It only took eight years and a bachelor's degree, but Leah Beach has finally stopped hearing her least-favorite question: What do you really plan to do for a living?
Beach is already doing it, as a server at restaurant L20 in Chicago. She meticulously assembles and arranges place settings for the restaurant's 14-course $210 tasting menu.
She learns about foods and dishes like velvet crab, matsutake mushrooms and craquelin bread and curates it all into engaging talking points for each new party of guests.
"I'm not just listing off a series of ingredients," says Beach, 31, who moved to Chicago from Minneapolis in 2011 to pursue her food career. "I'm telling them a bit of a story."
Far from biding time before the next acting audition, many of the newest generation of servers at the nation's top restaurants are waiting tables as a way to hone their chops for a career in restaurant management. They are coming out of top culinary and Ivy League schools, and they consider themselves professionals. To get a foot in the door at legendary establishments, many food-obsessed 20-somethings are busing tables.
High-end restaurants are boosting their service game as prices rise up over $100 for a fine meal and guests become more demanding. A sharp wait staff establishes trust before the food arrives. Josiah Citrin, chef owner of Melisse, a Santa Monica, Calif., French restaurant that offers a $125 prix fixe dinner, only wants to hire servers with a professional track record. "When waiting tables, there's no chance to fix the error," Citrin says. "It's not like in the kitchen."
The kitchen has been the customary entry point for the restaurant industry, with culinary and hospitality grads launching their careers in jobs as prep cooks or line cooks. But recently, ambitious grads are realizing they can earn more money working in the dining room.
Head waiters at top-tier restaurants can earn from $80,000 to as much as $150,000 a year including tips, according to industry executives. In comparison, a line cook might earn as little as $35,000 to $45,000 a year while working longer hours. The nation's highest-rated restaurants, including Per Se, Le Bernardin and Eleven Madison Park in New York and Alinea in Chicago, hire as few as 10% of the individuals applying for waitstaff jobs.
At the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., 20% of graduates from two- and four-year programs go into "front of the house" positions in the dining room, which also include maitre d's, bartenders and sommeliers, compared with 5% roughly 15 years ago, says Jennifer Purcell, an associate dean overseeing the hospitality and service curriculum.
In the past six years, the Culinary Institute has added customer-focused courses, including one on brewed beverages and one on advanced serving. This year, 350 students completed the course work, she says.
Customer expectations of servers are high. Waiters are expected to be at ease and in command of a wide range of facts and skills. In a 16-course dinner at Eleven Madison Park, a single plate might have 15 ingredients and five preparations, says co-owner Will Guidara. Menus change seasonally. Servers are expected to have accurate answers to specific questions about food allergens, the type of sea salt in a particular dish or the origin of the duck. Service of one dessert, a seasonal cheesecake with chocolate, requires the server to perform a card trick.
When they are at the top of their game, servers help create a sense of enthusiasm. "As a guest, the more passion you feel for the people serving you the food, the more delicious the food," Mr. Guidara says.
Details count. For a tasting-menu meal, which can take more than three hours, servers introduce dishes at precisely timed intervals. Before the dinner service, servers polish silverware, light candles, smooth tablecloths, arrange wine glasses and box up after-dinner cookies and other take-home treats.
During development of a new dish or beverage, they may weigh in on the type of knife or wine glass to be used. And they give a final inspection to dishes on their way out of the kitchen. At Eleven Madison, the counter where dishes are passed from kitchen to server is covered in a white tablecloth so the wait staff can see the plate exactly how the guest will see it.
Many of the servers at Eleven Madison are recent grads of the Culinary Institute, Cornell, University of Pennsylvania and Harvard. To attract young talent, Guidara says, the restaurant cultivates a teaching atmosphere, with events such as a weekly "happy hour" course on cocktails and wine often taught by experienced servers on staff. "It's hard for us to keep our staff from coming in three or four hours early," he adds. "They are not just here for a job; they give themselves fully."
Several servers who have moved from Eleven Madison Park to more casual restaurants have instituted a similarly professional atmosphere, he adds. A networking group called the Dining Room Collaborative began in New York in 2013 to foster education and a sense of professionalism among wait staff at fine-dining establishments. The idea is to make server "a sexy dining-room job," says Anthony Rudolf, the group's co-founder and former general manager at Per Se, in New York.
Celia Erickson, a 24-year-old server at Eleven Madison, has an undergraduate degree in hospitality from Cornell University and completed a yearlong wine and beverage program at the Culinary Institute of America (where her father is provost). When starting at Eleven Madison Park last summer, she shadowed kitchen staff as part of her training and had an entry-level server role. She says she has gained insight into managing a top restaurant.
"My first two months, it was really hard for me. I spent five years in school and now I was waiting tables," she says.
"It's almost better if the guests don't notice you," says Chris Humberson, a 23-year-old graduate of the Culinary Institute and a server at Daniel in New York. Humberson says while in school he realized he didn't want to be a chef. Few guests in a contemporary French restaurant realize how much training it takes to be a server or even bus tables. "We are definitely viewed as less skilled in the eyes of the [guest]," he says. "And you have to be OK with that."