An English waiter’s captivating account of his work in Parisian restaurants will whet your appetite

BOOK OF THE WEEK

A SERVER IN PARIS

by Edward Chisholm (Monoray £16.99, 384pp)

Dumped by his French girlfriend, down to his last coins, and generally “worse off than when I started college”, at least Edward Chisholm is in Paris.

Sadly, the pretty city of manicured boulevards, museums and parks only exists in guidebooks – and anyway it is beyond the reach of the “underpaid and undernourished slaves” that make up the current local population.

Edward Chisholm describes his role as a waiter in Paris, in his new book. He details how he was treated by his employees, colleagues and customers

A Waiter In Paris is a gripping account of what life “at the bottom of the food chain” is really like, and Chisholm’s prose delights in describing graffiti, soggy cardboard boxes and litter-strewn sidewalks.

Make no mistake, the Paris of Picasso or Hemingway has disappeared. It is now a border area full of “undocumented” immigrants (Chisholm is one himself), drug addicts and people with mental disorders. “There’s a brown fog over the city,” we’re told, as Paris exudes “a sulphurous, heady rotten egg, old shoes, brake dust, and a urine-tinged infusion.”

Beyond the affluent neighborhoods, with their absent oligarchs, ordinary people live in distant “nightmarish mazes of sloping-walled buildings with sunken floors and hovel-like rooms reached by slanting stairways.”

All Chisholm can afford is a shared room in a typical slum, with a bloodstained carpet and a sink that doubles as a toilet. The soiled mattress is infested with bed bugs.

Edward Chisholm, (pictured) left behind by his French girlfriend was alone and penniless in Paris.  The English writer took a job as a waiter and lived hand to mouth by subsisting on cigars

Edward Chisholm, (pictured) left behind by his French girlfriend was alone and penniless in Paris. The English writer took a job as a waiter and lived hand to mouth by subsisting on cigars

After roaming the cold streets, anxious to find some job, Chisholm becomes a waiter and earns €1,086.13 a month before taxes. He works 14-hour shifts, six days a week.

There are no breaks, nothing to eat but stale rolls or leftovers from the guests. Dehydrated and exhausted, he eats cigarettes.

“The waiting work is hard, relentless and insane,” he concludes, and the only thing he can be proud of is having “enough courage to hold on”.

A restaurant is a theatrical scene of silver cutlery and white napkins, a “smell of polish mingled with the scent of flowers.”

From humans, Chisholm has encountered nothing but humiliation - rude customers, despicable bosses, untrustworthy colleagues

From humans, Chisholm has encountered nothing but humiliation – rude customers, despicable bosses, untrustworthy colleagues

Beyond the dining room, however, lies a “labyrinthine world” of kitchens with flaming hotplates, hallways, changing rooms, cellars, garbage cans and scullery, where the men (always the men) “spend most of the day standing in water and rotting vegetables. peelings’.

Rats are everywhere, crawling around the shelves, munching on the olives.

From humans, Chisholm has encountered nothing but humiliation – rude customers, despicable bosses, untrustworthy colleagues. Indeed, his fellow servers are thieves, drug dealers, ex-soldiers on the run – a grotesque, unshaven mob with glowing, ferret-like, bloodshot eyes.

The Tamil refugees who wash dishes and do skivvy are “adept in hand-to-hand combat and know how to plan and execute a guerrilla attack against an armed convoy”. Not a skill often required when tossing a salad. The only way for them to get out of it is to pretend it’s just a temporary job.

“Our real lives are just around the corner,” as boxing champions, actors or tycoons, they say.

In this book, everyone screams and screams, on the verge of a nervous breakdown.  Chisholm becomes responsible for the

In this book, everyone screams and screams, on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Chisholm becomes responsible for the “parade of plates, glasses and bottles” and learns to defy gravity by carrying huge silver trays, balanced on the upturned palm.

A server can be fired on the spot “for the slightest reason”. Chisholm must be biting his tongue when he meets the kind of people who go to restaurants and “suddenly they’re little dictators”. Do this, do that, I don’t like it, take it off…’. It is not uncommon for more chic Parisians to ask to be served “by someone who is not black”.

Almost as insufferable is the manager, who doesn’t bother to conceal “a hint of disgust” at Chisholm’s presence.

The writer decides that it is the fact that he is English that is the offence. It is a well-established belief in Paris that “French vineyards only send corked bottles to England”, because no one would notice. It is cause for much laughter that we eat sandwiches at the office for lunch. “You have no great wines and no great philosophers.

In this book, everyone screams and screams, on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Chisholm becomes responsible for the “parade of plates, glasses and bottles” and learns to defy gravity by carrying huge silver trays, balanced on the upturned palm.

As a server, Chisholm was always terrified of losing [his] work¿ ¿ and France itself should be terrified of losing an essential part of its culture

As a server, Chisholm was “always terrified of losing [his] work” — and France itself should be afraid of losing an essential part of its culture

The choreography must be exact, as the servers pass each other. If the food and dishes rock as far as the eye can see, with a noise “like a cliff collapsing into the sea”, the waiters quickly pick up the duck breasts and beans from the floor, place them on cool plates, ” and the table is no longer the wisest’.

After reading A Waiter In Paris, you won’t want to eat there. Dirty napkins and disgusting napkins are used to wipe down plates and glasses. The servers all have dirty fingernails, worn out shoes, awful body odor. There is no sink in the staff toilets, nor any time to wash your hands. “The kitchen will sort out the germs.”

The atmosphere is frenetic, says Chisholm. “There is always too much to do, not enough time and never a break.”

What energizes the troops is the prospect of tips. The Parisians, who constantly complain, are small tips. Brazilians and Japanese are the most generous. Celebrities are the baddest because “they’re used to getting things for free.”

Arab sheikhs rack up small bills because they don’t drink. Americans don’t understand exchange rates and leave big tips by mistake.

Throughout this book, we learn that neighborhood bistros and traditional restaurants now use frozen ingredients rather than fresh products.

Throughout this book, we learn that neighborhood bistros and traditional restaurants now use frozen ingredients rather than fresh products.

Servers are always on the lookout for lost jewelry or fallen banknotes – and they fight for a share of the tips. Literally, there are punches, with drawn knives.

As a server, Chisholm was “always terrified of losing [his] work” — and France itself should be terrified of losing an essential part of its culture.

Throughout this book, we learn that neighborhood bistros and traditional restaurants now use frozen ingredients rather than fresh produce. Croissants and bread are purchased ready to use and reheated. “The ping of microwaves replaces the slamming of pans,” all in the name of profit margins.

This amazing book describes a cruel and savage existence and deserves to be on the shelf next to George Orwell’s Down And Out In Paris And London (1933) as another classic about human exploitation. With this difference. Orwell was an Old Etonian who played miserably. Chisholm’s tale of the struggle for survival no longer entirely rings true.

A Waiter In Paris, without an ounce of self-pity, describes what it’s like to be young and without career prospects, despite having a degree – in Chisholm’s case, from the London School of Oriental and African Studies .

In these pages, one senses the anarchy and desperation felt by many people in their thirties, who find that waiting for their life to begin is like waiting for Godot. Especially if you are a server.

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