This week’s installment of Fast Food covers thoughts on white paper tablecloth and the beauty of simplicity. If you do fancy being served a plate of Peccorino cheese around midnight in a crowded restaurant and having it together with a glass of red wine, then read on. Fast Food is a weekly blog about cooking and the micropolitics of dining by Thomas Schoenberger and Max Dax. The photo was taken at La Robe e le Palais in Paris. ~ Photo: Max Dax
Dax: Tell me more about the women who worked the evening shifts at the Schönberger.
Schoenberger: They probably had tougher shifts than the women who were working at the Themroc. It just makes a damn difference if you are serving 40 to 60 people or if you are serving 150 on a regular basis.
Dax: To me, the waiters in huge restaurants such as La Coupolle and Bouillon Chartier in Paris or even the Grill Royal in Berlin always remind me of a ballet cast, I always thought of them as living ornaments.
Schoenberger: Nicely said! In a restaurant you have four main shifts. The first one is the preparation shift—for the brigade in the kitchen this means that the majority of the food had to be basically prepared around 7pm, when the floodgates are opened and all the hungry people start to fill the restaurant. From then on the food was served, one plate after the other. Between 7pm and midnight, the waiters would run like hell and the brigade in the kitchen would bang out one plate after the other. Around 10pm the first dish was usually sold out, an hour later the same would happen with another dish, and so on. Finally, around midnight everything was sold out. If you came to the Schönberger that late you’d still get some food though. You’d get some bread and some Peccorino cheese—and of course white and red wine.
Dax: I recall the beauty of it: A table set with plain white paper tablecloth, a white plate with three slices of Peccorino, a carafe of red wine, a glass and the cutlery. It is an act of dignity to be served like this around midnight. The concept of beauty is so crystal-clear that it should be easy to obey. But was it also easy for the waitresses to capture that spirit?
Schoenberger: It was probably easier for them then it would have been for you or me. A perfectly well-laid table is one thing. Repeating this procedure a hundred times per night and all the while serving all kinds of drinks and dishes is another. I mean, there must be a reason somehow why most women seem to feel more comfortable to serve than to cook in a professional kitchen. It’s a different kind of physical labor. It involves interaction and communicating with the guests. Having said that, I’d like to point out that all these women serving at Schönberger had this strange aura of aloofness. As a guest you noticed in a split second that these women simply didn’t have any time to waste while dealing with you. I’d like to stress the fact that this wasn’t an attitude of arrogance at all. It was more like perfect time management. People seemed to understand that it was similar, in a way, to attending a mass in a church. In a church you also wouldn’t dare to interrupt the priest while he was preaching to the congregation. If you allow yourself to look at it this way, the dining shifts at the Schönberger were a somewhat religious experience. I mean, somehow this is as beautiful and intense as it can get when you go out to dine and find yourself in a place where everybody involved knows what to do next. It was like a huge organism. I sometimes stood in the kitchen door and caught a glimpse of that white ballet serving the guests. It reminded me always of ants when they are washed away by water—in this situation of panic they help themselves by holding each others legs. By doing so, they become larger than life and keep themselves from drowning in a hostile environment.
Dax: Did you coach the women who served the guests?
Schoenberger: I probably did it once. I remember a keynote speech that I held in front of the first generation of waitresses. Their names were Tine Upesleja, Thea Röttger, Stefanie Wilke und Astrid Warnken. Together we discussed the rights and duties of the waitresses at the Schönberger and from there on we went.
Dax: Let’s start with their duties.
Schoenberger: As you know, at this backyard of Große Freiheit we were neighbors to a printing plant, the Druckerei in St. Pauli. That meant that we had an infinite supply of thin but robust white paper. I saw and still see it as a cultural achievement to have paper tablecloth because this means that you can easily jot down notes on the table without having to ask for a piece of paper. Think about it—it’s a small but important detail. Because when you discuss things with people on a table you might feel the need to take notes. We basically got our paper tablecloth hand tailored at the printer according to the sizes and measures of our tables. When a group of people would sit down at a table, the first thing the waitress would do was to put a white paper tablecloth on it. Then she would ask for the first round of drink orders and serve them. When the guests asked for the menu the waitress would point at the slate where the dishes of the night were written on. It was actually not that different to what every waitress in every restaurant of the world does. The difference was what you could call an unwritten law: the pride. Take it or leave it. No discussion allowed. The system was built on that. We offered an easy to compute amount of dishes and the waitresses would serve them. In a way, we copied that from McDonald’s like McDonald’s had copied the system from the French brasseries. The difference, of course, was that people got served. It was, in a way, a full circle.
Dax: And what about their rights?
Schoenberger: If a guest asked for the owner of the restaurant because they realized that their special requests would not be satisfied, the waitress would respond: “You certainly don’t want to talk to the owner.” In most of the cases, the problem by then was solved.