It was the summer after my first year at University, and I had secured my first waitressing job at a private yacht club in Toronto. It was a 2.5-hour commute each way that involved a bus, a train, a streetcar, a little walk, and a private ferry. The first day I was given a few instructions before I was thrown in the waters. Nervously, I served my first customer; it was quite awkward, but the challenge excited me. Fast-forward 4 months, 12-hour shifts and cranky customers, waitressing became the hardest and most rewarding job I’ve ever had. (Read more here: My Not-So-Prestigious Summer Job)
I wanted a greater challenge, so I applied to one of the top restaurants in Toronto: Canoe. You might have heard of it, it’s near Union Station on the 54th floor of a TD building. Most people go there for summerlicious, to propose, nail a business deal, or get married, but I was there for work. Canoe was different from the Yacht club. It was more structured, the mangers were more strict, and there was a way of doing things. I learned to carry 3 piping hot plates at once, which kind of feels like your pressing your hands against a mug with boiling water for 10 minutes straight, cut melting butter into little triangle sculptures, and memorize a menu full of ingredients I’ve never heard of. One of the biggest perks of waitressing is getting leftover food, tasting the menu, 50% discount, and the people. The worst? Probably the hours. Every night I’d be eyeing the clock in the dish-pit wondering if I’d be able to catch the last train home.
I was back in school and decided to look for an off-campus job. By now, I had pretty much decided that waitressing was the best part-time job anyone could have, so naturally, I applied to some of the best restaurants in Kingston. I got a few calls back, but the one I really wanted, my very top choice was the sushi restaurant, — — , also known as the best sushi restaurant in Kingston (seriously it’s the best).
I applied to — — earlier that day, but another restaurant has already reached out to me and wanted an answer that night. I didn’t want to accept restaurant B’s offer until I heard back from — — , so I went back to — — and waited outside until the owner came out for a smoke. I explained to him that I handed in my resume earlier that day & would like to work for them, but had already received an offer from their competitor. I asked him if he was willing to hire me, and he invited me inside.
Next thing I knew, I was being interrogated.
(Please Note: My stories are a little exaggerated for dramatic flare, but everything is still truthful.)
The interview was unlike any interview I’ve ever experienced. She wasted no time with “hellos” and fired questions like bullets. I dodged them with every past experience. She explained, or rather, she preached the differences between a family restaurant and a fine-dining restaurant, “At — — we needed to be quick. Everything is fast.”
I told her I was quick.
“It is going to be hard work,” she warned.
“I’m used to it.”
She gave me a hard look and re-emphasized how difficult it was, even giving me the opportunity to back out the first week if I didn’t have it in me. I thought I applied for the wrong job. She was talking about waitressing right? But her intensity only made me more interested. With guts I didn’t know I had, I glared right back into those eyes and told her: I didn’t need it.
“Well….ok. Come back tomorrow,” and she gave me a time. I exhaled, thinking the stand-off was over, but before I left, she reminded me once more that I could quit anytime during the first week, “I won’t hold it against you.”
Her words burned into my mind and I found myself filled with a new sense of purpose, a new challenge.
But this isn’t your typical feel-good story. As much as I want this to be a ‘look how I overcame this experience with hard work,’ it isn’t. Instead, it is a story about how I gave-up.
I’ve memorized menus before, but the — — ‘s menu was a little more difficult. Most rolls were quite similar (with one or two ingredient differences), the fish names (in Japanese) were different from English ones, the preparation and cost changed per item and differed from dish to dish (with sushi, every ingredient is transparent and accounted for). On top of that, I never had the gift of memorization.
Nonetheless, I was committed, so I spent 2–3 hours practicing every night. I wrote cue-cards, had friends test me, and even wrote them out multiple times. Despite the laborious tasks I gave myself, I found that whenever I was tested at work, I was overcome with such fear and I could never spit the answers out correctly. On top of that, I kept bumping into tables and could never prepare the salad or soups fast enough. Ultimately, I was doing everything wrong.
The wife shoved me out of the way and blamed/criticized me every time there was a mistake (even when it wasn’t my fault). The thing was, no one taught me how to make the salads or soups, and a part of me was so afraid of being yelled at, or bothering her, that I decided to figure it out myself.
I thought that only if I tried harder, if only I was better that she would like me better, but unfortunately, this mentality of “not making a mistake” made me so nervous about getting an ingredient wrong, serving too much soup, or asking a question that I couldn’t concentrate on anything else for the rest of the week. I found that most of my time was spent thinking about work, wondering what I could do to avoid being yelled at, what I would get wrong, etc.
This continued for two months. After every shift I would vent to my friends and family, crying about the blame, my incompetence, and the shoving/yelling. I felt like I was walking on a thin rope, and I wanted to quit. Badly. But I wasn’t a quitter. I don’t give-up during ‘tough times.’ Besides, all the other girls seemed to be fine and the pay was fantastic ($28/hr including tips).
So I started bringing in food; breakfast, dinners, and snacks to get to know the owners better. I tried to find different tactics to make work easier; talking to the co-workers, making mini-goals for myself like timing how fast I can make 5 trays of salads, coming into work earlier, and leaving work later. I thought if only I could get through one more day, one more shift, it would be better, and it did.
The owners started talking to me more, I befriended my co-workers, and it was a big improvement from the first two months, but I still hated every moment of it. I was still afraid of making mistakes and I dreaded going into work. I despised it so much I started making excuses of why I couldn’t go in.
I was so disappointed in myself. Even after almost a year of working, I still felt so much resistance towards going to work. The other girls made it look so easy, but I still had to review the menu before every shift. I was still afraid of making a mistake (especially since I’ve been there for so long now), and I was still jittery.
Was it because I’m not good enough?
Why was it so much easier for the other girls?
Why was I still making mistakes?
Why wasn’t I improving?
These were some of the questions that ran through my mind every single shift.
I wanted an escape.
I wanted to quit.
And I did.
One day, I sent a text saying I couldn’t come in anymore. I apologized for not being able to give my 100%, for not being able to keep my promise of doing whatever I could to succeed, and threw in the towel.
I told them they could keep the pay and ran away like a coward.
This story is not an attack on my employers. Asian restaurants, especially family-owned ones are very different from Western ones. They are good hard-working people, but restaurant pressure can really get to your head. I’ve learned a lot from them; how to run a restaurant, the importance of doing things properly, and to pay attention to the little things, but at the end of the day I decided the stress wasn’t worth it for me.
I tried, I failed, and that’s not ok.
Jokes, it’s ok.