Down and Out: ‘A Waiter in Paris’

Memoir captures the dark side of the City of Lights’ restaurant industry

A Waiter in Paris: Adventures in the Dark Heart of the City is a window into the gruesome restaurant industry and the dark side of Paris.

More than a decade ago, Edward Chisholm was a cliché: just another jobless recent college grad with writer aspirations. Among other issues, he didn’t know what he wanted to write. Instead of taking a generic, unpaid internship in his native England, he opts to follow his French girlfriend to Paris. When the girlfriend eventually returns to London, Chisholm doesn’t follow. He’s on a mission to experience something meaningful–to live. Unfortunately, he’s homeless and broke. However, Chisholm has a life preserver: A firm familiarity with George Orwell’s classic: Down and Out in Paris and London, which details the writer’s grim experiences of living in poverty and working in the restaurant industry.

Inspired, a desperate Chisholm somehow talks his way into a runner position at a stylish but vastly overrated restaurant, despite not speaking the native tongue. The restaurant exudes elegance, however, it’s merely an illusion. Outside of the main dining room, there’s an inferno of flames, rage and impoverished, mostly dark, laborers. As for the cuisine, it’s less than gourmet, increasingly purchased pre-prepared. And no, it’s not sanitary.

A Waiter In Paris

As the restaurant’s runner, Chisholm is essentially the waiters’ gofer. Any tips he receives are from them. Not surprisingly, Chisholm, who had no prior restaurant experience, struggles. There’s the language barrier, and he’s hazed by the waiters, a competitive, irascible bunch who often don’t tip him out. Simply, Chisholm is an exotic outsider, not to mention competition. If he succeeds, they’re one step closer to being unemployed. As a waiter, there’s no contract. Every shift could very well be your last.

And it’s often taxing, but the waiters are constantly reminded that they’re expendable. Besides all that, the restaurant is less than punctual about paying Chisholm’s paltry salary and one of the manager’s, a horrible creature, has Chisholm in his crosshairs. It all seems helpless, but Chisholm is undeterred. He wants to be one of them–a waiter–and a full-fledged member of their band of brothers. While most are oblivious to their efforts, Chisholm respects their hard work, colorful personalities and talents.

As far as Chisholm’s living situation, things are decidedly gloomy. Chisholm finds a hovel in a flop house, where he shares a room with an enigmatic man who has serial killer tendencies. He urinates in their sink. Chisholm moves into another spot, but it’s infested by bed bugs.

Indeed, it’s a miserable situation, but Chisholm embraces it. Against all odds–spoiler alert–the restaurant eventually promotes Chisholm to waiter, and he develops friendships with many of his brethren. He tells their stories with sensitivity and great affection. There’s the childhood actor who still yearns to perform. There’s the diver, the engaged boxer, the charismatic coke dealer and the ex-French Foreign Legionnaire, among others. Unfortunately, most exit the restaurant, often without warning–and disappear. That’s the restaurant life, and there’s a tragic tenor to it.

However, Waiter is also uplifting to a degree.

Ultimately, Chisholm does find his confidence, as well as a compelling subject to chronicle.  As far as writing about restaurant life, Orwell created the template. Anthony Bourdain put his hilarious spin on it. More recently, The Bear dramatized it brilliantly for the small screen. Chisholm carries the mantle, and he more than does the genre justice.

(Simon and Schuster, August 9, 2022)

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Jon Hart

Jon Hart is the author of Man versus Ball: One Ordinary Guy and His Extraordinary Sports Adventures. He holds the Citi Field record for hawking the most pretzels during a single game.

One thought on “Down and Out: ‘A Waiter in Paris’

  • September 5, 2022 at 4:07 pm
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    Hart never disappoints

    Reply

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