In the zone: When every dish, and plane, lands safely

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Welcome to In the Weeds. Kyle will be right with you -- most likely to complain about something. Usually he is pleasant, but this is his place to blow off some steam. Don't take it personally; he just needs to vent because he's been doing this for about thirteen years. Enjoy your meal.

In response to last week's In the Weeds, a disgusted Atmos left this comment: "Have you ever had a good experience with a customer?"

My initial thought? Of course -- but would you read that column? Conflicts are much more interesting to write about than the many enjoyable interactions I've had with guests. It's the same reason that the plane that crashes is news, while the thousands of planes that land safely are not.

But then my editor suggested -- strongly -- that I accept the challenge of writing about something positive about being a server. A celebration of the plane that lands safely.

And the truth is, I like many things about the restaurant industry: personal interaction, the fast pace, bullshitting with co-workers, geeking out about food and wine, and the fact that almost every day is different. When all of these things come together, it's truly wonderful to work in a restaurant.

There's a certain energizing feeling I get when I am busy but not overwhelmed, and really connecting with my guests. This feeling comes when I'm truly on top of it: I'm consolidating my tasks, the running checklist in my head never gets out of order, and I have time to interact with guests and still make fun of co-workers in the side station. This energy feeds on itself, and everything seems to happen in rhythm.

I've certainly experienced the opposite: days when I make one mistake on the computer and it gives birth to more mistakes, I seem to forget something on each trip to the back, and every guest asks me a hundred questions while I can feel my other tables staring at me. There's no rhythm to those days. That's when the job feels like a grind.

And since things don't come together perfectly all that often, I definitely appreciate the times when they do. On these shifts, I have every check ready when a guest wants to go, I nail a number of recommendations, appear witty and never force a smile. I seem to always be walking by a table at the right time and bringing diners what they need before they ask for it.

It's hard to describe the feeling I have on shifts like this, except to say that it makes work not feel like work. I imagine it's like being in the zone in sports, or what a taxi driver feels when he's weaving through traffic, catching green lights and not hitting any pedestrians. I know exactly what to do next without thinking it through; it's almost a form of auto-pilot. Rather than feeling I will never finish, I glide through closing duties and checkout. I end the night with a real sense of accomplishment, and a true appreciation of the restaurant business.

It makes me want to buy everyone a round of hot tea.

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