by Sylvia Yamanaka-Mead
I wrote recently that to work in hospitality is to commune with humanity. I started my own voyage of discovery into the world of food and drink at 15, working at a take-away joint that produced vast quantities of roast potatoes topped with various sauces that arrived in squishy, vac-packed bags, looking (at best) undesirable. I spent many hours turning spuds in ovens with long tongs, keeping the bain-marie at a heat just shy of nuclear, and deeply inhaling the smell of coffee while delicately brushing the grinder clean each night. With frayed paintbrush in hand I conducted a thorough archaeological survey of the machine at the end of my shift, coaxing recalcitrant grains out of the inner mechanism, ensuring it was clean for the next day. At the ripe old age of 16 I discovered I was being underpaid by my Potato employers and promptly lodged an action with Fair Work, which I won, and was thrilled when my cheque arrived in the post. I’m not sure what my parents thought at the time but I did go on to study law, surprise surprise…
After holding the glorious mantle of potato roaster my career took me to nightclubs, restaurants, cocktail bars and, much later, to consultancy and brand representation. Somewhere along the way hospitality stopped simply being a way to pay the bills – the work, the hours, the extremities of the industry, got under my skin and refused to leave me alone (like bar rot). Hospitality became my life, my purpose; my venues became my home, and my co-workers my family.
Working late nights gives a new perspective on the world, literally. To catch a tram home at 6:00AM while commuters travel into the city to start their day blurs and makes fuzzy many of the daily conventions we usually don’t notice. A glass of champagne at brunch has a different feel when you’re still out from the previous night, just hitting your stride after finishing a shift at 3:00AM. Dinner for breakfast, brunch for afternoon tea and sleeping while the sun is shining become normal, you develop a kinship with bats and night-prowling neighbourhood cats.
I first understood that I was good at hospitality when I receive a $50.00 tip from a guest. The customer, a man in his fifties, had ordered a Corona that had a wedge of lime poking out of the neck of the bottle. I saw the waiter walking towards the man to deliver the beer and knew that the guest would push the lime into the bottle himself before drinking. I arrived just a moment after the beer had been put on a coaster in front of him and gave him a napkin to wipe the inevitable lime juice from his hand after the ceremonial plunging of the lime wedge. The guest was genuinely amazed that I had anticipated his need of a napkin, he was moved that someone saw him as an important person in the midst of competing interests and the humming activity of a busy restaurant and worthy of this small, life-affirming gesture.
Ever since this moment, for more than 10 years, I’ve been working hard in this industry to help guests and colleagues feel this way – to be looked after, to feel special and cared for. It is one of my greatest joys to have been in the service of others, and to the industry that means so much to me, for so many years.
Sylvia is a freelance writer based in Melbourne and has worked in the hospitality industry for over 15 years. Along with a passion for and well-developed knowledge of spirits, natural wine and slow food, Sylvia is also an accomplished student of sustainability and environmental practices within the industry and wider world. On her days off Sylvia also trained in Law and political science achieving a Bachelor of Laws/International Relations (La Trobe University) and a Masters of Laws (Monash University). You can find her on Instagram @sylv_in_space