Everybody waited on tables when they were young, didn't they? It's one of those rites of passage that later adorn the curricula vitae of the wildly successful, in between "wages clerk" and "chicken-shed cleaner", as if to tell the world "just look from what lowly surroundings I emerged to conquer the world".
I never did. My mother wouldn't have allowed it. An Irish farmer's daughter with chronic social vertigo, she would have deemed waitering and waitressing too servile for a child of hers. But when they asked me, last month, I jumped at the chance. After years of reviewing restaurants and making snarky remarks about service, I longed to experience life on the other side of the tablecloth. I yearned to wield the scribble-pad and pencil-stub, to ask the formula questions ("Would you like some water for your table?") and find out what the boys and girls in aprons really think of the masticating punters they serve.
11am. Communal staff brunch – cereals and bacon sandwiches – at Hix's Soho restaurant, a lovely bright room hung with dangly mobiles commissioned from Young British Artists. No sense trying to give other people food if you're yelping with hypoglycaemic rage. I am kitted out in a black apron. With my black shoes, black trousers, black shirt and white hair, I resemble a long, rather portly, pint of Guinness.
11.30am. Everyone is briefed by Dale, one of the five sous-chefs, about today's dishes. The menu looks colossal – 16 snacks and starters, 11 main courses, 11 puddings – and some explanations seem matchingly long. "We have 40 gulls' eggs left, £6.50 each, it's the end of their season," says Dale. "They're collected from clifftops on the South Coast by people with egg licences, and if anyone wants to know, they're blackface gulls..." Such precision. We're talked through Maldon oysters from Essex, St Enodoc asparagus from Cornwall and De Beauvoir smoked salmon from Mark Hix's home at the fashionable end of Islington. We learn that "Heaven and Earth" is a soft aromatic black pudding on a bed of smashed Charlotte potatoes with apple, chives and mustard. We're introduced to the arcane concept of Rook on Toast. "There's 66 covers in for lunch, though that figure could fluctuate by 10 or so," announces one of the girls from reception. "Good luck." She stops short of saying, à la Hill Street Blues, "and be careful out there."
11.45am. Freddie, the French head waiter, introduces me to the secrets of How to Know Where Everybody Sits. Think of a clock, he says. When you're standing here, 12 is the far wall and six is in front of you. The first luncher seated anywhere just past six is Number One. The lady sitting at, say, 9 o'clock will be Number Two – and you also circle her number to tell other waiters that No 2 is female. Got that? I nod uncertainly. Any questions? "Shouldn't that table have salt and pepper on it?" I ask, smugly. Freddie gives me a look, not entirely appreciative of my eagle eye.
12 noon. The first guests arrive: four chaps in non-designer suits. They are clearly Media Types, holding a Meeting because they haven't a proper Office. "Bottle of fizzy water to Table 33," says Luigi the barman. I know which is Table 33 – it's the only one with people at it – but how can I tell it's Table 33? Dariush the maître d' talks me through it: there are no Tables 1-to-20. These here are Tables 21-25. This group are 31, 32, 33, 27, 34, 35... ("Er, Dariush...") and those over there are 41, 43, 44, 45, 46. Nobody quite explains the randomness of the numbering, or why 27 is stuck on its own like a leper colony.
12.30pm. The place is filling up. An elderly militiaman and his wife at Table 43. Two weirdly tall Soho girls, one with 1970s poodle perm, at 22. Do I call them "madam" or "ladies" or what? "We don't have a fixed approach," says Dariush, "but waiters should be savvy enough not to approach a Lord and Lady and say, 'Hi guys, how you doing?' or walk up to a gang of young TV chaps and call them 'sir'. Take that glass of wine to Table 44, would you?" My first actual bit of waitering! I plonk the wine on a little tray, scuttle over to Table 44 and gingerly proffer the tray to the lady in blue. Deep in conversation, she doesn't notice my butler-ish, indeed slavish gesture. I stand, head bowed, for 30 seconds before she relieves me of my burden, and I scarper. Kate, from Slovakia, is not impressed. She disapproves of excessive gestures. "The waiter should be a quiet accompanist to the meal," she says. "A quiet accompanist."
1pm. I still haven't been given a table to solicit for orders. Do they not trust me or something? I admire the way Dariush and Freddie vie with each other over attention to detail. At the Pass (notice my command of jargon de cuisine) Freddie stops one plate in its tracks. "Can you slice the skirt off that slice of salmon?" he asks Johnny-from-Romania. Dariush, not to be outdone, collars another underling. "Get a knife and slice the tinge of green from that lemon wedge, please."
1.30pm. I approach a table of four handsome women in their early fifties. Forgetting the protocol, I cry, "All right, ladies?" like a Cockney market stallholder and am rewarded with a beady glare. I take their order. Let's see. It's Table 41, two of them want scrumpets, or deep-fried lamb breast, one wants prawn cocktail and no main course, one fancies fish'n'chips, one wants soup and a second starter... Hang on. What's the shorthand for She-Wants-Two-Starter-Courses? With Freddie's help, I bang the details into the computer. Lisa, the tiny waitress (and aspiring novelist), comes by. "Has Table 41 ordered?" she asks with impatience. "Yes indeed," I smirk, "They have been taken care of." "How do I not know if they've ordered or not?" she asks. "Because the menus are still on the table." I am shamed. I am chastened. But then, how the hell could I have known?
2pm. I learn about serving three dishes to a table with two ladies and a chap. For first lady, hold plate in left hand. Second lady, take plate on towel upon right sleeve. Lastly, serve man with right hand, now freed from burden. I could do that, easy-peasy. Instead I'm given insultingly simple task of serving Table 25 with steak and vegetables. I hand over the mixed veg and dump steak under luncher's nose. "Enjoy," I say, as though in Brooklyn, and walk away. Closely followed by irate Dariush. "The tray!" he hisses. "You don't leave the tray on the bloody table for him to eat off!"
2.30pm. Good heavens. It's Louise. An old friend, a work colleague for years, she has found a new job but we still meet occasionally. Can it be she hasn't spotted me in my waiter threads? How hilarious it would be if she thought I'd ceased journalism and retrained! Several minutes elapse but she shows no sign of recognition, no ironic wave, no sarcastic cries of "Oi, garçon!". Slightly miffed, I ask Johnny-from-Romania, "Are these vegetables for Table 35?" They are. I carry them through the room, sidle up to Louise, plonk metal dish by her hand and say, in an affectedly "hilarious" voice, "Your spinach, madam". "Thanks," she says briefly without looking round, "Anyway, so there I was..." I do not believe this. I've known her for years, and she completely blanks me. Am I, like, invisible? Is invisibility the defining character of the good waiter?
3pm. Puddings are flying right, left and centre. I take a single Buckthorn berry posset with "Happy Birthday!" inscribed on it and accompany Dariush to the happy pensioners at Table 24. "Thumb on other side of plate, John," says the maître d' wearily, "Don't want to smudge the inscription." But I don't. I plonk down the tray before the lady (clearly it's her birthday) and say, "Congratulations!" Should I sing to her? Dariush's aghast raised eyebrows say: probably not. I walk off, to be stopped by Dariush's voice. "John!" it says, quite firmly. "Tray!"
3.30pm. Post-mortem time. I have left two trays, like little presents, on lunchers' tables. I have dropped one knife. I have de-crumbed a table by wiping the crumbs with a cloth into my cupped hand and, having nowhere to put the debris, shoving it in my pocket. I've failed to recommend a pudding when asked to do so by a guest. "You've a good attitude," says the boss, "you know about food and wine, you're fine at making up to the guests. You might make a lovely maître d'. But I wouldn't give you a second chance as a waiter." Talk about crushing. "Was it the trays?" I whispered. "Yes it was," he said. "Everyone's entitled to screw up once. Twice, no."
Oh blast. Back, from the cutting edge of haute cuisine, to the grey prose of the newspaper office.