Where Y’Eat: In New Orleans, Appreciating a Waiter’s Role Beyond the Tip

Jul 20, 2017

We live in an era full of celebrity chefs that you probably have never heard of. Just think about that for second - people can be celebrities now and you’ve never even heard their names. 

The title is the usually bestowed because a TV producer somewhere said so, and thus is born the next celebrity chef. New Orleans has produced its share. It's nice to see local talent in the national spotlight, but there’s a different category of acclaim in the New Orleans dining world that runs a little deeper in our own particular culture, and it’s one filled by the career waiter. 

True, their following is small, but it is intense, genuine and part of the fabric of this city that exists outside the trends. These are people who take the waiter’s job as a profession. It’s their calling, and a career to be developed over decades. It takes a certain kind of personality to pursue this. It takes a particular kind of restaurant for the roots to grow. And it takes a clientele that appreciates the relationship and keeps it going, often through generations.

New Orleans, of course, has all of that, and I recently spent some time with the epitome of this idea, at Antoine's Restaurant in the French Quarter. I was getting to know Sterling Constant. He is the longest-serving waiter at the oldest restaurant in New Orleans. 

He started at Antoine’s when he was 16, back in 1967. That means he has 50 years on the clock. That means he has been a waiter at the same restaurant for longer than most restaurants have been restaurants.           

Antoine’s threw a party for to mark the 50-year milestone, opening its doors for the waiter’s friends, patrons and the indistinguishable blend of the two. It was a party not to revel in the restaurant’s own long history, but to celebrate the history of one of its waiters. 

If the name Sterling Constant doesn't doesn't tell you something about how names can guide our fate, nothing will. But this sterling example is hardly alone in New Orleans, and the role they play is not limited to fancy restaurants.

Take, for instance, Marvin Day, the fist-bumping waiter at the Camellia Grill who was universally known by his nickname and personal catch phrase – Word. He served burgers and omelets at a vintage Riverbend diner, and when he died in 2016, unexpectedly and way too young, the outpouring of appreciation from his many fans was another revelation of the way that, even at famous restaurants, people are the front line of the relationship.

   That speaks to way New Orleans people make food a part of our lives and identities, and how the people who make it all happen become part of that mix too. At restaurants, there’s always a commercial consideration. Money changes hands, and you’d better tip. But the connections and the memories bound up with the experience there live in their own realm.

   That’s the reason the great waiters of New Orleans have followings that span generations. You won’t see them promoted as celebrity waiters, like our celebrity chefs, but so what? They are stars where it matters, and they help bind people, place and food in a way that goes way beyond getting a meal to the table.