Live like common people

In A Waiter in Paris: Adventures in the dark heart of the city, Edward Chisholm plays with the various meanings of the word “waiting”, presenting us with the physical demands of the job as well as the existential purgatory it entails: one is waiting in the wings; waiting to act, or write, or something – anything – else. In 2012 he finds himself in Paris without a job or a place to live, having pursued a relationship he knows deep down has no future. When it inevitably falters, he’s determined to stay in the city. He goes from flâneur to jobseeker and eventually sets his sights on infiltrating the pseudonymous “Bistrot de la Seine”. Once on board he will cling to employment with tenacity and cunning, all the more impressive given his weak grasp of the French language.

The author deftly conveys the panic and confusion of learning a new language, and the cheating mechanisms speakers employ to get by. Chisholm redacts words he doesn’t understand, sometimes replacing whole phrases with blanks. A key word or two is often enough to share his befuddlement: “L’Anglais, come. ______. C’est l’heure“. Time for what? He dramatizes, too, the maddening bureaucracy of working and living in France, the shibboleths of belonging: getting a social security number or presenting a prospective proprietaire with le dossier (a folder with your renting history, complete with testimonies from landlords). It’s complicated enough if you’re French, and virtually impossible if you don’t speak the language or have no money.

Our protagonist starts out as a runner, responsible for delivering plates to customers’ tables rapidly and accurately. After a shaky start, he grows in confidence, then realizes he needs tips to survive, so opts to become a waiter. Chisholm’s fortitude in the face of hot-headed, violent chefs and infernal fourteen-hour days without breaks in pursuit of his goal is admirable, and makes for compelling reading. He wants to be accepted, be one of themso absorbs the snarky comments like punches, opening himself up to ridicule to win the respect of his colleagues.

Chisholm’s studies of the characters who populate the restaurant environment are lively. We meet the flamboyant front-of-house waiters: Adrien, “the Untouchable”; Lucien, who wants to become a famous actor; Renaud, the serpent; and Piotr, the Russian (or possibly Serbian, our narrator is never quite sure) with the inconsistent backstory. There’s also sad Pauline, and Nimsath, “Tamil Tiger! Freedom Fighter!”, who dwells in the passageway to the underworld, the dark depths of the kitchen. The poor lowly plongeur, meanwhile, goes unnamed. There’s a short description of this beleaguered man, the chief pot-washer and dogsbody. “He must be in his fifties,” writes Chisholm, “there are dark patches on his face, blemishes, and a hastily shaved, graying beard. His hands are all shrivelled, as if the skin is too loose and bunches like a glove.” Staff in direct contact with diners are valued over the lowly kitchen employees, and the plongeur – dispensable and on minimum wage – is the lowest of the lowest in the kitchen, “the bottom of the food chain”, says Chisholm.

This is a hierarchy I recognize, having worked as a plongeur in the restaurant at a large Parisian department store in the seventh arrondisement in 2013. The façade may have been luxurious, but it was essentially the same job George Orwell described in gritty detail in Down and Out in Paris and London. “A plongeur is a slave”, he wrote, “and a wasted slave, doing stupid and largely unnecessary work.” Little has changed in the nearly ninety years since he worked in the city – long-ing is still the same brutal, unremitting, disgusting gig that it was when he toiled on the Rue du Pot de Fer.

Like Chisholm I found myself in a financial bind, and applied for a kitchen job to supplement a lean spell of freelancing, having seen a position advertised on Craigslist. I’d read Orwell before moving to France, and had convinced myself that it would somehow be romantic – in spite of everything I’d read. A terse reply beckoned me into the restaurant for a trial. Arty, my new boss, was a no-nonsense Israeli who refused to shake my hand, then told me what a repugnant job I’d be doing. Using my application to beat me with, he informed me that a plongeur had nothing to do with Orwell and everything to do with Bukowski, miming the slugging of a hard drink as a coping mechanism. As I stood scrubbing fat from a star-shaped cutter, with a bleeding little finger and cold water trickling onto my hand, it began to dawn on me that he was telling the truth.

For a month I endured the drudgery of a Paris kitchen, with a high-pressure faucet my only friend in working conditions Orwell would have recognized. The grease and grime clung to my clothes, my shoes were ruined and my hands were pummeled and lacerated in ways that resembled those of Chisholm’s plongeur. I’d be so exhausted when I got home that the job became all-consuming. My opposite number was a Polish dynamo who worked many more hours than I, uncomplainingly. He not only made me look bad; he also ratted on me on a regular basis. As Chisholm rightly demonstrates, there’s no solidarity at the bottom. “And yet the plongeurs, low as they are, also have a kind of pride”, wrote Orwell. “To go on working like an ox is about the only virtue attainable. Débrouillard is what every plongeur wants to be called. A débrouillard is a man who, even when he is told to do the impossible, will se débrouiller — get it done somehow.”

The word débrouillard was never cast in my direction. I was bleeding, burnt and in pain, but told that I wasn’t working hard enough. Staff were also expected to stay until the job was done, mopping floors, taking out the rubbish, cleaning drains, sometimes up to an hour unpaid. I reached breaking point during one such moment, getting into a bitter row with an overzealous pastry chef. That night I exited the grand magasin ignominiously for the last time, escorted by security out of the back entrance as the glitz and pageantry of Paris Fashion Week sashayed through the front.

Débrouillard, however, is an appropriate way of describing Chisholm, both as writer and restaurant employee, stealthily working his way up through the restaurant ranks while picking up anecdotes that he puts to use in this entertaining and enlightening memoir. His victory, however, ultimately feels pyrrhic: the restaurant changes before his eyes, subordinates are mistreated more cruelly than ever, or sacked, and his superiors cut corners ordering pre-made food. It becomes apparent that Le Bistrot can be read as a microcosm for global capitalism, and Edward Chisholm’s account is as parabolic as it is a highly readable first-hand account. The inherent unfairness is exposed and the world of French cuisine starts to look like a confidence trick. Its writer’s objective may not have been political, but A Waiter in Paris unpacks the hierarchical, hostile and exploitative food service sector. We come to pity these lost souls trapped in a monstrous, malevolent machine. Each of them plays the waiting game, hoping upon hope that one day they might escape.

Jeremy Allen is the author of Relax Baby Be Cool: The artistry and audacity of Serge Gainsbourg2021

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