Nope, I'm not writing about military service. I have come to strongly believe that we would, in fact, live in a better, kinder world if every teenager took a job in the service industry before entering adulthood. Working in a professional kitchen would be great too, but there are probably too many liability issues for that to be practical. I certainly plan on requiring my kids to work as servers (if they expect college tuition support) -- and, in my opinion, these are 10 of the invaluable skills that they will gain doing so:
1. MISSION: No matter what uniform they're wearing, service teams are always acting as ambassadors of something. They learn to represent something larger than themselves and see themselves as part of a bigger picture. Part of our strength as a nation is our fierce belief in individuality and the fundamental value of every human being (ideally), but sometimes we mistake individualism for ego and selfishness. Servers have to leave their egos at the door.
2. EMPATHY: Servers are expected to take care of people whether they're in a good mood or not, and often times a grumpy morning will be forgotten when the focus is taken off of what's not fair about life and dedicated to helping someone have a muffin and a cup of tea. The motto around Haven's Kitchen is to be on the "other side of service:" Pretend you've had a rough day and just really want a smile and a glass of wine. By putting ourselves in our guest's shoes, we're not only helping them, but molding ourselves to have compassion and forget about our own packages for a while.
3. CLEANLINESS: Really. Cleaning up their rooms for their mother is vastly different from cleaning a café for the NYC Department of Health. The way you learn to clean, the eyes you develop for a receipt left on the floor or a toilet paper role in need of changing, can truly be life changing. Perhaps irritating to those without the hawk eye, but good nonetheless.
4. LATERAL THINKING: Every day at a restaurant is different and it's practically impossible to prepare for specific challenges. Servers learn to think ahead, plan responses to a number of possible scenarios, and act consciously. There's no giving up, no delaying. Thinking outside of the box is critical to good service.
5. TEAMWORK - this one may be relatively obvious, but the truth is it's pretty easy to be on a team when nobody's cleaning toilets or scraping crusty food off of the floor. Servers learn the true meaning of working as a team by making eachother's work more tolerable and going the extra mile for eachother. If they don't, the team has a funny way of moving forward without them (or in our case, having a beer after service).
6. PREPARATION: It's everything. Really. No server can function in her job if the tools and stations aren't laid out properly. It's similar to a great chef working without mis-en-place, the food will come out, but the kitchen and the chef will be a disaster. Not a sustainable situation. And with all the action in real time, servers learn a different way of reacting and preparing for things to go wrong.
7. SOCIAL SKILLS: It would be lovely if our nation's youth all learned the benefits of making eye contact and speaking clearly, but for the kids who haven't quite mastered those skills, service (and the direct relationship they have to tips) can impress upon even the shyest teenager what a difference they can make.
8. MEMORY: It is difficult to remember where the lamb was raised and what countries grow the coffee beans that make the blend. Trust me. But the old fallback of "I have a bad memory" doesn't work when you're serving a table of six hungry guests. Sometimes we fudge it (honestly, and just the slightest bit) but for the most part, servers have trained their memories to get better. It is a skill that can be learned and there's no better way to hone it than service.
9. BASIC TABLE MANNERS: Call me a traditionalist, but I want my children to know the proper ways of setting, serving, and clearing. My family dinners are very casual, and I am the only one with a wine glass, so they aren't getting it from me. It goes beyond what knife to use for fish. Know what "backhanding" is? If you haven't been a server, I bet you don't.
10. GRATITUDE: Trust me, once you've seen what actually goes into preparing, serving and cleaning at a restaurant, you will never be the same. People who have worked in service are, in my opinion, more appreciative, more pleasant, and just generally better people.
Follow Alison Cayne on Twitter: www.twitter.com/havenskitchen