A Waiter in Paris: Adventures in the Dark Heart of the City

From a Wall Street Journal review by Benjamin Shull of the book by Edward Chisholm titled “A Waiter in Paris: Adventures in the Dark Heart of the City”:

George Orwell, in his 1933 book “Down and Out in Paris and London,” sought to capture the mindset of the waiter: “He lives perpetually in sight of rich people, stands at their tables, listens to their conversation, sucks up to them with smiles and discreet little jokes. . . . He will take pains to serve a meal in style, because he feels that he is participating in the meal himself.”

“Down and Out,” Orwell’s first full-length book, is a touchstone for Edward Chisholm’s memoir, “A Waiter in Paris: Adventures in the Dark Heart of the City.” Mr. Chisholm is an Englishman who had originally moved to Paris after graduating from university to live with a girlfriend. When the relationship breaks up, he stays on in the French capital and eventually finds work at a restaurant he calls “Le Bistrot de la Seine,” the hothouse setting around which his book is anchored.

French cuisine doesn’t figure as prominently in “A Waiter in Paris” as it might have. But Mr. Chisholm’s story is immersive and often thrilling. The title is a bit of a misnomer, as for much of the book the author is more precisely a “runner” in charge of bringing glasses, cutlery, plates, food and drinks to the tables. Mr. Chisholm documents his elevation from runner to waiter, and along the way probes into restaurant life in Paris, the personalities of his colleagues and the city itself.

At the book’s beginning, Mr. Chisholm has a little French but is not quite fluent. In a nice touch, he includes snippets of conversation with blank spaces for words he doesn’t yet know. After asking the restaurant’s loathsome manager, whom he dubs the Rat, for a formal employment contract, the Rat responds: “Ha! You’ll have a contract when ______ ready, which in my opinion is never. ______! Tell me. Why does a runner need a contract? Hey? A runner only lasts a few months. ______. It’s not worth the paperwork. We have to pay for that. _______. Why would we pay for someone like you?”

The author’s French improves along with his competence at his job. He hears the restaurant’s directeur yell out “Il y a du monde déjà,” which he roughly translates as “There is already the world,” but soon learns that it means “It’s already busy.” The word for tips, he tells us, is pourboire, which literally translates as “for drinking.” There’s plenty of alcohol consumed in these pages.

As the author’s experience with the Rat shows, working in a Parisian restaurant can grind one down. “The truth is,” Mr. Chisholm writes, “it’s a cruel existence. You live week to week, often under sadistic managers, with a wage so low you’re fighting each other for tips. It’s physically demanding, frequently humiliating and incredibly competitive. A world hiding in plain sight governed by archaic rules and a petty hierarchy—populated by the most incredible cast of characters you’ll ever come across.”

Food and drinks come out of the kitchen via three former members of the Tamil Tigers, a guerrilla group that was based in Sri Lanka. One of the waiters is a Sicilian communist; over the course of the book, he’s replaced by a Pole who claims both to own a restaurant in Gdansk and to have been a member of the French Foreign Legion, though another employee insists he’s part of the Serbian special forces and an assassin, hiding in Paris from people who want him dead. Mr. Chisholm has a run-in with the head chef, “a Corsican of unbridled fury” who pins him against a wall after an ill-advised trip into the kitchen.

“A Parisian restaurant is a twice-daily exercise in crisis management and maximizing profitability,” he writes. “Quite frankly, having seen how it works from the other side of the swinging door, I can say that it’s nothing short of a miracle that your dishes arrive at your table with all the elements you requested, and that, on top of that, they arrive at exactly the same time.”

The book leaves the restaurant from time to time as Mr. Chisholm tries to make a life in the City of Light. He recounts navigating the country’s byzantine labor laws—“the French administrative catch-22”—and trying to secure lodging. He stays out one night with the Sicilian until 5 a.m., drinking and talking politics. Afterward, massively hung over, he heads to an administration office to attempt to get a Social Security number. At first the woman at the desk stonewalls him. When Mr. Chisholm recalls the Sicilian’s advice and plays the broken-heart card, telling her he can’t produce the necessary documents because they’re at his ex-girlfriend’s apartment, she agrees to give him a break.

As long as he’s a runner, Mr. Chisholm pines to be a waiter. A no-show one day finally gives him the opportunity to work the drinks terrace (even though a colleague quips that actual waiters serve food). Day One is a success, as he reflects at the end of a spring day, the Eiffel Tower backdropped by a violet sky: “This is now my world: the bistro, the waiters—coffee, cigarettes and cash.” A seminal moment comes soon after, when an American couple, after an evening of small talk—“me speaking English in a French accent or correcting their French with my British-sounding French”—leaves him a hefty tip.

“A Waiter in Paris” has its villains, not least the Rat, but Mr. Chisholm also forges a number of friendships. The book is an amalgamation of his experiences in Paris, where he spent four years working various waiting and bar jobs while trying to make it as a writer. By all accounts he learned the métier and was a capable waiter. He’s a fine writer.

Benjamin Shull is a books editor at the Wall Street Journal.

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