Photo: GAT Productions
When you go out to eat, do you ever wonder what the waitressing world is like behind the scenes?
There is a new food documentary making the festival rounds called "Dish: Women, Waitressing & The Art of Service." Filmed by documentarian Maya Gallus, the doc looks into life for women in the service industry. Traveling between Toronto, Montreal, Paris, and Tokyo, the film investigates how waitressing changes (or doesn't) from country to country, and what customers expect when a woman walks up and asks for your order. Hint: it's a heck of a lot more than prompt service with a smile.
While Hanna Raskin's column "What Can I Get You Folks?" looks into the opinions of one server, "Dish" turns the focus more on the industry and patrons, revealing a massively diverse collection of experiences. But they all share one striking similarity: As much as we like to think of restaurants as welcoming places that cook the food for us, there's a whole undercurrent of struggle and performance that goes well beyond crazy customers wanting their tea made with boiled Evian or their fruit salad sautéed (sadly, both are real examples).
Some of the business is far from shocking. We're familiar with the lonely diner regulars and the lonely truckers looking to flirt with young and attractive waitstaff. Go into any dive and you can see the lifer waitresses struggling as their tips dry up with their increasing age, unable to break through the glass ceiling to the managerial positions inhabited by men. In the steak and potato truckstop world, there's still a big premium on the Donna Reed experience -- without, of course, the dress and pearls. But sadly, these truisms are only a small fraction of what the female servers face.
In the fancy restaurants of France, waitresses fight for the right to serve in a profession dominated by men. Male servers explain how women are not suited for serving -- they are too weak, too emotional, and need to be with family. One male server even notes that it's bad to have an attractive waitress because if she serves a couple on their anniversary, the man will be thinking of her and not his partner. These beliefs, thankfully, are juxtaposed with scenes of women handling the job adeptly, and interviews with female servers who've given up their lives for the art of successful service, just like their male counterparts.
In Montreal there is the triple punch: a restaurant that employs only models/actresses clad tight dresses; a Hooters-like bar where the women are barely dressed at all; and a dive "restaurant" where women can't wear any clothes at all. In these eateries, it isn't so much about serving as salivating. One waitress suffers jokes like "are you the entertainment?" while another notes that it's necessary to be terse and a bit rude with patrons to keep a boundary between their bodies and their customers.
And that, believe it or not, isn't the end of it. In Tokyo's "maid" cafes, young women must call their patrons "Master" and act out a whole subservient scenario over the course of a meal. Ultimately, very little is about the food.
"Dish" is just starting to make the rounds but keep an eye out for it -- there's a whole world behind the restaurants' doors that we barely see.