< BackForward >
In a few days I had grasped the main principles on which the hotel was
run. The thing that would astonish anyone coming for the first time into
the service quarters of a hotel would be the fearful noise and disorder
during the rush hours. It is something so different from the steady work in
a shop or a factory that it looks at first sight like mere bad management.
But it is really quite unavoidable, and for this reason. Hotel work is not
particularly hard, but by its nature it comes in rushes and cannot be
economized. You cannot, for instance, grill a steak two hours before it is
wanted; you have to wait till the last moment, by which time a mass of
other work has accumulated, and then do it all together, in frantic haste.
The result is that at mealtimes everyone is doing two men's work, which is
impossible without noise and quarrelling. Indeed the quarrels are a
necessary part of the process, for the pace would never be kept up if
everyone did not accuse everyone else of idling. It was for this reason
that during the rush hours the whole staff raged and cursed like demons. At
those times there was scarcely a verb in the hotel except FOUTRE. A girl in
the bakery, aged sixteen, used oaths that would have defeated a cabman.
(Did not Hamlet say 'cursing like a scullion'? No doubt Shakespeare had
watched scullions at work.) But we are not losing our heads and wasting
time; we were just stimulating one another for the effort of packing four
hours' work into two hours.
What keeps a hotel going is the fact that the employees take a genuine
pride in their work, beastly and silly though it is. If a man idles, the
others soon find him out, and conspire against him to get him sacked.
Cooks, waiters and PLONGEURS differ greatly in outlook, but they are all
alike in being proud of their efficiency.
Undoubtedly the most workmanlike class, and the least servile, are the
cooks. They do not earn quite so much as waiters, but their prestige is
higher and their employment steadier. The cook does not look upon himself
as a servant, but as a skilled workman; he is generally called 'UN OUVRIER'
which a waiter never is. He knows his power--knows that he alone makes or
mars a restaurant, and that if he is five minutes late everything is out of
gear. He despises the whole non-cooking staff, and makes it a point of
honour to insult everyone below the head waiter. And he takes a genuine
artistic pride in his work, which demands very great skill. It is not the
cooking that is so difficult, but the doing everything to time. Between
breakfast and luncheon the head cook at the Hotel X would receive orders
for several hundred dishes, all to be served at different times; he cooked
few of them himself, but he gave instructions about all of them and
inspected them before they were sent up. His memory was wonderful. The
vouchers were pinned on a board, but the head cook seldom looked at them;
everything was stored in his mind, and exactly to the minute, as each dish
fell due, he would call out, 'FAITES MARCHER UNE COTELETTE DE VEAU' (or
whatever it was) unfailingly. He was an insufferable bully, but he was also
an artist. It is for their punctuality, and not for any superiority in
technique, that men cooks arc preferred to women.
The waiter's outlook is quite different. He too is proud in a way of
his skill, but his skill is chiefly in being servile. His work gives him
the mentality, not of a workman, but of a snob. He lives perpetually in
sight of rich people, stands at their tables, listens to their
conversation, sucks up to them with smiles and discreet little jokes. He
has the pleasure of spending money by proxy. Moreover, there is always the
chance that he may become rich himself, for, though most waiters die poor,
they have long runs of luck occasionally. At some cafes on the Grand
Boulevard there is so much money to be made that the waiters actually pay
the PATRON for their employment. The result is that between constantly
seeing money, and hoping to get it, the waiter comes to identify himself to
some extent with his employers. He will take pains to serve a meal in
style, because he feels that he is participating in the meal himself.
I remember Valenti telling me of some banquet at Nice at which he had
once served, and of how it cost two hundred thousand francs and was talked
of for months afterwards. 'It was splendid, MON P'TIT, MAIS MAGNIFIQUE!
Jesus Christ! The champagne, the silver, the orchids--I have never seen
anything like them, and I have seen some things. Ah, it was glorious!'
'But,' Isaid, 'you were only there to wait?'
'Oh, of course. But still, it was splendid.'
The moral is, never be sorry for a waiter. Sometimes when you sit in a
restaurant, still stuffing yourself half an hour after closing time, you
feel that the tired waiter at your side must surely be despising you. But
he is not. He is not thinking as he looks at you, 'What an overfed lout';
he is thinking, 'One day, when I have saved enough money, I shall be able
to imitate that man.' He is ministering to a kind of pleasure he thoroughly
understands and admires. And that is why waiters are seldom Socialists,
have no effective trade union, and will work twelve hours a day--they
work fifteen hours, seven days a week, in many cafes. They are snobs, and
they find the servile nature of their work rather congenial.
The PLONGEURS, again, have a different outlook. Theirs is a job which
offers no prospects, is intensely exhausting, and at the same time has not
a trace of skill or interest; the sort of job that would always be done by
women if women were strong enough. All that is required of them is to be
constantly on the run, and to put up with long hours and a stuffy
atmosphere. They have no way of escaping from this life, for they cannot
save a penny from their wages, and working from sixty to a hundred hours a
week leaves them no time to train for anything else. The best they can hope
for is to find a slightly softer job as night-watchman or lavatory
And yet the PLONGEURS, low as they are, also have a kind of pride. It
is the pride of the drudge--the man who is equal to no matter what
quantity of work. At that level, the mere power to go on working like an ox
is about the only virtue attainable. DEBROUILLARD is what every PLONGEUR
wants to be called. A DEBROUILLARD is a man who, even when he is told to do
the impossible, will SE DEBROUILLER--get it done somehow. One of the
kitchen PLONGEURS at the Hotel X, a German, was well known as a
DEBROUILLARD. One night an English lord came to the hotel, and the waiters
were in despair, for the lord had asked for peaches, and there were none in
stock; it was late at night, and the shops would be shut. 'Leave it to me,'
said the German. He went out, and in ten minutes he was back with four
peaches. He had gone into a neighbouring restaurant and stolen them. That
is what is meant by a DEBROUILLARD. The English lord paid for the peaches
at twenty francs each.
Mario, who was in charge of the cafeterie, had the typical drudge
mentality. All he thought of was getting through the 'BOULOT', and he
defied you to give him too much of it. Fourteen years underground had left
him with about as much natural laziness as a piston rod. 'FAUT ETRE DUR,'
he used to say when anyone complained. You will often hear PLONGEURS boast,
'JE SUIS DUR'--as though they were soldiers, not male charwomen.
Thus everyone in the hotel had his sense of honour, and when the press
of work came we were all ready for a grand concerted effort to get through
it. The constant war between the different departments also made for
efficiency, for everyone clung to his own privileges and tried to stop the
others idling and pilfering.
This is the good side of hotel work. In a hotel a huge and complicated
machine is kept running by an inadequate staff, because every man has a
well-defined job and does it scrupulously. But there is a weak point, and
it is this--that the job the staff are doing is not necessarily what the
customer pays for. The customer pays, as he sees it, for good service; the
employee is paid, as he sees it, for the BOULOT--meaning, as a rule, an
imitation of good service. The result is that, though hotels are miracles
of punctuality, they are worse than the worst private houses in the things
Take cleanliness, for example. The dirt in the Hotel X, as soon as one
penetrated into the service quarters, was revolting. Our cafeterie had
year-old filth in all the dark corners, and the bread-bin was infested with
cockroaches. Once I suggested killing these beasts to Mario. 'Why kill the
poor animals?' he said reproachfully. The others laughed when I wanted to
wash my hands before touching the butter. Yet we were clean where we
recognized cleanliness as part of the BOULOT. We scrubbed the tables and
polished the brasswork regularly, because we had orders to do that; but we
had no orders to be genuinely clean, and in any case we had no time for it.
We were simply carrying out our duties; and as our first duty was
punctuality, we saved time by being dirty.
In the kitchen the dirt was worse. It is not a figure of speech, it is
a mere statement of fact to say that a French cook will spit in the soup--
that is, if he is not going to drink it himself. He is an artist, but his
art is not cleanliness. To a certain extent he is even dirty because he is
an artist, for food, to look smart, needs dirty treatment. When a steak,
for instance, is brought up for the head cook's inspection, he does not
handle it with a fork. He picks it up in his fingers and slaps it down,
runs his thumb round the dish and licks it to taste the gravy, runs it
round and licks again, then steps back and contemplates the piece of meat
like an artist judging a picture, then presses it lovingly into place with
his fat, pink fingers, every one of which he has licked a hundred times
that morning. When he is satisfied, he takes a cloth and wipes his
fingerprints from the dish, and hands it to the waiter. And the waiter, of
course, dips HIS fingers into the gravy--his nasty, greasy fingers which
he is for ever running through his brilliantined hair. Whenever one pays
more than, say, ten francs for a dish of meat in Paris, one may be certain
that it has been fingered in this manner. In very cheap restaurants it is
different; there, the same trouble is not taken over the food, and it is
just forked out of the pan and flung on to a plate, without handling.
Roughly speaking, the more one pays for food, the more sweat and spittle
one is obliged to eat with it.
Dirtiness is inherent in hotels and restaurants, because sound food is
sacrificed to punctuality and smartness. The hotel employee is too busy
getting food ready to remember that it is meant to be eaten. A meal is
simply 'UNE COMMANDE' to him, just as a man dying of cancer is simply 'a
case' to the doctor. A customer orders, for example, a piece of toast.
Somebody, pressed with work in a cellar deep underground, has to prepare
it. How can he stop and say to himself, 'This toast is to be eaten--I
must make it eatable'? All he knows is that it must look right and must be
ready in three minutes. Some large drops of sweat fall from his forehead on
to the toast. Why should he worry? Presently the toast falls among the
filthy sawdust on the floor. Why trouble to make a new piece? It is much
quicker to wipe the sawdust off. On the way upstairs the toast falls again,
butter side down. Another wipe is all it needs. And so with everything. The
only food at the Hotel X which was ever prepared cleanly was the staff's,
and the PATRON'S. The maxim, repeated by everyone, was: 'Look out for the
PATRON, and as for the clients, S'EN F--PAS MAL!' Everywhere in the
service quarters dirt festered--a secret vein of dirt, running through
the great garish hotel like the intestines through a man's body.
Apart from the dirt, the PATRON swindled the customers wholeheartedly.
For the most part the materials of the food were very bad, though the cooks
knew how to serve it up in style. The meat was at best ordinary, and as to
the vegetables, no good housekeeper would have looked at them in the
market. The cream, by a standing order, was diluted with milk. The tea and
coffee were of inferior sorts, and the jam was synthetic stuff out of vast,
unlabelled tins. All the cheaper wines, according to Boris, were corked VIN
ORDINAIRE. There was a rule that employees must pay for anything they
spoiled, and in consequence damaged things were seldom thrown away. Once
the waiter on the third floor dropped a roast chicken down the shaft of our
service lift, where it fell into a litter of broken bread, torn paper and
so forth at the bottom. We simply wiped it with a cloth and sent it up
again. Upstairs there were dirty tales of once-used sheets not being
washed, but simply damped, ironed and put back on the beds. The PATRON was
as mean to us as to the customers. Throughout the vast hotel there was not,
for instance, such a thing as a brush and pan; one had to manage with a
broom and a piece of cardboard. And the staff lavatory was worthy of
Central Asia, and there was no place to wash one's hands, except the sinks
used for washing crockery.
In spite of all this the Hotel X was one of the dozen most expensive
hotels in Paris, and the customers paid startling prices. The ordinary
charge for a night's lodging, not including breakfast, was two hundred
francs. All wine and tobacco were sold at exactly double shop prices,
though of course the PATRON bought at the wholesale price. If a customer
had a title, or was reputed to be a millionaire, all his charges went up
automatically. One morning on the fourth floor an American who was on diet
wanted only salt and hot water for his breakfast. Valenti was furious.
'Jesus Christ!' he said, 'what about my ten per cent? Ten per cent of salt
and water!' And he charged twenty-five francs for the breakfast. The
customer paid without a murmur.
According to Boris, the same kind of thing went on in all Paris
hotels, or at least in all the big, expensive ones. But I imagine that the
customers at the Hotel X were especially easy to swindle, for they were
mostly Americans, with a sprinkling of English--no French--and seemed
to know nothing whatever about good food. They would stuff themselves with
disgusting American 'cereals', and eat marmalade at tea, and drink vermouth
after dinner, and order a POULET A LA REINE at a hundred francs and then
souse it in Worcester sauce. One customer, from Pittsburg, dined every
night in his bedroom on grape-nuts, scrambled eggs and cocoa. Perhaps it
hardly matters whether such o people are swindled or not.