Pump. Pump. Pump. Pump. Pump. Pump. Pump. Pump. Sasha Carrillo’s "pumping" at Hot Dog on a Stick at Santa Monica Place mall at the end of Third Street Promenade: "Everyone has their own rhythm. Sometimes we race. First one to get to 10 pumps, 20 pumps wins." Yes, it’s legal — it’s lemonade. Two buckets of lemons, two buckets of sugar, a bucket of water, and stomp the bejesus out of it with a big metal stick. But one look at Sasha, 15, jumping up and down and, well, let’s say it isn’t just the juice that’s got them lined up around the corner. When she talks, there’s lots of hand gesturing and gazing off into the distance. It’s like watching an insanely cute distracted mime. With a light tan. And a tongue piercing. "I had to get one that was tongue-colored," she explains, pinching the pink stud. "Hot Dog has a strict dress-code policy" — red, blue and yellow striped T-shirt and popcorn-tub hat. At first she wouldn’t wear the hat, but now she sports the uniform around the mall with a demented pride. Hot Dog is an obsession. Hot Dog is her first "serious" job. Hot Dog is a family legacy: Her mom worked at one when she was Sasha’s age. Workers get two free items per day. Today Sasha’s in love with the pepper jack cheese and French fries. At two minutes per customer, the pace is frenzied. "This woman threw ketchup on me one time," she says, hands raised in disbelief. "Ketchup! Like, on purpose" (jaw drops). Surely there are trendier places to work. Gap? Urban Outfitters? Something not involving lemons? "I just don’t like the idea of people throwing clothes at me, telling me to get them shirts or pants." Ketchup, apparently, is okay. Boys ogle the girls making the lemonade: "When we start the pumping, we’ll see this group of guys gathering right beside the line, just . . . watching. We’re like . . . eeeew," she cringes, tongue post flashing, "gross." (Hot Dog on a Stick, Santa Monica Place mall, Third Street Promenade)
Tino FigueroaLawry’s the prime rib
Gleaming, steaming, roasted meat. Meat on stainless-steel carts that cost as much as a Cadillac and weigh as much as a 900-pound heifer. Master carver Mark Florentino "Tino" Figueroa slices it up daily at Lawry’s The Prime Rib. What kind of man — yes, they’re all men — does it take to wield a big knife and chop up cuts of prime rib for five hours a day, five days a week? Tino’s been doing this for 23 years. Professionally, at least. When he was 10, he learned how to skin a cow on his father’s cattle ranch in Mexico. When he was 25, he breezed through Lawry’s mandatory meat-carver training program in three weeks, a course that takes others six weeks to complete. He had a natural talent for carving, he tells me as we tour the kitchen, and now he trains the young ones. Tino looks at his big shiny cart and his big shiny knife with respect. Reverence. Senior carvers use the same cart for their entire career. What’s the difference between good carvers and bad ones? A good carver uses every part of the roast, makes all his cuts the same width on each side. A bad carver wastes the meat and doesn’t cut straight. A good carver knows that the meat is cooked to varying degrees of doneness at different points on the roast. A bad carver blunts his knife by hitting the bone. "The meat, it moves." Tino makes a wiggling motion with his hand. "Crispy meat is not so easy to cut." Each night he carves about 15 to 20 roasts, to feed 60 people. Waitresses take the orders and serve the salads and soups and drinks; then they call Tino for the main event. "Some customers," he says, "like for us to cut from a standing roast, right from the middle." Is this bad? Is this good? Is this (gulp) the Dark Side? "Aaagh," he answers, shrugging his shoulders, "they just know what they want." (Lawry’s The Prime Rib, 100 N. La Cienega Blvd., Beverly Hills; (323) 655-8646)
Maria FloresPhilippe the original
She couldn’t do it in the beginning, the aggressive yelling of "STEW!" whenever the pots in the cafeteria counter ran out. She was also afraid that customers would ask for something that wasn’t on the menu, afraid that they would want to know something about the history of the restaurant and she wouldn’t know the answer. Maria Flores, 37, started waitressing at Philippe the Original — the famous "Home of the French Dip Sandwich" across from Union Station — when she was 19. She sits on one of the long bench-style tables with her hands folded modestly on her lap, her ankles crossed. "Everything depends on your shoes," she says. In the beginning, she bought the ones "with the little heart on them" (oh, vanity), but two weeks later invested in "ugly nurse shoes." Five days a week she works the 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. shift, getting up at an hour when the hardiest of the hardcore after-hours scenesters are just stumbling to bed. Management lets the wait staff eat whatever they want. These days, she’ll have a simple bowl of cream of wheat, but time was when she’d get excited just thinking about what food she was going to eat the next day. Lamb-dip sandwiches. Pickled eggs. Macaroni salad. She met her husband at Philippe — he’s still a cook here. She was 20. He was 23. She keeps up with the lives of the regular customers, chats with them as she makes the sandwiches, slicing rolls, layering the meat. "After I started working here," she confesses, "I wanted to go work for Social Services. People who come here, like some of the old people, they don’t have enough." One old man comes in to eat after getting his Social Security check. "Once a month he eats so much! But next time, it’s just biscuits and coffee," she says. "I give him $5 sometimes." She makes minimum wage. She put her daughter through college. Usually people don’t tip the cafeteria waitresses: "They think, ‘Why should I tip? I had to get up and get the tray by myself.’" But it’s okay, she says. She helps people out when she can. "Money," she says, "goes back and forth." Not all waitresses want to be movie stars. (Philippe the Original, 1001 N. Alameda St., downtown; (213) 628-3781)
Macky TakaharuGower Gulch AmagiKaraoke Bar
It’s 11 p.m. on a Friday night, and the karaoke carnage is in full swing at the Gower Gulch Amagi restaurant. Macky Takaharu is wiry, a bundle of restless energy, and not one to mince words: "How do I feel about working as a waiter? It sucks, man!" He’s worked here for five years, after moving to the U.S. from Kobe, Japan, all the while scrounging enough money together to make films. There’s a happy fatalism about Macky that goes nicely with the cowboy Western aesthetic: some samurai, some Eastwood. "It’s a hierarchy, see" — he shapes his hands into a pyramid — "and we, the waiters, we are at the bottom." He grins as he gestures to the lower end of the triangle. "People treat us like such shit. It’s in the way they look at you, like you’re lower than dirt." Why not work somewhere else, then? Being a waiter, he says, is "easy money," and he loves the restaurant, loves the loud karaoke, the standup comedy in the lounge. Macky works the floor like a Tasmanian devil, expertly moving drinks and food back and forth from sushi bar to cocktail lounge to the dining room. Tips, which go into a communal kitty, are divvied up at the end of the night. Onstage a girl belts out, "Let’s get physical." "Some people were born to be happy in their jobs," Macky says. "Others, like us, were meant to struggle." Has working in a famous karaoke bar helped his film career? "That’s a big misconception," he answers. We’re practically shouting at each other over the music. A plaintive expression steals across his face in the dark with the spinning pink and blue lights. "You watch a couple sitting next to each other at a table, a boyfriend and girlfriend, and you think you’re going to learn something by the way they sit next to each other, something about human nature, but eventually," he says, "you’re just trying to get them their food on time." (Amagi at Gower Gulch, Gower Street and Sunset Boulevard, Hollywood; (323) 464-7497)
Ignace Lecleir, L’Orangerie’s debonair manager-sommelier, seats me, pours Evian into a delicate goblet and opens the roof, a greenhouse-style affair over the courtyard. Enter the talented Mr. Bédard. Martin Bédard may have been waiting tables at L’Orangerie for only one year, but he’s a pro, the captain of the wait staff. It’s not just the disarming cherub smile, the French accent that comes and goes at will, or the effortless gift for gab that brought about his rise through the ranks of food service, from busboy at a small Greek restaurant in Montreal to server at Alain Ducasse’s Essex House in New York. Some things no school can teach. Tact. Discretion. Charisma. "Eighty percent of the time, I know what someone is going to eat even before they order," he says. "You have to be able to read people." At this level of fine dining, working the tables is as much a mental as a physical effort. Details count. All aspects of the environment are controlled and calculated. From the way the knives are placed, and the alignment of the crystal, to the way he murmurs, "Madame, the tuna is not for you." (Martin is also a theatrical actor — he’s performed a one-man show at the Cinegrill.) Waiting tables, however, "is like a ballet, you cannot just plop the glass on the table," he explains. Each night is like a show, and each table, each person, requires a different approach, a different attitude. Yes, but how do you know? "Usually I start by asking them if they would like to see the menu right away or wait." His blue eyes flash. From the moment the customer enters the restaurant, he reads the telling cues about what the "rhythm of their night" is going to be, whether they want to be left alone or if they want attention, whether they prefer a more animated or more subdued interaction. "We want them to relax, to have the perfect evening, to forget where they are," he says. The worst is when he feels that the "chemistry" between customer and waiter isn’t working, when "you start losing control of the table." I can’t imagine this happens much. Mr. Bédard is a formidable charmer. And I swear it’s not just the petits fours Ignace brings over about 15 minutes before the interview draws to a close, or Martin’s subtle shifts in posture that put me at ease, but damn, I’m relaxed . . . Now, what was I saying? (L’Orangerie, 903 N. La Cienega Blvd., Beverly Hills; (310) 652-9770)
Michelle Rick & Katrina WrightMatsuhisa
Michelle Rick & Katrina WrightMatsuhisa
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Matsuhisa, 129 N. La Cienega Blvd., Beverly Hills; (310) 659-9639
Emilia GuerecaCafe 50’s
From what Emilia Guereca says about waitressing at Cafe 50’s, it sounds like being the merry host, the caterer, the adorable pet, the cute girl that everyone wants to flirt with, all at a fun cocktail party that lasts for nine hours straight. Go home. Sleep. Repeat. "Cakewalk," she says. "You have to be able to make conversation about anything. People are more patient with you when you’ve interacted with them." And so here we are, sitting at the diner’s spic-and-span counter, interacting. What’s it like to work at a very popular, very busy coffee shop where most of the customers are neighborhood regulars? Cheerful ’50s pop spins on the jukebox. "We seem to make more money as ponytailed waitresses," she says, bobbing her head. "When my hair’s down, tips are down." What about the ’50s uniform, a short red dress with flared skirt, white collar and cuffs? She rolls her eyes. "It’s that whole little-girl thing, I guess," she says, feigning exasperation. Emilia is upbeat, high-energy, good-natured — the personality required at Cafe 50’s. Craig Martin, the owner, hovers nearby like a nervous dad. Emilia shoos him away playfully. For every 45 waitress applicants, management hires just one, and often that one doesn’t last. Typical questions on a written Cafe 50’s "server test": Explain the term "86." Explain the term "in the weeds." When serving a slice of pie in front of a customer, in which direction does the tip or point of the pie face? Emilia made the cut. Each server goes through more than 100 tickets per shift. Long story short: She drove to Los Angeles from Chicago to be a singer (alternative rock en español), lived out of her car for three days, then walked into the diner. A year later, she’s training the new recruits. "I come in here like I’m gonna run a marathon," she says. "I’ve got my jog bra, my shoe pads, my thick socks." The waitresses shake the shakes, pour the drinks, toss the salads, assemble the desserts, deliver the checks, cash them out and bus their own tables. Everything short of flipping the burgers. Grabbing a stack of plates from the sideboard, Emilia demos her skills: three plates in left hand, another on the right, with space for one or two more on the left arm. "No biggie," she blushes, "everyone does it." (By the way: "86" means "out of an item"; "in the weeds" is "to be totally swamped"; and the point of the pie faces the customer, with the fork on the plate to the right.) (Cafe 50’s, 11623 Santa Monica Blvd.; (310) 479-1955)