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Charleston diners, stop asking servers this question

Are you in school?

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"Are you in school?"

It’s one of the most disappointing questions a server or bartender can get from a customer, and we get it frequently. Or sometimes it comes in the form of, "So, Philip ... what else do you do?" The biggest misconception of the F&B industry from the outside observer is that it is not a real job and any articulate and knowledgeable person working in this industry must be on their way towards something more, something better.

What baffles me — and I’ll tell you from the first-hand experience of being asked this question several times a week for the last 20 years — is that the customer asks the question thinking they are giving a compliment. In their minds, they are saying to themselves and to me, "Philip, you seem like such a smart guy, so tell me your plan for the future, because it can’t be this, right?" They ask it having no idea how demeaning the question is; they ask it like a child. They’re not trying to be insulting, they just don’t know any better. They are so oblivious that they often look right past a red flag, like age.

For example, this question was posed to me many times during my three year stint working at FIG. During those three years I was in my late thirties. Now, I look good for my age, I’ll be the first to admit that, but nowhere near college age, and these customers never stop and think, "Maybe this is an intelligent, grown man, doing this as a career in one of the best restaurants in the Southeast." Do they think I’m not making enough money to make this a legitimate profession? The reality is I’m making about double what we pay public school teachers in this state. Do you ask teachers what they plan to do with their lives?

If it’s not the money, there is another possible explanation for diners' thought process. Maybe they see being a server or bartender as not intellectually challenging. It could be that they think any bright individual is wasting their potential with this type of work. Well, let me break it down for the outsiders. You have to know the ingredients and cooking processes of every dish on the menu and the farms from which those ingredients come. You need to know every wine on the list (FIG’s list is moderate, about 150 wines) and their flavor profiles, not to mention the vintages, the producers' names, the regions they hail from, the grape or grapes from which they are made, and the climate of every wine region on Earth. Can you name the Crus of Beaujolais from north to south? I can. What’s the second most popular grape grown in Argentina? Bonarda. Then there are the cocktails. You must know all the spirits (don’t worry, there are only 50 or 60 of those) and what they are made from, and from where. You also must know the ingredients of any house specialty drinks the restaurant may have. And you need to keep all that information in your head and accessible at the drop of a hat while entertaining 20 people, four people at a time all while fielding questions like, "Are you in school?"

For those that have never served at a restaurant, it's like hosting five small dinner parties at your house, each party starting 15 minutes after the previous one began, the attendees all being strangers with a bunch of questions, and none of them willing to get out of their seats for anything. It’s like juggling and telling jokes while running a half marathon. I enjoy it, and I’m a talent out on the floor (albeit a sweaty one), but I promise you most people cannot pull it off, and an even smaller group can do it with a smile and any semblance of grace.

Which is to say there is only one final possibility for why this common "Are you in school?" misconception persists, and it’s possibly the saddest — society’s perception of F&B.

There’s a perception that because we serve, we are an inferior group. What people who believe this fail to see is that my brothers and sisters in this very legitimate industry have a passion for what we do. And, lest we forget, outside of breathable air, the ability to sleep, and access to clean drinking water, food is a pretty big deal. Our society praises and rewards stock brokers, lawyers and pharmaceutical reps, people who basically provide no benefit to the rest of us, meanwhile looking down on teachers, farmers, and those who bring food to our table. We have a long way to go as a people, and many lessons to learn. So, the next time you get dazzled by the charm and knowledge of a server or bartender, show them some love (fat tip), and simply respect their craft rather than questioning their future ambitions.

Philip Michael Cohen has lived in Charleston since 1981 and has been in the restaurant industry for over 20 years. He dabbles in stand-up comedy, co-hosts EffinBRadio podcast, and is an avid table tennis player.

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