October 13, 2011

Food Interview #6: Serving to act

The waitress/actress idea is as symbolic of Los Angeles as fake boobs, blond hair, and a valley girl accent. Olivia Lim is none of those things. She’s an NYU Tisch School of Acting graduate, former small business owner, and member of an improv troupe. She just happens to serve tables at Gyu Kaku nightly. It wasn’t a chosen profession and she has done everything else before seeing food service for its opportunity to help her pursue her creative work. Coming from a food industry background myself, our conversation brought back my first professional experience with food. Here are Olivia’s thoughts on working as a server at Gyu Kaku.

How long have you been a server and how did you get into this profession?

I think for the past 3 years. I was a homeschool teacher before and I was inside the student’s home from 9-2 and I had to miss quite a few auditions. As a server, you work nights and your day is open. It has given me the flexibility of attending auditions during the day. That’s helped a lot, I’ve been able to go on auditions and shoots.

What are the best and worst parts of working with food?

I like working with certain foods but I’m tired of all the foods we have. When we take a break, I would rather go to Starbucks and pay ten bucks and get a sandwich than to eat the food there. Just because I’m surrounded by it all the time, so it’s turned me off to the food that’s at my restaurant.

What’s it like to work with the cooks?

They don’t speak much English, they’re from Oaxaca, MX and it’s fun interacting with them. Some of them. A lot of kitchen people are perverts. If you’ve read Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, it’s seriously like a pirate’s ship. We’re all pirates and we’re trying to speak, like a certain language. People within a restaurant have a certain vocabulary. It’s so stressful that you have to do whatever you can to make it fun. Little moments of fun can make a huge difference. It makes a shitty evening so much more bearable knowing that you can joke around with somebody and you have that camaraderie.

I remembered from my time as a server, I looked forward to certain nights because certain people were working.

Yeah, and every night without fail you will encounter an idiot customer, or an entitled customer. Entitled idiots are the worst. And it’s hard not to take things personally when you’re getting yelled at. To have people that have your back makes a difference. So yeah, we’re all pirates.

What are some things as a waitress that you would never reveal to the public?

No one spits in your food. It’s so easy to get caught so I wouldn’t worry about that. What I wouldn’t share is being a server makes you racist. It sounds horrible but it’s based on experience. You can tell if they’re going to tip you or not, just by seeing how they look. There are certain groups who don’t tip at all. Females usually don’t tip as well as guys too. But stereotypes came from certain traits. I’ve seen grown men in suits throwing freaking tantrums because a table’s not ready. They just walk in expecting a table without a reservation. It makes you lose faith in humanity.

So there are certain “suits” who treat you like a hired hand? They think that you’re below them because of your profession?

Yeah, and when they call you “honey,” it makes me want to punch them in the face. Or when guys come in on dates and when their date is in the bathroom, they’re all “honey” this, “honey” that. It’s like, don’t you dare hit on me, that’s just disgusting.

Yeah, I hated that too. There’s a saying that how you treat those who work for you or beneath you is a map of your character. Working in the food industry is ultimately so humbling and something you take with you no matter where your career takes you. Remembering where you came from only creates more success in the future. It makes you tougher.

Exactly, and not only does it make you tough, you’re forced to multitask. Especially when you have 4 or 5 tables sections and you get triple sat, it’s how do you get to everybody in time. How do you greet them, take their drink orders, get their food orders in a timely manner. You can’t waste any time. It forces you to stay focused and multitask like a – Sometimes, I feel like I’m people’s mother. Some people are so needy to the extent that I need to do everything but wipe their ass. You have to make sure everything’s ok.

Are there any positives?

Haha, absolutely. The friendships you make, you know. A lot of people who work in restaurants are pursuing their dreams during the day and doing this at night so you’re surrounded by likeminded people. Being part of a pirate’s crew, the relationships make it worth it. Being able to get a burger after an eight hour shift and realizing “wow, I didn’t eat all day.”  The relationships are all worth it.

Yeah, that’s one of the things I miss most. My first job as a seventeen year old was at a country club and everyone working there at the time became such close friends.  It was a great group of people and everyone got along. And lots of us are still friends to this day.

"Yeah, we’re all sharing a precious moment in time"

Do you plan to stay in this field for a while?

Currently, I’m thinking about moving to Korea for a year. But I feel like, you can only work in a restaurant for so long before it mentally wears you down. I’m tired of living like a vampire. Sometimes I go to sleep at 5 or 6 in the morning and wake up in the afternoon and feel like I wasted half the day. The hours are really tough. So I’m going to get in touch with my roots, my culture [in Korea]. I have a lot of family members on my dad’s side who I don’t even know, who are like strangers to me. And I also feel this is what it means to be an artist, you have life experiences. You do things and I think it’s part of my ultimate journey.

That’s awesome. As far as serving, how has this economy affected your lifestyle? Are you picking up more shifts?

Our managers are told to increase their sales so they’re harder on us. So it feels like you have to work twice as hard to make the same amount of money you were making before. We’ve increased the hours so last call is later than usual. It sucks to work a Monday night shift and stay there as if it were a weekend. There are nights where I’m running around like a chicken with its head cut off. I’m living off of tips. I have to make more of a conscious effort to get up early, to be more productive too. Because it’s so easy to wake up before your shift starts and repeat the pattern all over again. It’s easy to get lazy with the rest of your life because of the hard work you do every night.

Serving and restaurant work aside, acting is Olivia’s true passion. You can find her website here: www.olivialim.com

Next time you’re out on the town, remember to tip your server or, as Olivia says, “There’s a special place in hell for you if you tip under 20%.” Especially if you’re a fellow server.

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