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BOOK REVIEW

It's spicy and bitter but never quite filling

Waiter Rant Thanks for the Tip -- Confessions of a Cynical Waiter The Waiter Ecco Press: 302 pp., $24.95

August 13, 2008|Erika Schickel | Special to The Times; Erika Schickel is the author of "You're Not the Boss of Me: Adventures of a Modern Mom."

"Food AND the human condition are inextricably linked," observes the Waiter in "Waiter Rant." "Because of this, waiters often get to see the unpleasant sides of people."

"The Waiter" is the formerly anonymous author of the popular blog Waiter Rant who has been dishing up true stories from the front lines of competitive dining since 2004, drawing loyal fans and winning a Bloggie for best writing. The Waiter has kept his identity secret these last four years, but it seems the temptation of fame was too much. Last month he outed himself to the New York Post as Steve Dublanica, a 38-year-old waiter at a small Italian bistro in Nyack, N.Y.

"Waiter Rant" has all the fixings for fun. "When you work in a restaurant there's never a shortage of interesting stories. I think I'm especially attenuated to what's going on around me," Dublanica tells us. "And at The Bistro these stories can go from the sublime to the ridiculous in ten seconds flat." He delivers a smorgasbord of objectionable personalities and high-stress situations, always serving from the left, rendering his stories impeccably but perhaps a little stiffly.

Everybody gets their due: his temperamental, paranoid bosses; the noble, illegal busboys; the slacker co-waiters. But Dublanica's true bile is reserved for customers: the rude, the ridiculous, the entitled, the drunk, the horny, the stoned and, worst of all, the Foodies. "The Food Network," he writes, "is, quite simply, the Death Star of American cooking." Apparently, overexposure to Emeril and Kobe beef has created a know-it-all public:

"Foodie-porn TV programming has generated a new class of entitled customers with already overblown culinary expectations and a rapidly diminishing set of social graces. Economists say that the restaurant business is a bellwether of the nation's economic health -- but I think it's a bellwether of America's mental health as well. And let me tell you, 20 percent of the American dining public are socially maladjusted psychopaths."

Of course, the people in the aprons are none too stable either. Anger them and you could have your hamburger used as a hockey puck in the kitchen before it's put on your plate.

Because Dublanica whips off the starched linen tablecloth revealing the rotten underbelly of American food service, this book is being heralded as "the front-of-the-house version of 'Kitchen Confidential.' " What Anthony Bourdain's tell-all about life in the kitchen did for Hollandaise sauce, "Waiter Rant" will do for side salads. On top of monster cockroaches, inflated checks and fetid employee bathrooms, Dublanica confirms our worst fear of all: "Waiters can and do spit in people's food."

Yet where Bourdain's prose is a spicy gumbo, Dublanica's is as cool and clear as aspic. A tasty medium but ultimately not very filling. The difference is passion -- Bourdain loves his work, Dublanica most decidedly does not. Bourdain writes because he's a writer, Dublanica writes to escape the boredom of waiting tables. Where Bourdain sizzles, Dublanica, literally and figuratively, chafes. All would be forgiven if he were laugh-out-loud funny, but, though it is very chuckle-worthy, the book never crosses into belly laughs. Full disclosure: This reviewer has spent a significant portion of her own life waiting tables, so the stories might feel more fresh than familiar to another reader.

Fans of his online rant will recognize much here from the blog. The challenge in turning a popular blog into a book is keeping the flavor that won over online readers while at the same time sustaining a story. The Waiter frames his book with the story of his work life, first being called to the priesthood and then, with the Catholic Church scandals of the late '90s, losing his faith and dropping out of seminary. From there he worked in a psychiatric and drug rehabilitation facility later shut down for fraud and patient abuse.

Disillusioned and broke, Dublanica took a job waiting tables and stumbled into his unlooked-for career. Meticulous, thin-skinned and pushing 40, he reflects on his sense of life passing him by: "It's during moments like these that I hate being a waiter. I get paranoid, thinking that the restaurant business is a trap designed to bleed away the most productive years of my life." The Waiter's inward despair lends emotional ballast to what otherwise might float off into the thin air of the purely anecdotal. But at the same time, it's a little creepy. Here's this lonely, quiet, polite, frustrated guy building up grudges all day and then going home to powder his chafing nethers in Gold Bond and spew his rant onto the Internet. "It's a miracle more waiters don't go postal," he muses in the chapter "Vengeance Is Mine." "They're surrounded every day by whiny, spoiled customers and supervised by power-mad control freaks."

Of course, the one thing that can save him is this book's success. "This writing thing is a crapshoot," he warns us. "If this doesn't work out, I'll have nothing going on, nothing to look forward to."

It makes one desperate to like the book more. Dublanica is indubitably an adept writer, but if I had a tip for him it would be: Don't quit your day job just yet.

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