When I was 16, my friend Megumi asked if I wanted to be a server at her parents’ restaurant, Kikuya. My first thought: I can eat sushi for free? So I took the job and started hauling my ass three to four times a week from Lincolnwood to Hyde Park. I didn’t need to work (my parents had plenty saved for my college), but I loved making my own money. I remember bringing home $54 one night and feeling rich.
Twenty-some years later, I’m in danger of becoming what we in the industry call a “lifer” — or, as my mother puts it, a “food prostitute.” As a server, you constantly ask yourself a question only sex workers and athletes ponder as much: Am I too old for this?
I currently work at a busy spot in the Loop. Recently, I was chatting with a two-top of professors from the University of Illinois and told them it was my alma mater.
“Oh, what did you study?” asked the one in a sweater vest.
“You know what they say about English majors?” he started. I forced a grin, anticipating what was coming. “The first question they ask on the job is, Do you want fries with that?”
Yes, the world is dotted with assholes. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get too mad, because this man had ordered a burger, and I had, in fact, just asked him if he wanted to upgrade to truffle fries.
Sometimes when I’m tying the strings to my server apron, I think of a quote by the now-canceled author Sherman Alexie: “The world is only broken into two tribes. The people who are assholes and the people who are not.”
Here’s a shocker: The vast majority of people are really kind and interesting, especially when they’re out to have a good time. But over my decades of serving, I’ve had to learn how to navigate the others. I have a smile-blink-breathe combination that is both a warning and a way to slow my heart rate, and I’ve developed a wit that is biting yet charming enough to avoid getting “Yelped.” (I’m mostly described as that “funny Asian guy.”)
But most important, when someone is a jerk at work, I think, Wow, I feel bad for your family — I’m glad I only have you for 90 minutes. If the English major in me is correct, that is empathy.
I’m not always the Dalai Lama of food service. Catch me at the tail end of a 12-hour summer-tourism shift when I’ve only had five minutes to eat over a garbage can. That’s when someone who wants a drink that is “sweet but not, like, sweet-sweet” can make my right eye twitch.
I’m experienced enough to keep the small things small, but once in a while issues come up that test me. “Hi, my name is Archy,” I said as I approached one family. “I’ll be taking care of you. Our soup today is tortilla soup.”
“I thought this was an American restaurant,” the father shouted. “Are you telling me that you’re my server and the soup is Mexican?”
Smile, blink, breathe.
“That’s the beauty of America, sir! Would you like to try our signature beer? A locally crafted take on a German Pilsner!
Being Asian American, I grew up with the typical second-generation pressure to be a doctor, lawyer, or engineer. I carried that sense of failure for a long time. Sometimes when Asian American diners look at me, I wonder if they’re thinking, What happened to you? I want to say, “I’m not just a server! I’m a storyteller — a two-time winner of the Moth GrandSlam!” My therapist calls this projecting.
With the rise of K-pop, there’s suddenly an unexpected upside to being Asian. A couple of years ago, I walked up to a family of tourists, and a girl, who was maybe 10, started crying.
“Is she OK?” I asked.
“Oh, she’s fine,” her mother responded. “It’s just that, well, she loves BTS, and there aren’t that many Asian people where we’re from.”
I know that was kind of wrong, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t feel good, too. It was certainly better than the time a man, at a 12-top, asked me if we served egg rolls and fried rice. Smile, blink — nah, fuck that, it’s time for sass. “Sir, are you asking me that because I AM ASIAN?!” At which point the rest of the table apologized and someone handed me a $100 bill.
The past three years haven’t been easy, amid a pandemic and staffing shortages. By last fall, I was starting to dream about something, anything, else. Then the Moth called with a storytelling gig for me in New York City the first week of December. The problem was, I would need almost the entire week off. Was I going to have to choose between taking this dream job and keeping my regular one? I approached my scheduling manager.
“So I got a gig in NYC and I need —”
“You’re going to perform in New York?” he basically screamed. “That’s incredible. Put the days in. We’ll figure it out.”
Working in this industry has allowed me to pursue my artistic dreams, but that’s not the only reason I’ve stuck around. During my nearly quarter century as a server, I’ve worked at five restaurants. I went from food running and busing at a mom-and-pop sushi joint to serving (and locking eyes with) Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt at Japonais, where I also told Jennifer Hudson I loved her before she ordered. I’ve worked under Iron Chef’s Masaharu Morimoto and Spiaggia’s Tony Mantuano. And I’ve done it all despite constant pressure to find a “real job.” (Which I’ve tried, by the way. During my six-month stint as a paralegal, I made copies, daydreamed, and gained 15 pounds sitting at a desk.)
One night, when I was in my 20s, I was driving and pondering my life aloud while my friend Colie rolled a blunt in the passenger seat. “Archy,” she said, “I think you’re always going to be a server because you actually like your job.” Anyone who knows me knows I enjoy food, wine, and making men — I mean people — happy. I’ve realized I’m a natural fit for this; it’s no longer something I’m ashamed of. I watch my friends with “better jobs” answer emails over dinner and pity them. I hear about their workplace meetings, and I think about how mine are tastings of pricey food and wine.
Sure, I wonder how my job will fit into upcoming chapters of my life, but as someone who has a modest retirement fund, a car, health care, and a home I can envision paying off, I’m really not that bothered. I feel fulfilled when the people I’m serving have a good time — as long as they remember to tip, of course.
“In America, you can’t just do one thing,” my mother said during my recent visit to Thailand. “People have to do this and that.” My parents never miss a chance to remind me that I passed up a full scholarship to be an engineer. And thank God. I can’t even use Excel without crying.
When I was wrapping up my last shift before that trip to Thailand, the owner walked in. I told him I was leaving for a couple of weeks. He went behind the bar and handed me a bottle of Champagne. “Thanks for everything you do here.”
Then a manager snickered. “You know why he’s doing that, right? He wants to make sure you come back.”
I’ll always take a bottle of free Champagne. But it’s not the reason I keep coming back.