BOOK OF THE WEEK
A WAITER IN PARIS
by Edward Chisholm (Monoray £16.99, 384pp)
Dumped by his French girlfriend, down to his last few coins, and generally ‘worse off than when I started at university’, at least Edward Chisholm is in Paris.
Unfortunately, the pretty city of boulevards, museums and manicured parks exists only in guidebooks — and in any event it’s quite out of reach to the ‘underpaid and underfed slaves’ who make up the actual local population.
Edward Chisholm describes his role as a waiter in Paris, in his new book. He details how he was treated by his employees, colleagues and customers
A Waiter In Paris is a searing account of what life is really like ‘at the bottom of the food chain’, and Chisholm’s prose positively delights in describing the graffiti, sodden cardboard boxes and litter-strewn pavements.
Make no mistake, the Paris of Picasso or Hemingway has gone. It is now a frontier zone full of ‘paperless’ immigrants (Chisholm is one himself), the addicted and the mentally distressed. ‘There’s a brown fog over the city,’ we are told, for Paris gives off a ‘heady, sulphuric, rotten egg, old shoes, brake dust and urine-tinged infusion’.
Beyond the wealthy neighbourhoods, with their absent oligarchs, ordinary people live in distant nightmarish ‘warrens of sloping-walled buildings with sunken floors and hovel-like rooms accessed by tilting staircases’.
All Chisholm can afford is a shared room in a typical slum, with a blood-stained carpet and a sink doubling as a lavatory. The soiled mattress is alive with bedbugs.
Edward Chisholm, (pictured) left by his French girlfriend was alone and penniless in Paris. The English writer took a job as a waiter and lived hand to mouth subsisting on cigars
After walking the cold streets, anxious to find any sort of work, Chisholm becomes a waiter earning €1,086.13 a month before taxes. He puts in 14-hour shifts, six days a week.
There are no breaks, nothing to eat except stale rolls or diners’ leftovers. Dehydrated and exhausted, he subsists on cigarettes.
‘Waiting work is hard, unrelenting and mindless,’ he concludes, and the sole thing he can congratulate himself on is that he ‘had enough grit to stick it out’.
A restaurant is a theatrical stage of silver cutlery and white serviettes, a ‘smell of wood polish mixed with the perfume of flowers’.
From the humans, Chisholm encountered nothing but humiliation — rude customers, vile bosses, untrustworthy colleagues
Beyond the dining room, however, is a ‘labyrinthine world’ of kitchens with flaming hobs, corridors, locker rooms, cellars, bin rooms and sculleries, where the men (always men) ‘spend most of the day standing in water and rotting vegetable peelings’.
Rats are ubiquitous, slithering around shelves, nibbling at the olives.
From the humans, Chisholm encountered nothing but humiliation — rude customers, vile bosses, untrustworthy colleagues. Indeed, his fellow waiters are thieves, drug dealers, ex-soldiers on the run — a grotesque mob, unshaven with darting, ferret-like, bloodshot eyes.
The refugee Tamils washing dishes and skivvying are ‘adept at hand-to-hand combat and know how to plan and execute a guerrilla attack on an armed convoy’. Not a skill often required when mixing a salad. The only way they all cope is to pretend it is only a temporary job.
‘Our real lives are just around the corner,’ as boxing champions or actors or tycoons, they say.
In this book, everyone is shouting and screaming, on the brink of nervous breakdowns. Chisholm gets to be responsible for the ‘parade of plates, glasses and bottles’, and learns the gravity-defying skill of carrying huge silver platters, balanced aloft on the upturned palm
A waiter can be sacked on the spot ‘for the smallest of reasons’. Chisholm has to bite his tongue when encountering the sort of people who go to restaurants and ‘suddenly they’re little dictators. Do this, do that, I don’t like this, take it away…’. It’s not uncommon for posher Parisians to request they be served ‘by someone who is not black’.
Almost as insufferable is the manager, who doesn’t bother to disguise ‘a hint of disgust’ at Chisholm’s presence.
The writer decides it is his being English that is the offence. It is a strongly held belief in Paris that ‘French vineyards only send the bottles that are corked to England’, because we’d not notice. It is a cause for much laughter that we eat sandwiches at the desk by way of lunch. ‘You have no great wines and no great philosophers.’
In this book, everyone is shouting and screaming, on the brink of nervous breakdowns. Chisholm gets to be responsible for the ‘parade of plates, glasses and bottles’, and learns the gravity-defying skill of carrying huge silver platters, balanced aloft on the upturned palm.
As a waiter, Chisholm was ‘always terrified of losing [his] job’ — and France itself ought to be terrified of losing a key part of its culture
The choreography has to be exact, as waiters glide past each other. If food and crockery topple over out of sight, with a sound ‘like a cliff collapsing into the sea’, the waiters quickly scoop up the duck breasts and haricots from the floor, plonk them on fresh plates, ‘and the table is none the wiser’.
After reading A Waiter In Paris, you’ll not want to eat out there again. Soiled napkins and disgusting towels are used to wipe plates and glasses. Waiters all have filthy fingernails, worn-out shoes, frightful body odour. There is no basin in the staff toilet, nor any moment to wash hands. ‘The cooking will sort out the germs.’
The atmosphere is frantic, says Chisholm. ‘There’s always too much to do, not enough time and never a break.’
What energises the troops is the prospect of tips. Parisians, who are always complaining, are small tippers. Brazilians and the Japanese are the most generous. Celebrities are the meanest, as ‘they are used to getting things for free’.
Arab sheiks run up small bills as they don’t booze. Americans don’t understand the exchange rates and leave big tips in error.
In the course of this book, we learn that neighbourhood bistros and traditional restaurants now use frozen ingredients rather than fresh produce
Waiters are always on the lookout for lost jewellery or dropped banknotes — and they fight for a share of the tips. Literally, there are punch-ups, with knives drawn.
As a waiter, Chisholm was ‘always terrified of losing [his] job’ — and France itself ought to be terrified of losing a key part of its culture.
In the course of this book, we learn that neighbourhood bistros and traditional restaurants now use frozen ingredients rather than fresh produce. Croissants and bread are bought ready-made and heated up. ‘The ping of microwaves is replacing the clatter of pans’, all in the name of profit margins.
This astonishing book describes a cruel, feral existence and is worthy of standing on the shelf next to 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 playing at being destitute. Chisholm’s account of the fight for survival rings more wholly true.
A Waiter In Paris, without a shred of self-pity, describes what it is like to be young and without career prospects, despite having a degree — in Chisholm’s case, from the London School of Oriental and African Studies.
In these pages we sense the anarchy and hopelessness felt by many people in their 30s, who find that waiting for their lives to start is like waiting for Godot. Especially if you are a waiter.