Tough on the mind and legs

TABLE 27 wants chilli padi. Table 5 needs a teapot refill. Table 12 asks for a baby chair. And, is that a hand waving me over?

I mentally repeat those requests, hoping that I will not forget them or I may be slapped with a complaint. But, even as I shuttle between the bustling kitchen and the restaurant floor, I cannot shake off the feeling that something has slipped my mind.

Oh right, that table in the far right corner asked for fresh plates about 10 minutes ago. No wonder they are looking at me with furrowed brows.

"Busy night, huh?" they said when I finally approach their table with clean plates, which are stacked right next to them. I can't tell if they were being sarcastic but I decide to smile sheepishly, as any justification may be seen as being rude.

Welcome to the world of waiters. I had worked undercover as a waiter at two Chinese restaurants - one near Chinatown serving dimsum, and a more upscale one in Clarke Quay - over a Friday-to-Sunday stint earlier this month. I took on five shifts: three dinners for five hours each, and two lunches for three hours each.

On my first night, I was given a uniform and told to learn on the job. My first task was to ask diners which type of Chinese tea they preferred. That was followed by serving small dishes of marinated peanuts and chilli.

I also had to pour tea, serve dishes, clear dirty plates and set the tables. I was constantly hurrying from one end of the restaurant to the other. Once, in my haste, I scalded my hand with hot tea while refilling a teapot. As I panicked, I broke the lid.

Another time, I knocked over a bottle of vinegar while pouring tea. Flustered, I tried using disposable wet napkins to soak up the mess, only to be told off by a man at the table to use dry cloth instead.

There was hardly time to drink water or go to the toilet, and my legs ached from the standing and walking.

When the last customer left, my work did not end. Everyone had to stay back for an hour to help clean up and prepare for the next day's shift. The physical demand was, however, nothing compared with the mental exhaustion I felt, having to remember every minute request.

It's no wonder that employers here are struggling to fill vacancies for waiters. About 1,800 waiters are needed, according to the Job Vacancies 2014 report by the Manpower Ministry.

It also does not help that people have a certain perception of waiting tables as a career.

During my stint at the restaurants, I was asked - twice - by diners, why, as a graduate, I was waiting tables. They had found out about my education level while trying to make conversation. One of them even told me to quit.

These questions and comments are like cold water that is sure to douse the enthusiasm of any fresh face who is contemplating a career as a waiter.

If there's one takeaway from my stint, it would have to be this: Waiting tables is an honest job that deserves more respect from employers and customers.

Diners can also show appreciation by leaving tips for the wait staff, or highlight those who offer good service to the restaurant manager. Compliments and smiles go a long way, too.