I ONCE WITNESSED A PROCESSION OF BEEF. (And other bizarre moments from waitressing in London)

Something a little different today, pals. Because today is the day I share with you my experience of one of the many many jobs I have undertaken in my life; the job in question being a waitress for an events company in central London. There are dozens of companies like this one in the city centre, renting out staff to wait at high-end events like balls, award ceremonies and corporate events, as well as the more interesting birthday parties of billionaires and royal dinners at various palaces across the capital. The company sends a text message out to all the staff on their books, the staff members agree or disagree to work a shift, and BOOM, next thing you know one hundred waiters and waitresses are at the back door of The O2 Arena dressed in black and white with Sensible Footwear ready to serve whoever needs serving. Magic. All sorts of people worked for this company; newcomers to London from Eastern Europe and beyond, university students, actors who are between jobs as they say, a few older gents who’d been made redundant and therefore had to find a job doing whatever they could in order to pay the bills. All round, a brilliant collection of people. You never know who you’re going to work with, when you’re going to be working from one day to the next, or whether someone is leaving the company, but it definitely can make for some interesting and mind-boggling situations.

First…to that beef procession

The event in question was some kind of very official-seeming dinner for mainly international delegates at a palace. A ginormous and very echoey old room with a high ceiling and an awful lot of candelabras, housed a few hundred guests in black tie making polite chit-chat, plus a string quartet playing at one end which for the most part everybody ignored. I suppose when you’re there to provide atmosphere and not much else this is to be expected, but I thought it was a real shame as they were pretty full on awesome musicians. A motley crew of Beefeaters were on hand (you know, the men in red tights and jackets who guard the Tower of London?), at first glance merely for decoration, but as the evening unfolded it transpired they had a far more important duty than standing around in their outfits. After the first two courses were served (dishes placed in front of each guest by way of their left shoulders, then cleared via their right- very important), it was time to move on to the main course.

See this beaut Cath Kidston print for a perfect Beefeater example

The manager in charge of that event informed all of us waiting staff that we should leave the room immediately after clearing the second course, exclaiming shrilly into his headset (all the managers had headsets, partly to communicate effectively and partly because it makes them feel more important), ‘PROCESSION OF BEEF STANDBY!!!’ He then told as many people as possible that the Procession of Beef was about to begin, ‘I REPEAT. STANDBY PROCESSION OF BEEF!’ And so the news spread quickly between us all that the procession of beef was imminent, despite the fact that nobody seemed to know exactly what this was. The atmosphere was positively electric I tell you. Also it was great because it meant we got a break.

The manager plucked two gangly lads from the monochrome collection of waitstaff and informed them, ‘YOU AND YOU- YOU’RE IN THE PROCESSION OF BEEF- GO AND STAND WITH THE BEEFEATERS AND THEY’LL EXPLAIN.’  They gave each other a baffled look and followed his orders still with no real idea of what was about to happen. The rest of us took the opportunity for a water break and peered on tip-toe through the glass panels furthest away from The Manager, waiting to see what on Earth all this could possibly mean.

The musicians came to a halt, the entire room naturally hushed, and from the opposite end to the string quartet the doors were flung ceremoniously open, to reveal several beefeaters in formation- one with a large drum, and two with some kind of trumpet-like instruments. They began to play their instruments in a triumphant fashion, walking slowly and solemnly (but in time, right foot then left) down the central aisle of the room, in between the tables. Sandwiched between the three leaders of the instrument-playing posse and the other two beefeaters also playing instruments but bringing up the rear of the line, were the two gangly fellow waiters struggling to shuffle in time to the beat whilst carrying between them what seemed to be an entire dead cow on a silver platter. I’m going to hazard a guess that the roasted cow carcass was pretty heavy as they had the sweatiest foreheads I’d seen in a long time, coupled with matching expressions of ‘…is this real life?’ Once the procession reached the other end of the room and the first piece was carved to the sound of rapturous applause, the poor dead cow was taken back out of the room and the plates of already-prepared beef dinners were instantly brought in by us waiters, meaning that it’s highly likely the first cow was roasted literally just for the sake of a small procession and not even to be eaten. Poor guy.

The Freemasons are a strange old bunch

A small dinner for some pilots at some kind of Freemasons HQ near St Paul’s Cathedral meant that only seven waitstaff were needed, headed by probably the nicest manager I ever had, a Chinese chap who made sure the kitchen saved each and every one of us a whole meal- which believe it or not was a pretty rare event; even when working a twelve hour shift it could be possible just to be given a solitary cheese sandwich on soggy bread to keep you going. I arrived at this building by the time it was already dark, and to be honest from the silent square outside it had a similar vibe to Sirius Black’s family home in Harry Potter; a bit foreboding you know? The inside of it was a grandiose townhouse, still stuck in the early 1900s and with secret doors built into the walls and disguised with wallpaper for the staff to come and go between rooms without being seen. The whole Freemasons thing meant that at one point all the women- waitresses and guests- had to leave the room. I’m not sure why they don’t appreciate women being around, but The Manager told us all the stories of the strange behaviours and traditions of the people coming and going in that building, mainly involving a lot of banging on tables and acting like overgrown child-boys. Despite the odd Freemason behaviour and the almost two hours I spent polishing silverware at the end of the night, this was probably one of the nicer more relaxed shifts I ever worked, and definitely the only one where the guests, chefs and managers treated you like a real person.

Blenheim Palace, the butlers, and the sanctuary of McDonald’s 

I can’t remember what the actual purpose of this event was, but let me tell you it was a real big ‘un. A giant marquee was attached to the side of Blenheim Palace in Oxford…although lets be fair, marquee is a stupid word to describe the size and grandeur of this thing; it contained an entire water fountain display, room for over a thousand guests, a dance floor with several different bars, and a massive stage for the pop star who was performing that night as a special guest. Us staff were informed to hang out at a tube station in West London and await a coach pick-up which would take us into the countryside and on to Blenheim (one day I need to go back and visit that place properly as it is BEAUT), to begin our mammoth shift. 

Blenheim Palace, a mighty fine Palace for a party

Job number one upon arrival: laying the tables. Obviously there’s a very specific layout to adhere to, which then involves checking, rechecking, and re-rechecking that every piece of cutlery, crockery and glassware is positioned exactly in the right position, spaced equally and at the correct angle to everything else, like a cryptic geometry puzzle. Anyone who finished checking knew that they should really just keep checking, mainly in order to look busy until they were given their next orders from A Manager. Job number two, I was sent to one of the golden rooms within the actual palace to serve welcome drinks to guests, which I have to say was actually pretty cool. I like a good old Palace, and it was there that I met a real live butler for the first ever time, and found out just how much those guys need to know in order to get the ‘butler’ job title. It’s unbelievable! Food, wine, cars, fashion, they honestly have to know it all. They’re sort of like James Bond but presumably minus the license to kill. Gradually throughout the day and into the evening the jobs racked up and started to blend into one; serving the different courses, clearing them away, standing on duty in case someone’s glass became empty, collecting empty glasses, serving more drinks, collecting more glasses, packing tables down, struggling to stay awake…until it got to around 3am and we were finally told we could pile back into the coach and were allowed to go home. By the time I reached Clapham Junction it transpired that the trains wouldn’t start running for another hour, so I sat on the platform whilst the sun came up dealing with the realisation that I was freezing cold, starving hungry (it having been a one-cheese-sandwich-shift) and that it would still be a substantial amount of time (like- HOURS) till I reached the comfort of my bed.

Let me tell you this, pals- I have never been so overjoyed at the sight of the Golden Arches of McDonald’s as the moment I finally reached East Croydon station and realised they would definitely be serving bacon bagels and hash browns, and I would definitely be eating both in a very short while. McDonald’s is a lot of very bad things, but at that point in time it was also the light at the end of my sixteen-hour-long tunnel of waitressing. I shed literal tears.

The Cutty Sark dinner with the drama of the name cards 

The Cutty Sark is, first and foremost, a BRILLIANT location for an event. The old tea clipper sits majestically in dry dock at Greenwich, and while it is nowadays used as a museum ship, there’s also a big old space directly beneath it where events can be held. The ship is literally the ceiling of the room, it’s really full on cool you guys! You might think such a trivial thing as forgetting to set the names of the guests on their places would be no big deal, but when I was approached by the rather regally dressed Lady (she was a literal titled Lady and her husband is a Lord) half an hour before the several hundred guests poured in, and handed a crumpled table plan and a stack of place cards in no particular order, I had a small mental breakdown at the enormity of the task. Combine that with a list of instructions such as- “Now Mr and Mrs Aspwith are no longer on speaking terms so swap Mrs Aspwith with this Lady here, and then swap this couple here with those two on that table as they’ve made a fabulous donation recently. And don’t forget that this person and this person are no longer attending so what you’ll have to do is put this person there and swap that one for that one.” She then swiftly turned 180 degrees in her kitten heel, and walked away. Turns out the Lady had had a small mental breakdown too, hence her wanting to shift the job out of her hands and on to somebody else’s.

When I had to explain to The Manager why I was shuffling through place cards instead of setting wine on the table like everyone else, he looked in the direction of The Lady, narrowed his eyes and exclaimed ‘What. A. Bitch.’

In conclusion…

I’m gonna be honest here homies, my time working as a waitress was not my most joyful (things began to slide downhill after I accidentally served non-vegetarian gravy to a vegetarian), but I did get to see some rather awesome places across London and meet some rather interesting people. From palaces with secret stairways to ginormous spaces like The Roundhouse or the Royal Albert Hall, it’s pretty cool to not know the exact location you’re going to work in each day, but not so cool to be spoken to by the vast majority of managers as if you are an absolute idiot with no more than two brain cells maximum. And doubley awkward when you witness them speaking so condescendingly to fellow waitstaff who are studying to be doctors, nurses or lawyers, who probably have far more brain cells than your average human being but need to waitress their way through university. Know what I’m saying?  Also pretty crazy when you see how much food a client over-orders just to ensure that no one at the event is forgotten- leading to piles and piles of untouched food- and then you leave that event via the back door into an alleyway filled with starving hungry homeless people who haven’t eaten a proper meal in a really really really long time.

So the lessons and observations I have taken from this joyous period in time are, in no particular order:

  • The proper way to wait a table.
  • To never pour the last drop of red wine from the bottle. A butler was very upset when I once did this as apparently that’s where all the settled bits that no one wants to drink end up.
  • There is a time and a place for McDonalds, and Croydon after a 16 hour shift is one of them.
  • To always check on the vegetarian-ness of something before serving it to a vegetarian.
  • People in general rarely make eye contact with waitstaff.
  • That it is far too easy for trivial things like laying a table or setting name cards to become an all-consuming stress. And in future I should try not to be stressed by such triviality.
  • And finally it is a very strange old world we live in, filled with intriguing, marvellous and confusing people and an even more intriguing, marvellous and confusing set of rules. See my point above re. ratio of food to people and condescension of managers to student doctors to illustrate this. It is all. Very. Interesting.

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