In the lean times, award-winning novelist Kelly Ana Morey knows she can always fall back on waitressing.
In an exemplary piece of adulting I bit the bullet this week and started looking for another waitressing job before – not after – I ran out of money. I couldn’t even be bothered with having a “poor me” moment about it. Yes, there are the two and a half degrees – I abandoned my art history PHD – and the list of publishing that now runs to three pages in 10-point, and that decade I spent working at a museum. But to be honest that adds up to a whole lot of nothing in the New Zealand job market these days. Two good corporate writing contracts and a small funding grant to make a start on writing a WWI social history freed me from minimum wage servitude. So I’ve had a pretty good run over the last 18 months. However, I knew my return to hospitality was imminent as the annual tsunami of rejection letters from the various writing residencies began to arrive – and I don’t even apply for the fancy ones. But because I like to eat and pay my bills, I’ve wrapped my head around the tragedy that is being a 48-year-old waitress and heigh ho it’s back to the salt mines I go. To be honest I really like the job, even if my clappedout body doesn’t always agree. I’m good at it and get a real kick out of pulling off a busy service without cracking a sweat. The customers are fine and I don’t even mind the casual contracts and terrible money. Waitressing has always been my fallback to get me through first university, and now my fabulously lucrative career writing books. Writing, waiting, watching and thinking are my only skills. I can’t actually do anything else. I’m also ruthlessly pragmatic, and if I’ve got to do it I will, and with good grace. As my friend Emma Jean, a fellow repeat hospo offender says with an I-told-you-so cackle: “You, Kelly Ana, are a waitress for life.” I really hope I won’t still be doing it when I need a walker and an oxygen bottle. That would truly suck. However, as I’m now entering my fourth decade of hitting the floor of an eatery it’s nice to know that I can still do it. It’s a great way to get fit and earn some steady cash, which the bank likes. I enjoy doing nights with restaurant service. I want to carry fancy food, pour wine and put on a face and a little bit of a show.
I was trained from scratch back in the late 80s at the wonderful Melba restaurant that used to be on the corner of O’connell and High streets in central Auckland. Spoilt me for life. The wages were standard, the tips extraordinary and the perks – like staff dinner, ham and brown bread sandwiches after evening service, and the fun we had – made it all worthwhile. Sadly the lease was bought out on the building and after a glorious two years I moved on to a few other restaurants, putting myself through those aforementioned university degrees.
On the whole it was pretty good. I did learn that I’m not a corporate-style waitress. I do better on a small floor where I get to talk to the kitchen rather than being part of a huge machine. I still have PTSD flashbacks to the Mother’s Day I worked at Iguacu, one of the first big American-style restaurants in Parnell. Mother’s Day was their busiest day. They did four seatings for lunch – three-course lunch with wine and formal table service. They were big tables, too, which I find difficult because my job is much easier when I remember what everyone ordered when I’m putting it on the table. That day was a very special kind of hell and I admit it broke me. It was time to move on.
From memory I did six weeks of lunches at a fine dining restaurant in Parnell that had amazing food, prepared with extraordinary love by a chef who was dying a little bit inside every day. There were just the two of us and rather often we would only serve two people, which was exactly what I needed to recover. Got to eat some extraordinary food too.
Other places I’ve worked that I have nothing but good memories of include a long stint at three restaurants owned by the same guy: the Slung Anchor at Mangonui up north, another one in Mission Bay that we got out of so quickly I can’t remember its name and, strangely enough, Bodrum Turkish Cafe in Newmarket. Actually Bodrum rocked. Easiest waitressing job I’ve ever had, even if you had to strip before coming inside after work because your clothes reeked of lamb fat. Great team, the place pretty much ran itself, and although it was stinky and dirty it was never stressful, even when we were punching through 400 covers a night.
John was a legendary boss. He was a Cockney who had grown up in his parents’ various pubs in London and backed his waitstaff and kitchen to the hilt regardless of whether we were slinging low-cost hash or high quality bistro-style food. He was a big believer in happy staff equating to happy customers, which meant happy dollars in his till. Smart guy.
I gave it a good two years full-time but eventually I got doner kebab fatigue and had to leave.
Then there was Musical Knives, a vegetarianarian restaurant on Ponsonby Rd owned by Peter Chaplin, whose claim to fame was he’d been personal chef for a number of turn-of-the-century rockstars including the Pretenders, the Thompson Twins, Iggy Pop and Madonna. The place was rockstar central, especially during Big Day Out. Because of this I got to make the Beastie Boys cry. They wandered in one quiet Sunday politely requesting pasta with chilli so hot it would make them weep. “We can do that,” I said. And Pete delivered. I also met Moby, who loves the baby animals and lots and lots of New Zealand wine.
Another highlight was discovering that the waiter before me, a commune-living American Buddhist, had told the group of vegans who would share a single piece of cheesecake between five of them, that the cheesecake was vegan. It wasn’t.
Pete loved a joke and genuinely liked his staff. We had a trainee chef with a very possessive girlfriend who would ring a million times during prep and service driving us crazy. So every day after I got back from my little perambulation down the road for bread and bits and pieces Pete would announce in booming tones to the empty restaurant that there had been “no phone calls for you Kelly Ana”. Thus scoring points off both me and the trainee. No one rang me. Ever. I worked six nights a week, lived by myself and was doing my masters. I had no friends.
I gave the waitressing away in 2002 when I got a museum job and had my first novel accepted for publication, which led to me briefly becoming a teeny tiny star in the minuscule firmament that is New Zealand literature. No more waitressing for me. So long suckers, I thought. But I kept my waitressing shirts just in case. Lucky, because 10 years later I got made redundant from the very cool museum job when my archive was put into hiatus. About the same time, funding dried up as the literature establishment decided I wasn’t so fabulous any more.
So between freelance, corporate and my own writing, and doing orchard/vineyard work, these days I put my apron back on and go and do my thing.
The busy part of the year is over and the university kids are drifting back to the city, so there are some gaps in the very small employment market in my little Kaipara, Northland, town.
I only need 15 hours a week. Nights would be great because I have things to write during the day – the WWI history for one, though there are other projects on the go.
Happy to work weekends too. Still live alone. Still work too much. Still have no social life.