The Weird Customer Request That Is Burned Into My Brain

It involves gravy and a hose. Just keep reading.

A porter cleans a crate of dishes in a restaurant kitchen

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Let me tell you about the moment I truly understood what it takes to be a good restaurant server and how far one can go to meet the expectations of their customer. As a senior in high school in 1985, the weekly pittance given to me by my parents was no longer enough to support my spending habits at Dairy Queen and Spencer’s Gifts. It was time for a job that would pay me real money. The only thing bigger than my dream of financial independence was my afro. 

A friend worked at a local steakhouse as a waitress and I figured if she could do it, so could I. The manager thought otherwise. Maybe it was my lack of experience or maybe it was that I wasn’t a cute 18-year-old blond girl. Whatever the reason, he introduced me to the wonderful world of dishwashing. Despite the absence of tips and the presence of a plastic apron that was thinner than Saran Wrap, I was thrilled to be a part of the working class. 

On one of my first shifts, my friend Theresa, who had the coveted role of waitress, came into the kitchen from the dining room holding a plate of chicken fried steak that was smothered in cream gravy. The woman who ordered it had inexplicably decided she did not want the gravy, which was a straight-up abomination in Texas. The plate was given to the cook who gave it to the manager who gave it to me, the dishwasher.

 “Wash that gravy off that meat,” he told me.

 I grinned with uncertainty, having never been in a position to wash meat. “I’m sorry, what?” I asked.

The manager sighed with impatience and signaled for me to follow him to the dish pit. There, he picked up the steak and shook the congealed gravy into the trash can. With his other hand he took the big silver spray nozzle and sprayed the gravy off the meat as nonchalantly as I sprayed Thousand Island dressing off a dirty salad bowl. Curiously, the breading stayed affixed to the steak, clinging to it as tightly as the hairnet on my head. Once the steak was devoid of all gravy, the manager returned the sopping wet piece of meat to the cook who dropped it back into the deep fryer. One minute later, he retrieved it from the oil, tossed it onto a new plate and then gave it to Theresa who took it back to her customer who now had exactly what she wanted: chicken fried steak with no gravy.

I learned that day that we in the food service industry have a responsibility to make our customers happy. Whether it’s offering them a warm smile or filling up a water glass or even something as simple as washing the gravy off their meat, we are there to please. Sure, there are limits to how far we’ll go to make a dining experience a good one, but apparently washing meat is within the spectrum of reason. Or at least that’s what I learned at Sirloin Stockade that day. 

I often think of that manager and the valuable lesson he taught me. Over the decades, that sense of obligation to please customers has really stuck with me, unlike the gravy that so easily slid off that cube steak during that fateful dishwashing shift from so long ago.

That restaurant job was the beginning of my life in food service. It laid a path for commitment for me not just to serving people, but also to the food and beverage industry itself. Every day at that job was a learning opportunity and I relished it. However, my time at the steakhouse was limited, unlike the salad bar there that I had to break down every night after closing. I quit three weeks later because according to my diary, the job was “interfering with my social life.” 

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