First it was a chef; now it's a waiter. Restaurant workers just can't help spilling the beans. Anthony Bourdain's tell-all Kitchen Confidential was a breakthrough best seller, and Pete Jordan's Dishwasher book and blog developed a cult following. Now Steve Dublanica has penned Waiter Rant: Thanks for the Tip Confessions of a Cynical Waiter to expose the curmudgeonly inner life of restaurant servers. The book, based on Dublanica's witty blog, hit the New York Times best-seller list this week. Dublanica, 40, who recently retired after nine years of waitering in New York, spoke with TIME.com's Jeremy Caplan about the secrets of his trade.
TIME: How do you cope with rude diners?
DUBLANICA: You really want to know? There was a customer who ordered a hamburger and was just being crazy about it. He sent it back three times because he said it didn't taste good. Finally two guys played hockey with it in the kitchen. They used brooms as hockey sticks and dustbins as goalposts, and they knocked it around. Then they washed it off and gave it to him. He said, "Now it's good."
One thing that everyone's afraid of is someone spitting in their food. It's very rare for waiters to do that. My view is that there's no fun in making anyone sick. So don't put Ex-Lax in the coffee or Metamucil in the soup. But I understand the compulsion, because I have thought about it. I'm a pretty reasonable guy with self-control, but there are people with less self-control, and they've done it.
It sounds like waiters have a broad arsenal of retributive tactics.
If waiters are good, they're subtle. I know a waiter who was good at accidentally clipping people in the back of the head with his tray. Another technique is making people wait when they've ordered wine. You make them stew. Or you put in their steak order as medium instead of medium rare. I controlled the reservation system, so if you were a bad tipper or had mistreated me, I would seat you next to the men's room. My all-time favorite move was to tell people that their credit card was experiencing difficulties. A lot of people in this area are very status-conscious, so when all their friends hear their card has been declined, they kind of freak out. All passive-aggressive stuff. It's a deterrent, in a way.
Are restaurant workers as wild as depicted in Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential?
You've got 25% of the workforce with a drinking or drug problem, so, yes, that's true. There are studies that say this is very much the case. There's a lot of marijuana use. And a lot of drinking.
What don't customers know about waiters that they should?
As customers walk in, waiters are discussing who's going to take their table. Sometimes there's a little profiling going on. Like, "They're from England or France. We don't want to wait on them because they don't know how to tip." One waiter I know flat out refused to wait on women. He wouldn't do it. He felt they were cheap tippers. And there's a reality that women usually eat less than men, so their checks are smaller and the tips can be smaller. But he was misogynistic. He wouldn't wait on kids either. He would say, "I'm not Ronald McDonald."
What menu items should restaurantgoers avoid?
Any kind of stew. Any casserole. Anything that sounds like we threw everything into it at the last moment. Don't order fish on Sundays. Bourdain said not to eat fish on Monday, but I'm wary of it on Sunday. The freshest fish comes in on Thursdays. The best nights to eat out are Tuesdays and Thursdays. It's a more leisurely meal. You can relax, and the chef can relax.
Why did you become a waiter?
Because I was a 31-year-old man with no marketable skills. I had been a seminary student in college for the Catholic priesthood, and that obviously didn't work out. I worked at a psychiatric hospital for a while. I went into health-care marketing, and I was not very good at that, and they fired me. I didn't know what to do. My brother was working in a restaurant, and he said, "Oh, I can get you a job."
What are the commonest misperceptions about waiters?
The biggest misconception is that it's not a real job. It's a real job. It's a very hard job. And then people say, Obviously you can't be very bright if you're a waiter. That drives me crazy, because I've seen Ph.D. candidates waiting tables, master's degree candidates waiting tables. There are bad waiters, and there are literally dumb waiters, no question. But they're not good ones. The good ones have to have brains. You have to be able to multitask. You have to have good emotional intelligence. You have to be able to prioritize tasks. You need a strong memory. Strong knees and a strong back help too.
Why do you think people assume it's not a real job?
It's a job they know nothing about. And it's a servant job. People assume that because you're serving them, you're beneath them. If you're in a service capacity, you must be lower on the totem pole in terms of brains.
What are the best things about the job?
Sleeping late. And you get a social fix. There's always a new challenge, new people to meet and greet and to deal with. Also the energy. When you're rocking and everything is going well, you are like the waiter Jedi. It's like a comedian doing a great set. You get into that zone. Even though you're hustling and your feet hurt, it's wonderful. It can engage all your senses. You can get literally lost in the job. On other days it can be miserable hell on earth.
What are the most frustrating parts of the job?
Sometimes you're working with maladjusted people. Eighty percent of the American dining public is nice. But you've got 20% of patrons who are just crazy! Entitled, demanding people, who are not reasonable. They walk in on Saturday night with no reservation and say, "I want the best table; give it to me now!" They send food back for no reason. And they're bad tippers. They can make your life miserable. In addition, there can be awful co-workers. And owners and managers can be the worst. I've dealt with owners who are just not kosher with the tips. I worked at a restaurant where a manager extorted money from employees for good shifts: "Give me $50 or I'll put you on the lunch shift." Sometimes you're dealing with predatory people.
Are tips usually shared fairly?
Often the tip goes into a tip pool, and you get paid at the end of the week. It's illegal for a salaried employee to participate in the tips, but many managers and owners do. Managers can skim a little off the top, and the waiters never see it. One of waiters' most common complaints is that their paycheck is never right. At the end of the week, I know what my paycheck should be, roughly, within $25 either way. If it isn't, then something is fishy.
Do you usually have to share tips with the entire staff?
Some restaurants require waiters to tip the kitchen staff. But they're not waitstaff. They should not be participating in the cut. You know this is illegal because if you ask the owner if he does it, he'll say no. That puts waiters between a rock and a hard place. They can say no, but the manager can say, "Fine. Don't come to work tomorrow." Waiters are often students, or between jobs, and they're vulnerable to that kind of pressure. Very often they'll cave in because they need to eat and pay the rent. If you're a single mother, you can't always make a principled stand. So these predatory tactics go unchallenged.
What are the worst shifts for waiters?
It varies from restaurant to restaurant. For some restaurants, Wednesday night is the dead night. No one likes lunches. Lunches tend to be lower check and higher pressure. And no waiters like to serve brunch. That's the punishment detail. Waiters usually know what the good shifts are and have them staked out. It was so hard to get a Saturday night in my old place. I remember a waiter saying, "How am I ever going to get a Saturday night?" I said, Someone is going to have to die. Eventually, one of the other waiters passed away.
Any suggestions for being a good customer?
If you want to be treated like a regular customer, you have to be a regular customer. If you like a restaurant, cultivate a waiter. Don't use your cell phone when the waiter is talking to you. If you get bad service, you should still leave a tip. It's not only for the waiter. When you stiff the waiter, you also punish people who may have had nothing to do with your having a bad experience. Instead, I would write a letter a real letter, not an e-mail to the manager. When they see that, they're going to make amends with some kind of gift certificate or something.
Any tips on tipping?
Waiters prefer cash. People think that's so the IRS doesn't know, but that's not true. We always get to take cash tips home. You may get credit-card tips in a check a week later, or two weeks later, but cash, you take home. I always like a good mix of credit card and cash. If it's $1.75, just give me $2. Round it up. Don't dump your pennies on the table. That drives us bananas. You should ask for the check, and then pay within five minutes of receiving it. If you order takeout from a fancy restaurant, you should tip 10%. At a fancy place, it has to be packaged correctly, which actually takes more time than it does to plate it and bring it out to the table. And tip $1 per coat.
How do you maintain composure when someone's mistreating you?
Sometimes you don't. I would tell customers, You're out of line. When people were abysmally out of line, I would sometimes try to use humor and say something like, "Did you forget your meds today?" And sometimes you just have to smile your way through it. Half the time we're savaging the customers. We're verbally abusing the customers in the back, and then we walk out and plaster a smile on our faces. Two seconds earlier we were describing them in very vulgar terms. I was once called the rudest waiter in the neighborhood.
What's the best tip you've ever gotten?
Five hundred dollars on New Year's Eve. A guy who was a problematic customer came in with a prostitute and left a $250 tip. I said, "That's not enough." And he upped it to $500. I've heard of $20,000 tips, and I know of a check over $40,000 where the tip was over $8,000.
The worst tip?
Some jerk left me two pennies. And a table of four ladies once didn't leave a tip. I said, "Ladies, is everything all right?" I called the cops on them, though they were never caught.
Is there a hierarchy among waiters?
Some waiters see a colleague acting inelegant and they'll say, "This is not a truck stop," or "This isn't the diner." Diner has unfortunately become a pejorative term. And of course waiters from snooty high-end places sometimes put on airs. They start to feel that because they work in close proximity to money or power that they've got it themselves. They develop foie-gras taste on a liverwurst budget. They won't spend money on education or new shoes, but they'll spend $400 on going out to eat. And waiters and kitchen staff tend not to have great love for one another. The difference between the two groups is like the difference between Palestinians and Israelis. Both live in the same place, but things are tense.
What do urban waiters usually earn?
If you're working in a decent place in a metro area, you may pull down in the $30,000 range. But I also know of waiters making poverty-level wages and some making between $80,000 and $100,000 a year. But most waiters don't have vacation, sick time, or health care.
How do you feel about restaurants charging a flat 20% for service?
It removes the incentive to perform. If you're getting paid no matter what, your output is going to suffer. And if it were to happen broadly, owners would start dipping into that and waiters would end up getting screwed.