Review by Karen Langley
Back in 1933, George Orwell published his groundbreaking work Down and Out in Paris and London, which explored his experiences of poverty in both cities. Now, nearly 90 years later, a new book takes a modern look at life in Paris behind the scenes of glitter and glamour; it’s earned comparisons with Orwell’s seminal work, and certainly the world it reveals is just as harsh as that portrayed in the earlier book. The new title is A Waiter in Paris by Edward Chisholm, and it’s certainly a book to make you think twice about eating out, in Paris or anywhere…
It’s 2012, and after graduating from university, the young Chisholm moves to Paris with his girlfriend, Alice. They’re living on a shoestring, with Chisholm determined to try to make it as a writer. However, he’s hampered by a number of things, not least his inability to speak French; and when the relationship falls apart, he’s left with little alternative but to try to get a job in a restaurant. It’s here he finds out that the Parisian waiter is a breed apart, and it becomes clear that he may not have what it takes to make the grade. But winter is cold, he needs a job to pay for somewhere to
live, and so stubbornly he hangs on and tries to make his way through the underbelly of the Parisian restaurant world.
And it’s a harsh place. The hours are ridiculously long, the management are bullies, his fellow waiters untrustworthy and fighting for every tip going; as for the conditions in the kitchens, they’re rightly described as hellish. There are drug dealers and thieves, and Chisholm’s naivety is striking. The amount of stamina required to work that kind of job is immense, and the fact that Chisholm manages to stick it out as long as he does is a miracle.
Since arriving in Paris, I have changed. Over the last eight months, as I’ve disappeared into the world of waiting, I’ve lost contact with people outside of it. Part of that is a necessity; the stress of being reminded where you aren’t and what you don’t have requires it. Mine is a world in which the boundaries get tighter and tighter until you can’t really see beyond it. I was so desperate to become a waiter that I stopped looking at the bigger picture.
The job would have been hard enough as it was, but the language issue added enormously to Chisholm’s difficulties. Nicknamed ‘L’Anglais’, he was fortunate enough to find a fellow waiter to help him learn the ropes. And the tales he tells are quite shocking; the conditions for those cooking are unbearable, the rivalry and nastiness unpalatable and the attitude of the restaurant owners quite vile. The book also reveals much about the reality of what appears on your plate in a high-class, expensive restaurant; a waiter may glide to your table with a fancy looking plate of food, giving an impression of calm and serenity, but what’s gone on behind the scenes is enough to put you off eating out ever again. Let’s just say that cleanliness
and hygiene are not exactly high priority…
Running through the book, of course, are the stories of Chisholm’s fellow waiters, and they’re not exactly having a good time either. In fact, many move from restaurant to restaurant, looking for a better position, for promotion to head waiter, or just for slightly improved money or conditions. It’s a febrile world, full of uncertainty, and the living conditions of these waiters are often not much above destitution. Chisholm
himself takes a room in a hotel in an insalubrious part of Paris, and this too shows the gritty reality behind the glimmer and sparkle the City of Light likes to portray.
The waiting job was finished, I knew it. The minute I missed my next shift, it was over. In the sense that was a good thing, I had achieved what I came to do: I had become a Parisian waiter, I’d been accepted. My experience with these people had changed me. I had discovered a world hiding in plain sight; one we interact with daily, but care little for. It was the one that Orwell had written about; the very same world, for it has changed so little.
Chisholm succeeds in his aim to become a waiter, but inevitably things come to an end when he suffers an injury and moves onto a new job. His experience has changed him, though, and he moves on to write about his subterranean experiences in Parisian restaurants. As he notes in the quote above, so little has changed since Orwell’s time, and you can’t help wondering what any Health Inspectors think of these conditions!
A Waiter in Paris is a fascinating read which plunges you into the manic and hidden world of Parisian restaurants; it’s vivid, immersive and unforgettable, and also demonstrates that the extreme distance between the rich and the poor has never gone away. An excellent read if you want to take a look at some behind the scenes realities in the world of fine dining and learn just how working people are still exploited.
Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and will think twice about ever eating out again…
Edward Chisholm, A Waiter in Paris: Adventures in the Dark Heart of the City (Octopus, 2022). 978-1800960183. 370pp, hardback.
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