrote the book. Sure enough, after I finished the book, I met someone.
Was it the woman who slipped you her number in one of the last chapters?
No. Rachel was a lovely dinner and nothing more. I met someone else who oddly enough I used to work with at the bistro eight years ago. I used to e-mail her snippets of the book and ask her to check my sense of reality: “Am I overreacting?” She was like, “Oh, no. I was there.”