An English waiter’s gripping account of working in Parisian restaurants will whet your appetite
BOOK OF THE WEEK
A WAITER IN PARIS
by Edward Chisholm (Monoray £16.99, 384 pages)
At least Edward Chisholm is in Paris, deserted by his French girlfriend and generally “worse off than when I started studying”.
Unfortunately, the pretty city of boulevards, museums, and manicured parks only exists in guidebooks — and in any case, it’s pretty much out of reach for the “underpaid and malnourished slaves” who make up the actual local population.
Edward Chisholm describes his role as a waiter in Paris in his new book. He describes how he was treated by his employees, colleagues and customers
A Waiter In Paris is a searing account of what life ‘at the bottom of the food chain’ is really like, and Chisholm’s prose delights in describing the graffiti, sodden boxes and litter-strewn sidewalks.
Make no mistake, the Paris of Picasso or Hemingway is gone. It’s now a frontier zone full of “undocumented” immigrants (Chisholm himself is one), addicts and the mentally ill. “There’s a brown mist over the city,” we’re told, for Paris exudes a “heady, sulphurous, rotten egg, old shoes, brake dust, and a urine-tinged infusion.”
Beyond the affluent neighborhoods with their absent oligarchs, ordinary people live in distant, nightmarish “tangles of sloping-walled buildings with sunken floors and shack-like rooms accessed by sloping staircases.”
All Chisholm can afford is a dorm in a typical slum, with a bloodstained carpet and a sink that doubles as a toilet. The dirty mattress is full of bed bugs.
Edward Chisholm (pictured), left behind by his French girlfriend, was alone and penniless in Paris. The English writer took a job as a waiter and lived hand to mouth on cigars
After wandering the cold streets looking for work, Chisholm becomes a waiter and earns €1,086.13 gross a month. He works 14-hour shifts six days a week.
There are no breaks, nothing to eat except stale rolls or leftovers. Dehydrated and exhausted, he subsists on cigarettes.
“Waiting for work is hard, unrelenting and pointless,” he concludes, and the only thing he can congratulate himself on is that he “had enough courage to stick it out.”
A restaurant is a theatrical stage of silver cutlery and white napkins, a “scent of wood polish mixed with the scent of flowers”.
From the people, Chisholm received nothing but humiliation—rude customers, obnoxious bosses, untrustworthy co-workers
Beyond the dining room, however, is a “labyrinthine world” of kitchens with burning stovetops, corridors, changing rooms, basements, garbage rooms, and scullery where the men (always men) “spend most of the day basking in the water and rotting vegetables stand bowls’.
Rats are everywhere, slithering through the shelves and nibbling on the olives.
From the people, Chisholm received nothing but humiliation—rude customers, obnoxious bosses, untrustworthy co-workers. In fact, his fellow waiters are thieves, drug dealers, ex-soldiers on the run – a grotesque mob, unshaven with flashing, ferret-like, bloodshot eyes.
The refugee Tamils washing dishes and skivvying are “proficient in hand-to-hand combat and know how to plan and execute a guerrilla attack on an armed convoy”. Mixing a salad often requires no skill. The only way for them all to finish is to pretend it’s just a temporary job.
“Our real life is at the door”, they say as boxing champions or actors or tycoons.
In this book, everyone screams and screams, on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Chisholm takes charge of the “Parade of Plates, Glasses and Bottles” and learns the ability to defy gravity, carrying giant silver slabs balanced high atop the inverted palm
A waiter can be dismissed on the spot “for the smallest of reasons”. Chisholm has to bite his tongue when he meets people who go to restaurants and “suddenly they’re petty dictators”. Do this, do that, I don’t like it, take it away…’. It’s not uncommon for posh Parisians to ask to be “served by someone who isn’t black.”
Almost as unbearable is the manager, who doesn’t bother to hide “a hint of disgust” at Chisholm’s presence.
The author decides that being English is the offense. There is a belief in Paris that “French wineries only send the corked bottles to England” because we wouldn’t notice. It makes for a lot of laughs that we eat sandwiches at the desk at lunchtime. “You have no great wines and no great philosophers.”
In this book, everyone screams and screams, on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Chisholm takes charge of the “Parade of Plates, Glasses and Bottles” and learns the ability to defy gravity, carrying giant silver slabs balanced high atop the inverted palm.
As a waiter, Chisholm was “always afraid of losing [his] job” – and France itself should be afraid of losing an important part of its culture
The choreography has to be exact as the waiters glide past each other. When food and dishes topple out of sight, with a sound ‘like a cliff falling into the sea’, the waiters quickly pick up the duck breast and beans from the floor, tossing them onto fresh plates, ‘and the table is none the wiser’.
After reading A Waiter in Paris, you won’t want to eat there anymore. Soiled napkins and disgusting towels are used to wipe plates and glasses. Waiters all have dirty fingernails, worn shoes, terrible body odor. In the staff toilet there is no sink and no moment to wash hands. “Boiling will sort out the germs.”
The atmosphere is hectic, says Chisholm. “There is always too much to do, not enough time and never a break.”
What drives the squad is the prospect of tips. The Parisians who always complain are petty tippers. Brazilians and Japanese are the most generous. Celebrities are the meanest as “they are used to getting things for free”.
Arab sheikhs make small bills because they don’t drink. Americans don’t understand exchange rates and mistakenly leave large tips.
Throughout this book, we learn that neighborhood bistros and traditional restaurants are now using frozen ingredients instead of fresh produce
Waiters are always on the lookout for lost jewelry or dropped banknotes – and fight for a part of the tip. There are literally fights with knives drawn.
As a waiter, Chisholm was “always afraid of losing [his] job” – and France itself should be afraid of losing an important part of its culture.
Throughout this book, we learn that neighborhood bistros and traditional restaurants are now using frozen ingredients instead of fresh produce. Croissants and bread are bought ready and warmed up. “The ping of the microwave replaces the clatter of pans,” all in the name of profit margins.
This amazing book describes a cruel, wild existence and is worthy of being placed on the shelf alongside George Orwell’s Down And Out In Paris And London (1933) as another classic about human exploitation. With this difference. Orwell was an Old Etonian who pretended to be penniless. Chisholm’s account of the struggle for survival sounds perfectly true.
A waiter in Paris describes without self-pity what it’s like to be young and without career prospects, despite a degree – in Chisholm’s case from the London School of Oriental and African Studies.
In these pages we feel the anarchy and hopelessness of many people in their thirties who realize that waiting for life to begin is like waiting for Godot. Especially if you are a waiter.