Nanette Ritter never envisioned herself in the big time when she began working as a waitress 10 years ago, at a time when she was just trying to make extra money for her nursing school tuition.
Now she's one of the best waitresses in Maryland, where business owners and professionals have begun to recognize restaurant service as a skilled trade -- one with no shortage of competition for the top jobs.
Ritter, 34, of Columbia, competed as a finalist Wednesday in Maryland's first annual "Service Classic," a competition created to test the best of the state's waiters and waitresses in the "theory and in the practice of quality food service."
"Nowadays, a good waiter or waitress can sometimes make more money than they could if they were in restaurant management," Ritter said. "But you've got to be good, and it's hard to stand out in this business."
"Waiter of the Year" honors went to Dana E. Dineen of Annapolis, a waiter from the Loews Annapolis Hotel.Also competing were representative waiters from Tio Pepe of Baltimore, Rudys' 2900 of Finksburg, Peerce's Plantation of Phoenix and Phillips of Harborplace, to name a few.
But perhaps more than just a chance for top waiters to serve their stuff, the competition -- among 41 of Maryland's best servers -- stands as verification of the modern-day server's professional status.
"A good waiter should be regarded as a superstar, just as much as any good performer should," said Edward Sherwin, one of the competition organizers and the head of a restaurant management program at Essex Community College.
"Good servers can get jobs anywhere they choose in this business.
There's good money to be made but the competition has grown considerably," Sherwin said. "A competition like this gives the superstars a chance to show what a superstar server is."
The competition, sponsored by the Restaurant Association of Maryland and Perrier, was conducted at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Baltimore and first required a written exam. The top 20 waiters to pass that test went on to serve a four-course gourmet lunch to tables of judges, media representatives and food professionals.
Tough going for the servers came in the form of multiple-choice test questions that ranged from technical -- "What percentage of your tips should be reported" to the IRS -- to sensual subtlety -- "Which German wine is sweeter, Auslese or Spatese?"
The professional server of the 1990s is in tune with alcohol awareness -- "True or False: A customer drinking beer or wine will not become intoxicated as fast as someone drinking whiskey?" -- as well as the caloric and sodium levels of food on the menu.
And while the written exam weeded out about half the contestants, the serving phase of the competition presented its own minefields, as one "heckler" sat at each table and made particularly demanding requests.
"My fish still has the wrapper from the grocery store around it," said one terse man of the tissue-like covering on his salmon. "Why don't you take it back and I'll call the Board of Health."
Others returned their soup because it was too cold. One woman said it was too hot. Another man spilled his ice tea, lost his dessert fork and claimed his water "smelled of fish."
At times, it made the passive onlooker wonder whether the question on the test about proper procedure for the Heimlich maneuver should have been left off.
But for Ritter and her colleagues, the play was the thing and cordiality became the ruling spirit of the day.
"Yes, sir, I'll get you another fish," "Yes, I'll change your water right away," and "Is everyone happy?" were the only responses from the servers, who'd have had an easier time clearing away the buffet table at a Don Rickles roast.